(67) King Taejong’s Ruthless Instinct for Power

By Yang Sung-jin

King Taejong, the third monarch of the Choson Kingdom (reign: 1401- 1418), was decidedly ruthless in seizing and maintaining his power. For a superb nation builder, however, such characteristics are not regarded as a drawback but a rare virtue.

Born to a fifth son of Yi Song-gye, who later founded Choson, Yi Pang-won (King Taejong’s name before taking the throne) led a life marked by epoch-making incidents.

In 1383, Yi Pang-won passed the state examination of Koryo Kingdom at age 17 and afterwards visited China as a member of a diplomatic delegation.

In March 1392, when his father Yi Song-gye was hurt in a fall from a horse in Haeju, his political archrival Chong Mong-ju lost no time in attempting to undercut Yi’s power by filing a negative appeal to King Kongyang, the last monarch of the Koryo Kingdom.

Sensing his father’s impending crisis, Yi Pang-won staged a counter offensive, assassinating Chong Mong-ju. Thanks to Pang-won’s audacious move, Yi Song-gye’s ambition to overthrow the declining Koryo Kingdom moved a step closer to reality.

It was Pang-won who urged his father to mount a military attack on Koryo’s armed forces, led by Gen. Choe Yong.

Pang-won also removed King Kongyang from the throne and led a drive to make his father king of a new nation.

In the process, Pang-won did not spare his sword against powerful opponents. He killed his own brothers, relatives and even those who helped his father seize power.

The ambitious prince eventually took the throne himself, having first ordered the assassination of Taejo’s designated heir, his youngest son Pang-sok, and then disposing of the rival claim of his elder brother Pang- gan.

Ruthless Ruler

Considering the Choson’s underlying succession principle favoring the eldest son, Pang-won was far from the ideal candidate.

Despite his shortcomings, King Taejong overcame the bloody political struggle and strove to lay the foundation for his nation-building effort, which culminated in a full-fledged national “take-off” during the reign of his successor King Sejong.

Before actually taking the throne, Pang-won was viewed as a threat to the reform-minded founding members of Choson.

That is why his name was not included in the list of the patriotic elite after Yi Song-gye founded Choson, although he took charge of the political and military maneuvering which led to the coup.

In 1398, a political faction led by Chong To-jon pushed for the elimination of Pang-won and his allies in the name of putting down opposition in the trouble-ridden northern frontier areas.

Venting his pent-up anger, Pang-won staged a sort of a mini revolt, destroying the Chong’s faction and disposing of his brother Pang-sok.

In the aftermath of the revolt, Pang-won repeatedly rejected an offer to take on King Taejo’s status a heir-apparent, mindful of the volatile political situation.

Instead, he climbed up the royal court equivalent of the corporate ladder, taking strategically important jobs and broadening his perspective.

It was in 1400 when Pang-won crushed another brother-cum-rival Pang- gan and grabbed the title of crown prince, later assuming control of the military.

In the same year, he became the de facto arbiter of national affairs under his brother King Chongjong. Pang-won did away with private armed retinues, attaching their soldiers to the Three Armies Headquarters (Uihung Samgunbu).

Pang-won abolished these private armed forces in an effort to establish a centralized government authority.

In November 1400, Pang-won finally ascended to the throne, becoming one of the most powerful rulers in the history of the Korean peninsula.

Power, Power, Power

Before emerging victorious in the prolonged power struggle, King Taejong engaged in a host of cutthroat political showdowns with his rivals. He knew his grip on authority was always vulnerable to challenges and revolts.

Small wonder then that King Taejong embarked on house-cleaning as soon as he snatched up the throne from his brother.

In 1404, King Taejong reopened a three-year-old court case and sent Lee Ko-yi and Lee Cho into exile.

Three years later, the king executed his brothers-in-law on charges of disloyalty. In 1409, he dug up the case again and had related figures killed off.

While continuing the political purge, King Taejong began to redesign the sprawling government organizations.

He changed the Privy Council into a State Council (Uijongbu) with greatly diminished authority and entrusted the overall government administration to six ministries, each authorized to report to the throne directly.

The measure greatly improved the authority of the king and the central government’s control over local administrations.

To lay the foundation for the central government-oriented system, King Taejong had the Six Codes of Governance revised and expanded to reflect these new structural arrangements, creating the Basic Six Codes (Won Yukchon) and the Supplemental Six Codes (Sok Yukchon).

Interestingly, the Annals of King Taejong fail to mention the assassination incident and bloody political struggle with his brothers.

Instead, positive remarks (Pangwon was smart, intelligent and quick to learn) or mythical tales (he saw a white dragon in his bedroom a year before taking the throne) make up much of the Annals articles.

It seems that King Taejong hoped to be remembered as a great ruler. But history is as ruthless as King Taejong in revealing the truth of how he reached that pinnacle.

King Taejong featuring these contents was dramatized in detail by MBC for two years in 1997-98 in the title of “Tears of Dragon” which was a great hit soap opera.