By Yang Sung-jin
Incompetent rulers are likely to make the wrongful assumption they are superior in every respect, failing to recognize that their authority is open to challenges from any front.
Not infrequently, they avoid designating their successors for fear of losing their grip on power, a thinly-veiled attempt to perpetuate their fleeting political life span.
A striking and pitiable modern example of this phenomenon comes in the form of the so-called Three Kims (former President Kim Young-sam, incumbent Kim Dae-jung and head of state-wannabe Kim Jong-pil), who have monopolized Korean politics for the past four decades.
Small wonder there are few, if any, politicians capable of eclipsing the unflagging influence of these three political mainstays.
But the obsessive pursuit of power can lead to unexpected setbacks.
King Injo (r: 1623-1649) was a case in point. He ascended to the throne on the back of the Westerners faction, ending the aspirations of Kwanghaegun, intent on shoring up Korea’s defenses in the turbulent world of East Asian geopolitics.
King Injo abandoned Kwanghaegun’s careful posture in favor of an unashamedly pro-Ming, anti-Manchu policy. That invited the two brutal invasions of the Manchus in 1627 (Chonmyo Horan) and 1636 (Pyongja Horan).
Injo’s unwise foreign policy led to the humiliating surrender at Samjondo (the Songpa crossing on the southern bank of the Han River) where Crown Prince Sohyon and his brother, the Prince of Pongnim (who became King Hyojong), were forced to accompany the Manchu army as hostages.
In short, King Injo’s incompetence was graphically illustrated by the damaging war with Ching China.
But he did not want his power to be challenged by others. Even his own son was no exception.
Crown Prince Sohyon’s ill-fated life testified to the shameful trajectory of King Injo’s incessant appetite for power
When the Chongmyo Horan broke out, the patriotic prince headed for Chonju and played a key role in calming its antsy populace.
When the war was wrapped up, Prince Sohyon volunteered to go to Ching China as a hostage along with his brother Pongnim, reflecting his devotion to the nation.
And Crown Prince Sohyon did not merely fritter away his time while a hostage in China for about nine years.
Sohyon made friends with Chinese leaders including the royal family and military generals.
And it was at this time that he became acquainted with the Jesuit missionary Adam Schall and brought back to Choson a number of works of Western science in 1644.
With his knack for diplomacy and dealmaking, the prince secured a position as the virtual channel between Choson and Ching China.
Unfortunately, Sohyon expanded his influence in China at a time when the Choson court was dominated by the pro-Ming and anti-Ching China faction.
When Ching China demanded a great deal of military ammunition and logistics from Choson in the name of waging a war with Ming China, Choson officials were more than disgruntled.
In the eyes of the anti-Ching China officials in Choson, Prince Sohyon was a black sheep siding with the enemy.
Eventually, Ching China wiped out Ming and sent Sohyon back to Choson in celebration of the victory, an occasion written of in an article dated Feb. 18, 1644: “The crown prince came back with a Ching China diplomat who carried a letter from the Emperor saying Sohyon’s release was timed with the victory.”
King Injo was far from overjoyed at the return of his son after his 9-year-long captivity in China. Instead, the suspicious king grossly mistreated the prince.
The king in fact had an “official” reason to keep a close and hostile watch on his young namesake.
Back in 1636 when the Samjondo surrender was made, King Injo signed a document with the Chinese invaders pledging to step down and concede the throne to the Crown Prince if the king failed to uphold the peace pact.
To keep King Injo at bay, Ching China kept the two princes as hostage in case they felt the urge to show off their supreme power over the Choson Kingdom and rumors circulated for awhile about the power succession ordained by Ching China.
Naturally, King Injo tossed and turned in his bed at night, preoccupied with finding ways to retain the crown.
Two months after Sohyon returned to Seoul, he became ill and feverish. According to an article dated April of 1645, the prince was showing all the signs of a bout with malaria.
Only three days later, Sohyon died from the unidentified disease. But a mystery remained about the exact cause of his sudden death.
“The prince’s entire body had been darkened by the time he died. Blood had drained from all the seven holes in his body and his face was severely transformed, as if he had suffered the negative effects of his medicine,” said the Annals article, quoting those who had seen Sohyon’s corpse.
Court officials filed a flurry of appeals calling for the arrest of court doctors blamed for Sonhyon’s mysterious death but King Injo did nothing.
Moreover, the king showed no grief for his son’s death and failed to launch a probe into his unexpected demise.
Sohyon was only 34 when his trouble-ridden life came to an abrupt end in 1645.
But King Injo was far from satisfied with the death of the Crown Prince.
A year later, the king exiled Sohyon’s wife and then executed her. Sohyon’s three other sons were expelled to Cheju Island and his daughters lost their yangban status.
Sohyon’s eldest son, Sok-chol, died only two months after he arrived in Cheju and his second son, Sok-rin, perished four months later, failing to adapt to the harsh conditions on the island.
Even Sok-chol’s death was rumored to have been orchestrated by King Injo, who appeared more than willing to remove any possibility of revolt and all potential challenges to his authority.
In retrospect, King Injo’s obsession with power had repercussions well beyond the tragic death of the most promising member of the royal family.
With the death of a prince who was deeply immersed in Western culture and science, the Choson Kingdom lost a crucial chance to import advanced Western science and knowledge.