By Yang Sung-jin
Confucianism was a spiritual pillar that buttressed the high moral standards of the high class during the Choson period.
Lofty ideals were discussed in the court and officials often fought over frivolous details of rituals in the name of legitimacy. However remote the topic might be, morality and integrity were given prime importance.
So much for the moral talk. As far as sex scandals are concerned, Choson’s ruling class appears to have surpassed even U.S. President Bill Clinton in terms of the number and extent of the controversies that occurred.
The Annals of the Choson Dynasty has a total of 1,742 articles containing the word “adultery,” hinting at the hypocrisy of a nation which espoused high moral standards.
On Jan. 22, 1486, a high-profile sex scandal engulfed the central administration when high-ranking official Yun Un-ro leaked the juicy details of an investigation into an adultery case involving a member of the royal family.
Toksong-gun’s wife, known only by her surname, Ku, was arrested on a charge of adultery after having an affair with her sister’s son, Lee In-on.
Ku insisted that she did not seduce her relative, a crime which, if proven, would have warranted execution.
“Lee In-on used to live at my house and his room was next to mine. One day, when my female servants were outside the house, Lee broke into my room and tried to rape me. I tried to resist but he covered my eyes with clothes and raped me. As a result, I soon discovered I was pregnant,” Ku said.
Grilled on the sex scandal, Lee flatly denied he slept with Ku. “This incident never happened. All I know is that Ku’s relative Ahn Kyae-ro frequented Ku’s house and I once saw him holding Ku’s hand, flirting with her,” Lee testified.
Lee’s remarks proved to be false, however, and he later confessed the truth after undergoing an interrogation peppered with torture.
“I was lying on my bed because of a tumor in my thigh. Ku came to me and asked about health while rubbing my tumor and looking at me seductively. The next day she visited me again and when she ran her hands over my genitals, I kicked her out. But she called me in when I recovered and flirted with me again, saying, ‘I can’t stand it any longer, even if I become a ghost of Oudong (a lecherous woman who sparked a massive adultery scandal during the reign of King Sejong).’ So we slept together,” Lee said.
Afterwards, Lee and Ku committed frequent acts of adultery. When she got pregnant, however, Lee returned to his hometown in a bid to avoid getting entangled in a sandal — seemingly to no avail.
On July 26, 1703, an interesting adultery case was reported to the government. A yangban scholar named Park Tong-pil in Chungju died, leaving a young widow whose surname was Kang. Only a year later, Kang was caught having an affair with a man who lived in the neighborhood.
“All the villagers, both old and young, were witnesses to their ongoing adulterous affair,” the Annals article said.
In the face of impending punishment, the man managed to escape Kang’s house through a hole in the wall while she ran off by a different route. Kang ended up hiding at her lover’s home.
Park Tong-gun, Tong-pil’s elder brother, got involved in the case and found out where the couple was hiding. He stormed the house and brought them to the local court for punishment.
But the chief of the local court was Kang’s relative, making it highly unlikely that she would receive harsh treatment. In a bid to help Kang escape punishment, the local court chief forged a document and claimed it was Park Tong-gun who had wrongfully ensnared the couple through false testimony in order to extract money from the pair.
High-flying officials are the most frequent victims of sex scandals, and Kwak Chung-bo, who helped Yi Song-gye found the Choson dynasty, was no exception.
When the Koryo Kingdom was about to collapse, Kwak tipped off Yi Song-gye to an impending assassination attempt by the Koryo’s ruling class, ultimately saving the Choson founder’s life.
In June of 1393, Yi Song-gye, then supreme ruler of the newly established nation, assigned Kwak to take charge of efforts to defend local provinces against Japanese marauders, a reflection of the degree to which the king trusted Kwak.
But the things began to change when King Chongjong ascended to the throne. On June 1, 1398, Kwak was exiled to Chongju for committing brutal acts against a family.
Kwak and his son, Sung-wu, were arrested for torturing former government official Hwang Mun and his wife out of personal resentment. The couple were severely beaten and almost killed.
Investigators, who sought severe punishment for the official, stated, “Kwak’s personality is basically mean and vulgar. Although he should serve the king with his all heart, he and his son took personal revenge on a so- called foe, thus abusing his power.”
King Chongjong softened the punishment, however, choosing only to exile Kwak in consideration of his past achievements and in defiance of repeated calls from the Ministry of Punishments.
Two weeks later, the king received a report of an adultery case involving Kwak and a ranking official Kim In-chan’s wife.
The scandal eventually spun out of control as the widow in question disclosed that her friend, wife of ranking official Lee Won-kyong, had also engaged in an affair with Kwak.
Prosecutors appealed to the king to come down hard on Kwak for his adulterous affairs and his brutality against innocent civilians.
Government officials also uncovered evidence of Kwak’s past wrongdoing, including raping girls when he governed a local region in Kangwon-do, and plundering innocent civilians.
But the king remained unimpressed and on July 1, Kwak was forgiven and released when King Chongjong announced a national amnesty to mark his own birthday.
Few government officials were as lucky as Kwak, who avoided the punishment he clearly deserved. But the Annals pull no punches in recording his lurid acts, thereby imposing a sort of belated justice on a decidedly corrupt official.