(91) Poor Health of Kings Major Obstacle to Ruling

By Yang Sung-jin

In December, Koreans are likely to go on a drinking binge in the name of a joyous year-end party. For the unfortunate souls with poor health, however, non-stop drinking can be poisonous to the point of being fatal.

Even those who maintain a relatively sound body may break down and have a bitter hangover after gulping down several “poktanju” (bomb drink), a toxic mixture of whiskey and beer.

Neglecting one’s health not only destroys an individual’s private life but also clutters up their public life.

A case in point were the Choson kings, many of whom painfully struggled with bad health throughout their lives or died young.

The chronic health problems of the Choson monarchs had a great impact on central politics and were sometimes key factors contributing to drastic social and political upheavals.

The sudden death of a king due to poor health would very likely spawn chaotic power struggles among different political factions.

The formal transfer of the throne usually began when a former king died. But some kings wanted to pass the throne to crown princes while they were still alive.

For the most part, the normal reason for the premature transfer of power was “poor health.”

In August, 1418, King Taejong decided to pass the throne to Chungnyong Taegun, who later became King Sejong.

King Taejong summoned court secretary Lee Myong-duk and expressed his intention to resign: “Over the past 19 years, I always worried about my poor ability to govern the nation properly. As a result, successive natural disasters hit the nation and my health is worsening further, which requires a formal transfer of the throne.”

The king’s determination to resign, of course, faced adamant and persistent opposition from court officials.

The problem was that all the officials failed to change King Taejong’s rock-solid beliefs about the early transfer of power.

When the king called on Chungnyong Taegun to take the royal stamp, a symbol of power, a host of officials cried out loud and attempted to block the move.

But King Taejong did not permit his officials to interfere with the ceremony. “How can subjects oppose the king’s order?” the king raised his voice in anger, targeting Lee Myong-duk and other officials who tried to delay the coronation ceremony.

Yet the issue did not stop there. At the time, the transfer of power in Choson had to be reported to the Chinese emperor for formal recognition.

King Taejong’s attempt to pass the throne earlier than usual _ without any consultation with the Chinese government _ could jeopardize the delicate relations with China, the superpower in East-Asia.

Facing this dilemma, King Taejong put forward an idea: “Since the new king was crowned, the Chinese government is bound to know of the transfer of power. Therefore, file a report on the transfer to China, citing my poor health.”

King Taejong’s suggestion was to call for a recognition from China, arguing that he suffers frequent convulsions and the Crown Prince has been assigned to take over state affairs.

While the health issue was a mere cover-up tool for King Taejong who wished to cement Choson’s political and social infrastructure, it was a lethal problem for King Injong (reign: 1544-45).

Born to the eldest son of King Chungjong, King Injong was highly intelligent early in his childhood. Designated as the Crown Prince at the age of only six, King Injong had been prepared for the throne for about 25 years.

It is no wonder that hopes were high that the Crown Prince would become the very leader who would rebuild the nation.

King Injong ascended to the throne on July 6, 1544, but his health was already showing signs of distress. About a year later, the king was on the verge of a total break-down after his health worsened.

According to an article dated June 29, 1545, King Injong’s health collapsed and his life was in jeopardy. At dawn on July 1, he finally died, leaving no offspring. He was aged 31.

Annals writers said King Injong’s poor health was due to his extreme filial piety toward his father. Whenever King Chungjong was sick, the faithful prince stayed day and night and took care of his father’s treatment in person, while paying no attention to his own health.

When the sickly father died, King Injong did not eat anything for five days and became extremely emaciated.

As King Injong died abruptly, the populace was deeply saddened and the mood was particularly mournful and frustrating, reflecting the degree of shattered hope which had been pinned on the intelligent and well-prepared king.

Meanwhile, there were several crown princes who failed to completely take the throne due to poor health. For instance, King Sejo had two sons and one daughter.

The eldest, named Uikyong, was certain to ascend to the throne but he died at the age of 20, leaving a complicated issue of succession.

As a result, 19-year-old Haeyang Taegun was chosen as the Crown Prince and was crowned as King Yejong.

Unfortunately, King Yejong was also sickly. After one year and two months on the throne, the king died and the court fell into a cycle of turbulent power struggles.

After all, what matters most is health. Simple as it is, no other principle can be more persuasive in fighting off against the lethal poktanju during the year-end party.