(6) Public Opinion Played Political Pacemaker

By Yang Sung-jin

Last Wednesday Gallup Korea announced its opinion poll result: 54.3 percent of respondents believe it will take more than two years for Korea to recover from the economic turmoil and 69.3 percent said their living standards have worsened over the past year.

It was the new presidential office that requested the statistics, which proved gloomier than ever. It can be interpreted that the newly launched Kim Dae-jung administration wanted to gauge public sentiment through the poll at this critical juncture. After all, the opinion poll can be an effective tool for the government to make political decisions, even though its accuracy is still arguable.

The Choson Dynasty had already put the public opinion survey into practice for the same policy-adjusting purposes as far back as 595 years ago. On April 5, 1403, the government office in charge of national taxation requested the revision of the related law affecting the national land tax system. King Sejong (reign: 1418-1450) ordered an opinion poll on the issue: “Report what people say about this proposal after asking all the government officials in Seoul and other provinces, including the general public.”

“King Sejong’s instruction for an opinion poll indicates his strong will to decide the implementation of a specific policy only after identifying the general sentiment of the populace,” explained Lee Nam-hee, senior researcher of the Korean Studies Database Institute.

It was three months after King Sejong’s order that the first report about the poll appears in the Annals of the Choson Dynasty in an article dated July 5 of the same year. Minister Ahn Sun said: “The Kyongsang-do governor and the majority of its residents approve of the proposal. However, Hwanghae-do, Kangwon-do and other provinces have disapproved.”

King Sejong said: “If our people disapprove, we cannot implement the policy. Report how we can resolve the demerits of the law as soon as all the results of the poll from each province are collected.”

The first government-brokered opinion poll, however, failed to show on which side public opinion lay concerning the new land taxation system. Of the diverse respondents ranging from the highest-ranking officials to the lower class, 98,557 approved and 74,149 rejected the proposal.

“King Sejong noticed the public opinion was squarely divided over the issue, so he asked Prime Minster Hwang Hee to further discuss the proposed law,” Lee explained.

So Many Men, So Many Opinions

Efforts at reflecting the public opinion in the enactment of a new law are found in other articles of the Annals.

For instance, King Yongjo (reign: 1724-1776) deeply lamented the deteriorating living standards of the day in 1750: “People are the very foundation of the nation, which should be sound and strong for the nation’s peace and prosperity. . . Now, hundreds of thousands of people are crying for help but I regret I am unable to save them.”

To save the populace, King Yongjo pushed ahead with a new land taxation law called “Kyunyokpop” (Equalized Tax Law) aimed at lessening the burden of the general populace and stabilizing the national tax revenue.

King Yongjo went so far as to levy taxes on Confucian scholars, who were previously exempted from national land taxes.

“Even though you [Confucian scholars] may be displeased about the new tax placed upon you, taxation must be conducted fair and square without favoring a specific class. Although you may think you are different from the general populace, I think all of you are the same people of the nation. I also have to pay the tax,” King Yongjo said.

Yet, King Yongjo’s proposal faced stiff opposition from the Confucian scholars, citing the possibility it would undermine the class structure of the day.

As the high ranking officials and Confucian scholars furiously opposed the new law, King Yongjo resorted to grassroots politics in a bid to silence the interest group. King Yongjo went outside the palace himself and asked the general public about the new law, most of whom responded favorably.
Despite the King’s arduous efforts to represent public opinion, the officials continued to block the legislation, claiming the opinion of the commoners was not to be trusted.

Whatever reaction it may have caused from the biased interest groups, King Yongjo’s attitude of respecting public opinion, especially that of the lower class, is admirable. During his 52-year reign, King Yongjo went out to the doors of the palace 55 times to listen to what the people actually wanted.
In addition, a recent study by Lee Tae-jin, professor of Seoul National

University reveals that King Chongjo (reign: 1776-1800) made great efforts to listen to the opinions of the ordinary people whenever he paid reverence to the royal tombs, which numbered as many as 70 times, a remarkable figure in light of the relatively short reign of 24 years.

Different Drummer

Appealing to the king in person was difficult, but not inconceivable. Two widely known systems are “sang-on” and “kyok-jang,” both of which indicate the rather unusual means of appealing to the king by blocking the road in front of the royal procession.

According to the data researched through the CD-ROM Annals of the Choson Dynasty, King Chongjo resolved 2,671 cases of public discontent through these two methods.

The most famous route of appeal during the Choson Dynasty is doubtlessly the “shinmungo” (drum of appeal), a system imitating that of China, in which the discontented person can beat a designated drum in order to appeal to the king directly.

The CD-ROM Annals have a total of 172 articles containing the word “shinmungo” or the equivalent of the system. The first article is at the very beginning of the Choson Dynasty dated in 1401. Officials Yun Cho and Park Chon cited the case of the Sung Dynasty in China and requested the establishment of the special drum designed to provide a chance for commoners to speak about their innocence, which King Taejong duly granted.

Yet, contrary to the today’s perception of the shimungo playing the cure-all for public discontent, the system was not without its problems.

As early as three months after the shinmungo was set up, official Ha Yoon reported to King Taejong: “The establishment of shinmungo is good for the nation, but there are some people who wrongly beat the drum. Therefore, the government should accept their allegations only after proven true; if not, the person should be punished.”

“Beating the shinmungo was not easy. Two officials were on guard in front of the drum, making it rather difficult for commoners to approach. Moreover, beating the drum was allowed only after all the other appeals to different organizations had failed, a process complicated enough for the public to prefer,” Lee explained.

Due to the time-consuming procedure and limited circumstances, the shinmungo system faded into insignificance in the 16th century.

“The government by the royal in-law families in the 19th century distorted the political order, blocking the channels through which the commoners could express their opinions,” Lee said.

Notably, the late Choson period saw the lower class opting for riots and uprisings, not least because the dissatisfied public had no official route to get across their resentment.

All of which imply that the new government should pay more attention to the result of the latest Gallup poll, at least to avoid repeating the mistakes of the 19th-century Choson.

(5) Kings Treading Rough, Rugged Royal Road

By Yang Sung-jin

It is true that all the 27 kings of the Choson Dynasty exercised great power and authority during their reigns. In return for the privilege, they had to live with the burdensome responsibility as the most important figure of the nation.

However, being respected as the most powerful man in a nation is always a sweet experience regardless of time and region. Therefore, is can be assumed that President Kim Dae-jung is now tasting the sweetness of power, at least in the months to come. In general, new beginning symbolizes hope and renewed expectation.

The problem is how to conclude the rule. No matter how hopeful the start may be, a bad ending of the rule leaves an indelibly negative mark upon his reign. Just think about the sorry example of the outgoing President Kim Young-sam, now under attack for the current economic crisis.

The CD-ROM Annals of the Choson Dynasty illustrates the point that the ending of the rule is much more important than the beginning. The easiest way to know which ending a king secured during his reign is to look at the suffix of his official name. All the 27 kings’ name end as “jo” or “jong” or “gun.”

“If the king in question established a nation or did something of the same magnitude, the Choson historiographers put the suffix of ‘jo’ in the king’s name. That is why Yi Song-gye, the founder of Choson is called ‘King Taejo.’ King Yongjo has the same suffix because of his numerous achievements,” said Lee Nam-hee, senior researcher of the Korean Studies Database Institute.

The suffix, “jong,” is attached for the kings who succeed the reign in a legitimate manner such as King Sejong (reign: 1418-1450). Therefore, most Choson kings had their name ending as “jong.”

The opposite case of “jong” is the suffix of “gun,” suggesting a rule through an illegitimate way. Yonsangun (reign: 1494-1506) and Kwanghaegun (reign: 1608-1623) fall on this category.

“In fact, ‘gun’ indicates the person is a Prince. If the Prince is the Heir Apparent to the throne, he is called ‘Dae-gun,’ and other Princes born from royal concubines are called as ‘gun,’ which means Yonsangun and Kwanghaegun’s status has been downgraded from the king to a simple Prince,” Lee explained.

The judgmental naming of kings were possible because when the king died in the Choson Dynasty, he was worshipped at “Chongmyo” (Royal Ancestral Shrine) along with his predecessors as a national rite. And the very name of the king as we know it now, was used for the ancestral rite, in deference (or disdain) to the recently-deceased king. Yongjo, Chongjo and Sunjo used to bear the suffix, “jong,” at first.

But, after their deaths, Choson officials discussed and reassessed the deceased kings’ achievements as a ruler, and upgraded them into “jo” — a strict historical judgement applied to the king’s rule.

Interestingly, King Tanjong (reign: 1452-1455), the sixth king of the Choson, was dethroned by a coup d’etat by his uncle, Sejo. At that time, he was downgraded into “Nosan-gun.” It was over 200 years later that he regained the formal title as Tanjong and his Annal, formerly known as “Nosan-gun Diary,” was renamed as “The Annal of King Tanjong.”

Record-making, Record-breaking

As is human nature, each king showed different aptitude in their ruling. A certain group of kings ruled the nation with authority while wrapping up their lives peacefully; other kings were swayed and, in the worse case, manipulated by the government officials. And all the specific information is stored in the CD-ROM Annals of the Choson Dynasty.

The king who lived longest is King Yongjo at 83. The tragically short-lived is Tanjong, who had to commit suicide at the age of 17.

The longest-running reign is also secured by King Yongjo — 51 years and six months, six days; the shortest one is by King Injong, which lasted only seven months and 12 days.

When it comes to the age at a point of enthronement, King Taejo was the oldest at 58; meanwhile, King Hongjong (reign: 1834-1849) was only 8-year-old when he took in office.

The king who put much energy into procreation is King Taejong who had 12 sons and 17 daughters; King Tanjong, Kyongjong and Sunjong had no child.

Officially, only the eldest son of the incumbent king is the Apparent Heir to the throne, or Crown Prince. But, of the 27 kings, only 10 belong to the normal (thereby, idealistically legitimate) case. The other kings had problems with their legitimacy in whatever form.

For instance, transfer of power between brothers — instead of the practice of primogeniture — were carried out in such cases as Chongjong-Taejong; Injong-Myongjong; and Kyongjong-Yongjo.
Besides, King Sejo, Chungjong and Injo took away the royal seat from the Crown Princes by force.

The controversy over who is the legal, legitimate heir to the throne flared up from the very beginning of the Choson Kingdom.

Though the principle dictated the eldest son as the Crown Prince, the founder Taejo appointed the youngest Yi Bang-suk as Heir Apparent, which caused a fratricidal rebellion by Yi Bang-won, who later became the third king of Choson, King Taejong.

The first legitimate transfer of power based upon the primogeniture took place only in the King Sejong’s reign. King Sejong appointed his eldest son (who later became King Munjong) at the age of eight and educated him for 28 years, which is now called “royal education” to make a better, wiser king.

There ‘Was’ a Royal Road

As a whole, the Choson Dynasty put much emphasis on learning. The king was no exception. To be the fatherly figure of the nation, all the Choson kings had to study hard to attain a certain degree of scholarly knowledge about the Chinese classical texts.

Study, however, does not suit everybody. King Chungjong was the very figure, who favored a hunting on horse-back riding rather than sitting all day long in a closed palace. A document in the CD-ROM Annals in 1399 states: “Because I [King Chungjon] was brought up in a military official, I have been accustomed to climbing mountain, sleeping beside the lake and riding the horses. So, if I stay in my room for a long time, I will definitely develop a disease.”

Regardless of the Heir Apparent’s aptitude, the soon-to-be king had to learn the basic skills necessary for managing a nation. The most striking tool for this “royal education” is “Hwang-guk-chi-pyong-do,” a diagram summing up the essential components to be king.

The diagram, which is detailed in the Annals, include the moral standard, political principles, better relationships with subjects, and self-control as a king, among others.

“The diagram is what Yang Sung-ji, high-ranking scholar, gave to King Tangjon, so that the young ruler (who was sworn in at 12) would understand the principles more easily,” Lee Nam-hee said.

The kings who excelled in the royal education are King Sejong and King Chongjo. A document dated in 1421, the third year of the king’s reign, says, “King Sejong likes to study very much. As soon as he finishes the state affairs from dawn, he goes to the lectures with officials. Even at night, he continues to read books.”

King Sejong’s scholarly aptitude is only in a par with King Chongjo, who studied real hard, beating other high-ranking officials. “Materials related to King Chongjo show that he was quite good at studying the classics. He even changed the old system, in which the officials ask the king to study and discuss a specific subject, into the new one in which the king himself could demand the officials to study a certain topic. As a result, as many as 100 governmental officials attended the new system geared to learning during the King Yongjo’s reign,” Lee said.

Reassuring is the fact that President Kim Dae-jung enjoys reading books whenever he has extra time. Yet, it is only the initial step toward the much-honored, yet hardly attainable royal road.

(4) Coronation Ceremony Clouded by Mourning

By Yang Sung-jin

For all the gloomy prospects concerning the nation’s economy, people are likely to expect something hopeful from the inauguration ceremony of President-elect Kim Dae-jung starting at 10:00 a.m. tomorrow. Perhaps, Michael Jackson and some 130 foreign celebrities invited to the ceremony will help evoke a festive mood.

Yet, even Michael Jackson would have failed to enliven the festivities if he had attended a coronation ceremony during the Choson Dynasty era (1392-1910). The enthronement ceremony of the Hermit Kingdom was supposed to be solemn, even mournful. In most cases, the inauguration of a new king was carried out when the predecessor died. As a result, the incoming king remained grief-stricken about the death of his king-cum-father.

The trouble was that the Crown Prince often declined to immediately ascend to the throne, citing the need to pay due respect to the dead king, thus creating a precarious power vacuum. Therefore, the ceremony was done in a simple, swift manner, yet ritualistic enough to convince the public of the legitimate transfer of power.

“In general, when the king died, the entire nation came to a stop and the people mourned the dead king, the Crown Prince included. But the important work of the king must carry on, so other high-ranking officials oversaw state affairs until the new king could be crowned,” said Lee Nam-hee, senior researcher of the Korean Studies Database Institute.

The CD-ROM Annals of the Choson Dynasty show the general atmosphere of the ceremony, which customarily took place around noon at the royal palaces in Seoul.

First, the Crown Prince, emerged from the lying-in-state room of the dead king, changed into ceremonial clothes and sat on a mat in the eastern part of the court. Rituals such as reading the late king’s will and transferring the Royal Seal were conducted. The ceremony ended when the new king rode the royal palanquin to the main office. As soon as the ritual concluded, the king returned to the lying-in-state room to continue mourning his dead father.

The CD-ROM Annals recorded numerous incidents in which the new kings rejected sitting on the royal chair, the last step of the ceremony.

This is now viewed by historians as a cautious, ritualistic symbolic gesture in a bid to avoid the image of a son hurriedly taking over the royal post after his father’s death. “Under the strong Confucian social norms, it’s quite natural for them to delay the coronation even though it was only a ceremonial deference to the dead king,” Lee explained.

Kwanghaegun, the 15th king of the Choson Dynasty (reign: 1608-1623) was an extreme case. When an official named Kim Kwon asked the new king to take the royal seat, Kwanghaegun rejected it, citing his mixed feelings. Another official named Yoo Mong-in implored, to no avail. While all the civil servants waiting for the king to finish the ceremony, Kwanghaegun turned down the officials’ proposal to finish the ceremony 14 times. Only on the 15th offer, the new king reluctantly said, “I tried my best to avoid taking the royal post. Now I follow your request only because all the people here expressed the same opinion.”

Though symbolic and ritualistic to some extent, it would be too hasty a conclusion that the whole coronation ceremony was just a show. The CD-ROM Annals reveal several cases where intense grief overwhelmed the crowning of the new king.

For instance, Hyonjong (reign: 1659-1674) stood in front of the royal chair but never budged at the officials’ requests. Only after the prime minister Chong Tae-hwa asked twice, did the king helplessly move closer to the royal chair, but still refusing to take the seat. Instead, the new king started to sob, so did the officials. According to the CD-ROM Choson Annals, the lamentation was heard even outside the royal palace.

In other words, the coronation ceremony was largely focused on paying tribute to the deceased king, a legacy of the strong filial duty in the Choson Dynasty.

In the same vein was the way to calculate the starting point of a reign. When a king died in the midst of a year and a new king ascended to the throne, the year of the inauguration belonged to the dead king. The official starting date for the new king’s reign began the next year.

“The standard for the new reign’s starting point reflects how much attention the Choson people paid to the former king as a sign of loyalty. Also interesting, if a new king took over the throne by force or through a coup d’etat, the new reign started that same year, leaving an eternal mark of its illegitimacy,” Lee said.

Another important procedure regarding the legitimacy of a new King’s reign was receiving formal recognition from China. In the wake of the inauguration ceremony, diplomats were dispatched to get the related documents and golden Royal Seal from China, the most powerful nation in East Asia of the day, the CD-ROM shows.

For domestic policies, the new king issued a state announcement, or inaugural speech in today’s sense, to the public. One of the best was by King Taejo (reign 1392-1398), the founder of Hermit Kingdom. His statement had 17 fine points setting guidelines for future reigns, one of which is the two-fold state examinations for the civil and military ranks.

Generally, all the new kings held a “Chunggwangsi” or augmented state examination in an effort to build enthusiasm for their leadership among  the populace. “By recruiting additional officials shortly after their inauguration, the kings were able to secure subjects particularly loyal to their newly-launched reign,” Lee said.

Following the coronation ceremony, the king visited sacrosanct national sites including “Chongmyo” (Royal Ancestral Shrine) and “Sajik” (the National Altar to Worship the Gods of Land and Grain.)

In addition, the king granted a general pardon in an attempt to inject a fresh vitality to the nation by soothing and unifying the populace, a practice even today’s president follows suit.

“In understanding the mechanism behind the inauguration of a new king, we should consider that some incumbent kings pushed for a peaceful transfer of power while still alive,” Lee said.

King Sejong (reign: 1418-1450) is a case in point. “These days, historians agree to the theory a cultural revolution during the King Sejong’s reign was greatly due to his predecessor King Taejong. After peacefully transferring power, King Taejong maintained a tight grip on the military so that King Sejong could concentrate on state affairs,” she said.

Noteworthy are the cases in which the incumbent king suggested the peaceful transfer of power in a bid to gauge the degree of loyalty of the subjects. “For instance, King Sonjo often expressed his desire to abdicate the throne, not genuinely but to confirm the royalty of his officials, a highly sophisticated political strategy of the day,” Lee said.

Sophisticated or not, it was the unwritten law to do all things necessary to pay tribute to the recently deceased king. That is why most inaugurations were done six days after the incumbent king died. To the Choson people, there was a common belief a person could resurrect within six days after death, though whether the king’s chance for resurrection was greater than others is still arguable.

Intriguing is today’s equivalent of the waiting period. Outgoing President Kim Young-sam’s official term ends on Feb. 24, at 12:00 midnight sharp; therefore, incoming President Kim Dae-jung is supposed to wait only 10 hours before the inauguration ceremony kicks off — a fairly short time even for the almighty Choson king to resurrect to his next life.