By Yang Sung-jin
With NATO’s airstrikes pummeling the Yugoslav capital, Belgrade, the horror of the Balkan war continues to generate headlines around the globe. Whatever will happen later, it is innocent citizens that have been the most victimized in the brutal war.
Kwanghaegun, the 15th monarch of the Choson Kingdom, knew what war meant to ordinary people. He was appointed as Crown Prince in April 1592, when the nation was in the midst of war with Japan.
While witnessing the horrifying scenes of the war in person, Kwanghaegun underwent a painful experience himself. In the Choson Kingdom, Crown Prince-appointees had to get approval from China to secure legitimacy as a ruler.
Ming China’s Emperor declined to approve Kwanghaegun, citing his background: he was the second son of King Sonjo’s concubine and his elder brother, Limhaegun, was still alive.
King Sonjo dispatched a diplomatic delegation to Nanjing, the capital of the Chinese dynasty, to settle the issue on Dec. 25, 1595. In the letter addressed to the Chinese Emperor, the king stated, “Limhaegun has been disqualified as a future ruler. When the Japanese invaded in 1592, he was sent off to Hamkyong-do, northern frontier province, to defend the nation, only to be defeated by the enemy.”
In contrast, King Sonjo began to list what his second son achieved during the war: “Kwanghaegun arrived in the city of Ichon, braving fog and thorny forests. He raised tens of thousands of people within 10 days and deterred the enemy from advancing further.”
The king made three requests for official approval from China, all of which were flatly rejected. In 1604, King Sonjo sent another delegation to Ming China in an attempt to resolve the issue of recognizing Kwanghaegun, only to be turned down again.
With the conflict souring relations with China, King Sonjo welcomed a new queen known as Inmok in 1602. Four years later, the queen gave birth to a baby boy, Yongchangdaegun.
Throne Thrown Into Question
King Sonjo, who had had no other option but Kwanghaegun as Crown Prince, changed his mind on the issue at the sight of his “legitimate” son.
This unexpected new development left court officials divided into two factions — one for Yongchangdaegun and the other for Kwanghaegun.
If King Songjo had lived long enough to cement the position of Yongchangdaegun in the palace, history may have been re-written with Kwanghaegun pushed into the background.
But that was not what happened since King Sonjo died two years after he saw his new son. Lying on his deathbed, King Sonjo realized he could not pass the throne on to his now three-year-old baby.
In January of 1608, King Sonjo issued a formal statement declaring that Kwanghaegun would become the next king, ending the lengthy controversy among officials.
Interestingly, the person who received the statement and was supposed to announce it in public was Yu Yong-kyong, the leader who supported Yongchangdaegun. With King Songjo bordering on death, Yu hid the document at his house to manipulate the situation.
But Yu’s ambitious plot was uncovered by Chong In-hong and other officials, who pushed for Kwanghaegun as the next king. Confusion ensued and the Chong In-hong faction capitalized on the incident to dominate the trouble-laden court.
When King Sonjo died, Queen Inmok issued a public statement confirming Kwanghaegun as king on Feb. 2, 1608. Kwanghaegun was 34.
The turbulent process of ascending to the throne as well as the devastating war with Japan influenced Kwanghaegun’s mindset deeply. Perhaps that was why Kwanghaegun favored a diplomatic policy centered on the interest and welfare of the Choson people in the following years.
Kwanghaegun stressed not only diplomatic shrewdness but also the practical power of the nation, namely national wealth. In the early stages of his reign, Kwanghaegun recruited officials from every faction as long as the person in question showed competitive ability.
But the task was easier said than done. The war with Japan turned the entire nation into a wasteland, transforming farmers into wandering beggars. The absolute volume of arable land shrank dramatically, sending the productivity of farming into a tailspin.
What Kwanghaegun undertook to overcome these challenges was to overhaul the taxation system, which favored the aristocrat and placed a heavy burden on ordinary citizens. Worse, many land registries had been destroyed and the number of “hidden” fields not subject to taxation had increased.
Particularly painful for farmers was the tribute tax, a hotbed of corruption. So Kwanghaegun implemented “Taedongpop” (Uniform Land Tax Law) in 1608 in order to replace the tribute tax.
The new tax system was first carried out in Kyonggi province before being gradually extended to other regions. Although the government continued to collect tribute products from the peasants whenever necessary, the tribute tax system was effectively replaced by land-based taxation, a change that benefited the populace.
On the diplomatic front, Kwanghaegun adopted a realistic line toward Japan, a nation which invaded Choson. Though bitterness was deeply ingrained in the Choson court, Kwanghaegun re-established formal relations with Japan in June of 1609.
He also rebuilt the History Archives and printed a number of books aimed at enlightening the public. In distributing the books published by the administration, Kwanghaegun ordered a speedy process: “In the past, the king ordered the distribution of books, which took a couple of years. From now on, the books should be sent off to each region right away.”
Kwanghaegun’s efforts to rebuild a nation torn apart by war deserve attention — especially by those embroiled in a Balkan war whose end is nowhere in sight.