(7) Choson Had Humanitarian Legal System

By Yang Sung-jin

To celebrate the inauguration of President Kim Dae-jung, the government granted special amnesty affecting 5.52 million people last Friday, the biggest ever in the country’s 50-year constitutional history.

By freeing citizens from their past errors, the conciliatory measure is expected to generate social harmony and reconciliation, both of which are much needed to cope with the current economic crisis.

The CD-ROM Annals of the Choson Dynasty also shows numerous cases of pardons conducted by the kings, whose effects were not dissimilar to today’s amnesty orchestrated by the president.

But pardon is only part of the sophisticated legal system of Choson, based firmly on the belief that humanitarian generosity is more effective than the harsh application of the law in governing the society.

Representing the big picture of the Choson’s legal system is “Kyongguk Taejon” (National Code), a statutory code defining the structure and functioning of Choson’s government.

Intriguing is the fact that the centerpiece of the Choson’s legal system was promulgated in the second year of Songjong’s reign in 1471, about 80 years after the foundation of the nation.

“The much delayed compilation of the legal code is partly because the Choson referred as a model to Ming China’s social system including its advanced criminal law. It is also because the Choson maintained pro-Ming diplomatic policy from the outset,” said Lee Nam-hee, senior researcher of the Korean Studies Database Institute.

Whatever the reason, it remains true that Kyongguk Taejon represented the first complete compilation of the legal codes of the day. Moreover, the administrative law’s implications were are greater than generally imagined.

“Choson officials classified the existence of Kyongguk Taejon as the top secret especially to Ming China. They made much efforts to hide it from Ming China’s diplomats,” Lee explained.

The secret was kept, only for the time being. According to the CD-ROM Annals, a couple of Ming China’s generals, dispatched to support Choson army against Japan during the 1592 Hideyoshi Invasion, were staying in Chongju. They happened to find Kyongguk Taejon, which caused much concern in the royal court in Choson.

Official Kim Wu-ong states, “Ming generals got angered about our excuse for not showing Kyongguk Taejon. Calling our excuse as deception, they are now demanding Kyongguk Taejon through translators.”

Though King Sonjo and the high-ranking officials made utmost efforts not to show it to China, Ming General named “Wonjusa” read Kyongguk Taejon in 1953.

Emergency meetings were held in order to deal with the situation while trying to come up with plausible excuse not to turn in the legal code to Ming China. In addition, two officials involved in the disclosure faced punishment.

But why did the Choson officials try to hide Kyongguk Taejon? The Annals recorded mainly three reasons for the confidentiality of Kyongguk Taejon to China. First, it contains the official titles of deceased kings, whose level amounts to the emperor of Ming China. Second, there is a passage indicating Choson has sent diplomats to Japan, which Ming China prohibited. Third, included in the code is the clause banning the circulation of gold and silver, which is against Ming China’s demand.

“This passage is very important. It shows that pro-Ming Choson managed to use the titles of deceased kings independently, once monopolized by China. Also, it means that Choson maintained its own diplomatic relations with Japan and banned the use of gold to keep it from China’s demand for tribute,” Lee said.

Knowledge is ‘Legal’ Power

Apart from political implications of Kyongguk Taejon, it must be noted that the legal principle of the Choson Dynasty is humanitarian, even by today’s standard.

A surprising case in point is the government’s legal education targeting the public when a new law was enacted. A document dated in May 1415 includes the passage from today’s Justice Ministry: “It is deplorable that the ignorant public fall into a crime mainly because they do not know the law. The officials in charge of enforcing the law should teach it to public through lecture.”

Named “Dokbopryong” (reading legal statutes), the system greatly helped the people to understand the law, which in turn prevented the crimes resulted from the ignorance, Lee explained.

Yet teaching the jargon-jammed legal codes to the public was not easy. In 1439, King Sejong stated, “It is really difficult to make the public to know all the passages of the statutes. But if we select the 20-something points related to the capital punishment and publicize them to people, we will be able to reduce the number of death sentences.”

Equally important is the bail system. King Taejong ordered the officials to set up a bail system in an effort to encourage the use of newly launched paper money in 1411. But the officials desperately opposed it, citing the possibility that sagwan (historiographer) will point it out as an unfair system in which a sinner is released without being duly punished.

Yet King Taejong did not cave in, and instead stated, “Governing the people through harsh punishment cannot be compared with the slight penalties encouraging them to correct themselves. There is nothing to be ashamed of [in implementing bail system] even though sagwan will record it.”

King Sejong was particularly worried about the abuse of harsh punishment. In 1422, three men were arrested on the charges of setting fire at the ammunition storehouse. In the interrogating process, one man was killed by relentless torture, the other two severely injured. Yet, it turned out that three were innocent.

“The dead cannot be revived, severed body parts cannot be restored. Therefore, it’s useless to regret what’s already happened. This is what I am worried about day and night. Officials should remember this tragic incident for securing fairness, avoiding prejudice. Don’t be pleased with quick confession, don’t wish for a quick imprisonment. Search for evidence from all directions possible over and over again so that no one is falsely accused.”

Appeal, Appeal, Appeal

To prevent a false accusation, there was a highly advanced system named “Sambokbop” (three time appeal law), which applied only to the cases involving capital punishment. The record about today’s appeal system is found in a document dated in 1392 in which today’s Justice Ministry pointed out the necessity of implementing “Sambokbop” to secure a fairer trial.

“Throughout the Choson Dynasty, only the king could decide the capital punishment. Except for special cases, most defendants were given the chances to appeal three times. If proven guilty, the execution was carried out at the end of the year,” Lee said.

The minimum safety mechanism for human rights, however, was repealed temporarily due to the political feuding. According to the CD-ROM Annals, official named Kim An-ro mounted a political attack on his opposition faction, through which he abolished the Sambokbop in order to execute his enemies en masse. In 1539, the king granted law being re-enacted at the request of the officials.

“In fact, Sambokbop is a symbol of the king’s sympathy for the public. Placed in the same context is the king’s special amnesty timed with royal occasions such as coronation ceremony or birthday,” Lee said.

In addition, special pardons affecting minor prisoners were issued when the nation was suffering from natural disasters such as drought and famine.

“The general notion of the day was that the natural disasters are due to the king’s lack of virtue and the people’s rising resentment. Pardon was believed to resolve such conflict,” Lee added.

For all the positive effects of pardon, it remains to be seen whether last week’s special amnesty by President Kim Dae-jung will meet public expectations. A passage of the Annals dated in January, 1547, sheds light on the true meaning of pardon: “There is a old saying that wise king issues fewer, yet effective pardons. In contrast, social disorder often results in frequent pardons, which are likely to be only perfunctory.”

(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.