By Yang Sung-jin
Discussing private matters in public places is tricky. Yet Choson kings and officials recorded — and discussed — all sorts of love affairs in detail as long as the person in question was on the government payroll.
The notorious Yu Kam-dong scandal is a striking example. Yu was a daughter of Yu Kyu-su, an honorary Seoul mayor. She was married off to Pyongkang Magistrate Choe Jung-ki.
When Choe was transferred to Muan, Yu Kam-dong also followed her husband, but only briefly. She forged up an excuse about her health and returned to Seoul alone.
Freed from the scrutiny of her husband, Yu Kam-dong played around too much, drawing a new chapter in the Choson’s sex scandal history.
As the Yu Kam-dong scandal flared up, King Sejong was intrigued. “I heard the prosecutors arrested Yu Kam-dong. How many men did she sleep with and who’s her husband?” the king asked.
Officials explained that Yu Kam-dong’s husband is Choe Jung-ki and she slept with so many men that it’s practically impossible to figure out exact numbers.
According to reports filed by Sahonbu (Office of the Inspector-General) on Aug. 20 of 1429, Yu Kamg-do left a longer trail of adulterous affairs with ranking officials than imagined.
Incumbent Haeju Judge Oh An-ro, former governor Lee Kok and other high-ranking officials were implicated in the scandal, while low-level workers also slept with the temptress.
Sahonbu filed an appeal to the king, arguing that the officials embroiled in the sex scandal should be fired.
King Sejong ordered the arrest of Chong Hyo-mun and Lee Hyo-rang but did not allow the cancellation of their official titles.
High-ranking official Kim Chong-so explained the background to the king: “Chong Hyo-mun committed adultery with Yu Kam-dong, fully aware of the fact that his uncle Chong Tak also slept with her. Therefore, his crime cannot be forgiven under any circumstances. Lee Hyo-rang is Choe Jung- ki’s brother-in-law but he knowingly became intimate with Yu Kam-dong also.”
Interestingly, King Sejong did not want to grill Yu Kam-dong, saying there was enough evidence about the scandal and details were already revealed.
“Even if I force Yu to remember all the affairs she had, she would not and could not recall everything,” the king noted.
Another report of Sahonbu, dated Sept. 16, 1429, disclosed a long list of men who got caught having an affair with Yu Kam-dong.
A bevy of officials including Chon Yu-song, Chu Jin-ja, Kim Yu-jin and others turned out to be involved with the scandal.
An official named Oh An-ro gave government properties at his whim to Yu while continuing the affair at the compound of the public agency.
Kim Yo-dal, another low-ranking official, encountered Yu Kam-dong and threatened to arrest her before forcing an adulterous relationship. Kim frequented Choe Jung-ki’s house covertly before trying to make off with Yu Kam-dong.
Sahonbu stressed that Yu broke all the moral obligations as a wife of a government official and lied that she was a courtesan to seduce men at random, calling for a severe punishment.
“When Yu Kam-dong was living with her husband Choe Jung-ji, she deceived him and escaped with a lover, Kim Yo-dal, a crime warranting the death penalty. At the same time, Kim Yo-dal should be slapped 100 times with a cudgel and expelled outside of the nation,” Sahonbu argued.
The problem was that King Sejong would not buy Sahonbu’s recommendation regarding Yu Kam-dong’s scandal. Instead of ordering the death penalty, the generous king wrapped up the case by exiling Yu to a remote place.
But the Yu scandal did not stop there. According to an article dated Dec. 4, 1433, Yu Kam-dong generated sex scandals even when she was officially confined to a remote place as a punishment.
Sahonbu voiced a concern about the Yu incident: “Yu’s scandalous acts do not stop because Your Majesty forgave her with too much sympathy.”
At the time, another high-profile sex scandal was plaguing the minds of Sahonbu officials. Origa, a daughter of a high-ranking official whose identity remained disclosed, was arrested for her adulterous behaviors.
Sahonbu cited Yu Kam-dong’s precedent and called for capital punishment against Origa. But the king flatly rejected the appeal and opted for a less severe punishment.
With successive appeals ignored, Sahonbu finally gave up on the hope of persuading the king to slap a strict punishment on Origa.
Yet other officials held on to their position, in favor of a heavy penalty for those who committed adultery.
Four days after Sahonbu was silenced by the king’s generosity-based policy against sex scandals, Saganwon (Office of the Censor-General) ventured out to file an appeal to the king.
“It is regrettable that Your Majesty did not allow capital punishment for Origa, Lee Ui-san and Ho Pa-hoe, all who committed adultery. In our opinion, there is a great possibility for pursuing desire between men and women, which should be strictly banned,” Saganwon said.
Saganwon also cited King Taejong’s previous stern punishment against the scandal makers as a reason to crack down on Origa.
The government’s stern crackdown and solidification of social norms based on Confucianism gradually decreased the number of sex scandals in the late Choson period.