Kings, Joseon Kings, what are they good for? (Kings, Korea, and Kdrama part 2)

Hello. This is AKIA Talking now from Korea. The Korean drama ,“Secret Door” (2014), which is airing and made me think of 3 things. First, where is the door in the tittle? (LOL) Second, why is there “Veronica  Mars” in this show? Third, what is the position of the king in old Korea? The first two were jokes so I passed that for a review I may do about the show if I ever end up finishing the show. The third question was interesting and thus I am writing an editorial about it.

How we imagine “Kings” tend to come from how they are portrayed in Media as we have not even an indirection contact with royalty. The only real monarchy I have any idea of is the British one whose members are basically these pale looking British celebrities whose job is to go around being liked for the most part. And I think so because of the media.

However, the modern monarchy is another topic for another article. Let’s talk about pre-modern kings.  What piece of media defines what a king, a pre-modern, is in your mind?  
Is it Lord of the rings?
Is it something like game of thrones?
Is it Henry the IV?

Shakespeare did a lot of work about the British monarchy which tends to emphasize a closer working relationship between the communities and the crown than many countries. Whatever this piece of media is, I have a question for you. Did it define the actual job of a king other than wearing cool magical armor and wielding a super-powered mystical swords?

What do you think a King’s job is?
If I were asked what the role of the president of Korea was, I would have somewhat of an idea of how to answer this question.  Modern politicians do tend have rather relatively well defined roles to play even though it seems that they do not do anything but argue, KOREA!  

Bing bada boom!

This is not the same for the Kings of the olden days especially for the Joseon Kings.

Or do they?

When asked to describe a king, I and many have the image of a Kings as a war chieftain pop up in our heads. This is not necessarily false since being a war chieftain is one of the primary reasons for having a king in the first place.

Yes, I do know that there were many other functions of a king. However, it is definitely the most prominent and flashing function.  Also, unlike any other function, being a war chief brings in a lot of political capital in the form of prestige and control over a concentration of resources. This is the same now with our presidents. I can just remember how the second Bush climbed down that jet fighter after landing on the aircraft carrier. Was it a carrier? I cannot recall.

But what happens when the king is cut off from this source of political capital? What happens when either the king is prevented from being a war chief or there are no wars? Will Aragorn of a “Lord of the rings” make a good king after all the war stuff is over? Will he be just this idiot king that can only fight and is good at nothing else?

The portrayal of kings in Korean dramas
I tend to have a medieval image of kings in my mind when I think of REAL kings compared to the modern constitutional kings who are more like CEOs or spokespersons.  How about you? This may be the whole macho martial image they present as active war chieftains talking.

What is interesting about what I just said is that, when I think about kings, the image that pops into my head is of European origin and not Korean. This is somewhat odd since it is not like we did not have kings in Korea. Korea had a king until about 110 years ago. This goes back to how “Kings” are portrayed in idea. For this article, I will limit it to Joseon Kings.

Since you are reading this, you may have seen some historical Korea dramas or “Saguks”. How was the King or Kings portrayed in those shows? Koreans relationship with our monarchy of old is rather complicated as with most modern states which had kings. It is more complicated as the Joseon monarchy ended with colossal failure.

It is not that the monarchy faded or even fell in favor of democracy but rather that they were so incompetent that they gave up to the Japanese without even a big bang. Thus, for the latter parts of the 20th century, the Joseon monarchy tended to be viewed in a negative light. It is interesting that that is one this that both the right and left of Korean politics could agree on.

However, entering the 21st century, nationalism and populism had led to some movement towards rehabilitating them. This is somewhat reflected in Korean dramas. Examples of this would be “Princess Hours”(2006), “My princess” (2011)“,  and “The King 2 Hearts” (2012).

I am ignoring “Princess Hours 2”(2007) like most people.
Bing bada boom!

This movement has not been able to penetrate the historical Korea drama as successfully as you do have to deal with historical reality.  How would I describe the position of a Joseon King? I would have to say that, in modern terms, a Joseon King is close in terms of power to the prime minister in a British style parliamentary system of government but one with a weak coalition of minor parties.  Thus, the most he could do was to struggle to just survive in both literal and figurative terms. A lot of kings and princes just dropped in Korean history.

In real history, Joseon Kings did not have anything close to absolute power and most of the kings never came close to standing on a battlefield. Their only real battles were fighting the nobility in order to garner enough power to actually attempt to do anything. Most even failed at this.

This is why whatever historical Korea drama you see, it ends up being a struggle between the king and nobility. The only difference is whether the show favors the king or the nobility. This creative stance tends to reflect the “creators of the show”’s stance on current politics.

The state of the Joseon Kings
In a way, I tend to understand what the Caesars of old Rome or the Kings of Medieval Europe did better than what the Joseon Kings did. Initially, when trying to learn history, it is easier to go the “Great man” history route in which great man prance about fighting great battles. It is essentially a superstar system which helps people memorize events and understand the outline of history. This is where Julius Caesar, Charlemagne, Henry V come into play.

This is rather difficult to do with Joseon Kings because they did not do much notable according to the pages of  “Great man” history. If I was asked to name the achievements of Joseon Kings, the most prominent one after actually forming the dynasty would be the creation of the “Hangul” alphabet by “Sejong the Great”. And, unlike what was commonly thought before, recent developments provide evidence that “Sejong the Great” actually did much of the research and development work on it. However, if you think about it, is this really an achievement worthy of a king?

As an academic and cultural product, the creation of the “Hangul” alphabet is outstanding. However, is it strictly what a king, the leader of a country, should being with his time? It would be like Obama writing the great American novel during his office hours. It is rather more pathetic when you see that the creation of the “Hangul” alphabet was actually an attempt to break the power of the literate nobility hold on politics by providing a means for the lower masses to communicate.  While, as a cultural product, the “Hangul” alphabet was a success, it was a failure in its political purpose.

Sejong the Great, the person behind the creation of the “Hangul” alphabet, is an interesting example of a Joseon King. The written History is determined by those who write it. While it is common to say that the victors write history, the more “literal” truth is that the “literate” write history.

Word play! Fun! 

In Joseon, the literate were the nobility called “Yangban”. It was this nobility who assigned the title of “Great” to Sejong. But did he deserve it? Well mostly no. As a politician, he was rather a failure who could not garner the support from the nobility to do anything really notable. On a national scope, this period was well known for famine, poverty, and bureaucratic corruption.

So, why did they give the title of great to “Great” to Sejong? Well the failures were the reasons for it actually. He was somewhat of a puppet king for those who wrote history. You get why the nobilities liked him. He was the ideal king for them. Moderately naïve, docent, and just academic enough to be politically incompetent; That is how they liked their kings to be then.

Before Sejong, the nobilities had to deal with kings who were basically war lords. The nobilities came out rather bad during those days. See the Korea drama “Jung Do Jun“ (2014) if you want to know about this series of events. The historical person, “Jung Do Jun“, was at the forefront of essentially setting up a government system in which the king was just a figure head and the government was run by the bureaucrats composed of the nobility. He failed to solidify his objectives but the lessor version of it became the templet for the lifespan of the Joseon dynasty.  As a result, Joseon kings always had to scrap the bottom of the barrel to garner enough power to just exist as a king. Here is a link a preview I did for that Korean drama. 

If you think about it, Sejong was the first non-military leader to become king in Joseon. Starting from Sejong , the Joseon kings were removed from the military except for a few exceptions who were basically vilified by the biased history later. This demilitarization was lauded by the nobility as a great evolved thing for a long time and even I was educated in this manner.  However, if you look at it, this was another attempt to restrict the power of the monarchy. Without the power to at least figuratively lead troops into battle, can a king even be called a king? Even the U.S. president is called the commander and chief even though he ends up delegating. That title garners a lot of political capital from the populous.

This may have changed if there were many wars during the reign of the Joseon dynasty. External conflicts tend to shift the focus of power back to the king. I mean the same thing happened with the second Bush. But, the Joseon kings were out of luck there. Joseon experienced very few wars during its day unlike how Koreans like to remember it.

It is common for Koreans to try to milk the victim card.
Do not fall for it.

What was worse for Joseon kings is that, even in association with those few wars, the kings were not actively involved in the war. It is the nobility who come off as the heroes while the kings are either incompetent or outright cowardly.

The end
The life of a Joseon king was not an easy one. The structure of the political system was designed to neuter him and the nobility were religiously adamant in reinforcing this system. There were few huge external events that could provide the impetus for garnering more power. Even the few opportunities that occurred were squandered because he, the king, was bred to not be able to handle the task.

Thus, the Joseon king lived in this static bubble that was the politics in the capital always wishing to actually be a king rather than the odd thing he actually was but never achieving it. No wonder why many kings died young. Even if you ignore the possibility of assassination, the stress alone would kill a person in the long term.


  1. This year has been a Korean Historical Drama Year for me. With a few modern drama's in between for the balance. The accuracy of how the power is really in the hands of the king, the queen dowager , the lords or the owner of the gisaeng-house I take with a pinch of salt.

    It are the other small things that make it interesting for me, and make me look further along the google-route for detailed and more accurate views on how life really was during the long Joseon-period.

    There are many more like me, who are not only there for the beauty of the actors and actresses, but do their own personal research.
    I live in The Netherlands, ( aka Holland), and I sometimes try to sort out how things were in our areas at a certain period of Joseon.
    How come kimchi was already mentioned in medical books in Asia around 1000 AC for it's many benefits, while it was only in the 18th century a British naval doctor found out sauerkraut was good thing to avoid scurvy during the long sea-voyages made by the European colonials ?
    ( And these benefits of kimchi were probably already known by the folks much earlier )

    An old hype for me was "Camelot", or anything that has to do with King Arthur, Guineverre and Lancelot. It is still a sleeping hype, and by watching historical Kdrama's, I discovered certain things, specially on the mythological side, that made me understand "Camelot" much better.

    The most interesting King I find in Korean history was...a Queen.
    That was long before Joseon, but after seeing Queen Seon Duk twice, and doing the little research afterwards, ( which is restricted because I have to rely on what is published in English) , this lady really did some great things, and must have been a visionaire.

    I think I wrote this somewhere else in this blog earlier.
    Holland is the most Western-mentality country of Europe, together with The United Kindom.
    The difference is, it is a monarchy.
    The monarchy was restarted after the Napoleon-wars around 1800, it was a republic before that for a long time.
    The kings that came after that were not real hero's, to put it mild, in a country surrounded by stronger powers. ( England, Germany and France)
    The Queens that came after them, starting from just before 1900, were much stronger, and knew how to play international politics.
    That ended after WW2, when royal power was very restricted.

    ps: Our dynasty was considered outdated, oldfashioned and dull only 15 years ago.
    Crown Prince Willem Alexander met "commoner" Maxima in 1999, who made her own career from scratch and was CEO of a large bank in New York before she was 30.
    Her charisma, intelligence and beauty put the republican factions 100 years back, and it is like a commoner who took the Royal Dynasty under her wings, instead of the other way.

    The Royal family is very popular now.

    They visited Korea this week on the first official Dutch State visit ever to Korea.

  2. Another thing occured to me, ( while watching The Nightwatch Man, with a possesed King )
    Perhaps it is a blessing for a country never having had a real powerfull King as an icon.
    Because the real things happen somewhere in the shadows anyway.

    Like Korea, Holland was always surrounded by more powerfull dynasties. The reason why it excists at all was when in the 17th century the lower local ranks were able to separate from the Spanish rule. After a long war that lasted for 80 years.

    Amsterdam became the center of the VOC, ( United East Indian Company) , and the union of the 7 Provinces was run as a company instead of a country.
    Business was number 1.

    The factions were in balance, and consisted of Catholic, Protestant and Jewish influences.
    Freedom of Religion and Speech was written down in the Constitution of Leiden, the city near Amsterdam where Spain was defeated.

    The Pilgrim Fathers were chased from England, and were hosted in Leiden for 40 years.
    They decided to make the journey to Americam, passing through Plymouth first before boarding the Mayflower and some other ships.

    Only after Obama became president, it was discovered that both the ancestors of the Bush presidents and Obama were related to each other, and were on the same boat to America.

    The Pilgrim Fathers took the Constitution with them and it became the Constitution of America almost without alterations.

    In an anti-capitalist way, there is a lot to blame on the large multinationals.
    But in general, Holland never was a real starving country, and never had a statue somewhere of a Great Emperor or Great KIng.
    OIfficial It was ruled by middle-class royals, but the (Chaebol-type ) people from the VOC were the real powers.

    ( Middle class royals: No joke, even today there are families in Southern Germany and Austria who are higher in the rankings, but have no royal power.)

    Back to Korea: There was some help in 1997 to bring the factions together, but all the chaebol-multinationals have added to Korea's prosperity a lot, and made it a flourishing country.
    Refering to my first post: It are not the great deeds of Kings that makes Korea interesting, for me anyway, but the ways of the commoners and the poor people that are shown as real as possible through the eyes of modern drama-writers .

    And America, a country without kings and queens ?
    26 of all American presidents are related to each other in someway , and share a rather powerfull past. Some with a royal background.