The middle period of Joseon dynasty

the early and Middle Choson (1392–1636)

the founders of the Choson dynasty set out to create a dynasty that would last as long as that of their predecessors, the Koryo, and they succeeded. The transition to the new state was smooth and peaceful, accompanied by modest reforms rather than revolt and social upheaval. There was great continuity between the two dynasties as the new state was founded by members of the old elite, men who had passed exams and held office in the Koryo period and whose reforms were inspired by Neo-Confucianism, a new interpretation of the same doctrines that the elite had relied on for centuries.

Reforms focused on the pro-Mongol faction at court and the Buddhist establishment. Especially hard hit were the vast and numerous Buddhist monasteries that had acquired large monk and slave armies during the late Koryo period. The armies had helped defend the country during the Mongol invasions but were now perceived as a challenge to central rule and thus disbanded by the central government. Their land was confiscated and divided among those who had helped in the founding of the Choson state.

The early years of the dynasty saw great prosperity and innovation, and the dynasty experienced its golden age under the grandson of the founder, King Sejong. Some 200 years into the Choson state the dynasty faced its greatest challenge in the Hideyoshi Invasion of 1592. Although the devastation was great, the Japanese did not stay. Indeed, Choson survived and flourished for another 300 years.

The Fall of Koryo

Despite Koryo’s ties to the Mongols, the fall of the Mongol Yuan dynasty of China in 1368 did not cause the immediate fall of Koryo. That Koryo held on for another 24 years, until 1392, is a measure of the inherent loyalty of the Korean people and their reluctance to overthrow the incumbent dynasty, then nearly 500 years old. Nevertheless, the Koryo court was so weakened by its marriage ties to the Mongols, and so many of the high officials had amassed fortunes and power through their col-laboration with the Mongols, that it would eventually prove impossible for the dynasty to hold on.

The king at the time of the fall of Yuan was Kongmin (r. 1351–74). In a surprise move he asserted Korean independence from the Yuan dynasty. When the new Ming dynasty was declared in 1368, Kongmin was ready to turn on the Mongols and recognize the new rulers of China. He took several radical steps.

He abolished the office of coop-eration with the Mongols, he attacked Yuan military positions, and he officially recognized the Ming. The Ming responded by restoring traditional tribute relations with Koryo, and in addition they estab-lished a formal military alliance. At home Kongmin tried to purge the bureaucracy of pro-Yuan officials and replace them with lower officials untainted by ties with the Mongols.

King Kongmin’s actions were remarkable in light of the facts of his life: He was the eighth in a line of kings who had been raised in the Yuan court, had married a Mongol princess, and had a Mongol mother, and by bloodline he was 127 out of 128 parts Mongol. However, when the time came to break with the Mongols, Kongmin did not hesitate. Clearly, he would have been in peril if he had remained loyal to the fallen Yuan court, yet if he went too far in seeking reforms he would risk a revolt. The latter was what happened.

In his efforts to rebuild his kingdom, Kongmin turned to an unlikely source, a Buddhist monk named Sin Ton (d. 1371). Although Sin Ton was one of his most trusted advisers, a Buddhist monk had never before been appointed prime minister. Sin Ton embarked on an ambi-tious program of confiscating land that pro-Yuan officials had acquired during Mongol rule and returning it to its former owners. He also freed great numbers of slaves. These moves, while extremely popular with commoners and the lower aristocracy, were threats to the high aristocracy.

To protect their interests, members of the high aristocracy arranged the assassinations of Sin Ton in 1371 and Kongmin in 1374. Later histories did not treat either man well. The Neo-Confucians who came to dominate the court, and therefore historiography, wrote of a corrupt Buddhist monk who meddled in politics. As a result many Koreans today regard Sin Ton one of the great villains of their history. Had he been successful and survived, however, he would probably have been one of Korea’s greatest heroes.

Kongmin was tarred with the same brush: Nothing good could come of a king who would deign to appoint a Buddhist monk prime minister, it was argued. In recent years some historians who criticize the pro-Chinese position of Korea for so much of its history have burnished Kongmin’s image. They see Kongmin as a romantic hero who, had he prevailed, might have helped Korea lead a more independent course less subservient to China.