Yeonsangun of Joseon


Though he took the throne illegally, King Sejo (r. 1455–68) turned out to be an otherwise good ruler. His bloodstained beginning was not to mar the remainder of his reign. Like his brother, who ruled for only two years, Sejo’s son Yejong (r. 1468–69) ruled for only one year. Sejo’s grandson, Songjong (r. 1469–94), who ascended the throne at age 13, had a long and uneventful reign, but such was not the case for his son, Yonsangun.

Yonsangun (r. 1494–1506) was one of two kings who were not awarded the honorific posthumous title of -jong or -jo. Both had been deposed. Yonsangun and later Kwanghaegun were deemed unworthy of the title king. Rather, they retained their title of a prince, -gun, even after death.

Yonsangun’s crimes were numerous (Wagner 1975). He was capri-cious and violent, he killed servants who displeased him, and he was sexually abusive and paranoid. The most critical of his offenses were his purges: wholesale banishment or execution of officials. Yonsangun saw a structural conflict in the relationship between the king and the bureau-cracy.

He justified striking at the bureaucracy as necessary to protect the authority of the king. Indeed, Choson Korea’s very structure fostered antagonism between the government and the king. There were checks and balances in that the government had control over certain aspects of the king’s power, and these were the things that irritated Yonsangun.

To understand the nature of the dispute that had developed by the late 15th century, one must understand the constraints on the king implicit in Confucian government. Confucius taught that a virtuous ruler listened to remonstrance, which was defined as rightful criticism; the good king sought review and criticism of his actions. Korea’s Confucian-inspired government structure included several offices that institutionalized the practice of remonstrance and made sure that the king would receive his daily allotment of it. In this arrangement, the remonstrating official was guaranteed immunity from royal recrimination.

The three offices for remonstrance were collectively called the Censorate. The role of the first was to watch the king; the second watched the bureaucracy; and the third, which was originally a library—a kind of lecture hall for the king—took on censoring duties in that the high officials there had frequent contact with the king. Although each had a distinct and separate duty, in fact, they all tended to do the same thing. After all, if there was a problem in the bureaucracy, it became a problem for the king, since he made all appointments.

In addition to the three offices of the Censorate, there was also the Royal Lecturate, an office that would meet with the king almost daily to study the Confucian classics. The young scholars who would teach young kings, debate with middle-aged kings, and be lectured to by old kings would occasionally criticize the king. Far from being an autocrat or dictator, the king was constantly being reviewed and criticized by government officials. This system worked for all the kings except Yonsangun.

The first purge unfolded in 1498, four years after Yonsangun became king. The issue was the writing of the history of Songjong, his father. A scholar named Kim Chongjik had written that Songjong’s grandfather, Sejo, was a usurper. Because the legitimacy of Yonsangun’s great-grandfather reflected on the legitimacy of Yonsangun himself, the king was enraged to find a criticism of Sejo. Although the author of the history had died six years earlier, Yonsangun struck out at Kim’s disciples who were holding government offices.

The purge was a series of executions and banishments. Not only were the living punished, the dead were persecuted as well. Kim Chongjik’s body was exhumed and his body parts scattered. Criminal punishment often involved cutting the offender’s body into eighths, so that one body part could be sent to each of the eight provinces and there posted with a sign identifying the criminal and his crime.

This punishment was carried out on Kim Chongjik’s body. (Just as people could be tried and “executed” after they had died, so they could be restored or exonerated. Later Kim was exonerated.)Yonsangun was not finished. In 1504 he learned that his mother, who had died when he was three, had been persecuted and forced to drink poison.

This sent him into another rage, and he purged several dozen more officials whom he had identified in the persecution of his mother. The second purge prompted the government to undertake the difficult and perilous task of deposing the king.

The government suc-cessfully arrested Yonsangun, stripped him of his powers, and sent him into exile. Choson practices of punishment often included banishment, which was always internal.

Often the banishment was lifted after a few years, but at other times the case was reheard and a more severe penalty decreed, including the death penalty; this was the case for the boy king Tanjong, in 1455, but Yonsangun did not stand for a second trial.

He was banished to an island in the Yellow Sea, where he died a few weeks later. The record does not say how he died, but one can assume it was not a natural death.