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Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Kings of Joseon Dynasty, Part III: King Taejong Yi Bang-won - Father of King Sejong the Great, the Iron-fisted King


King Taejong of Joseon, previously known as Grand Prince Jeong-an (Hanja: 太宗王 [靖安大君]; Born: June 13th 1367 in Hamheung, Southern Hamgyeong Province, DPRK – Died: May 30th 1422 in Seoul-Hanyang, ROK; Reigned: November 28th 1400 - September 9th 1418) was the third king of the Joseon Dynasty in Korea and the father of King Sejong the Great (Yi Do - Grand Prince Chungnyeong). 

He was born as Yi Bang-won (이방원/李芳遠) in 1367 as the fifth son of King Taejo Yi Seong-gye and Queen Sinui of Anbyeon Han Clan, and was qualified as an official of Goryeo Dynasty in 1382. During his early days, he helped his father to extend his support with the citizenry and many influential figures of the government. Taejong helped his father found a new dynasty by assassinating powerful officials such as Jeong Mong-ju, who remained loyal to the Goryeo dynasty.

In 1392, he helped his father to overthrow Goryeo and establish a new dynasty, Joseon. He expected to be appointed as the successor to the throne for he contributed most to the founding of Joseon, but his father Taejo and prime minister Jeong Do-jeon favored Taejo's eighth son and Yi Bang-won's half-brother (second son of Queen Sindeok of Koksan Kang Clan) Yi Bangseok as the crown prince in 1392. This conflict arose chiefly because Jeong Dojeon, who shaped and laid down ideological, institutional, and legal foundations of the new dynasty more than anyone else, saw Joseon as a kingdom led by ministers appointed by the king while Yi Bang-won wanted to establish the absolute monarchy ruled directly by the king. Both sides were well aware of each other's great animosity and were getting ready to strike first. After the sudden death of Queen Sindeok, and while King Taejo was still in mourning for his second wife, Yi Bang-won struck first by raiding the palace and killed Jeong Do-jeon and his supporters as well as Queen Sindeok's two sons including the crown prince in 1398. This incident became known as the First Strife of Princes.

Aghast at the fact that his sons were willing to kill each other for the crown, and psychologically exhausted from the death of his second wife, King Taejo abdicated and immediately crowned his second son Yi Bang-gwa, or King Jeongjong, as the new ruler. One of King Jeongjong's first acts as monarch was to revert the capital to Gaeseong, where he is believed to have been considerably more comfortable. Yet Yi Bangwon retained real power and was soon in conflict with his disgruntled older brother Yi Bang-gan, who also yearned for power. In 1400, General Park Po, who was disappointed by Yi Bang-won for not rewarding him enough for his action in the First Strife of Princes, allied with Bangwon's older brother Yi Bang-gan (Prince Hoean) and rebelled against him in what to be known as the Second Strife of Princes. Yi Bangwon successfully defeated his brother's forces, then executed Park Po and sent Yi Bang-gan into exile. King Jeongjong, who was afraid of his powerful brother, named Yi Bangwon as crown prince and abdicated in the same year. Yi Bang-won assumed the throne of Joseon at long last as King Taejong, the third king of Joseon.

In the beginning of Taejong's reign, the Grand King Former, Taejo, refused to relinquish the royal seal that signified the legitimacy of any king's rule. Taejong began to initiate policies he believed would prove his qualification to rule. One of his first acts as king was to abolish the privilege enjoyed by the upper echelons of government and the aristocracy to maintain private armies. His revoking of such rights to field independent forces effectively severed their ability to muster large-scale revolts, and drastically increased the number of men employed in the national military. Taejong's next act as king was to revise the existing legislation concerning the taxation of land ownership and the recording of state of subjects. With the discovery of previously hidden land, national income increased twofold.

In addition, he created a strong central government and an absolute monarchy. In 1399, Taejong had played an influential role in scrapping the Dopyeong Assembly, a council of the old government administration that held a monopoly in court power during the waning years of the Goryeo Dynasty, in favor of the State Council of Joseon (의정부 - originated from the present-day Uijeongbu City, Gyeonggi Province - the home of Army Stew a.k.a Budae Jjigae), a new branch of central administration that revolved around the king and his edicts. After passing the subject documentation and taxation legislation, King Taejong issued a new decree in which all decisions passed by the State Council could only come into effect with the approval of the king. This ended the custom of court ministers and advisors making decisions through debate and negotiations amongst themselves, and thus brought the royal power to new heights. Shortly thereafter, Taejong installed an office, known as the Sinmun Office, to hear cases in which aggrieved subjects felt that they had been exploited or treated unjustly by government officials or aristocrats.

However, Taejong kept Jeong Dojeon's reforms intact for the most part. He promoted Confucianism, which was more like political philosophy rather than a religion, thus demoting Buddhism, which was far from daily living and decayed from the power given by Goryeo kings back then. He closed many temples that were established by Goryeo kings, and seized their large possessions and added them to the national treasury. Meanwhile, he honored Jeong Mong-ju with the posthumous title of Chief State Councillor (equivalent to Prime Minister) even though it was he who assassinated Jeong – leading to irony of history, in which Jeong Dojeon was vilified throughout the Joseon dynasty while Jeong Mong-ju was honored despite his opposition to its birth.

In foreign policy, he was a straight hardliner—he attacked the Jurchens on the northern border and Japanese pirates on the southern coast. Taejong is also known for being responsible for the Oei Invasion of Tsushima Island in 1419. He also promoted publications, commerce and education. He also founded and encouraged Uigeumbu, the royal guard and secret police at the same time. In 1418, he abdicated and gave the throne to Sejong the Great of Joseon but continued to rule with iron fist, deciding important matters and executing Sejong's father-in-law (father of Queen Soheon of Cheongsong Shim Clan) Shim On and his brother Shim Jeong.

Taejong executed or exiled many of his supporters who helped him ascend on the throne in order to strengthen the royal authority. To limit influence of in-laws, he also killed all four brothers of his Queen Won-gyeong and his son Sejong's in-laws. Taejong remains a controversial figure who killed many of his rivals (including Jeong Mong-ju and Jeong Do-jeon) and relatives to gain power and yet ruled effectively to improve the populace's lives, strengthen national defense, and lay down a solid foundations for his successor Sejong's rule. Taejong was known for his passion for hunting, considered unseemly in a ruler.

After his demise in May 30th 1422, he was given the posthumous name as King Taejong Gongjeong Seongdeok Shin-gong Geoncheon Chegeuk Daejeong Gye-woo Munmu Yecheol Seongnyeol Gwanghyo the Great (태종공정성덕신공건천체극대정계우문무예철성렬광효대왕/太宗恭定聖德神功建天體極大正啓佑文武睿哲成烈光孝大王). He was buried at the Royal Tomb of Heolleung (獻陵), Part of Royal Tomb of Heon-illeung (헌인릉/獻仁陵) in 34 Heon-illeung Drive/Heonilleung-gil, Naegok-dong san 13-191 beonji, Seoul Seocho-gu. The tomb is accessible by using Interstate 171: Yongin-Seoul Expressway and exit to the Northern Terminus of the Expressway - EXIT 7: Heolleung IC.