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Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Kings of Joseon Dynasty, Part XIV: King Seonjo (Yi Yeon) - The Most Incompetent King of Joseon and the Serious Case of Japanese Imjin Invasion

King Seonjo (Born: 26 November 1552 – Died: 16 March 1608) ruled in Korea between 1567 and 1608. He was the fourteenth king of the Joseon Dynasty. He is known for encouraging Confucianism and renovating state affairs at the beginning of his reign, although political chaos and his incompetent leadership during the Japanese invasions of Korea marred his later years.

King Seonjo was born as Yi Yeon (이연/李昖) in 1552 in Hanseong (present-day Seoul), capital of Korea, as the third son of Deokheung Daewon-gun Yi Cho (덕흥대원군 이초/德興大院君 李岹/Grand Court Prince Deokheung) He was given the title of Prince Haseong (河城君), and when King Myeongjong Yi Hwan died young without an heir, Haseong was the next in line by decision of the royal court, so he was crowned king in 1567 at the age of 16.

King Seonjo focused on the improvement of the lives of the common people, as well as rebuilding the nation after the political corruption during the chaotic reign of King Yeonsan the Terrible and King Jungjong. He encouraged Sarim scholars, who had been persecuted by entrenched aristocrats in four different purges between 1498 and 1545 during reign of King Yeonsan the Terrible and Jungjong. Seonjo continued the political reforms of King Myeongjong, and put many famous Confucian scholars, including Toegye Yi Hwang, Yulgok Yi I, Jeong Cheol, and Seo-ae Ryu Seong-ryong, in office.

Seonjo also reformed the civil service examination system, particularly the civil official qualification exam. The previous exam was mainly concerned with literature, not with politics or history. The king himself ordered the system to be reformed by increasing the importance of these other subjects. He also restored the reputations of executed scholars such as Jeong-am Jo Gwang-jo, who died in Gimyo Literati Purge of 1519, and denounced the accomplishments of corrupt aristocrats, notably Nam Gon, who instigated the purge under Jungjong and contributed greatly to the corruption of the era. These acts earned the king the respect of the general populace, and the country enjoyed a brief era of peace.

Among the scholars King Seonjo called to the government were Shim Ui-gyeom and Kim Hyowon. Shim was a relative of the queen, and heavily conservative. Kim was the leading figure of the new generation of officials, and called for liberal reforms. The scholars who supported King Seonjo began to split into two factions, headed by Shim and Kim. Members of the two factions even lived in the same neighborhood; Shim's faction lived on west side of the city while Kim's followers gathered on the east side. Consequently the two factions began to be called the Western Faction and the Easterners ; this two-faction based political system lasted 200 years and later helped bring about the collapse of the dynasty.

At first the Westerners earned the favor of the king, since Shim was related to the queen and also had larger support from wealthy nobles. However, their attitudes on reformation and Shim's indicisiveness helped the Easterners take power, and the Westerners fell out of favor. Reforms were accelerated during the first period of influence of the Easterners, but then many Easterners began to urge others to slow down the reforms. The Easterners were once again divided into the Northern and the Southern Faction. Seo-ae Ryu Seong-ryong led the Southern faction while the Northerners divided even further after arguments over many issues; the Greater Northerners Faction was an extreme leftist faction, while the Lesser Northerners Faction became less reform-minded than the Greater Northerners Faction, but still more leftist than the Southerners.

The political divisions caused the nation to be weakened, since the size of the military was also one of the issues on the reform agenda. Yulgok Yi I, a neutral conservative, urged the king to increase the size of the army to prepare against future invasions from the Jurchens and Japanese. However, both factions rejected Yi's suggestions, and the size of the army was decreased further since many believed the peaceful period would last. The Jurchens and Japanese used this opportunity to expand their influence in East Asia, resulting in the Seven-Year War, and the foundation of the Qing Dynasty in China, both of which would lead to devastation on the Korean Peninsula.

King Seonjo faced many difficulties dealing with both new threats, sending many skilled military commanders to the northern front, while contending with Japanese leaders - the Three Unifiers of Japan: Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu in the south. However, after Toyotomi Hideyoshi unified Japan, the Japanese soon proved themselves to be the greater threat; and many Koreans began to fear that their country would be taken over by the Japanese. Many officials concerned with the defense of the kingdom urged the king to send delegates to Hideyoshi, their major purpose being to find out whether Hideyoshi was preparing for invasion or not. However, the two government factions could not even agree on this issue of national importance; so a compromise was made and one delegate from each faction was sent to Hideyoshi. When they returned to Korea, their reports only caused more controversy and confusion. Hwang Yun-gil, of the Westerners faction, reported that Hideyoshi was raising huge numbers of troops, but Kim Seong-il, of the Easterners faction, told the king that he thought these large forces were not for the war against Korea, since he was trying to complete his reforms quickly to prevent lawlessness and quash the bandits now roaming the countryside. Since the Easterners had the bigger voice in government at the time, Hwang's reports were ignored and Seonjo decided not to prepare for war, even though the attitude of Hideyoshi in his letter to Seonjo clearly showed his interest in the conquest of Asia.

In 1591, after the delegates had returned from Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi sent his own delegates to visit King Seonjo, and asked permission to pass through the Korean Peninsula to invade China, in effect declaring war against the Joseon kingdom. The king was surprised; after refusing the Japanese request he sent a letter to Beijing to alert the Chinese that the Japanese were actually preparing for full-scale war against the Korean-Chinese alliance. He also ordered the construction of many forts in the coastal regions and sent generals Shin Rip and Yi Il to the southern coast to prepare for war. While the Koreans were busy making their preparations, the Japanese manufactured muskets for many of their soldiers, mobilized warriors from across the entire country.

On April 13, 1592, about 700 Japanese ships under Konishi Yukinaga invaded Korea. Konishi easily burned Fort Busan and Fort Dongnae, killed commanders Jeong Bal and Song Sang-hyeon and marched northward. On the next day even more troops under Kato Kiyomasa and Kuroda Nagamasa landed, also marching toward Hanyang. A huge Japanese fleet under Todo Takatora and Kuki Yoshitaka supported them from the sea. General Yi Il faced Kato Kiyomasa at the Battle of Sangju, which was won by Japanese. Then Yi Il met General Shin Rip, but their combined forces were also defeated at the Battle of Chungju by Kato Kiyomasa. Then Seonjo appointed General Kim Myeong-won as Commander-in-Chief and Field Marshal, and ordered him to defend the capital. Then the king moved to Pyongyang, since the Japanese began to seize the capital. He later moved even further north to the border city of Uiju just before the fall of Pyongyang. While the king was absent from the capital, many people who had lost hope in the government plundered the palace and burned many public buildings. This resulted in even more damage than that perpetrated by the Japanese after they had captured the city.

Although the army continued to lose men and battles, the navy successfully cut the Japanese supply line from the sea; Admiral Yi Sunshin defeated the Japanese fleet several times and did much damage to the supply ships. With the navy blocking supplies, Chinese forces under General Li Rusong arrived, and began to push the Japanese southward, eventually retaking Pyongyang. Konishi Yukinaga successfully blocked a Chinese advance at Battle of Byeokjegwan, and again tried to push the Koreans northward, but the crucial blow came at the Battle of Haengju, where General Gwon Yul defeated the Japanese with a much smaller force. The Japanese then decided to enter into peace negotiations, while both sides continued fighting. During these negotiations Koreans retook Seoul, but the palaces had all been burnt to the ground, so Seonjo repaired one of the old royal family's houses and renamed it Deoksugung, making it one of the official palaces.

The peace negotiations between the Chinese and Japanese ended unsuccessfully, due to a lack of understanding between the two sides and misrepresentation of the Koreans. The Japanese again invaded Korea in 1597; but this time all three nations were ready for war, and the Japanese were not able to advance as easily as in 1592. The Japanese tried to take Hanyang from both land and sea routes. At first the plan seemed to work well when Todo Takatora defeated Admiral Won Gyun at the Battle of Chilcheollyang, but the plan was abandoned when the Korean navy under Admiral Yi Sunshin defeated the Japanese fleet under Todo Takatora in the Battle of Myeongnyang with only 13 ships. The battle effectively ended the war, and in 1598 the Japanese at last withdrew from Korea after the sudden death of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The Battle of Noryang marked the end of the war, with the last Japanese units under Konishi Yukinaga leaving Korea.

Despite all the efforts Seonjo put in during the war, such as establishing army training facilities and reforming taxation laws – people were awarded with increase of social class, exemption of labor or crimes in return for payment of tax in rice – the war left a devastated land and starving people. After the war, his wish of reconstructing the nation was impeded by the political turmoil caused by the quarrelling political factions and famine. King Seonjo lost hope in governing the nation, and let his Crown Prince Gwanghaegun rule in his place. However, when the queen gave birth to a son (Gwanghaegun was the second son of Lady Kim, the king's concubine), the succession also became a matter of contention. King Seonjo died in 1608, while political division and outside threats still darkened the skies over Korea.

King Seonjo was buried at the Royal Tomb of Mongneung (목릉/穆陵), a part of Donggureung Royal Tomb Cluster in Inchang-dong san 4-3 beonji, Guri City, Gyeonggi Province. Even though this king is proven to be incompetent, he was given the posthumous name and THIS could hurt your tongue. He was posthumously known as King Seonjo Sogyeong Jeongnyun Ripgeuk Seongdeok Hongnyeol Jiseong Dae-ui Gyeokcheon Hui-un Gyeongmyeong Sillyeok Honggong Yung-eop Hyeonmun Uimu Seong-ye Dalhyo the Great (선조소경정륜립극성덕홍렬지성대의격천희운경명신력홍공융업현문의무성예달효대왕/宣祖昭敬正倫立極盛德洪烈至誠大義格天熙運景命神曆弘功隆業顯文毅武聖睿達孝大王).