Tuesday, April 21, 2009

King Danjong and Korea's Curse

It's festival season again, and every year, the end of April - beginning of May period is getting more crowded. Beware : all events cannot be as exciting as advertised, and you must brace yourselves for a collection of kitsch decors, not so cute mascots, or noisy and colorful "eebents".

What to think of those corny lantern-sculptures on Cheonggyecheon, for instance ? The Danjong Culture Festival is making a big splash in Seoul for its 43th edition, inviting tourists to the real party : not here, but in front of Jangneung.

That's King Danjong's tomb in Yeongwol-gun, Gangwon-do.

Doesn't sound as "exciting" as the "Ddeokbokki Festival" or Incheon's "Jjajangmyeon Festival" ? Not an easy sales pitch, granted. But beyond the festival and the show, this King's story deserves to be narrated.

To tell you the truth, I didn't know the story until a few days ago. But it struck me as a turning point in Korea's history, the reason why Joseon Dynasty failed lamentably in spite of the glorious heritage of King Sejong. Instead of continuing its spectacular and positive mutation, the country stalled and shut itself down in front of any form of progress. For the benefit of its neighbors.

I guess Danjong, the king who never was, somehow symbolizes this country which didn't happen.

To be fair, Danjong once became a King, but he was stripped of his title soon afterwards, and recovered it only two and a half centuries later (in 1698, under King Sunjong). Proper funerals were eventually performed, along with a yearly day of mourning, which became much later the Danjong Culture Festival.

Danjong didn't die as a King but as a kid : crowned at 11, overruled at 13, wed and overthrowned at 14... and murdered at the tender age of 16 (1441–1457).

Sad ending for a beloved kid whose grandfather believed could eventually become his true successor. This granpa was none other than Sejong. And the great king worried a lot for Danjong because his own successor was too weak. So he built protective walls around his apt pupil : members of his own dream team (the Hall of Worthies), people of trust and sound judgement, who could help him rule the country as well as he did.

Poor Danjong never knew his mother, who died giving birth (he was raised by his grandmother, Sejong's wife), and as feared, he lost his father (Sejong's first son King Munjong), way too soon.

The bad guy in this sad familial saga is Sejong's second son, Prince Suyang (Suyang Daegun) : Danjong's evil uncle became King Sejo in 1455 after forcing his nefew into exile to Gangwon-do.

But don't picture Suyang as just an ambitious man fooling a kid with a one way ticket to a nice resort area : this criminal has a lot of blood on his hands.

In 1453, he destroyed Sejong's first protective shield, murdering the premier and vice-premier (Hwangbo In and General Kim Jongseo), who actually ruled the country. After that, the young king was directly under his spell. He simply kicked him out once he controlled everything.

But loyalists tempted a coup. The new king poisoned Sejong's brother, and in 1456, decapited at the same time 6 leaders and Korea's future. For good measure, he killed about 70 male members of their families, and even Kim Jil, the Judas who betrayed them. Their wives were forced into slavery and prostitution. One newborn was saved... but at a tragic price : traded with a servant's baby.

The 6 leaders were Sejong's second protective shield around his grandson, 6 prestigious ministers who actually carried out most of his outstanding reforms, starting with the creation of Hangeul. Ha Wi-ji, Pak Paeng-nyeon, Seong Sam-mun, Yi Gae, Yu Eung-bu, and Yu Seong-won are referred as the "Sayuksin" or the "six martyred ministers", or even "six bodies who became gods", according to a more lyrical yet unorthodox translation using similar Chinese characters. They were beheaded at "Saenamto", a place in Noryangjin where centuries later, Catholics martyrs would meet the same fate...

Danjong's murder was a little more subtle : because King Sejo wanted his death to look accidental or suicidal, he had him trapped home and pushed ondol heating to a quasi fire. The young heir died of suffocation... and the whole country fell into lethargy.
A noble man wrote a beautiful poem about his trip to Gangwon-do : he came to see the king, but met his ghost. No poem was ever written for the country that never was, and no one ever met its ghost. The closest thing we have could be the expression "The Hermit Kingdom".

* Danjong Culture Festival : April 24-26th (same dates as the 2009 Lotus Lantern Festival)


  1. Whoa! Just doing a bit of research for 10 Magazine's coverage of the Danjong Festival in Yeongwol-gun and stumbled upon your post. This sort of stuff actually happened in Korea? Sounds like one of Shakespeare's bloodier tragedies, or something from Wagner's The Ring. Geez almighty. Awesome post. Makes me want to be a Korean history major.

  2. Shakespearian indeed. I actually asked a Korean filmmaker why this amazing story had not been exploited in a movie.


  3. This story just has been illustrated in a drama though it's not the main issue! =) The drama is called The Princess' Man. Really heart wrenching...

  4. Thanks for the info, which only confirms the shakespearian potential of this gem of a story.

    I guess scenarists were digging for a good one following the success of Queen Seongdeok, and soon landed on this one.

  5. Interesting but a few mistakes. Kim Jil was NOT killed by Sejo, but in return for his betrayal of the Sayuksin was given higher and higher posts, and eventually became governor Gyeongsang province

  6. Thank you Tamara. A glimpse into Sejo's merit-based system!


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