1. King Taejo 태조 太祖
(Yi Seong-gye 이성계 李成桂)
Dates: 4 November 1335 – 27 June 1408
Reign: 13 August 1392 – 22 October 1398
Ahhhh, King Taejo. The founder of the Joseon dynasty. Taejo’s legend lasted long after his death, and although he is most often recognized as a King of the Joseon Dynasty, he was actually raised to Emperor in 1899 under King Gojong.
Taejo was born during the Goryeo Dynasty (고려시대) and made his way up the army ranks from a young age. Goryeo had been falling apart for many years due to its position as a vassal state of the Mongol Yuan dynasty and years of war with Japanese pirates (Wakou), as well as internal struggles and consistent calls for reforms. By 1350, the Ming Dynasty was able to seize power in China, limiting the power of Yuan and allowing Goryeo to regain its independence. However, due to years ravaged by war and internal conflicts, as well as external marriages, the Goryeo court was losing its influence.
Taejo continued to rise in the military during the 1370s-80s. He was able to push the Mongols back to Goryeo’s borders, as well as continue to fight off those dastardly Japanese pirates (they really were pirates, I swear). As tensions continued to grow within the court, Taejo found himself a following in support of the Ming Dynasty, while his opposer – General Choi Yeong (최영) – gathered support for those in favor of Yuan. In 1388, Ming announced their demands for the return of a large portion of northern Goryeo lands. Choi, the sneaky snake, naturally used this to rile up further anti-Ming sentiment and ordered Taejo and his soldiers to be the ones to attack Ming in the Liaodong Peninsula. While on his way, Taejo had an epiphany. He turned right back around to face his old enemy instead. Upon returning to Gaesong (개송), the kingdom’s capital, Taejo was able to seize power from Choi. Sweet justice.
In a very Game of Thrones-esque series of moves, Taejo placed and removed several men on the throne before ultimately claiming it himself. In fact, the man seated as King before him, King Gongyang (공양왕), was removed by Taejo and exiled to Wonju, where he and his entire family were secretly murdered. After 475 years of ruling, Taejo brought the end of the Goryeo dynasty down in one fell swoop.
Taejo established the first palace of Joseon, Gyeongbokgung (경복궁). Yeah. That one. He was also the one to move the capital to Hanseong (한성), aka Seoul, ordering the construction of a wall around the city (today’s Seoul City Wall.) He also also assigned a group of Dynastic Foundation Merit Subjects (개국공신), scholars who advised the king as a Privy Council and codified the ideals of a Confucian government, producing the Administrative Code of Joseon (조선경국전) and the Six Codes of Governance (경제 육전). Taejo definitely did some big stuff. But oh – the drama is just beginning.
Taejo had six sons from his first wife, Sineui (신의), and two from his second, Queen Sindeok (신덕). Taejo was leaning towards making his youngest son, Grand Prince Euian (의안), his successor. Naturally, all seven older sons were furious. The fifth son, Bangwon (방원), was the ring leader to murder any officials who supported placing Euian on the throne. In the aftermath, the two other youngest sons were murdered at the mere ages of 16 and 17. This entire mess upset Taejo (naturally) so much that he abdicated the throne after only six years.
The first King of Joseon was only on the throne for six years! His second son, Grand Prince Yeongan, was made King. But we’ll get to him next.
Oh. Before we leave Taejo behind, you should know something about him. He was a bit of a romantic. He was so saddened by the death of Queen Sindeok that he ordered a royal tomb be built for her inside the city walls. After his abdication, he went back to his city of birth, Hamgyeong, to settle down and lead a quiet life. His son King Taejong, the third monarch of Joseon, tried to get him to return, but Taejo never truly forgive his children for the terrible mess they’d made. I’m not sure I blame him.
Monarch Rating: 3.5/5 – So… do we like Taejo or not? He did set up the entire Joseon Kingdom, but he was a bit of a sneaky bastard there at the end. We do love a bit of drama though, don’t we?
2. Jeongjong 정종 定宗
(Yi Bang-gwa 이방과 李芳果)
Dates: 26 July 1357 – 24 October 1419
Reign: 22 October 1398 – 7 December 1400
Even though Taejo’s years on the throne were pretty brief, he did some stuff. He saw some stuff. He made something happen. I’m not really sure if the same can be said for his son Jeongjong, but I’ll let you be the judge.
From the start of his rule, Jeongjong didn’t really favor Hanseong as the capital city. After hearing prophecies of danger to the throne (which had already been proved by the *cough* brutal murders of his brothers by his brothers), Jeongjong pushed to relocate the capital city back to Gaesong (개성). After ruling for only one year, he abdicated the throne. Most of the pressure to leave came from his younger brother, Bang-won, who is our next target.
Monarch Rating: 0.5/5 I’m just going to give him half a point for the trouble he went through with his brothers. Moving on.
3. Taejong 태종 太宗
(Yi Bang-won 이방원 李芳遠)
Dates: 13 June 1367 – 8 June 1422
Reign: 7 December 1400 – 19 September 1418
If you watch Korean historical dramas, you’re probably sick of hearing about Taejong by now. I know I am. That being said, he’s certainly an important and interesting king, so I’ll be sure not to leave out any of the good stuff.
Taejong had demonstrated leadership abilities before the establishment of the Joseon dynasty. During the final decade of Goryeo (고려시대), Taejong even held a position in the government. He helped push his father to the throne by generating support and even acted as a foreign envoy to the Ming Dynasty.
Let’s go back to the death of Queen Sindeok. It was Bang-won who gathered up his brothers to fight against the naming of Euian as the heir to the throne. It was essentially because of him that his father abdicated, and it was definitely because of him that his other brother, Jeongjong, abdicated too. People were scared of the dude, to say the least.
Despite his rocky reputation, Taejong reigned for eighteen years. And let’s not ignore all that he did during those years – some of it good, some of it… not so good.
One of the first steps Taejong took after becoming was to ban the private security that was held by many members of the royal household, members of the advisory council, and other government officials. He then absorbed those soldiers into the official army. He awarded 47 of the men who had loyally supported him in his quest for the throne with the rank of “Merit Subject”. Showing some respect for his old man, he continued to work on the reforms that Taejo had been preparing. He organized a seven-member board of counselors, called a Uijongbu (의정부), and established six boards under it: the Administrative Board (육조), Board of Personnel (이조), Board of Taxation (호조), Board of Rites (예조), Board of War (평조), Board of Punishments (형조) and the Board of Works (공조). This really helped to set up the Joseon government and had a huge effect on the smooth running of the dynasty. During all of this, he also divided the kingdom into eight provinces: Hamgyeong (함경), Pyeongan (평안), Hwanghae (황해), Gyeonggi (경기), Gangwon (강원), Chungcheong (충청), Gyeongsan (경산), and Jeolla (전라).
All of these reforms made the king realize that he needed to tear down the power of Buddhism in favor of Confucianism as the state ideology. It was already put into practice under Taejo, but it was Taejong who strengthened it. He ordered many Buddhist temples to be closed, redistributed their land, and seized their treasures. When he was finished, there were only 242 temples left in the kingdom.
Taejong also initiated the system of hopae (호패), aka identification tags that were basically used to control the movement of the people (early GPS?).
Even though all of these changes greatly affected the fabric of Joseon, I find them to be somewhat boring. If we’re going to talk about some stimulating changes that Taejong was responsible for, look no further. It was under Taejong that the construction of Changdeokgung (창덕궁) begin. He also introduced paper money made from mulberry bark and took some major steps in printing technology. Under his reign, Joseon began printing and exporting books to Japan. Pretty solid moves there, Taejong.
For all he did to get to the throne, Taejong seemed to be influenced by his father, as he abdicated the throne after eighteen years. His brutality never seemed to completely disappear, however, as we can see when it came time to choose his heir. His oldest son, Prince Yangnyeong (양녕대군), was seen as too free-spirited and didn’t do very well in the programs that would have allowed him to be King. So what does Taejong do? He sends his son away from the palace and exiles him to Gyeonggi-do, Gwangju (경기도 광주)… Okay, like. I understand not putting him on the throne. Sure. But exile? Let’s just take a breath.
In a way, it was a blessing. Because the son he did put in power, Yi Do, would prove to be one of the greatest figures in all of Korean history.
Monarch Ranking: 3.5/5 – Honestly, this is a hard one. He did make a lot of choices that I can appreciate. The son that he put in power was a serious bonus, not to mention the creation of Changdeokgung… but he loses 1.5 points for like… you know… killing his baby brothers.
4. Sejong 세종 世宗
(Yi Do 이도 李祹)
Dates: 15 May 1397 – 8 April 1450
Reign: 19 September 1418 – 8 April 1450
Where does one begin? King Sejong. If you don’t know his name, you’ve likely seen his statue in Gwanghwamun Square, downtown Seoul. Sejong is one of the most well-loved, respected figures of Korean history and undoubtedly the golden child of the Joseon monarchs. There are so many reasons to appreciate Sejong, that I disrespect his efforts by writing about them in a measly ‘quick guide’. Alas, I am only one woman. So, here’s my best effort.
King Sejong was awarded the title of Great after his death. His reign is a Golden Age in Korean history, full of intellectual and cultural accomplishments.
It’s not really up for debate: Sejong’s biggest and most influential achievement was creating the Korean alphabet, first known as Hunmin Jeong-um (훈민정음), ‘the correct sounds for the instruction of the people’. It was later named Hangeul (한글). When discussing Hangeul, Sejong said: “Being of foreign origin, Chinese characters are incapable of capturing uniquely Korean meanings. Therefore, many common people have no way to express their thoughts and feelings. Out of my sympathy for their difficulties, I have created a set of 28 letters. The letters are very easy to learn, and it’s my hope that they improve the quality of life of all people”. Although the original language had 28 letters, we’ve got it easy, because now we only use 24. Sejong based the shape of each letter on the way that the sound moves outwards from one’s body. For me, it makes a lot of sense and somehow feels kind of poetic.
Unfortunately, many government officials were critical of the alphabet. The King’s officials felt that not using Chinese characters was a huge disrespect to their powerful neighbors, as well as their state ideology of Confucianism, which came from China. They even believed that it might hinder a higher level of education if they used something as simple as Hangeul. I suspect this is also because it meant that the lower classes could read and write too, putting their positions in danger.
Even though there was doubt, Sejong translated many popular poems and Buddhist scriptures into Hangeul. Not only was Hangeul a massive linguistic achievement, but a largely political one that separated Korea further from China, both politically and culturally. Even after Sejong completed the Hangeul script, people didn’t use it regularly for hundreds of years. Thankfully, the logical nature of the language is now clear to linguists and Koreans alike. Some indigenous groups around the world without a writing system have even adapted Hangeul to fit their language since writing and reading it is so simple! Have you learned Hangeul yet? Don’t let the fact that it’s a foreign language scare you – I think you can probably learn the entire alphabet in two or three days.
More than linguistics, Sejong considered himself a man of science and invention. He greatly emphasized education not only for himself but for his people. Firstly, the arts fascinated and inspired him. He developed music by acting as a patron for orchestral compositions and court music, and even improved designs for various musical instruments. But one of his biggest areas of achievement was science. His scientific sponsorships include many useful items that we know today such as the rain gauge, the sundial, the water clock, celestial globes, armillary spheres, and maps of the cosmos. Sejong’s bright official, Jang Yeongsil (장영실), invented most of these. Due to Jang’s brilliant inventions and Sejong’s great patronage, some historians consider Joseon to be one of the most scientifically advanced nations at the time.
The rain gauge, known as Cheugugi (측우기) in Korean, was invented in 1441. In 1434, Jang made what we would call an alarm by today’s standards! This is Jagyeongnu (자격루), which sets off a bell and drum at a specific moment with the help of water. Jang also invented the sundial or angbuilgu (앙부일구) in 1434. By playing such a large part in Joseon’s scientific renaissance, Sejong also became a better leader. By standardizing weights and measures and installing rain gauges across the country, he was able to rationalize his tax-assessing procedures and bring fairness to his people.
To encourage young scholars to study, Sejong also set up grants and scholarships from the government. He greatly rewarded those who worked hard. If a young man seemed particularly promising, he granted them a reading vacation, which was essentially paid leave for uninterrupted studying. The College of Assembled Worthies (es. 1420) helped Sejong and his pupils complete their cultural, literary, and scientific projects. His friendliness and faith in his students made him very beloved, and thankfully many of the texts from the College survive today.
Looking after his people was something Sejong did rather well, and something he did noticeably through law and administration. The happiness of his people was absolutely one of his concerns when it came to politics. In one of his famous quotes he stated; “If I have to choose two among the army, finance, and people’s mind, I will discard the army. If I have to choose one between the rest, I will discard finance. The thing that should not be discarded until the last is the people’s trust and their mind.” To achieve this, he introduced new census laws, penal reforms, and even issued some civil rights for slaves and groups outcasts. When Joseon faced natural disasters such as floods or drought, Sejong established various relief centers to offer food, water, and shelter to his people. For farmers in particular, he reinstated a Goryeo loan system that lent out the government’s surplus grain to be paid back with nominal interest. Dreamy guy, if I do say so myself.
You’re probably wondering what I can talk about next; I’ve already said so many positive things about this dude. Since we’ve already talked about his inventions, I guess it’s no surprise that he improved various weapon systems like the military cannon. He also was responsible for initiating battles with his powerful neighbors. He set up 10 military posts in the northern region in order to try and expand the kingdom while also keeping out Jurchen enemies. Another key fight was when Sejong’s military invaded Tshushima Island, Japan to prevent pirating. 245 Japanese were killed and another 110 were taken captive, in comparison to 180 Korean soldiers who died. Sejong’s victory set free kidnapped Chinese and Koreans and led to the creation of the Treaty of Gyehae (계해조약) in 1443. The treaty promised that the Daimyo of Tshushima pay tribute to Sejong. In return, Joseon rewarded the Japanese with preferential rights for trading. So, it wasn’t all fun and games. But we can see that Sejong had a powerful influence over his military and a command that was sure to inspire future generations.
While Sejong was greatly admired by many, he was not always seen as perfect. In particular, Sejong had several issues that led to some officials becoming his enemy. Firstly, Sejong had a strong connection to Buddhism, which was the state religion of the former dynasty. Confucianism was the ruling ideology of the Joseon society, and many felt uneasy with Sejong’s faith. While Sejong enforced public policies to limit the influence of Buddhism, he became even more loyal to Buddhism after the death of his Buddhist wife, Queen Soheon (소헌왕후) in 1446. Additionally, many historians believe that opposition to Hangeul also came from the officials growing dislike for Sejong in general. Much to their dismay, Sejong’s great love for studying and debating made him think about how his people were suffering. He believed a King with absolute power should love all of his civilians, even if they disagreed with him. This led him to be consciously fair with his interactions, particularly with his officials. It was said that he never gave any benefits to those of a higher rank simply for their position. Instead, he searched for people of great talent to work with, regardless of their social class.
Sejong was, unfortunately, not a man of great health. In 1442, his eyesight began to fail, alongside rheumatism and diabetes. He regularly asked his ministers for permission for the Crown Prince to help him run the kingdom, which was repeatedly rejected. It wasn’t until 1445, five years before Sejong’s death, that the Crown Prince was able to take over limited duties. As his health worsened, Sejong spent his final days writing and living in his son’s residence, where eventually died.
I hate to leave off on that sad note, but that’s pretty much the end of things.
Monarch Rating: 4.5/5 – Nobody’s perfect, but you’re pretty darn close, Sejong.
Dates: 15 November 1414 – 1 June 1452
Reign: 18 May 1450 – 14 May 1452
We’ve got another quick one. That feels a bit harsh because, er, he just died.
Anyway, Munjong was the eldest son of King Sejong. He died after only two years on the throne. Although most of his life achievements weren’t performed during his time as king, he had developed a stable reputation as a Crown Prince. The Annals of the Joseon Dynasty (조선왕조실록) state that it was Munjong who actually found measures of water level in the ground, lending a helping hand to the creation of the rain gauge. He also helped his father with the creation of Hangeul. As Sejong’s health began to fail him, Munjong stepped in to take over state affairs despite keeping his father on the throne. And unlike the Taejo – Jeongjong – Taejong craziness, Munjong worked well with his younger brother, Yi Gu (이구), to improve the Hwacha (화차) arrow launcher… rather than having him murdered. So overall, a pretty likable guy.
Alongside the sadness of his early death, his short two years in power saw a major power imbalance in the royal court. This would set the stage for his brother, Yi Hong-wi (이홍위), to lead a coup d’etat in 1452 that would not be righted until the fall of Yeonsangun (oh, we’ll get to that momentarily).
Monarch Rating: 2/5 – You seemed like a guy I’d want to have a beer with, but you just didn’t have enough time for me to give you a higher rating. Rest in Peace.
I forgot something super important! In historical Chinese records, it was noted he was very good-looking. Shall I add an extra half-point?
6. Danjong 단종 端宗
(Yi Hong-wi 이홍위 李弘暐)
Dates: 9 August 1441 – 24 December 1457
Reign: 14 May 1452 – 11 June 1455
Danjong lost both of his parents at a young age and was essentially raised by his older sister, Princess Gyeonghye (경혜공주) and half-sister, Princess Gyeongsuk (경숙공주).
He was only twelve years old when his father died and he took the throne. Since he was far too young to rule, the power was split three ways: Princess Gyeonghye as his guardian, Chief State Councilor In Hwang-bo (인황보), and Left State Councilor General Kim Jong-seo (김종서). To be honest, these names mean nothing. The government was overthrown the following year by Danjong’s uncle, the future King Sejo. Sejo then had the councilors murdered in front of Gyeongbokgung (what a way to assert your authority).
In 1455, he was forced to abdicate, but some sneaky officials were stirring the pot to try and get him back on the throne. Considering Sejo murdered the other officials in front of the palace, it doesn’t seem like a solid plan to me. And it wasn’t. Not only were these fellas murdered, but Danjong and his wife were demoted in title even further, exiled to Yeongwol County (영월군), and for one final blow, Sejo just decided it was best to have Danjong murdered.
You know. Just in case.
That’s not even the worst part. I bet you want to know how he was murdered. Well, if you didn’t want to know, you should know. Danjong was given a poison to drink, which naturally he refused, so one of the soldiers just went and strangled him to death.
Danjong didn’t even receive his temple title for another 200 years, when King Sukjong finally restored his and his wife’s place as King and Queen. Kudos to Sukjong, tsk tsk to Sejo.
Monarch Ranking: 0.5/5 – Do I even need to explain? Be a bit more sneaky with your plans, mate.
7. Sejo 세조 世祖
(Yi Yu 이유 李瑈)
Dates: 2 November 1417 – 23 September 1468
Reign: 25 July 1455 – 22 September 1468
I really don’t want to flatter a man who made his way to the throne via the bloodshed of a literal child, but Sejo is often regarded as one of the strongest leaders of the Joseon dynasty. Let’s see why.
King Sejo was a man of many talents, one of them being skilled in a lot of sports. He was like that guy in high school who looks ten years older than everyone else and is the captain of six sport teams. Sejo was good at archery, horse riding, and martial arts, to name a few. Even though he never went to the battlefront himself, he was also gifted at military command. We can see this in his ordered attacks on the Jurchens at the northern front.
One of the first decisions in court that Sejo made was to strengthen the power of the king by limiting the power of the Prime Minister. The Uijongbu established by King Taejo had grown all too powerful by this point, so Sejo made it a key goal to take back some of that power. No wonder the future monarchs of Joseon admired him (commence eye roll). Related to this, as the number of Merit Subjects grew, there wasn’t enough land to go around. Sejo reformed the grant system so that the Merit Subjects received the use of land only during the period that they actually served in the government, rather than for life. And considering how often these guys get murdered by people hungry for power… I’d say that was a pretty good move.
He also strengthened the use of identification tags and took this census a step further by issuing highly detailed maps of the country. Thumbs up.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Sejo’s life was his interest in medicine. He and his father suffered from a series of ailments, and Sejo was determined to do as much as he could to discover remedies. In 1463, he published Treatise on Medicine, which described a ranking of qualifications for physicians. One of the most famous stories associated with Sejo was his visit to Woljeongsa Temple (월정사) in search of a cure. You might be surprised that he was visiting a Buddhist temple given that Joseon was a Confucian state – Sejo actually greatly supported Taoism and Buddhism, even sponsoring the construction of Wolgaksa Temple and creating Gangyeongdogam (간경도감), a government agency for publishing Buddhist texts. He also renovated the storage hall of the Tripitaka Koreana at Haeinsa (해인사) and had fifty copies printed for distribution. During his visit to Woljeongsa, he supposedly had an encounter with Buddha Manjushri (문수보살) and *drumroll* found himself cured! Hooray! Another legend tells of a tree that was awarded the rank of “Imperial Minister” after it bowed to Sejo when he was journeying to Beopjusa Temple in search of healing and peace of mind… Sounds like a nice lie to secure your position. If you love the idea of a tree bowing as much as I do, you can actually go and visit it.
Sejo’s health declined at the age of 52, leaving behind two sons. He handed the throne to his second son, Yi Gwang, who…
We’ll let’s see.
Monarch Rating: 3/5 – Gosh, this is a hard one. How do you dismiss burning a child to death? Is it bad that I gave him a higher rating because he was into science and Buddhism? Someone please help me.
8. Yejong 예종 睿宗
(Yi Gwang 이광 李晄)
Dates: 12 February 1450 – 31 December 1469
King Yejong was only 19 years old when his father abdicated the throne. Alongside the fact that monarchs took power at the age of twenty, Yejong was a sickly child. Thus, his mother Queen Jeonghui (정희왕후), came to take control instead. Naturally, she was supported by three councilors that Sejo had personally picked, but she still remained an important figure in court.
Despite Yejong’s reign lasting only fourteen months, a lot of nonsense went down. The biggest and juiciest story was the trial and death of General Nam I (남이 장군).
Buckle up. Things are about to get confusing.
Nam I was appointed as Minister of War. When Yejong become King, this guy called Ryu Ja-gwang (유자광), accused Nam of treason (he was high-key jealous of his appointment as Minister of War). It didn’t help that Yejong didn’t like Nam I very much either. So, feeding off the support he’s getting from the King, Ryu orders a trial for all the guys he doesn’t like, which the King naturally supports. All were found guilty and executed, and then Ryu dances his way up the ranks. From this point on, Ryu basically ran around accusing people he didn’t like of treason.
Yejong did do one interesting thing. He allowed farmers to cultivate fields that belonged to the military. So… props for that? And as Korean historian Jihoon Suk pointed out to me, Yejong had a child at the age of 11!
Monarch rating: 0.5/5 – You probably shouldn’t side with people who go around murdering everyone they don’t like.
Can we just pause for a moment and talk about how ridiculous it is that Yejong was played by Lee Sun-kyun (이순견) in a film when the actor was 42 years old? Yejong died when he was twenty. Try harder.
9. Seongjong 성종 成宗
(Yi Hyeol 이혈 李娎)
Dates: 19 August 1457 – 20 January 1495
Reign: 31 December 1469–20 January 1495
Ah, finally. A breath of fresh air.
Seongjeong was only 13 when he ascended the throne, so his mother and grandmother, Queen Insu (인수왕후) and Queen Jeonghui (정희왕후), ruled on his behalf until he reached the age of 20. When Seongjong finally took the throne, his reign was marked as highly progressive in terms of the country’s economy.
Upon assuming the throne, Seongjong immediately began to revise the Gyeonggukdaejeon (경국대전, a legal code of Joseon). Today, it’s the only extant law code from the Joseon dynasty and the longest-lasting code in Korean history. Thanks to Seongjong’s great efforts and careful considerations with the guidance of his advisors, this code helped the court govern fairly (or at least try to) for many centuries to come.
Seongjong was a big fan of Confucianism and led many reforms under this state belief. For starters, he established Hongmungwan (홍문관), the royal library and secretary to the king. He also brought many liberal Confucian scholars to his court whose views challenged the ideas of conservative officials. Seongjong firmly believed in appointment ministers based on their ability (what a shocking idea), rather than their social rank or influence.
Seongjong himself was an artist. He greatly enjoyed a healthy debate, particularly on liberal political reforms, as well as discussions on etiquette, geography, and general knowledge. He oversaw the publishing of many influential books, such as an anthology of Korean-Chinese literature, an illustrated guide to traditional music, as well as a source on Korean historical geography.
Despite his efforts to make positive change, Seongjong fell a bit short. The economic circumstances of the scholarly class, who many of these reforms targeted, didn’t actually change much. The yangban (양반, aristocracy) and officials were granted the right to farm, disrupting the peasant land ownership. As these agricultural estates grew, they gathered the peasants who once farmed them. The heavy taxes that were then imposed forced many peasants to resort to slavery, where they could avoid the payment of taxes (this was a common theme throughout Korean history).
Sadly, Seongjong’s heir brings us to what is perhaps the darkest part of Joseon history. His son, Yi Yung, is not only one of the cruelest and most vicious monarchs in Joseon history but in Korean history overall. It’s a shame that a king who had great plans and visions and genuinely attempted to change the fabric of his beloved kingdom was followed by a… basket case.
Monarch Raking: 3.5/5 – I can’t really fault the guy for challenges to his reforms. He made progress in key areas and supported the arts. Overall, I think he was pretty swell.
10. Yeonsangun 연산군 燕山君
(Yi Yung 이융 李㦕)
Dates: 23 November 1476 – 20 November 1506
Reign: 20 January 1494 – 2 September 1506
One might wonder how the son of a noble man becomes so messed up. There are… many words… I could use to describe Yeonsangun, but none of them will impress my family members who are probably reading this. I think my feelings towards Yeonsangun are universal, so you can probably imagine what words I would like to use while you read.
Let’s start with a deep breath.
The cruelty of Yeonsangun is commonly attributed to his mother. Yoon (폐비윤씨) was a low-ranking court woman and twelve years Seongjong’s senior. She was infamous for her bad temper and extreme jealousy and drowned herself in the role of Seongjong’s mother/lover figure. Yuck. She was, in fact, made Seongjong’s second Queen upon the death of his first wife. While she was pregnant, Seongjong refrained from sexual intercourse with her (as per Joseon etiquette rules). Instead, he partied with some concubines who also become pregnant. From this point, Yoon went off the rails. She was known for vicious fights with Seongjong, heavy drinking, and interference in court politics. Unsurprisingly, Seongjong divorced her, removing her title as Queen. This was the first royal divorce in Joseon history and naturally a huge, fat scandal. We love a good scandal.
But Yoon wasn’t quite finished. She was still sneaking around the palace, lacing the persimmons of concubines with poison. Naturally. Seongjong grew worried that she would try to poison him too (I’m sure she was planning it). Everything was taken another step further when she hired a shaman and started to practice witchcraft, which she planned to use to torture the man who had broken her heart and prevent his concubines from having sons. I wish I was making this up. But I also don’t. Because this is so much fun to write about.
Things get crazier when the tables are flipped and Seongjong orders HER to be poisoned. This woman knew she was dying and penned a letter on a handkerchief in her own blood, asking her son to avenge her if he ever got the note. I’m holding my breath right now – you don’t even understand.
After Seongjong was long dead and gone, the letter was received by her heartbroken son…
… and the rest was history.
At the start of his reign, Yeongsangun wasn’t actually so bad. He supported the poor and strengthened national defense. But then, he murdered one of his tutors. Let the wild streak begin. When a group of
Sarim officials tried to stop him from restoring his mother’s titles, so he immediately sought ways to execute them all. In 1498, Kim Il Son (김일손), a disciple of Kim Jong-jik (김종직), included a paragraph in the royal record that was critical of King Sejo’s usurpation of the throne… Probably not a good idea. Kim Il-son and other followers of Kim Jong-jik were accused of treason and Yeongsangun went and cut the head off of Kim Jong-jik’s already dead body. Yes, they dug him up and cut off his head. This came to be known as the First Literati Purge (무오사화).
It was only after all of this that he found out about his mother’s poisoning – let that sink in. After the discovery, he beat two of his father’s concubines (Jeong Gwi-in 정귀인 and Eom 엄) to death. He then pushed his grandmother, Grand Queen Insu, during a fight that killed her. This was followed by the killing of anyone who supported the execution of his mother while he simultaneously ordered another grave, that of official Han Myeong-hoi (한명회), to be dug off and have the head cut off. He then just killed a bunch of people who were working for Seongjong at the time of his mother’s death because they did nothing to stop it. This was the Second Literati Purge (갑자사화).
I forgot to breathe again.
Okay, back to the story.
Perhaps the most famous of all of Yeongsangun’s historical choices are his transformations of learning into places of debauchery. Yeonsangun closed Sungkyunkwan (성균관), the royal university, as well as the Wongaksa Temple (원각사), to be converted into personal pleasure grounds. It was here that young girls and horses were gathered from the whole of the Korean Peninsula. He destroyed a huge residential area in Hanyang and evicted 20,000 residents just to build hunting grounds. He also forced people into involuntary labor, causing many commoners to create posters mocking him in Hangeul. So, what did he do? He banned hangeul. Of course.
Naturally, some people were fed up with him. Very much like a dunce cap, he ordered ministers to wear a sign that read: “A mouth is a door that brings in disaster; a tongue is a sword that cuts off a head. A body will be in peace as long as its mouth is closed and its tongue is deep within”. When the chief eunuch, who had served three kings, urged Yeonsangun to stop his tomfoolery, Yeonsangun killed him with a bunch of arrows and personally cut off his limbs. Then he punished his family relatives to the seventh degree. I’m actually laughing as I type this because I’m so done with this guy.
Oh, wait, before I forget – he also exiled a minister of rites for spilling a drink.
Park Won-jong (박원종), Seong Hui-ahn (성희안), Yoo Soon-jeong (유순정), and Hong Gyeong-ju (홍경주) plotted against the despotic king alongside others. After Yeonsangun was captured, he was demoted to Prince (seems a bit nice, tbh) and sent into exile on Ganghwa Island (강화도). Thankfully, he died after a few weeks. His consort and right-hand lady, Jang Nok-su (장녹수), was beheaded. Yeonsangun’s four young sons were also forced into suicide only a few weeks later. That part does make me a bit sad. But I’m just glad this story is finished.
Monarch ruling: -90000/5 – He wasn’t even given a posthumous title.
11. Jungjong 중종 中宗
(Yi Yeok 이역 李懌)
Dates: 16 April 1488 – 29 November 1544
You might be wondering how Jungjong took the throne from Yeonsangun. He was actually his half-brother, and I’m pleased to say that he had his head tied on a bit tighter. Jungjong’s history as king is yet another rollercoaster ride, but there are some very important details to come out of his story.
Jungjong spent much of his early years as king righting the wrongs of his half-brother. He did so with the help of many Neo-Confucian liberal officials. Due to their power in Jungjong’s court, many new reforms were put into place. The liberal and conservative Confucian politicians were constantly pitted against one another, weakening the strength of the Yi family and the foundations of the dynasty more generally. This is what is known as the Third Literati Purge (기묘사화).
Due to such a disastrous start, Jugnjong never had a proper chance of ruling on his own accord. Many officials were displaced and replaced, and the support given by his queens and concubines was always in flux. In 1524, the conservative factions collided with each other, deposing the corrupt official Kim Anro (김안로). Kim’s followers took their revenge by executing one of the King’s concubines, Lady Park. Kim eventually came back to power but was removed from government, and finally executed by the queen’s brothers, Yun Wonro (윤원로) and Yun Wonhyeong (윤원형). However, Yun Im (윤임), an ally of Kim, was able to keep his nephew as Crown Prince, since Queen Munjeong (문정왕후) didn’t have a son.
Well, eventually she did. And when he was declared the new Crown Prince, each group developed into separate political factions known as the “Greater Yun” (대윤) and the “Smaller Yun” (소윤). Talk about family drama. Now your Thanksgiving dinner table is looking a bit cozier, eh?
Through all this internal struggle, external powers were gaining an upper hand too. Japanese pirates were plundering the southern coasts while the Jurchens were moving in from the north. By the time Jungong realized the importance of the military, many of the country’s resources had already been depleted.
It makes me sad to say it, but… Jungjong never really got the chance to shine. He was a little star, all burnt out. Despite being a generous and good leader, the power struggles among the officials weakened the court far too much.
That being said.
There is one legacy that will make Jungjong go down as a memorable figure in Korean history. Jungjong is famous for appointing Jang Geum (장금) as one of his personal doctors – a woman. Never before had a woman become a royal physician, and sadly there was never one again. One of the most famous Korean dramas of all time focuses on her, but please note that it isn’t historically accurate and we actually have very little information on who Jang Geum was.
Monarch Rating: 2.5/5 – I can’t really give him a higher score than this because he wasn’t actually able to meet his goals. That being said, I liked his planned goals, and we love to see that recognition of female intelligence *overhead clap*. Jungjong, I’m gonna raise my shot to you the next time I’m in the club.
12. Injong 인종 仁宗
(Yi Ho 이호 李峼)
Dates: 10 March 1515 – 8 August 1545
Injong had a lot to take on when ascending the throne. Luckily, he was ready for it and stepped into his position with ambitious goals to dispose of corrupt officials and establish reforms that his father had worked tirelessly on! Yeah! Goals!
But as is the case with many kings of Joseon, Injong’s failing health held him back… and made room for his headstrong uncle, Yun Im. Some historians believe that Injong may have been – wait for it – poisoned by the Smaller Yun faction in an effort to push his half-brother to the throne (oh, the gossip). In an unofficial history, it is said that Queen Munjeong began to warm to the boy king just before his death after years of dismissal. Although her son was made the next king and her Queen Regent, reports that she was plagued with nightmares and hallucinations long after Injong’s death demonstrate that Injong was a dashing boy who could warm even the coldest of hearts.
Monarch Rating: 2.5/5 – I find the death of Injong to be a truly sorrowful tale in Korean history. It’s been hard to find a decent person in the rankings up until this point. Let my rating be controversial considering he only reigned for one year before his death; I stand by my score! *smacks table*
13. Myeongjong 명정 明宗
(Yi Hwan 이환 李峘)
Dates: 3 July 1534 – 3 August 1567
Myeongjong was the half-brother of Injong. However, he was too young to rule and his aforementioned mother, Queen Munjeong, served as Queen Regent.
Myeongjong is perhaps most famous for the resurgence of Buddhism under his reign. His mother ordered the rebuilding of Bongeunsa Temple (봉은사) and set about reinstating an official system for selecting and training monks.
We’ve talked a bit about the two Yun factions before, and things continued to remain tense under Myeongjong. After the death of Injong, the Smaller Yun replaced the Greater Yun as the majority and brutally ousted their adversaries in the Fourth Literati Purge (사화). Yun Won-Hyung of the Smaller Yun impeached his older brother, Yun Won-Ro, and had him executed along with his supporters. Facing no opposition from the government, Yun Won-Hyung became Minister of the Interior, Vice Premier, and ultimately Prime Minister. Despite his violent rise to power and later violent rule, Queen Munjeong was able to continue her reign effectively. She actively worked to distribute noble land back to the common population alongside the previously mentioned Buddhist reforms. Thankfully, Myeongjong was able to recognize her strength and follow in her footsteps rather than those of his uncle, Yun Won-Hyung.
After the death of the Queen, Myeongjong stepped into power. He immediately had his uncle executed. Solid move. The rising threats from Jurchens, Japanese pirates, and domestic rebellious troops that had been ignored by his uncle were dealt with swiftly. As Myeongjong was setting about to mobilize the Joseon military, he died only two years later without an heir.
And once again, one of the good ones left us too soon.
Monarch Rating: 3/5 – Although he only reigned for two years, Myeongjong demonstrated great leadership and moral skills during his time. Following the wisdom of his mother, he was moving his country in the right direction before it all ended a bit too soon.
14. Seonjo 선조 宣祖
(Yi Yeon 이연)
Dates: 26 November 1552 – 16 March 1608
Welp. I suppose you could have guessed by now that we couldn’t have three likable kings in a row, hm? You were, unfortunately, correct. Let’s get into the tangled web of Seonjo’s life story, in what is essentially a temple-rubbing headache of a tale.
Considering Myeongjong had no male heir, Seonjo was relatively unknown in the political sphere. Despite this, he seemed to make a positive impact during his first few years as King. He was very devoted to improving the lives of commoners and continued to fix many of the reforms that had undergone damage (no thanks to Yeonsangun). He also worked tirelessly to reform the corruption of the palace as well as to restore the titles of wrongly executed Confucian scholars.
Where did it all go wrong?
The scholars that Seonjo had called to office, naturally, split into two factions: Sim (심) and Kim (김). They even divided the land of Hanyang among them with the Sim living on the western side of the city and the Kim in the east. These two factions, known later as the Western (서인) and Eastern (동인) factions, would cause so much bloody (literally) drama that they would eventually play a key role in the entire collapse of Joseon.
Disagreements among the Easterners caused them to break off into two more separate groups: the Southerners (남인) and the Northerners (북인). Considering the military was a large conversation in politics at the time, the division of these groups was causing a headache of internal disagreements and reform progress was painfully slow. The size of the military was shrinking further and further, while outside threats were gaining in on the peninsula.
If you’re familiar with Korean history, check the dates of Seonjo’s reign one more time. You might realize that this was when the Japanese Invasions of Korea (임진왜한, 1592-98) and the foundation of the Qing Dynasty led to mass devastation in Joseon. The unification of the Japanese states under Toyotomi Hideyoshi made Seonjo fear greatly that Japan would take control of Joseon – and he had a right to be worried. Upon the realization that the loss of his kingdom was a very real possibility, Seonjo sent many commanders to the country’s borders. But the political strife among the factions remained, and the influential Eastern faction ultimately encouraged Seonjo not to prepare for war. I also just want to point out that Seonjo had literally received a letter from Hideyoshi saying he wanted to control all of Asia and this man did nothing.
I’m not going to get into the details of the Japanese Invasions of Korea because that will be what is essentially another article within an article. You can check out my Admiral Yi Sun Sin tour, the most famous general in Korean history who served during these invasions.
The war saw an end in 1598 without the capture of Joseon. That being said, neither party really won, as Joseon was nearly destroyed in the process. And what’s worse, despite the country needing major renovations, the factions continued to disagree, leaving their homeland in a state of ruin for far too long. Seonjo, tired and defeated, abdicated the throne to Crown Prince Gwanghaegun, and died shortly thereafter. He left behind a damaged country, a broken political system, an exhausted population, and an open doorway for more foreign threats.
Monarch Rating: 1.5/5 – You really let poop hit the fan, mate. At least you tried at the beginning?
15. Gwanghaegun 광해군 光海君
(Yi Hon 이혼 李琿)
Dates: 4 June 1575 – 7 August 1641
Reign: 17 March 1608 – 13 April 1623
You probably noticed already by his name, but Gwanghaegun never received a temple name. Thus, we know we’re in for a bumpy ride.
Interestingly, during the Japanese Invasions, Gwanghaegun was actually a strong leader. He acted as the de facto ruler of Joseon by commanding battles and leading the way in restructuring the country after the devastation of war as his father grew weaker. Like most moments in history, a great man is often met with opposition and the slippery eels began to rise to the surface.
The Lesser Northerner faction did not want Gwanghaegun on the throne, preferring his younger brother, Prince Yeongchang (영창대군). They even went as far as to try and hide the official report of Seonjo that named Gwanghaegun his successor and were eventually discovered and executed.
Similar to his father, Gwanghaegun tried to repair the damaged Joseon court. The strength of the factions was far too strong, and his efforts were met with retaliation.
All of this naturally led to a poor reputation after his death. The reputation seems to remain to this day, considering he never received a temple name. However, if we look closely at what he was able to achieve, we can spot signs of an apt ruler. He endeavored to restore the country and the documents that were lost during the wars. He also revised the land ordinance and redistributed land to the people while simultaneously ordering the rebuilding of Changdeokgung Palace, along with several other palaces that had been destroyed by the Japanese. Additionally, he was responsible for the reintroduction of the hopae identification system after a long period of disuse to help keep track of the population.
What’s more, Gwanghaegun was intelligent enough to see that Joseon was unable to fight against the Qing Manchus, and instead began a friendly relationship with them. He continued to nurture the kingdom’s relationship with the Ming too, keeping both Chinese states friendly with his nation. As the situation in China grew worse, the Prince eventually sent troops to aid the Ming. After the Manchus seized power, Gwanghaegun was still able to sweet-talk his way with the Qing and avoid a war.
Oh, we’re not done flattering this man yet.
He also restored diplomatic relations with Japan only eleven years after they had all but decimated his kingdom. This allowed Joseon to reopen trade with Japan and initiate the trade of ambassadors between the two kingdoms. That is, what I would call, a huge success.
Sadly, Gwanghaegun was deposed in a coup led by the Westerner faction. He was first confined on Ganghwa Island and later moved to Jeju Island (제주도) where he died a year later. Thankfully, in today’s history, Gwanghaegun is remembered as a wise and capable ruler rather than a despot.
As editor and scholar Jihoon Suk points out: “Gwanghae was not a tyrant by any means, but he was considered as a failure. He was constantly called as “Hongun 혼군 混君” throughout the rest of Joseon era, literally “the confused prince”. His family trouble – murdering his half-brother and imprisoning his stepmother – was criticized heavily. Not to mention, his lavish spending of rebuilding palaces (Changdeokgung) and building two new palaces (Gyeonghuigung and Ingyeonggung) gave huge blow to the already depleting national economy.”
Monarch Rating: 3.5/5 – Wow. Even I’m surprised by my own rating. I mean, this guy really made some huge changes in a time when politics were disgustingly out of control. It’s really a shame that he has no royal mausoleum or temple name, but at least his memory is positive in the mind of modern Koreans.
Before we leave Gwanghaegun, I want to bring up something kind of fun. During Gwanghaegun’s time on the throne, there was no entry in the records for 15 consecutive days. The words “secrets should not be recorded” were jotted down in Gwanghaegun’s journal – a very unusual choice considering Confucian ethics supported the notation of all occurrences, good or bad, for future generations. That being said, these empty pages led a creative film director to fill in the gaps. If you haven’t seen the Korean film “Gwanghae”, I strongly recommend it. The storyline is essentially this: King Gwanghaegun finds someone to pose as him following a series of assassination threats. Ha-seon, the man chosen to play the part, becomes genuinely concerned for the people and leads the country with a tight grip for 15 days.
16. Injo 인조 仁祖
(Yi Jong 이종 李倧)
Dates: 7 December 1595 – 17 June 1649
Reign: 11 April 1623 – 17 June 1649
At this point in Korean history, the man on the throne was king by title but little else. When Injo took the throne in 1623, nearly all of the country’s power lay in the hands of the Westerner faction. The rest of Injo’s story doesn’t get much better from here.
Many of you might recognize Injo from the film “The Fortress” (남한산성). I was lucky enough to go to the premiere and the actors did an outstanding job in their roles. That being said, if you have seen this film, then you’ll remember Injo as the king who went to war with the Manchus. His struggles, in fact, began much earlier.
Remember this name: Yi Gwal (이괄). Yi was a prominent general but believed he was being treated unfairly as he was sent to the northern borders to fight off the incoming Manchus. In a rebellion against Injo, Yi Gwal gathered 12,000 (interestingly enough alongside 100 Japanese) troops to storm the capital. Fearful for his life, Injo fled to the Gongju (공주) as the capital city was left to fall to ruins. I guess Yi Gwal somehow thought this made him in charge (?), as he announced Prince Heungan (흥안군) as the new king. Naturally, Injo and his men were not a fan, and returned to the capital to squash the rebellion. Before anyone could have their sweet justice, Yi Gwal was murdered by his bodyguard.
Despite Injo remaining on the throne, the country was now in ruins. Not only was the capital destroyed, but the economy (which had just started to recuperate from Yeonsangun) was in such disarray that it would take centuries to recover. Trust in Injo and the royal court was lost. As tragic of a time it was for Joseon, things were looking bright for the Manchus.
Here’s another important name to remember: Gang Hong-rip (강홍립). Gang was a commander-in-chief who was living amongst the Manchus due to his skill with the language (he was also basically held hostage, so, there’s that). Knowing that the Manchus were gaining some traction in the battle to enter Joseon’s borders, Yi Gwal’s men told Gang that Injo had murdered his entire family. Infuriated and turning his back on his own kingdom, Gang encouraged the Manchus to invade Joseon. 30,000 soldiers stormed the capital (with Injo fleeing to Ganghwa Island, if you didn’t think he was chicken enough already). Gang managed to make a truce with Joseon upon the realization that his family had in fact not been murdered, but was labeled a traitor, stripped of his titles, and essentially died of a broken heart.
Not really believing Joseon was worth capturing (ouch), the Manchus returned to China to finish their fight against the Ming. It was only after their victory that they returned to the peninsula as the Qing Dynasty. 20,000 Manchurians arrived in the capital city before Injo managed to run away again, although he did make it as far as Namhansanseong Fortress – just east of the city. Trapped in the fortress in the dead of winter, Injo had no supply lines and very few soldiers. Any access to the city was cut off by the settling Manchu soldiers. Eventually, Injo agreed to a treaty, to which Injo was forced to bow to the Qing Emperor nine times as a servant. His first and second sons, Crown Prince Sohyeon (소현세자) and the later King Hyojong, were sent to Qing as hostages. This was the start of Joseon’s history as a vassal kingdom of the Qing Dynasty.
Monarch rating: 0.5/5 – You done messed up, son. There’s something even more disturbing about Injo that makes me hate his guts, but I’ll get to that with the next king.
17. Hyojong 효종 孝宗
(Yi Ho 이호 李淏)
Dates: 3 July 1619 – 23 June 1659
There is some happy news in this grand ol’ tale of misery (not for long, of course). Let’s see what Injo’s son did when he made his way to the throne.
As a captive in China, Hyojong was often used by the Qing generals as a sacrificial leader in the remaining battles of the Ming. Hyojong wasn’t actually next in line to the throne, and greatly worried about the safety of his older brother, who had very little military experience. Hyojong often took his brother’s place and followed behind him during battles against the Uyghurs on the western front.
Interestingly, Hyojong came into contact with Europeans during his stay in China. These meetings greatly inspired him and started his dreams of a more technological and scientific future for Joseon. He also believed in strengthening the country’s political parties and military power.
It wasn’t only Hyojong who was inspired by the Europeans and the Qing political structure, but his elder brother. Upon returning to Joseon to take his place as king, Sohyeon was met with an aggravated father. Injo was not happy with his son’s enthusiasm toward the Qing diplomatic structure. Sohyeon was sadly found dead in his father’s room and given a quick, brief funeral. When Sohyeon’s wife went to Injo to ask questions, she was also found dead. Legends say that Injo killed his son by hitting him over the head with an inkstone that he had brought from Qing as a gift. If you felt any sympathy for Injo before this, I hope it’s all gone now.
Following Injo’s death, Hyojong was placed on the throne. Hyojong immediately began to reform and expand the military, removing corrupt officials in the process. During this reformation, he oversaw the building of several border fortresses.
When Dutch sailors accidentally drifted onto Jeju Island from Taiwan, Hyojong ordered them to build muskets for his army. It was the first time Korea had muskets following the Imjin War, where many had been destroyed.
Although Joseon remained a vassal state of Qing, the Empire began to look at Joseon with more respect. Rather than simply invading the country, they considered Joseon their closest ally. They even engaged Joseon soldiers in battles against the Russians on multiple occasions, which they actually won! The strangest thing? Despite the battles, Joseon even remained on good terms with Russia. What a legend.
On top of these accomplishments, Hyojong oversaw the publication of many agricultural books that had been destroyed during the Imjin War. Although he struggled to support the economy alongside the growth of the military, he was able to create more coins (sacrificing metal that could have been used for ammunitions) to help grow his country in the best way he knew how.
The most tragic part (because of course there is one) is that Hyojong struggled with stress his entire life. I imagine knowing your beloved brother was murdered by your father – and that was why you were on the throne – didn’t help. He died at the early age of 40, but remains in our memories as one of the bravest and most noble rulers of the Joseon Dynasty.
Monarch Ruling: 4/5 – We love you, Hyojong!
18. Hyeonjong 현종 顯宗
(Yi Yeon 이연 李棩)
Dates: 14 March 1641 – 17 September 1674
Hyeonjong was born in the Manchu capital and returned to Joseon when his father became king. The loss of Hyojong saw familiar outbreaks against the political factions (yes, those old guys), and Hyeonjong’s reign was sadly tainted by political turmoil. Things were tense from the beginning through a debate over Hyojong’s funeral.
The Westerners and Southerners began a wild debate about how long a mourning period should be based on Confucian principles. The Westerners were pushing for one year while the Southerners kept pushing three. Hyeonjong eventually enforced a one-year mourning period, helping to keep the Westerners as a major faction and gain their support. The issue was resolved and there was a momentary period of peace – until Hyeonjong’s mother passed – and the issue was brought up again. Like a seesaw, Hyeonjong supported the Southerners this time around. Thought it was bad enough? This argument went on even after Hyeonjong’s death. Talk about holding a grudge.
Several key things happened during Hyeonjong’s reign. Firstly, one of the Dutchmen (Hendrick Hamel) that had washed up on Jeju Island returned to the Netherlands and wrote about his life in Joseon (he actually stayed for fourteen years!). This was the first time the kingdom was made known to many Europeans. Hyeonjong also encouraged the development of astronomy and printing, following in his father’s footsteps. Interestingly, he banned marriages between relatives and those sharing the same surname.
Monarch Rating: 3/5 – For a Joseon King to not somehow screw up the kingdom at this point in history is sort of a miracle.
19. Sukjong 숙종 肅宗
(Yi Sun 이순 李焞)
Dates: 7 October 1661 – 12 July 1720
We’ve hit a good stride in our list of monarchs and it only continues with Sukjong. Let’s see what made this King so respected.
Sukjong took his place as ruler of Joseon at the age of 14. As he grew up, he was nothing less than a brilliant politician. Although the regional strife continued during his reign, Sukjong managed to rule peacefully for nearly fifty years. One of his greatest accomplishments is his close work with the Qing to define borders between the two kingdoms.
If you’re familiar with Sukjong, there’s a very high chance you’ve heard of Queen Inhyeon (인현). Queen Inhyeon was Sukjong’s second queen and one of the best-known queens in Korean history. When the King’s concubine, Lady Chang, produced a son in 1688, a tense dispute called Gi-sa Hwanguk (기사환국) broke out. The King wanted to give his eldest son the title of Crown Prince and promote Lady Chang to his highest concubine in the process. This was strongly opposed by the Westerners, of which Queen Inhyeon hailed. Angry at their opposition, Sukjong had many Westerners killed and forced Queen Inhyeon and her family into exile. Lady Chang then became the Queen.
By 1694, the King was incredibly remorseful and reinstated Queen Inhyeon. She returned to the palace, obtaining her former title and position on the throne. The romance was short-lived, as Inhyeon died only six years later at the age of 35 from an unknown disease. Despite Lady Chang being demoted, it has been said that she even called for a shamanist priest to come to the palace in an attempt to heal Inhyeon. Sadly for her, Lady Chang was then executed by Sukjong. Does the story have a happy ending? Sukjong and Inhyeon are buried near one another now and there are countless songs, dramas, films, and books written about their love (can we call it love?) story.
Monarch Rating: 3.5/5 – In terms of ruling, Sukjong was truly a great King. However, his decisions in his personal life make me question him as a person in general.
20. Gyeongjong 경종 景宗
(Yi Yun 이윤 李昀)
Dates: 20 November 1688 – 11 October 1724
Gyeongjong’s reign was short-lived, as he was plagued by ill health for nearly all of his life. Upon taking the throne at the age of 31, he showed signs that he was unfit to rule. After only two months of his enthronement, he was aided by his half-brother, the future King Yeongjo, to handle state affairs.
Many have blamed Gyeongjong’s ill health on his mother. His mother had been sentenced to death and had begged to see her son before her forced poisoning. It’s said that when she was running to him, she tripped and hit his lower abdomen, sterilizing him and causing further health issues in the process. It’s stories like this one that make me thankful I was born in this century.
During Gyeongjong’s brief four years as king, numerous political strifes broke out. Two are worth mentioning. The first is called Sinchuk-oksa (신축옥사), in which the ruling political party (Soron, 소론) swept the opposition party (Noron, 노론) that insisted the Crown Prince handle state affairs instead of the King. The other is Imin-oksa (임인옥사), which followed similar outbreak reasons. These political parties never know when to just cool off.
Not all is bad, though. Gyeongjong was able to produce small guns and reform land measurement systems during his reign. Huzz…ah?
Monarch Rating: 1.5/5 – He never really got a chance, but it was noble of him to work closely with his brother.
21. Yeongjo 영조 英祖
(Yi Geum 이금 養性軒)
Dates: 31 October 1694 – 22 April 1776
Reign: 16 October 1724 – 22 April 1776
YES! We’re finally here! Oh, how I’ve been waiting for these next two Kings. If you thought some of the previous stuff was juicy, buckle in for a crazy ride (although nobody can ever be juicier than Yeonsangeun – and not in a good way).
Firstly, Yeonjo had a long rule. His rule last for 52 years and mostly centered around tax reformations, pushing the Confucian agenda, calming down the faction fighting drama, and… the murder of his son. We’ll get to that in a moment.
Yeongjo was a deeply Confucian man. He lived, breathed, and slept those Confucian ethics. While the king was always expected to know his classics, it was rare for a king’s knowledge to surpass that of his officials. And yet it was said that Yeongjo was the exception. He was able to use his knowledge to greatly improve the economy as well, labeling his rule as one of the best in Joseon.
What’s more, he cared deeply for his people. He wrote about his fears for farmers when droughts and floods rolled in, even going as far as to reduce taxes and cut back on his own meals during times of hardship. Valuing his own intelligence, he wanted his people to experience academia as well. He published and sent out numerous texts written in Hangeul for the public’s easy reading, including books on agriculture. With the boosting of the economy, the mercantile class practically exploded. Regardless of status, everyone from the yangban to the commoner class was engaged in merchant activities. Goods, trinkets, and handicrafts were for sale all over the capital city, and former restrictions on horsehair hats for only the yangban virtually disappeared. Even the printing industry flourished, leading to the production of novels and poetry. Topics of satire and political criticism were hot, and the famous tale of Chunhyang (춘향) was widely read in favor of the story’s commentary on the snobbery of the government officials.
And here comes the controversy. Yeongjo’s son, Crown Prince Sado (사도), suffered from many mental illnesses following the deaths of Yeongjo’s first wife and grandmother. As a way to release his frustration and heartbreak, he began to beat his eunuchs. After severing the head of one eunuch, he forced his wife and her court ladies to view it. Following this newfound aggression, he lashed out against nearly everyone in the palace, including the rape of many court women. Although Lady Hyegyeong (혜경궁 풍산 홍씨, Sado’s wife), spoke to Sado’s mother (Royal Noble Consort Yeongbin Yi, 영빈 전의 이씨), she begged her to stay quiet out of fear for her own life.
Sado continued to struggle. Developing a strong fear of the Thunder God, Sado developed a secondary fear of clothing. It became so problematic, that there were some days he burned his clothes, or walked around his quarters naked in a refusal to get dressed. Sado attempted to drown himself by jumping down a well. After he was safely rescued, Sado lashed out against his own family, beating his mother and three children. It was said that he was never as violent towards Lady Hyegyeong as other women, but he once threw a Go board at her face so hard that she had to stay hidden from court to hide the bruises.
The beginning of the end began when Sado killed his secondary consort, Park Bing-ae (빙애/경빈 박씨), in a fit of rage. He left her on the floor to die of her injuries. Lady Hyegyeong prepared her funeral, but upon discussing the matter with Sado, he said nothing about the incident. Sado’s violent actions eventually appeared in court, where he began to beat an official. Seething with more anger, he said he was going to kill the official’s son next, sneaking out of the palace through a water passage. Rumors began to circulate that Sado was actually sneaking around to try and kill Yeongjo.
You can see where the story is heading.
According to court rules and Confucian ethics, a royal body could not be defiled. It was even more sinful to be defiled by one’s own family. Thus, Yeongjo ordered Sado to climb into a rice chest measuring roughly 4 square feet. It was the middle of July in the scorching heat. After two days locked inside the chest, Yeongjo had it wrapped tightly in rope, covered with grass, and moved to the upper palace. Sado continued to cry out until the night of the seventh day. On the morning of the eighth day, the chest was opened, and he was pronounced dead.
Heartbroken by the loss of his son, not only physically but in mind, Yeongjo restored his title to Crown Prince and renamed him Sado, which translates to “thinking of with great sorrow”. You can read more about Sado through the memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong. I also recommend the film “The Throne”, starring Yoo Ah-In (유아인) as Sado (what an incredible performance) and the beloved Song Kang-ho (송강호) as Yeongjo.
Monarch Ruling: 4/5 – This is a truly tough one. While the story of Sado is nothing less than heartbreaking, Yeongjo pushed Joseon in a new, fruitful direction. When you watch K-dramas and enjoy the scenes of the merchants, novel-reading, and vibrant life outside of the palace, much of that came under Yeongjo’s rule.
22. Jeongjo 정조 正祖
(Yi San 이산 弘齋)
Dates: 28 October 1752 – 18 August 1800
Reign: 27 April 1776 – 18 August 1800
Jeongjo. The filial son. Although many people scoff when I say Jeongjo is one of the most interesting kings, I stand by my opinion. Let’s dive into why I’m so fascinated by this man, and what he thought about the murder of his father by his grandfather (that little thing).
Things were not easy from a young age for Jeongjo. Labeled as the “son of a murderer” or “son of a psychopath”, he struggled to be accepted into adoption by other members of the royal family. Several members of the Noron faction even tried to dispose of Jeongjo because of his heritage, aiming to replace him with one of his half-brothers. When Jeongjo became Crown Prince, seeking allies was also difficult, as many of them supported his rise to the throne out of their own desire for power. While Yeongjo did ultimately keep Jeongjo on the throne, he limited his military power to calm the apprehension among political parties.
Want to know one reason (among many) that I like Jeongjo? The first thing he supposedly said as King, sitting on his throne and looking down at all his slimy officials, was that he was the son of Jangjo who was murdered by the former King. Despite this strong proclamation, it wasn’t a threat or warning. It did, however, set Jeonjo up as a sentimental ruler.
That sentiment trickled down to his people. During times of drought, Jeongjo held rainmaking rituals and kept track of the rainfall and taxes. Furthermore, he continued his father’s work to try and limit the power struggle of the political parties. Knowing that he had many enemies in the court as the son of Sado, he also saw for the removal of oppositional parties or those who played a first-hand role in the death of his father.
It should be noted that Jeongjo did not respect the actions of his father. He also did not outwardly condemn his grandfather for killing Sado. He recognized the situation for what it was, and following in his grandfather’s footsteps as a strong supporter of Confucianism, aimed to keep the memory of his father alive. To do so, he moved the court closer to Suwon where his father’s grave lay. He ordered for the construction of the Suwon Fortress as a filial monument (which is now a lovely UNESCO heritage trail that takes a few hours to walk – I highly recommend it!).
Aside from his filial piety, Jeongjo was a Renaissance man. Most notable was the construction of Gyujangjak (규장작), a royal library dedicated to improving the cultural and political stance of Joseon. He opened up government positions to those who had formerly never had the opportunity to participate in the tests. He furthered and encouraged the spread of Joseon’s popular culture through novels, music, and art. Despite all this, he was still a Confucian leader and tried to keep modern stylings of hangeul that ran through the public out of the royal court. To do so, he personally taught intellectuals and bureaucrats composition. Can you imagine taking lessons from the King himself?
Jeongjo had a strong rule but it was sadly cut short when he died at the age of 47. Despite his early death, Jeongjo’s memory lives on through his numerous on-screen adaptions in Korean film and television.
Monarch Rule: 4/5 – In terms of his reign, Jeongjo’s time was indeed too short. He is certainly a romantic figure in Korean history, and we love him for his patronage of the arts, filial piety to both his father and grandfather, and constant good looks in film adaptations (ayyyyeeee).
23. Sunjo 순조 純祖
(Yi Gong 이공 李玜)
Dates: 29 July 1790 – 13 December 1834
Sunjo was 10 years old when his father died and made him heir. Despite Sunjo’s attempt to rule behind Queen Dowager Jeongsun (정순왕후), his efforts… well, they failed. State examinations became corrupt and disorderly, corruption in the government grew like wildfire following the tight reigns of Yeongjo and Jeongjo, and violent riots broke out among the people.
As Joseon moved forward into an increasingly globalized world, Roman Catholicism began to gain ground in Joseon. Violent oppression against Catholics in Korea was carried out during this time. You can learn more about Korea’s first cathedral here, or the visit the execution grounds in what I deem one of Seoul’s greatest hidden gems.
One of the most memorable decisions of Sunjo was the abolishment of slavery. Perceptions of slavery and the mistreatment of the common class continued to change until 1801, when 66,000 slave records were burned under the mission of Sunjo. He believed that the grievances of slaves had reached the heavens and that the abolishment of slavery was necessary to maintain harmony. However, it wasn’t until 1886 that the final surviving form of slavery was officially abolished.
Although Sunjo reigned for a whopping 35 years, little seemed to come from his rule. Although the discussion to abolish slavery in the kingdom was indeed a powerful turning point, much of Sunjo’s reign was marked by a rocky political climate. For all the years he reigned, there seems to be a widespread lack of interest in Sunjo. Interestingly, he’s only ever been portrayed once in television or film, in one of my favorite Korean dramas called “Moonlight Drawn by Clouds”.
Monarch Ruling: 2/5 – We have to recognize the fact that he started what would eventually be the elimination of slavery, although I don’t believe it was out of personal sentiment for the people. That being said, the rest of his rule was plagued with so much drama (which we love, don’t get me wrong), that it’s hard to rate him much higher.
24. Heonjong 현종 憲宗
(Yi Hwan 이환 憲宗)
Dates: 8 September 1827 – 25 July 1849
Reign: 18 December 1834 – 25 July 1849
Stop. Before you read about King Heonjong, why don’t you read about his wonderful father, Crown Prince Hyomyeong?
Now that you’ve seen how wonderful his dad was, let’s compare.
Things were up with Heonjong before he was even born. His mom, Crown Princess Jo, had an e~e~r~i~e dream the day before he was born. She dreamt that she gave her son a box containing a tree carved with jade. On the day he was born, some cranes flew from the front room and went flying around for a long time. Everyone was freaking out. What could it mean? However, not having an answer, they just kept one brow raised.
Heonjong came to the throne at the age of seven while his grandmother Queen Sunwon (순원왕후) served as regent. Naturally, this child had no political power over Joseon. Turns out he didn’t really have any when he was an adult either because his grandma refused to give up her power.
Grandma Sunwon wasn’t messing around. She was coming down hard on Catholics. Her family, the Andong Kim clan, was rising like wildfire to power. Even though Heonjong was on the throne for fifteen years, he died when he was only twenty-one. He didn’t have an heir, so you could essentially argue that he… did nothing at all.
Monarch Rating: 0/5 – Cue spit take.
25. Cheoljong 철종 哲宗
(Yi Byeon 이변 李昪)
Dates: 25 July 1831 – 16 January 1864
Reign: 28 July 1849 – 16 January 1864
Cheoljong was a distant relative of the royal family, but as Heonjong had no heirs, he was selected as the next King of Joseon. Imagine it – you’re working as a farmer on Ganghwa Island when you’re called to Hanyang to become king (it really did happen like that).
Cheoljong came into power towards the end of Joseon. The political system was plagued by internal family struggles and the checks and balances required for the country to run smoothly were long past effective. It seems that despite the efforts of the following three kings, there was little to save Joseon from falling into Japanese hands. That being said, let’s began our final act of… Game of (Joseon) Thrones.
When Cheoljong was found on Ganghwa Island along with the other members of the Yi royal family, many were surprised to find them living in ruin and poverty. By this point, the political faction families held much more power than the royal Yi family. Where education was once highly praised, the situation of the royal family was now so pitiful, that Cheoljeong was illiterate at the age of 18. This of course made him an asset to the wicked families in Seoul, who wanted to use this to their advantage. We can see proof of this in the records on Cheoljong’s life, which state that even after 13 years of rule, he struggled to understand how to wear royal clothing or move with dignity.
The Andong Kim clan continued to gain power, convincing Cheoljong to marry one of their own, Queen Cheorin (철인왕후). Having little power and handing most of what was left to the Kims, Cheoljong turned to the age-old classics: women and wine. His health began to deteriorate quickly and he died at age 32 without a male heir.
You might be wondering about the local people at this time. The number of Christians was increasing dramatically, and Cheoljong was sympathetic; his mother had been a Christian. Opposition was relaxed during this time, and the Donghak Movement (동학 농민 운동) began to spread in rural areas. Donghak encouraged equality and fighting against a corrupt government. Naturally, the Kims were not a fan of this, and Donghak’s founder, Choe Je-u (최제우) was executed in 1863.
Monarch Rating: 0.5./5 – Nice of you to save some Christians. We like a bit of a softie here at Pinpoint Korea.
26. Gojong 고종 高宗
(Yi Myeong-bok 이명복 李命福)
Dates: 8 September 1852 – 21 January 1919
Reign: 20 July 1907 – 29 August 1910
Cheoljeong was left without a male heir, sending the royal court on another man-hunt for a distant relative of the Yi family line. Gojong was 12 when he came to the throne, entering at a turbulent time in Korean history. Gojong continues to be hated by many Korean people, although their reasoning might be a bit unwarranted. When looking back at the history of the Joseon kings, we can see that instability was rampant and the close-minded nature of politics was not something the shoulders of one man, Gojong, could bare. I’m going to take a slightly more sympathetic approach to the story of Gojong, so if you’re a massive hater, you may just want to move on.
It’s very important to know who Gojong’s father was when looking at his reign. Gojong was too young to rule when he came to the capital, putting his father – popularly known as Daewongun – on the throne. There’s a lot to be said about Daewongun (흥선대원군), but it’s key to note that he was strongly in favor of isolationism. As foreign countries gained in on Joseon, it was growing increasingly more difficult to maintain the status of Joseon as a hermit kingdom.
When Gojong became 21, many were displeased with Daewongun’s rule. Daewongun eventually relinquished his power (albeit bitterly), placing Gojong and his wife, Queen Min (click to discover our Queen Min Tour), in power. Interestingly enough, Daewongun had personally selected Queen Min (aka Empress Myeongseong 명성황후) to be Gojong’s bride – a decision he would find would later come back to bit him in the booty. Queen Min had been orphaned at a young age, which was attractive to Daewongun in that it would limit family strife within the palace. Daewongun believed that she would be easy to mold and manipulate, underestimating her intelligence, strength, and influence.
Gojong and Queen Min immediately set about a more open-door policy for the country, righting the wrongs that his father had established. Gojong signed a Treaty of Amity and Trade with the United States in 1882, hoping to gain protection from Japan, China, and Russia. Unfortunately, those efforts appeared futile as the powerhouses erupted into the Sino-Japanese War (1894-5) and the Russo-Japanese War (1905).
Following the assassination of Queen Min in 1895, Gojong fled in the early dawn to seek asylum at the Russian Embassy in Seoul. You can read more about this tragic experience and even walk in the footsteps of the King in our King’s Road Walking Tour. It was here that Gojong established Joseon as the Korean Empire in 1897, labeling him the country’s first Emperor. Gojong immediately set about improving domestic politics, particularly strengthening relations with China in an effort to push back Japan. He was successful at the start, but it was too late to keep the imperialists at bay.
Gojong then entered a series of treaties that were harmful to Korea, believing that it was better to risk two rivals dividing Korea between themselves (Russia and Japan). After the Russo-Japanese war and following the victory of Japan, there was little else Gojong could do. The Meiji Emperor forced Gojong to accept pro-Japanese advisors in court and to sign the Protectorate Treaty of 1905 that stripped Korea of its rights to an independent nation. In another effort to fight back, Gojong sent Korean representatives to the Hague Peace Convention of 1907 to try and gain international recognition of Korea’s situation. The Japanese were able to push the representatives out of the conference, but they were able to meet up with journalists to spread the word about Japan’s plans to dominate Asia. It did little good, as Japan was already far too powerful.
The Meiji Emperor forced Gojong to abdicate in favor of his son. Gojong continued to oppose and fight against the Japanese occupation of Korea until his death in 1919. The March 1st Independence Movement of the same year was planned for two days before his funeral. Although he was never able to see the uprising himself, I believe he knew that Korea would eventually regain its independence.
Monarch Rating: 2/5 – This might be the most difficult scoring yet. Gojong had many failures – the biggest of them all, really – and yet he was brought into the position with little education, little understanding of the royal court, and the weight of the world on his shoulders. He knew when to give up his authority to those who knew better – his father and his wife. Although many consider the king’s walk to the Russian embassy to be one of the most pathetic actions of a Joseon ruler, I’m not sure if I would have done any differently. Gojong continued, despite the death of his wife and the crumbling of his kingdom, to keep Korea independent. Yes, he failed. Yes, he might have been a wee bit pathetic at times (more than a wee bit), but I also can’t believe for a second that any of us can fathom the insane amount of pressure he obtained.
27. Sunjong 순종 純宗
(Yi Cheok 이척 李坧)
Dates: 25 March 1874 – 24 April 1926
Reign: 19 July 1907 – 29 August 1910
As we know, Sunjong replaced his father on the throne by way of the Meiji Emperor. Sunjong’s story is just about as sad as the rest of them, and it begins with his wife, Empress Sunmyeonghyo (순명효황후). Distraught after witnessing the assassination of her mother-in-law, the Empress died of severe depression that lasted nearly a decade. Sunjong did remarry, although his new wife was 20 years his junior. Now we’re deep into Game of Thrones cringe.
Sunjong was placed on the throne the same year and forced into the Japan-Korea Treaty of 1907. This essentially gave entire control of the Korean court over to the Japanese, allowing them to interfere in state decisions and to place their own ministers in power. The first decision of the Japanese government was to dismiss the Korean military with the excuse that there were no finances to support them. Two years later, Japan stripped away Korea’s judicial power. It was the following year that Korea was officially annexed, making the country a part of Japan that would last until the end of World War II (1910-1945).
During all of this, Sunjong continued to be King (not Emperor – that belonged to Japan) on paper. He and his wife were confined to the walls of Changdeokgung Palace until he died with no heir.
On August 29th, 1910, the 519-year reign of the Joseon dynasty came crumbling down. And that brings us to the conclusion of this epic saga.
Monarch Rating: 0/5 – I don’t need to explain myself.
Hungry for more?
Although we took a look at the 27 Kings of Joseon, there is a reported ‘forgotten’ 28th King. You can read more about him here. Additionally, there were Crown Princes of Joseon who were labeled honorary kings after they died. There’s plenty more research to be done, and you can spend hours going down a rabbit hole on this topic. Some of you have asked me to write an article about every Joseon Queen, but I beg you to understand that kings had more than one wife, and that would probably take me a good portion of my year. However, I do hope to publish an article soon about Joseon’s most influential queens, so make sure you stick around both here and on my social media pages.
I hope you were able to learn something new and that you enjoyed my lighter approach to Korean history. Leave a comment below and let me know if you disagree with any of my ratings, or just let me know who your favorite Joseon king was!