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Joseon Dynasty

Joseon Dynasty
Korean Name
Revised Romanization Joseon Wangjo
McCune-Reischauer Chosŏn Wangjo
Hangul 조선 왕조
Hanja 朝鮮王朝

The Joseon Dynasty was founded in 1392 by Korean general Yi Seonggye (Taejo), who overthrew the former kingdom of Goryeo and established the kingdom of Joseon in a coup d'état, simultaneously ending the period of Mongol domination that had begun in 1259. It is sometimes referred to as Yi Dynasty, Lee Dynasty, or Yi Joseon after its founder; this name, however, is not popular in Korea. Choson Dynasty is also sometimes used. The current head of the Korean Royal Family and the Chosun dynastic heir within Korea is His Imperial Highness the Crown Prince Yi Seok.


Overview of Joseon/Chosun history

The Joseon Dynasty began with an alliance with China to overthrow the Mongols and their superlative cavalry who had invaded Korea in 1231. The royal dynasty at the time, the Goryeo dynasty, after a good fight found refuge on Kanghwa island, near current day Seoul. Seoul at that time was a many-rivered city, with tributaries from the Han river, as the old maps indicate. The Mongols ruled Korea til 1392, when finally a brilliant tactical commander, Yi, Song-gye, Commandant General Yi, in a Chinese alliance under the Emperor's approval and logistics support, returned to storm the country and establish the Yi dynasty. For the purposes of this article, the Yi Dynasty and Joseon (Chosun) Dynasty are interchangeable.

As had occurred numerous times in China, the capital city under King Yi (Wong Yi) was moved to Hanyang-gun, Seoul on the mighty Han river. As was proper under the Confucian etiquette of that time, King Yi deferred in precedence and authority to the Chinese Emperors, and paid tribute: in return extensive trade began, China offered both support, training and protection when required; and the ginseng trade developed, as well as profitable exchanges in medicine, technology and science, and an entire Korean educated Confucian class developed with startling speed.

During the Joseon Dynasty, a centralized administrative system was installed and Confucianism adopted, with an attending new moral system established in Korea. The Joseon Dynasty also presided over two periods of great cultural growth, during which it developed the Joseon culture into a unique, graceful culture of a high standard.

Many Korean inventions are from this period, such as the first Oriental sun dial and the world's first water-powered clock. The metal printing press invented during the Goryeo dynasty spread to Japan and China, which previously used the wood-block printing press, during the Joseon Dynasty. In addition, the royal dynasty built several new fortresses, trading harbors, and beautiful palaces.

In 1592 and 1597 Korea was invaded by Japanese satraps and their troops in the Seven-Year War. These invasions were eventually thrown back in a series of naval battles with 1598 with Chinese help. During the war, Koreans developed powerful firearms and high-quality gunpowder, and the first cannon-bearing ironclad warships in world history. Following these events the kingdom became increasingly isolationist, as its rulers sought to cut off a great deal of contact with foreign countries during the Mongol invasion and vanquishing of the Ming Emperors, and the onslaught of the Manchu invaders who became the Chi'ing Dynasty Emperors. The Koreans, wisely, decided to build tighter borders, exert more controls over inter-border traffic, and wait out the initial turbulence of the Manchu overthrow of the Ming.

As trade continued globally, any assumption of Korea being isolated is an over-statement of the facts. Korea even as the so-called "hermit kingdom" has had extensive exchange with other countries, and extensive trade, however at times this has been extraordinarily limited.

China after the Ming dynasty collapsed falled into a foreign policy where the new Mongolian rulers, the Q'ing Dynasty emperors, decided to avoid the creation of foreign trading enclaves on Chinese soil in favour of keeping the traditional entrepot for the foreign hongs in Macau, which handled the tremendous trade in Chinese silks to Japan bringing in massive amounts of silver in return.

The decision being that foreign trade was relegated to the southern provinces, and the northern areas, which historically were the most unstable, were kept safe from the influence of foreigners, and the trade carefully regulated. This decision affected Korea as Korea historically was under the protection of China in the sense of being a "little brother" to the "elder brother" protection of the Emperor: the foreign policy of Korea was to a large extent regulated by China, and so was the foreign trade.

Foreign trade restrictions helped strengthen Korea as without Chinese naval forces the huge wealth of Korea in natural resources, relatively sophisticated technology, ceramics innovations, and the key medicinal trade in ginseng would have been lost to Japanese hands much earlier than it eventually was. And as well the creation of a sophisticated independent Korean economy, with a remarkable amount of self sufficiency would never have occurred.

More than a century later, in the 17th century, the Manchus defeated the Ming dynasty, and the Korean rulers agreed to pay tribute to the new Q'ing dynasty emperors.

The Manchus themselves shared much with Koreans as the Korean language is linked to the Turkic-Mongolian languages, and the language of the educated classes in Korea was continuously classic Chinese til late in the 20th century. Linguistically as well as intellectually, China had a large interrelation with Korea in all the most important levels: a joint foreign policy, joint trade policy, exchange of technologies, shared religions in Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and even folkish animism (both Korea and China have historically believed in the world of the "spirits"); and again joined by the extensive ceramic, ginseng, and horse and weapon trade. Infantry weapons of broadswords and iron fittings were provided by Korean iron mines.

By the middle of the 19th century, Japan and China were thrown into a war over the Korean peninsula. Japan had few natural resources, and had constantly encroached into Korean areas in search of fish, iron ore, natural resources, and the key ginseng and medicinal trade, as well as studying intently Korean advances in naval warfare; as well as seeing a need to find further room for an overseas series of imperial colonies. Russia's inability to defend its naval ports, and the collapse of Russia's navy in the historic battle of Port Arthur, in which Japan defeated and indeed destroyed Russia's imperial navy in a decisive surprise attack, led to a great weakening of Korea's umbrella of protection. Japan had advanced strongly enough and determinedly enough to reward its expansionist elements by giving them blanket licences for foreign occupation, leading to continuous and vicious attacks on Korea that were both encouraged and neglected by the west.

England and Europe as a whole, including Germany, had a vested interest in Russia being reigned in; Germans, English and Americans saw that Japan was a rich trade market to be penetrated under a series of forced trade agreements, while China, under the decaying infighting of the late Q'ing emperors and empresses, and the incredible corruption of a series of exchequers and merchants, literally abandoned their naval defences and left the entire north coast undefended after a series of internal thefts of monies for naval construction. Japan saw this as an opportunity to strike hard on the edges of the north Chinese empire as England struck repeatedly to force the reopening of the opium trade in the south (through the HK "hongs", trading houses such as the Jardines, Sassoons, and the like; and in cooperation with the American traders in their Yankee Clippers fast ships). Indeed there were vast fortunes importing opium fueling lassitude, corruption, and intrigue and simultaneously weakening officials and strengthening merchants with foreign ties in south China, and taking out huge sums of the silver reserves China had been paid for the past three centuries for the silk trade.

The symmetry of the opium wars to the south — England forcing trade in Indian and Afghani opium against the Emperor's edicts — and Japanese naval strikes in the north led Korea to be increasingly seen as a strategic foothold into north China, just as Macau and Hong Kong were Portuguese and English trade enclaves into south China.

If China could be broken into two by a matched set of attacks with the collapse of the Shanghai bankers and financiers — who were in the middle — China could be opened to foreign trade once and for all, and permanent trade zones established and dominated by the west and Japan. South China would be hived off to the coastal European powers; central China to the European inland powers; and north China (what eventually became occupied Manchuria) to the Japanese, being taken away from a long history of Russian influence.

That is what did happen towards the end of the 19th century: south China to Hainan Island (and eventually what became Vietnam) became under the military control of Europe; and north China above Shanghai became to be under the military control of Japan. Russia was vanquished to the north; Portugal and Spain were vanquished to the south; and a joint English and American control of south Chinese trade took off to immensely profitable levels. This becoming the era of the famous "clippers" or sailing ships from Boston financiers that led to great fortunes being made in the tea and opium trade, and the importation of huge numbers of Chinese and Korean ceramics into western Europe and America.

After defeating China in 1894-1895 Japan increased its influence on Korea.

In a complicated series of manoeuvres and counter-manouevres, Japan smashed the Russian fleet at the Battle of Port Arthur in 1905. Both the fleets of China and Russia had given Korea sufficient protection to prevent a direct invasion, but this ambuscade of the Russian fleet gave Japan free reign over north China and Korea was left at the mercy of the greatest Pacific naval power of the time in that area: Japan. This was done in a series of wars that had the implicit and continuing help of both Germany and England in designing Japanese warships, assistance in naval strategy, and also in participating in clearing Russian influence on the north Pacific coast, and isolating the Russian navy into Vladivostok. A naval defeat that became a central factor in the collapse of the Russian navy and culminated in the anarchist movements within the navy that launched the Russian revolution, and the collapse as well of the Russian Imperial monarchy, thus further entrenching after 1917 Japanese power in the region.

Korea thus became a colony, although designated as a protectorate. By forcing Emperor Gojong of Korea to abdicate his throne and assassinating his wife, Queen Min of Joseon, Japan annexed the country entirely as a colony in 1910.

Emperor Gojong's forcible abdication was followed by the assassination of Queen Minh by Japanese mercenaries. The event is recalled both in books and at the historical site itself, Cheong'duk Palace in Seoul, with a monument. Queen Minh's brutal murder — she was stabbed repeatedly, cut into pieces, and her body descrated and thrown into a fish pond — didn't shock the world powers as it should: with the sack and looting of Seoul at the same time and a suppression of journalists and news staff, the events were not known widely for decades. Japanese control of the region had been encouraged by the European powers since 1905's routing of the Russian naval forces, and also as a control on the potential of China to industralize by itself on its own terms.

This ended the legal and continuing rule of the Joseon Dynasty and began a 35 year period of Japanese atrocities, including millions of Koreans subjected to slave labor, forced prostitution, murder, torture, and "Japanization".

Japan at that time practiced genocide and ethnic cleansing on a huge scale, historians now seeing great similarity to what happened amongst Korea at that time with what happened in Cambodia during the Khmyer Rouge genocide or as is increasingly mentioned, the European holocaust of the jewry.

In essence the entire educated classes of Korea, the school teachers, lawyers, doctors, and the scholarly class, the entire reaches of educated society were massacred. The country itself was looted, the cultural artefacts stolen and taken to Japan or exported elsewhere, libraries were burnt and destroyed, schools smashed, and a forcible eradication of the Korean language was taken by Japan in favour of a Japanese only linguistic doctrine. The Korean people who complained or fought were either imprisoned or massacred, and massive flight began from urban centers away into the countryside where a few freedoms still existed. Schools, hospitals, and all cultural institutions were closed, and Japan intended to impress only Japanese values on the entire Korean society as a way of eliminating the Korean heritage within a single generation.

Korean tradition and history was almost savaged forever. This included the traditional Korean rulers, the scholarly and artistic classes, and the government as well. Those who were not moved abroad to work for Japan's economic future, were forced into incredible hardship and the repudiation of their language, their culture, their national history, and their independence as a nation.

When the Japanese invaded and occupied the Korean Peninsula in 1910, they forcibly reorganized the last reigning dynasty as part of the larger Japanese royal family in attempt to justify their illegal occupation.

When King Gojong was forced against his will, illegally, and without due process of law to abdicate the throne, the Japanese moved his son the Crown Prince Sunjong, and some others, such as, Crown Prince Yongchin, to Japan, to separate the Crown Prince from his people, and to attempt to eliminate a great tradition from the Korean people that had existed from the 12th century. With the Korean religions thrown down, with the royal family massacred and its remaining members forcibly removed to a foreign nation, with massive genocide throughout urban centers and the countryside, Korea itself faced terrible times for almost 25 years til the end of World War II when Japan was defeated by the allies in 1945. As a colony of Japan the country faced both hardship and poverty, and provided the template for the future invasion of Manchuria in China.

General MacArthur's staff, GHQ, who saw Korea as a brave nation which still had survived despite the Japanese atrocities - which were on a larger scale than even seen in occupied China - finally saw the chance in 1945 for Korea to gain a freedom it had not seen for almost five decades of Japanese invasions. This was sadly to be a short respite, as the Korean war soon began, with again the war against Korea again was being run out of Tokyo, where Chinese influence again was being fought against by General MacArthur's headquarters. Once again the fight for control of the Chinese trade entrepots and natural resources of Korea was being fought out of the same geographic areas but for different and varied reasons. The Korean people were caught in the middle once more as the corrupt and inefficient Koumintang (Nationalist) Chinese forces under General Chi'ang Kai Shek and his warlords fell to the advancing peasant army of Mao Zhe Dong and his Chinese Communist Party armies.

The Communist Chinese army victory in 1949 again forced Japan into the real forefront as a means to reduce the influence of China on Korea. MacArthur had, whether he knew it or not, accepted that Japan had to be re-empowered and with its Emperor kept, as a unifying influence, and its immense manufacturing base still relatively preserved, and with a huge series of stockpiles of natural and raw materials that Japan had taken from China and Korea (strategic metals, gold and silver stockpiles, iron ore stockpiles, coal stockpiles) Japan was set to be the new logistic center for the next Korean war. And it became that.

The Chinese Communist victory meant that with the United States the most powerful force in the Pacific, a decision was made to exclude the Korean royal family from future influence. At the same time the traditional Korean church, and the traditional Korean religions were seen as unworkable by the west, and they too were seen as needing to be replaced. An American educated, and American sponsored president was installed in Korea, and what remained of the Korean royal family were evicted from their lands, their palaces, and all remaining articles that were left were confiscated by the state. A series of very dark times came on both Korea and the Korean royal family as they were removed both as the head of the country and the head of the Korean national religions. The Japanization of Korea was replaced the Americanization of Korea.

And to some extent this was inevitable as in the late 1940s and during the Korean war - Korean culture was almost non-existent, and traditions were more or less unworkable in the face of persistent genocides, famines, and the war with the Communist occupiers to the north.

The MacArthur strategy for Korea reinstated the Korean language, Korean control over universities, colleges, and business; Korean passports and slightly more independence in foreign policy and trade developed; however the influence and the power of the Korean royal family was once again negated purposively. The state religion of Korea - Confucianism (ancestor worship), Taoism (abstract philosophy), Buddhism, and animism, were seen as religions to be replaced by an aggressive fundamentalist Christian missionary movement.

Missionary schools and hospitals, missionary churches and charities served a function to both define Korea against the Communists to the north, and also to reglue Korean society into a 20th century American vision of progress. That traditions going back 8 centuries were eliminated was seen as inevitable in times of war, and to some extent the Korean people were increasingly taken away from their heritage and the traditions of their rulers without somehow meeting in the middle to preserve both the past, and integrate within the dynamic power of American republicanism, scientific advance, and democracy.

The push towards a new political template in the Republic of Korea, more western, more American, than innately Korean was done quickly and without much thought on Korean conservatives and traditionalists.

As an example of the social engineering brought by the American missionaries, school dictionaries simply avoided citing Korean words for "prince", "crown", "royalty", and all published works in Korea simply eliminated references to the Korean royal family. The traditional folk religions, Buddhism, and Confucianism, ceased to be seen as practicable by either the American occupying army in the south or the Russian occupying army in the north which sought out atheism in its entirety, beyond banning mention of the Imperial history of Korea for a long time. The Americanization of the Republic of Korea has continued to this day, with studies and references to an imperial past constructively eliminated within schools, and avoided in public spheres other than in occasional highly successful costume soap operas of times past. But increasingly with the curiosity and respect for elders that is part of Korean society, the royal family and the Joseon dynasty has been rediscovered: through television's exciting period soap operas.

Most Koreans who were born after 1945 simply do not know that there is a Korean royal family as the family was simply not mentioned, all new schoolbooks that were printed eliminated references to it, and whatever the reason all schools and institutes of higher learning eliminated any and all references to the Korean royal traditions in favor of Americanization of the culture and the instilling of American republican and democratic values in the Korean mind.

Schools were barred from teaching anything about the Korean royal family or its history, and a process of Americanization of values and theology was begun and reinforced for the past half century, however from the 1990s onwards, there has been a revitalizaton of Korean traditions and interest in traditional Korean history, and a rebuilding of Korean values on Korean terms. Throughout all of Korea as a partioned nation, the rediscovery of the past has become a matter of interest, and the value of historical tourism throughout the entire peninsula has been seen as a great future growth area.

As Korea has once more regained its own footing, and its own independence, it again discovered the glories of the Korean past in times before the occupation of Korea by Japan and its partition.

The history of Imperial Korea itself vanished, and even the Korean royal encyclopaedias and royal histories were stolen and looted at best, or burnt and destroyed. There has still been no inventory of what was held in the libraries, and what was lost, and no known scholarship on the holdings.

Some scholars have compared the destruction of the Imperial Korean archives as the equivalent of the burnings of the libraries at Alexandria; and the looting and destruction of the Korean heritage as equivalent to the jewish Holocaust in Europe where an entire heritage of centuries of study, tradition, and humanity was systematically attempted to be erased by foreign forces.

Korea has yet to adopt a systematic plan to reconstruct their old heritage as has been done by victims of the Holocaust in Europe who rebuilt temples, repopulated libraries, reinstructed classical education, and worked with great support from the UN in reclaiming stolen or lost cultural artefacts globally back to their owners as a way of maintaining the cultural identity of their parents and grandparents.

Of the imperial histories, these are only now being recovered and published in small editions and often against the grain: one of the finest sets of Korean royal encyclopaedias is presently in a storage garage in one of the research libraries in Paris, and still has not been copied or reproduced.

Under the present open government of President Roh it is hoped that the rediscovery and re-evaluation of Korean history before Japanese occupation will begin, and scholars will be able to find the essence of what is Korean on Korean terms once the 20th century invasions of Korea are properly seen as events within a larger continuum of Korean history. There are great hopes that finally imperial traditional history can be reintegrated into the Korean school curriculum and the "heart" of Korean society given back to its people.

Most reference works cite that all the primary heirs to the Korean throne were married into the Japanese imperial family. (Such attempts to reduce the nobility of Korean blood could be seen as similar to Napoleon's deliberate marriage of his family into European nobility during his European wars in order for France to continue its powers and legalize the wars after his rule.) This belief that ALL the Korean Royal Family intermarried with Japanese is a partial truth as many of the Korean royal family were able to continue on outside Japanese control - some fleeing abroad both during and after wars and occupations - while those forced into such compulsory marriages lost their Japanese titles by order of General Douglas MacArthur. As well as MacArthur ordered that any Japanese created nobility in Korea lost their Japanese imperial titles as well. MacArthur, however, while eliminating the Korean royals from being future players in the Korean Republic, did not take away their titles, even if their rights and properties were sequestered. At the same time there was no attempt to allow the seized assets of Korea spirited abroad to be given back to the nation as a whole.

Some elements of the Korean royal family, including the Crown Princes, moved to the United States to raise their families as expatriates within the very dangerous and insecure political climate of the 1950s. At the same time there were forced marriages with the Japanese nobility which created issue. Yongchin's son, Lee Ku, studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to become an architect, but has since continued to live solely in Japan, and cannot speak Korean, and has only recently sought the ability to visit Korea and to be able to participate in occasional ceremonies of remembrance. Some relatives of the Joseon Dynasty were encouraged to disperse for their own preservation, and are now American citizens today, living and working in the United States in the private sectors as ordinary citizens in the Pacific west coast. Or are living in other countries abroad again as ordinary citizens with no privileges.

The Current Crown Prince Yi Seok within the context of the Republic of Korea

The current Crown Prince, His Imperial Highness the Crown Prince Yi Seok, has after a long period of tribulation and patience, in 2004 finally regained his dignity and respect in keeping the Korean royal traditions alive. This has surprised many in Korea who did not know that the traditions and values of the Korean Royal Family have indeed been reborn in the 21st century as a valuable link to both the past and the future of Korea and Koreans as a whole.

Crown Prince Yi Seok, has with great effort worked to preserve the Korean traditions by travelling extensively through Korean and lecturing at schools, reminding the youth of today that indeed there are long lines of greatness in Korea and traditions that are essential to be preserved. He has participated in many public religious services of the national religion, and has played a constant and earnest role in trying to maintain the dignity of his country and his position throughout perhaps the worst times Korea had in its entire history - having suffered both WW2 as a youth, the Korean war as a teen, and also having served in the Vietnam war in action in a notedly aggressive elite Korean commando regiment - "The Tigers" - as an enlisted man. Returning to Korea after the Vietnam war, he found a need to develop a unique role in a society in which he did not exist.

A long period of time passed as he learned the new rules of a new society and struggled to accommodate a new world utterly different from the times in which he was born: a long difficult struggle that mirrored the very hard times all Koreans had in rediscovering their own inner dignity and their own national strength.

HIH the Crown Prince Yi Seok is head of the Yi family, and has a website that indicates what his current assumed duties are. HIH the Crown Prince is, as expected, now a private citizen of the Republic of Korea, who simply has a remarkable history, and as an educator, popular television series host, able musician, father, former soldier and proud Vietnam war veteran, keeper of the traditions, and historian of his family, sees his duties as a valuable contribution to Korean society.

Perhaps few people in the Republic have the ease of manner and the extensive understanding of all aspects of Korean society as HIH The Crown Prince Yi Seok; and few indeed have worked against the odds to maintain Korean traditions going back eight centuries in a way that makes them relevant and important to the next series of generations.

Increasingly he has taken a larger and more high profile role as keeper of those traditions as Korea has become a freer and more open society. And as an examplar of the persistence and strength of the Korean people who have finally triumphed after tremendous times of adversity. His life itself has mirrored in many ways the continued fight for duty and freedom that is uniquely that of the Korean people as a whole in the 20th century in a continued quest for a place in a sophisticated evolving complicated world.

As well HIH the Crown Prince Yi Seok is moving towards establishing a charitable foundation to preserve and continue Korean arts, and towards establishing scholarships in the arts both at home and abroad; and as well in the future to do work with the many Korean orphans at home who he holds dear to his heart, as well as those who have suffered through being homeless. He has concerned himself as well with maintaining essential traditions, and as a host for major historical recreations and events throughout presently the Republic of Korea.

The Korean royal family website is to appear in English in early 2005, and is currently available only in Korean at or as well:

The life of HIH the Crown Prince Yi Seok was several years back made into a tv program on the Korean Broadcasting System (KBS), and is available on their website but only in Korean as a realplayer or windows media movie. It is a moving and difficult tribute to a man who has fought at great lengths to preserve the honesty of his beliefs, and to preserve a great heritage that was almost lost to the Korean people as a whole while all the time keeping in the public eye and the heart of the people.

Imperial Korean history, art, and architecture are currently represented in a series of museums and architectural sites throughout Korea. There have been no major travelling world shows of Imperial Korean antiquities or works of art as few indeed now remain in Korean hands in Korea. It's a matter of fact that one may see more Korean works of art, and pieces from the Imperial collections in the museums of Japan, than exist in either state or private hands in Korea.

As more archaeological digs begin in Korea, there is hope that discoveries may be made, and purchases may be made in Japan, to bring Korean collections back home and rebegin the rich collective heritage of Korean culture and art once again. As Korea moves towards remembering the richness of its culture and the incredible superiority of its ceramics and architectural histories, this will no doubt occur, but not perhaps for several generations. And in the interim Korea is expected to continue its renaissance in film and art and ceramics to reestablish its world class cultural achievements to a new global audience.

Gyeongbok Palace is a world heritage site, and in Seoul, and the traditional residence among many of the Korean Royal Family. The Gyeonbok Palace and its land and articles are owned entirely by the government of the Republic of Korea, as all other Imperial lands and sites. When HIH the Crown Prince Yi Seok visits his ancestral home and lands he does so now only as a private citizen.

But he does so with pride and with concern for maintaining the heritage of these residences for all Koreans and the many foreign visitors each year.

About references

The Joseon Dynasty recorded its history as Annals of Joseon Dynasty.

There are few if any works available or on the internet on the Korean Royal Family - and journalists are only now seeking a wider interest in this both incredible and fascinating living history. The 20th century history of Korea has made it almost impossible to find historians who had the time to translate into English or other European languages Korean historical records.

There is presently no official historian of the Korean royal family, and the Imperial records have ceased to be recorded since the Japanese invasions. It is hoped that at some point a series of foundation grants will allow the twentieth century to be once more put within the context of the Imperial histories, and more documents and more artefacts cataloged and indexed for future historians and generations.

Occasional references to the Korean Royal Family and its present charities and activities in the arts or in cultural preservation are found on websites on world royalty.

The principle Korean website of HIH the Crown Prince Yi Seok is at:

which also has an image of His Imperal Highness the Crown Prince Yi Seok in traditional Korean clothing.

See also

Last updated: 02-09-2005 19:07:42
Last updated: 02-28-2005 11:21:10