Seonjo of Joseon

From New World Encyclopedia
Seonjo of Joseon
Hangul 선조
Hanja 宣祖
Revised Romanization Seonjo
McCune-Reischauer Sŏn-jo
Birth name
Hangul 이연
Hanja 李蚣
Revised Romanization I Yeon
McCune-Reischauer I Yŏn

King Seonjo ruled in Korea between 1567 and 1608, as the fourteenth king of the Joseon Dynasty. At first, King Seonjo was dedicated to carrying out reforms that would benefit the people, but in later years he was seen as being greedy and corrupt. During his reign, political factions arose over Seonjo’s attempts to institute reform, and their rivalries and in-fighting paralyzed the Joseon government for the next four hundred years. In 1592, when Japan began the Seven Year War and invaded Korea, King Seonjo and his retinue were forced to flee north of Pyongyang, and remained there until the Ming Dynasty Emperor Wanli(万暦帝) came to Joseon's aid. The disgruntled people in the capital looted and burned the royal palaces. After King Seonjo returned to Seoul, he was the first to use Deoksugung ( 덕수궁 德壽宮), a walled compound of palaces that was inhabited by various Korean royalty until the end of the nineteenth century.

Today, King Seonjo is regarded as one of the most incompetent rulers in Joseon history, due to his inability to control the factionalism in his government, and his unjust mistreatment of Admiral Yi Sun Shin (이순신; 李舜臣), a national hero who repeatedly defeated the superior Japanese forces.


King Seonjo was born Yi Gyun in 1552 in Hanyang, capital city of Joseon, the third son of Prince Deokheung. At first he was given the title Prince Haseong, and was not well known to the people, since he did not have a great deal of political influence until he became king.

King Seonjo’s predecessor was King Myeongjong( 명종; 明宗), who in practice did not rule the nation until the latter days of his reign. His mother, Queen Munjeong ( 문정왕후; 文定王后), had ruled the kingdom in her son's name for 20 years until her death in 1565. Unfortunately for Myeongjong, he died only two years later. The king had no sons to succeed to the throne, so officials sought another royal family member to be made king. Prince Haseong was at last selected to be the next in line, since he was young and new to politics. He was crowned King Seongjo in 1567.

Early Reign (1567-1575)

At first, King Seonjo was a good king; he devoted himself and his reign to the improvement of the lives of the common people, as well as to rebuilding the nation in the wake of the political corruption and factionalism which had become rampant during the brutal reign of Yeonsangun ( 연산군; 燕山君, the tenth king of Joseon) and weak rule of King Jungjong( 중종; 中宗) . He encouraged many Confucian scholars, who had been persecuted by the wealthy aristocrats during the days of Yeonsan and Jungjong. Seonjo continued the political reforms initiated by King Myeongjong, and put many famous scholars, including Yi Hwang ( 이황; 李滉), Yi I ( 이이; 李珥), Jeong Cheol ( 정철; 鄭澈), or Yu Seong-ryong ( 유성룡; 柳成龍), into office.

Seonjo also reformed the civil service examination system, particularly the examination for qualification as a civil official. The previous exam had been mainly concerned with literature, not with politics or history. The king himself ordered the system to be reformed by increasing the importance of these subjects. He also restored the reputations of scholars who had been executed, such as Jo Gwang Jo, and denounced the accomplishments of corrupt aristocrats, notably Nam Gon, who had been Prime Minister under Jungjong and had contributed greatly to the corruption of the era. These acts earned the king the respect of the general populace, and the country enjoyed a brief era of peace.

Political Factions and East-West Feud (1575-1592)

Among the scholars King Seonjo called to the government were Sim Ui-Gyeom (沈義謙) and Kim Hyowon(金孝元). Sim was a relative of the queen, and heavily conservative. Kim was the leading figure of the new generation of officials, who called for liberal reforms. The scholars who supported King Seonjo began to split into two factions, headed by Sim and Kim. Members of each faction even resided together in the same neighborhoods; Sim's faction lived on west side of the city while Kim's followers gathered on the east side. Consequently, the two factions came to be called the Westerners Faction and the Easterners Faction; this two-faction political system lasted four hundred years and later helped bring about the collapse of the Joseon Dynasty.

At first the Westerners earned the favor of the king, since Sim was related to the queen and also had more support from wealthy nobles. However, their stubborn opposition to reform and Sim's indecisiveness allowed the Easterners to take power, and the Westerners fell out of favor. Reforms were accelerated during the first period of influence of the Easterners, but then some of the Easterners began to urge the others to slow down the reforms. This group became the Southerners Faction, since most of them lived on the south side of Hanyang, including its leader Yu Seong-ryong. The rest of the Easterners—now a radical faction—were called Northerners.

Later, the Northerners divided even further after disagreements over many issues; the Greater Northerners Faction was an extreme radical faction, while the Lesser Northerners Faction became less reform-minded than the Greater Northerners Faction, but still more radical than the Southerners.

The political factionalism seriously jeopardized Joseon's military security. The size of the military was one of the reforms under discussion. Yi I, a neutral conservative, urged the king to increase the size of the army to prepare against future invasions from the Jurchens and Japanese. However, both factions rejected Yi's suggestions, and the size of the army was decreased further because many officials believed the period of peace would last. The Jurchens and Japanese took this opportunity to expand their influence in East Asia, resulting in the Japanese invasions of Korea and the foundation of the Qing Dynasty in China, both of which led to devastation on the Korean Peninsula.

King Seonjo faced difficulties dealing with both new threats, sending many skilled military commanders to the northern front, while contending with Japanese leaders Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu in the south. After Toyotomi Hideyoshi unified Japan, the Japanese proved themselves to be the greater threat, and many Koreans began to fear that their country would be taken over by the Japanese. Officials concerned with the defense of the kingdom urged the king to send delegates to Hideyoshi, for the purpose of finding out whether or not Hideyoshi was preparing for an invasion. However, the two government factions could not agree, even on this issue of national importance, so a compromise was made and one delegate from each faction was sent to Hideyoshi. When they returned to Korea, their reports only caused more controversy and confusion. Hwang Yoon-gil(黄允吉), of the Westerners faction, reported that Hideyoshi was raising massive numbers of troops, but Kim Seong Il(金誠一), of the Easterners faction, told the king that he thought these large forces were not intended for the war against Korea, but that Hideyoshi was trying to complete his reforms quickly to prevent lawlessness and quash the bandits now roaming the Japanese countryside. Since the Easterners had the bigger voice in government at the time, Hwang's reports were ignored and Seonjo decided not to prepare for war, even though the attitude of Hideyoshi, in his letter to Seonjo, clearly showed his interest in the conquest of Asia. Many aristocrats still leaned heavily on the Chinese Ming Dynasty, and believed that China would help them if war broke out. Most wealthy people refused to believe that Japan and the Jurchens were stronger than China and Korea, and even considered fleeing their nation when war broke out.

Seven-Year War (1592-1598)

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

On April 13, 1592, about 700 Japanese ships under Konishi Yukinaga(小西 行長) invaded Korea. Konishi easily burned Fort Busan(부산; 釜山) and Fort Donglae(동래구; 東萊區), killed commanders Jeong Bal (정발) and Song Sang-Hyeon and marched northward. On the next day, even more troops under Kato Kiyomasa(加藤清正) and Kuroda Nagamasa(黒田長政) landed, also marching toward Hanyang. A large Japanese fleet under Todo Takatora (藤堂高虎) and Kuki Yoshitaka(九鬼 嘉隆) supported them from the sea. General Yi Il faced Kato Kiyomasa at the Battle of Sangju, which was won by Japanese. Then Yi Il joined with General Shin Rip, but their combined forces were also defeated at the Battle of Ch'ungju by Kato Kiyomasa. Seonjo appointed General Kim Myeong-won Commander-in-Chief and Field Marshal, and ordered him to defend the capital, then fled to Pyongyang as the Japanese began to seize the city. He later moved even further north to the border city of Uiju just before the fall of Pyongyang. While the king was absent from the capital, many people who had lost hope in the government plundered the palace and burned many public buildings, adding to the damage perpetrated by the Japanese after they had captured the city.

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

The peace negotiations between the Chinese and Japanese ended unsuccessfully, due to a lack of understanding between the two sides and misrepresentation of the Koreans. The Japanese again invaded Korea in 1597; but this time all three nations were ready for war, and the Japanese were not able to advance as easily as in 1592. The Japanese tried to take Hanyang from both land and sea routes. At first the plan seemed to work well when Todo Takatora defeated Admiral Won Kyun ( 원균; 元均) at the Battle of Chilchonryang, but the plan was abandoned when the Korean Navy under Admiral Yi Sun Shin defeated the Japanese fleet under Todo Takatora in the Battle of Myeongnyang with only thirteen ships. The battle effectively ended the war, and in 1598 the Japanese at last withdrew from Korea after the sudden death of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The Battle of Noryang marked the end of the war, and the last Japanese units under Konishi Yukinaga left Korea. Although Korea had won the war, the nation was never able to recover from the devastation it had caused, and the Joseon Dynasty never regained its former prosperity.

Later Days (1598-1608)

After the war, even the reconstruction of the nation was impeded by the quarreling between the two factions. The Easterners came out strongest after the war, with many of them hailed as military heroes (including Prime Minister Yoo Seong Ryong). Division between the Easterners followed, and the conflict between political factions became even stronger. King Seonjo lost hope of governing the nation, and let Crown Prince Gwanghaegun ( 광해군; 光海君) rule in his place. However, Gwanghaegun was the second son of Lady Kim, a concubine of the king. When the queen gave birth to a son, succession to the throne also became a matter of contention. King Seonjo died in 1608, while political division and invasions by foreign powers still threatened the Joseon Dynasty.

Admiral Yi Sun Shin

Yi Sun-shin (April 28, 1545 – December 16, 1598), also commonly transliterated Yi Soon-shin or Lee Sun-shin) was a Korean naval leader noted for his victories against the Japanese navy during the Japanese invasions of Korea (1592-1598) during the Joseon Dynasty. He is reputed to have been victorious in every naval battle that he commanded , and his ability as a strategist and as a leader enabled him to defeat the Japanese navy fleets again and again. Yi is also known for his innovative use of the turtle ship (거북선), the world's first armored warship.

Hideyoshi’s Japanese forces knew that they would have to eliminate Yi Sun Shin if they were to keep their supply lines open and succeed in their invasion of Korea.[1] They took advantage of the factionalism and political in-fighting in the Joseon court, and planted a spy to give false information about an upcoming Japanese naval attack. King Seonjo allowed himself to be deceived by these reports and ordered Yi Sun Shin to proceed immediately to ambush the Japanese at the site where the attack was supposed to take place. Yi Sun Shin, who knew the area to be unfavorable and mistrusted the spy, declined. When this news reached court, Admiral Yi’s enemies quickly insisted that he be replaced by General Won Gyun. In 1597, Seonjo ordered Yi to be relieved of his command, placed under arrest and taken to Seoul in chains to be tortured and imprisoned. Seonjo wanted to have Yi executed, but Yi’s childhood friend, Prime minister Ryu Sung-Ryong, convinced the king to spare him because of his past service record. Admiral Yi was demoted to the rank of a common infantry soldier under the general Gwon Yul.

Won Kyun proved to be incompetent as a naval commander. After losing all but 13 of the Joseon navy’s ships, he was killed at the Battle of Chilchonryang. Yi Sun Shin was reinstated and, with just 13 ships, defeated the Japanese Navy at the Battle of Myeongnyang.

Yi was killed by a bullet in the Battle of Noryang Point in December, 1598. The royal court eventually bestowed various honors upon him, including a posthumous title of Chungmugong (Martial Lord of Loyalty), an enrollment as a Seonmu Ildeung Gongsin (First-class military order of merit during the reign of Seonjo), and two posthumous offices, Yeongijeong (Prime Minister), and the "Deokpoong Buwongun" (The Prince of the Court from Deokpoong). He also received the title of Yumyeong Sugun Dodok (Admiral of the Fleet of Ming China) posthumously, from the Emperor of Ming. However, Koreans still believe that Seonjo personally disliked him and did not appreciate his value.

Heo Jun and ‘Donguibogam’

During The Seven Year War (Imjinwaeran), Heo Jun accompanied King Seonjo to Uiju as his personal physician. When King Seonjo asked him about his desires for the future, Heo Jun said that he wanted to do something for all the people suffering or dying from hunger and illness as a result of sudden war. King Seonjo asked what that was, and Heo Jun answered that he wanted to examine all the sick and suffering people and investigate how to cure them, in order to compile a book about medicine. King Seonjo praised him and approved of his project. Heo Jun considered medical books from China to be unsuitable for Koreans since most of them were specifically for the Chinese, and offered no new advancements. He began to write a new medical text on Korean-style remedies which had been passed down through the ages.

The period just after the war was a difficult time, and there were was a shortage of doctors to help with the project. Unfortunately, ten years after the project had begun, when the book was almost completed, King Seonjo passed away. Heo Jun was blamed for failing to take proper care of the king’s health, and was exiled to a remote place. There he continued work on his project and finally completed the great medical book known as Donguibogam. The work spread to China and Japan, where it is still regarded as one of the classics of Oriental medicine today. Although Heo Jun worked extensively with the royal family, he put a great emphasis on making treatment methods accessible and comprehensible to common people. He found natural herb remedies that were easily attainable by commoners in Korea, and wrote the names of the herbs using the simple hangul letters instead of using more difficult hanja (Chinese characters), which most commoners did not understand. Donguibogam has been translated into English, and is regarded as the defining text of Korean traditional medicine. Korean people still refer to Heo Jun's natural remedies found in Donguibogam.[2]

Sin Heum

Shin Heum (申欽; pen name: Sangchon (象村); 1566 - 1628) was a literary official of the mid-Joseon Dynasty who, along with Jeong Cheol (pen name: Songgang), Park In-Ro (pen name: Nogye), and Yun Seon-Do (pen name: Gosan), was known as one of four talented writers of the Joseon Dynasty. His given name was Gyeongsuk (敬淑); his pen names were Hyeonheon (玄軒), Sangchon (象忖), Hyeonong (玄翁), or Bangong (妨翁), and his pen name for poetry was Munjeong (文貞). Sangchon (象村) was born in Pyeongsan to Shin Seung-Seo (承緖), Governor of Gaeseong. He lost both of his parents at the age of seven, and he and his younger brother spent the next ten years with their maternal grandparents in Jusan-ri of Dong-myeon in Daedeok-gun of Chungnam (today’s Jusan-dong of Dong-gu in Daejeon; 古名 古; 堯洞).

In 1586, (the nineteenth year of King Seonjo’s reign), he passed the civil service examination but was excluded by the Eastern Party because he had defended the character of Yi Yi against his uncle Song Eung-Gae, his uncle, in 1583. He was instead appointed to a position in the ninth rank. He was recognized for his service under the command of Jeong Cheol during the Japanese Invasion of 1592, and was given positions in the Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Manners, and finally as the top commander of the military forces. His son Ik-Seong (翊聖) was married to Princess Jeongsuk (貞淑), King Seonjo’s daughter. In 1613 (fifth year of King Gwanghaegun’s reign), during the imprisonment of Yeongchangdaegun (永昌), Shin was forced to resign as one of seven Confucian servants of King Seonjo. In 1616, he was exiled to Chuncheon for his involvement in the abandonment of Queen Mother Inmok. When King Injo took over the throne, Shin was made the Right Prime Minister and the Secretary General. He was knowledgeable about protocol, the roles of high-level servants, law, mathematics, and clothing, and was known one of the four great writers of the time along with Wolsa, Gyegok, and Taekdang. He also participated in the compilation of King Seonjo’s History with Yi Hang-Bok (李恒福); his own publication was Sangchonjip (象忖集). As his philosophical ideas deepened through warfare and his experience in governmental dispute, he left many poems and writings. In 1627 (the fifth year of King Injo’s reign), he was installed as Prime Minister, but he soon passed away. [3]


  • Father: Grand Internal Prince Deokheung (덕흥 대원군)
  • Mother: Grand Internal Princess Consort Hadong (하동부대부인)
  • Consorts:
  1. Queen Uiin (의인왕후)
  2. Royal Noble Consort Gong from the Kim clan (공빈 김씨)
  3. Royal Noble Consort In from the Kim clan (인빈 김씨)
  4. Royal Noble Consort Sun from the Kim clan (순빈 김씨)
  5. Royal Noble Consort Jeong from the Min clan (정빈 민씨)
  6. Royal Noble Consort Jeong from the Hong clan (정빈 홍씨)
  7. Royal Noble Consort On from the Han clan (온빈 한씨)
  8. Queen Inmok (인목왕후)
  • Children:
  1. Prince Imhae (임해군), first Son of Royal Noble Consort Gong from the Kim clan.
  2. Prince Gwanghae (광해군), second Son of Royal Noble Consort Gong from the Kim clan.
  3. Prince Uian (의안군), first son of Royal Noble Consort In from the Kim clan.
  4. Prince Sinseong (신성군), second son of Royal Noble Consort In from the Kim clan.
  5. Prince Uichang (의창군), third son of Royal Noble Consort In from the Kim clan.
  6. Prince Jeongwon (정원군), fourth son of Royal Noble Consort In from the Kim clan.
  7. Princess Jeongsin (정신옹주), first daughter Royal Noble Consort In from the Kim clan.
  8. Princess Jeonghye (정혜옹주), second daughter Royal Noble Consort In from the Kim clan.
  9. Princess Jeongsuk (정숙옹주), third daughter Royal Noble Consort In from the Kim clan.
  10. Princess Jeong-an (정안옹주), fourth daughter Royal Noble Consort In from the Kim clan.
  11. Princess Jeonghyu (정휘옹주), fifth daughter Royal Noble Consort In from the Kim clan.
  12. Grand Prince Yeongchang (영창대군), only Son of Queen Inmok.
  13. Princess Jeongmyeong (정명공주), only daughter of Queen Inmok.

Full Posthumous Name

  • King Seonjo Sogyung Jeongryun Ripgeuk Seongdeok Hongryeol Jiseong Daeeui Gyeokcheon Heeun Gyungmyung Sinryeok Honggong Yungeop Hyeonmun Euimu Seongye Dalhyo the Great of Korea
  • 선조소경정륜립극성덕홍렬지성대의격천희운경명신력홍공융업현문의무성예달효대왕
  • 宣祖昭敬正倫立極盛德洪烈至誠\u22823 大義格天熙運\u26223 景命神曆弘功隆業顯文毅武聖


  1. Korean Hero Yi Sunsin, Retrieved November 14, 2007.
  2. Korean History of Great People, CIKC. Retrieved November 14, 2007.
  3. Sin Heum, Dong-gu District office. Retrieved November 14, 2007.

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Preceded by:
Emperor of Korea
(Joseon Dynasty)
Succeeded by:
Monarchs of Joseon and The Korean Empire
Joseon: Emperor Taejo | King Jeongjong | King Taejong | King Sejong the Great | King Munjong | King Danjong
King Sejo | King Yejong | King Seongjong | Yeonsangun | King Jungjong | King Injong | King Myeongjong
King Seonjo | Gwanghaegun | King Injo | King Hyojong | King Hyeonjong | King Sukjong
King Gyeongjong | King Yeongjo | King Jeongjo | King Sunjo | King Heonjong | King Cheoljong

Korean Empire: Emperor Gojong | Emperor Sunjong


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