Keeping the King in Check

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Keeping the King in Check

One of the keys to the longevity of the Choson dynasty, nearly 500 years, was the freedom to deliver messages to the king, although the right was limited to the upper class. Government officials of the boards of censors, such as the Sahonbu, Saganwon and Hongmungwan, held royal power and divine right in check and led political life based on public opinion during the dynastic period. Naturally there were also strong reactions against their powers of inspection.

During first year of the dynasty, there was no conflict between the king and censors, because they were mostly faithful retainers who helped King Taejo found the dynasty. He and the censors jointly put their efforts into purging the Wang family and government officials of the earlier Koryo Dynasty. They also cooperated to oust those who opposed the new government.

The honeymoon ended in 1393, the second year of King Taejo, when censors raised the issue of alleged adultery of the crown princess. King Taejo was angered at the interference with his family and exiled the officials involved. To him, it was a matter of regal rights. King Taejong, the third ruler, who was in power from 1400 to 1418, openly curbed the censors. He hired and fired them at will, and accepted resignations which were offered only to dramatize complaints. He stopped reading letters of appeal and cut off access by the upper classes. When censors said they would resign after three rejected appeals, he threatened them in turn and forced their resignations after intentionally ignoring their further appeals. According to the book, "How Corruption Was Prevented in the Choson Dynasty," written by Lee Song-mu, chairman of the National Institute of Korean History, even King Sejong, the greatest ruler of the dynasty, often demoted, dismissed, or imprisoned censors early in his rule. Jailers were sarcastic about censors, saying, "You may be in your office today, but tomorrow you will be put under my control."

The press today is separate from the government, so there is no way for those in power to exert direct influence on it. Oppressing advertisers and merging and dissolving press and media companies was only possible under the former dictatorship.

But tension between the government and the press is still in a high state even though times have changed.

That is why there is great interest in the documents of unknown provenance discussing possible countermeasures against unfriendly news media reported by the Sisa Journal, a weekly news magazine, a few days ago. The source seems to be a person who is informed, insightful and unhappy that there are media unfriendly to the government. Any idea who the writer is?

by Noh Jae-hyun

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