[THIS WEEK IN HISTORY]Life under the Joseon Dynasty

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[THIS WEEK IN HISTORY]Life under the Joseon Dynasty

Dec. 6, 1945
Yun Chi-ho was one of the first Koreans to learn English. Born in 1865 during the late Joseon Dynasty, Mr. Yun started his career in politics in 1881 as part of a delegation sent to observe developments in Japan. Pursuing seclusion from the world powers for decades, the Joseon Dynasty had long remained a hermit kingdom until it finally opened a port in 1876. The ruler at the time, King Gojong, also decided to send selected officials on a study tour to Japan.
The group, including Mr. Yun, stayed four months in the neighboring country, learning the benefits of Western artifacts and thinking. For Mr. Yun, the trip determined the course of his life, turning him into a reformist. Finding an affinity for the English language, he came back from the trip as the personal translator for Lucius Harwood Poote, the first American diplomatic minister to Korea.
Upon returning home, Mr. Yun soon played go-between for King Gojong and Mr. Poote, while pursuing his own ideas with fellow reformers. Later, he went to the United States to learn more about the English language and Christianity.
Returning home in 1895, however, he found Korea almost occupied by the Japanese, and so formed an Independence Society (Dongnip Hyeophoe) and the Independence Daily (Dongnip Sinmun) newspaper. He called for the courts to be independent in protecting the rights of the press, and also launched the Young Men’s Christian Association Korean branch in 1910.
However, in the 1920s Mr. Yun started to become strongly pro-Japanese, even joining the Japanese aristocracy in 1945, which was not such a wise choice as Korea was liberated from Japan that year. Mr. Yun died four months after the liberation, on this date, leaving several books behind, including “A Shortcut to English Grammar.”

Dec. 10, 1894
How was a criminal punished in the Joseon Dynasty? Until the penal system was changed on this date, as part of the modernization of the administration, the dynasty had its own correction methodology, called “tae jang do yu sa,” which had its roots in the preceding Goryeo Dynasty.
Divided into several stages, the punishment started with taehyeong, where a criminal was beaten on the bare buttocks in public from 10 to 50 times, according to the severity of the crime. The purpose of this was mostly to give the criminal a sense of shame. Another stage, called janghyeong, was also a beating, but administered much more harshly.
A third, dohyeong, was imprisonment accompanied again by a beating. For the aristocrats or politicians, there was yuhyeong, or banishment. Once someone was banished, he was not allowed to return. This was considered a heavy punishment for Koreans, to whom hometowns mean a lot.
With regard to capital punishment, a criminal was usually either strangled or beheaded. The death penalty was applied to 10 “crimes,” including rebellion and failure to perform filial duty to parents. Other crueler forms of execution were sometimes applied, including being torn apart by horses galloping in different directions.
Other punishments inflicted on slaves included having their noses cut off or having a tendon cut to cripple them for life.
According to records, corrupt officials were sentenced to paenghyeong, literally meaning being boiled to death. But the boiling was primarily a formality as the water was only partially heated and the guilty official pretended to be dead. However, all of the official’s records were erased and he was no longer considered a living person. He had to spend the rest of his life locked in his house until his natural death.

Dec. 12, 1990
Jo Yeong-rae was a grassroots lawyer and activist who, after fighting against the military regimes, took up the cause of the have-nots right up to his death from pneumonia on this date, at the young age of 43. Mr. Jo remained faithful in his calls for justice on behalf of the weaker members of society. His efforts can be seen in the book “A Critical Biography on Chun Tae-il,” telling the story of a worker who burnt himself to death, protesting the inhumane treatment of laborers. Another of his memorable publications was “You Cannot Imprison the Truth for Good.”


by Chun Su-jin

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