The comeback of women to powerSilla (57 BC-935) was the only kingdom in Korean history that had queens, the most famous of whom was Queen Seondeok (606-647). But it was not the only time when the status of women was high. The chapter on Silla in the New Book of Tang says that women were involved in trade at markets, suggesting that women in Silla dominated household finances. This was not exclusive to Silla but a common practice in the three ancient kingdoms, including Baekje (18 BC-660) and Goguryeo (37 BC-668).
Female rulers only existed in Silla because the kingdom valued royal parentage over gender. Yet not everyone wanted a woman ruler. In the chapter on Queen Seondeok in “The History of the Three Kingdoms,” Confucian scholar Kim Bu-sik of the Goryeo Dynasty (918?1392) criticized Silla for having a woman leader, adding that the kingdom was lucky not to have collapsed under her rule.
But the chapter on the pagoda in “The History of Three Kingdoms” shows her in a better light. It documents Queen Seondeok’s project to build a nine-story wooden pagoda at Hwangnyongsa Temple. The pagoda’s nine levels are a reference to the nine countries around Silla, including the Tang Dynasty and Japan, and express the queen’s wish to see the countries defeated. Though the kings who had ruled before her had sent messengers to China and pled for help, Queen Seondeok had the pagoda built because she wanted to stand tall in the region, above China and Japan.
Queen Seondeok proposed a new plan to defeat the nine countries, and her ambition was something that the kings of the past had never even dreamed of. In order to accomplish her vision, she promoted Kim Chun-chu, the grandson of an abdicated king, and Kim Yu-sin, a member of the alienated Gaya faction.
Also during Queen Seondeok’s reign, Silla eventually accomplished the great task of unifying the three kingdoms of Korea, mainly driven by Kim Chun-chu and Kim Yu-sin.
Today, women lead the nation’s major political parties. The Democratic Unity Party’s new chair is former Prime Minister Han Myeong-sook, the Grand National Party’s emergency leadership council is currently headed by its former chairwoman Park Geun-hye, and the Unified Progressive Party is led by Lee Jeong-hee and Sim Sang-jeong. It will be interesting to see which of these women will propose a brand new agenda and bring the success story of Queen Seondeok into the 21st century.
The writer is a history critic.
by Lee Deok-il