Sónjo

The Korean king Sónjo (1552-1608) ruled from 1567 to 1608. His reign was marked by factional strife, serious economic and social discord, and two destructive Japanese invasions.

Sónjo, formally named Yi Kong and known before his accession as Prince Hasóng, was born on Nov. 26, 1552, the third son of Prince Tókhúng, a younger brother of the kings Injong (reigned 1544-1545) and Myóngjong (1545-1567). When Myóngjong died without an heir, he gave his deathbed approval to the designation of Sónjo as his successor. The 14-year-old boy took the throne on Aug. 7, 1567. For the first year of his reign the queen dowager served as regent, but when the chief officials urged that Sónjo, though so young, was ready for rule, the dowager yielded, and from 1568 on the royal decisions were Sónjo's.

At first it seemed that Sónjo's actions might help to dissolve the political strife of the preceding 50 years, during which a succession of bloody power struggles among the gentry had resulted in death for many political leaders and long exile in the countryside for many more. Sónjo decreed posthumous rehabilitation for some of the key victims and called many survivors back to service. But the long years of exile and retirement had produced new divisions in the gentry that only intensified the factional discord. While Sónjo was widely regarded by contemporaries as an ideal monarch for his model Confucian behavior, he left the political initiative to the gentry and was never able in his lifetime to control their bitter infighting.

Sónjo's unwillingness to assert leadership was tragically demonstrated in 1592, when the Japanese dictator Hideyoshi launched the first of his two devastating invasions of Korea. Koreans had had signs of the coming storm since 1590, but the political rivalry fatally frustrated defense planning, and when the hordes arrived in 1592, Korea was woefully unprepared. As the Japanese sped toward Seoul, the court frantically evacuated the city. In the emergency Sónjo designated his second son, Prince Kwanghae, as crown prince and dispatched the other princes into hiding in the mountains. Accompanied by a small escort, he then hurried to safety in Tiju (Ú iju), a small town on the Yalu River, where he set up temporary court and awaited the Chinese reply to his desperate pleas for military aid. Chinese troops came the next year, and this, in conjunction with Korean naval successes on the southern coast and the Japanese inability to hold positions far from their coastal bases, resulted in a general Japanese retreat in the spring of 1593. But when Sónjo shortly afterward returned to Seoul, two of his sons were Japanese prisoners, his capital was devastated, and his politicians as quarrelsome as ever. The princes were released in 1593 as part of a truce; the peace talks which followed this agreement, however, collapsed in 1596, and early in 1597 the Japanese invaded again. The new offensive was quickly blunted, and in late 1598, following a deathbed order by Hideyoshi, the Japanese troops withdrew and Sónjo's worst ordeal was over.

In Sónjo's last years a heated controversy arose concerning his successor. Crown Prince Kwanghae was clearly competent and had performed many assignments during the war years with distinction. Yet he was the son of a consort, not of the Queen, who had died childless in 1600. However, when Sónjo's second wife, Queen Inmok, gave birth to a son in 1606, the members of one political faction seized the opportunity to attempt to depose Prince Kwanghae. Sónjo and another faction stoutly defended the crown prince, however, and he indeed succeeded when Sónjo died 2 years later.

Sónjo was dedicated to Confucianism. He encouraged the establishment of Confucian academies in the countryside, sponsored vernacular translations of the Confucian classics, and issued many proclamations commending agriculture, economy, filial piety, and other Confucian verities. He was especially known for his personal frugality, dressing simply and eating sparsely. This frugality extended even to his favorite avocations, painting and calligraphy: critics 200 years later marveled at the fact that one of his finest calligraphic specimens was written on the back of a government memorandum.

Sónjo died on March 16, 1608. His tomb, known as Mongnúng, is in Yangju.

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Further Reading on Sónjo

There is no biography of Sónjo in English. Some details of his reign can be found in standard survey histories, of which two are Takashi Hatada, A History of Korea, translated and edited by Warren W. Smith, Jr., and Benjamin H. Hazard (1969); and Woo-keun Han, The History of Korea, translated by Kyung-sik Lee and edited by Grafton Mintz (1970).