Sometimes the question comes up – is there a Monarchy in Korea?
Well, the answer is: not anymore.
For over 2,000 years, records show that dynasties with monarchs ruled the kingdoms on the Korean peninsula. They had to navigate through complicated relations with neighbouring kingdoms becoming tributary states to dynasties in China and fighting wars with Japan.
The power of the monarch varied depending on their character and the political circumstances at the time. But by the end of the Joseon Period (1392-1910), the king had become a figurehead and the monarchy came to an end when the country was colonised by Japan (1910-1945)
In this post I’ll give a brief overview of the most famous and noteworthy monarchs that have ruled the land. So let’s start with the myth of the founding father, Dangun.
Read the ultimate guide to the Joseon Kings
A Brief History of Monarchy in Korea
Gojoseon (2333 BC – 108 BC)
The first Kingdom of Korea is said to have been founded by Dangun.
The legend of DANGUN
Here’s the story in a nutshell.
A tiger and a bear wanted to become human so they prayed to the god Hwanung. The god agreed to grant their wish if they stayed out of the sun for 100 days and lived on mugwort and 20 cloves of garlic!
So the tiger and bear stayed in a cave and tried to live on mugwort and garlic…
The tiger soon gave up. But the bear managed to complete the 100 days and became human – a woman. But she couldn’t find a husband, so the god Hwanung took her as his wife. And they had a son: Dangun.
Dangun founded Gojoseon (Ancient Joseon) in 2333 BC.
Ganghwado (near Seoul) is the island where Dangun founded the kingdom. And there are cultural artefacts dotted around the island ranging from bronze age dolmen stone tombs to castle walls built to keep foreign invaders out.
Let’s move on to the Goguryeo period…
But if you fancy visiting Ganghwado, I wrote a post about our visit there…
read more about Ganghwado and Dangun
Goguryeo (37BC – 668 AD)
Chumo the Holy (r. 37 BC? -19 BC), was the founder and first king of the Kingdom of Goguryeo (37BC – 668 AD) which at the time covered North Korea, South Korea, and parts of China.
There were 28 kings throughout the Goguryeo period.
A lot of the history about Chumo and the Goguryeo Dynasty is known thanks to a huge stone monument called the Gwanggaeto Stele. This monument is the largest engraved stele in the world. It’s written in Classical Chinese and reveals a lot of information about the period including myths surrounding Chumo the Holy.
Rubbings have been taken from the stele and made into books so that avid calligraphy students (including me) can practise copying the style of the writing.
There is a popular drama about the story of Jumong on MBC. The drama begins when the Han Dynasty of China has conquered Gojoseon and depicts Jumong’s rise to become the first king of the new dynasty of Goguryeo.
At the time, there were other smaller kingdoms on the Korean peninsula – Silla and Baekje. Later Shilla would unify the three kingdoms.
See the chart of Korea and China relations chart
Read more about calligraphy in Korea
The First King of Unified Silla (668–935)
King Munmu (661–681), the 30th king of Silla, unified the three kingdoms of Silla, Baekje, and Goguryeo. And then he became the first king of Unified Silla.
There were 26 kings in Unified Silla.
King Munmu wanted to be buried in the East Sea so that he would become a dragon and protect Silla from foreign invaders. The historic burial site is in Gyeongju and after his death he was known as the Dragon King.
Before unification, the kingdom of Silla had good relations with the neighbouring Tang Dynasty in China which lead to Tang helping Silla to conquer Goguryeo and Baekje. But then relations became strained when Tang tried to rule Unified Silla as well. King Munmu negotiated with Tang and in the end, Unified Silla remained independent but joined the Tang tributary system.
What is a tributary state?
A tributary state had to recognise the more powerful state and give gifts or ‘tributes’. Although the tributary state was independent, there were times when the Kings had to get permission from the more powerful state. For example, the more powerful state would have a say in the choice of Crown Prince.
There were advantages of being a tributary state such as getting military protection and enjoying profitable trade. Silla also embraced Tang ideologies and students went there to study Buddhism and Confucianism.
The First King of Goryeo Dynasty (908-1392)
There were 36 kings of the Goryeo Dynasty.
Wang Geon was a military commander who overthrew Unified Silla and became King Taejo (r. 918–943) of Goryeo.
Later in the Goryeo period, relations with the neighbouring Yuan Dynasty of China became difficult and the kings of Goryeo had to pay frequent tributary visits to Yuan along with paying high taxes. Goryeo aristocracy had Mongol names, wore Mongol fashions, and spoke the Mongol language.
Some Goryeo Royal radicals even wanted to abolish Goryeo completely and unite with Yuan.
Due to these collaborations with the Yuan dynasty, the Goryeo Royalty lost support at home. General Yi Song-gye took advantage of this instability as well as the change in Dynasty in China (from Yuan to Ming) and took over Goryeo to proclaim the new dynasty of Joseon.
General Yi becomes the first king of Joseon in 1392: King Taejo.
The Joseon Dynasty would last for 500 years and be the last dynasty and monarchy before modern Korea.
Read more about the relations between dynasties in China and Korea
The Monarchs of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897)
Many historical dramas have been made about the 27 kings of the Joseon period starting from the founder King Taejo and his son King Taejong who were warrior kings. The last monarch was Emperor Sunjong (1907-1910) of the Empire of Korea. But by this point the monarch was just a figurehead.
During the 500 years of the Joseon Dynasty, the kings had various levels of popularity and success in their reign.
At the top must be King Sejong the Great whose reign saw a golden age of science and technology. Not to mention the proclamation of the new writing system Hangeul!
King Yeongjo and King Jeongjo are considered to be successful too. As good negotiators, they were able to achieve more stability in politics.
So who was at the bottom of the popularity chart?
Yeonsangun (r.1494-1506) must surely be at the bottom as the most infamous king of all. (He’s always depicted as violent and cruel in dramas.) Yeonsangun was deposed and demoted from king to ‘prince’ (gun) and so his sons couldn’t become king.
Then in 1592, when the country was invaded by Japan at the start of the Imjin War (1592-1598), angry citizens burned down Changdeokgung palace after they realised that King Seonjo (1567–1608) had fled the capital. So his reputation wasn’t great either. The king’s son Gwanghaegun restored the palace soon after in 1611.
An overview of the Joseon Kings
The Tombs of the Joseon Kings
It seems that after the death of King Jeongjo in 1800, the monarch’s power began to seriously decline.
King Jeongjo died suddenly in his 40s in mysterious circumstances leaving his 10 year-old son to become the 23rd king of Joseon: King Sunjo, Yi Gong (r.1800-1834)
But he was too young so King Yeongjo’s Queen, Jeongsun, ruled as regent instead.
Her family, the Andong clan, took over politics and a period known as sedo politics began – where real power is held by the King’s in-laws. (This lead to corruption).
Read more about the Late Joseon Kings
Why do some kings have the title JO and other JONG?
The five royal palaces in Seoul
Many noteworthy scholar-officials in the government came from Andong. And today it’s a popular tourist destination for anyone wanting a traditional ‘Korean’ experience. A stay in a traditional Hanok house is a must in Andong! Yes, I’ve stayed in a hanok house.
Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip visited Andong in 1999 on her 73rd birthday.
Read more about Andong
The End of the Monarchy in Korea
So now we come towards the end of the monarchy in Korea. We’ve looked briefly over the main periods through history: Gojoseon, Goguryeo and the Three Kingdoms, Unified Silla, Goryeo, and now Joseon.
It was a dramatic end to the Monarchy which began in 1895 with the assassination of Empress Myeongseong, wife of King Gojong (r. 1864-1907) in Gyeongbukgung (palace). She was assassinated after Japanese soldiers took over the palace. Read more about the assassination of Empress Myeongseong.
King Gojong became the last of the 27 kings of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1895).
The Empire of Korea
In 1897 he then proclaimed himself the Emperor of the Empire of Korea. But this only lasted for a short time when he was forced to abdicate (1897-1907)
The drama Mr Sunshine (tvN, 2018) is set during the turbulent period of the Korean Empire (1897-1910).
After the abdication, the weak Crown Prince was placed on the throne instead. He became Emperor Sunjong but was just a figurehead and died in 1926 without an heir.
So after his death, his younger sibling Yi Eun became next in line to the throne. But he had been sent to Japan during the colonial period and married to a member of the Japanese nobility, Princess Masako.
After the second world war, Crown Prince Yi Eun and his wife Princess Masako wanted to come back to Korea but were stopped by then President Syngman Rhee.
The Republic of Korea (ROK)
Rhee was the first president of South Korea after the north and south were divided. And he saw them as potential rivals for power and refused to let them back into the country. Due to this situation, they became Japanese nationals.
It wasn’t until 1962 when the Korean royal family could finally return to Korea. But by this point Princess Deok-hye was suffering from mental illness and had been in an asylum for several years. Queen Yun, the widow of Emperor Sunjong, Yun died in 1966, followed by Yi Eun in 1970. Read more about the exile of the Monarch in Korea in this Korea Times article
And so the Royal Family came to an end, although a surviving heir to the throne can be traced from the Lee family that ruled Joseon. But now after 70 years of being a republic, there doesn’t seem to be any desire to introduce a Monarchy in Korea again.
posts related to monarchy in Korea
ultimate guide to Joseon kings
early Joseon kings and related historical dramas
Mid Joseon Kings and related historical dramas
Late Joseon Kings and related historical dramas