Open main menu

Seonjo of Joseon (26 November 1552 – 16 March 1608) was the fourteenth king of the Joseon Dynasty of Korea from 1567 to 1608. Known for encouraging Confucianism and renovating state affairs at the beginning of his reign, political chaos and his incompetent leadership during the Japanese invasions of Korea marred his later years.[1]

Seonjo of Joseon
King of Joseon
PredecessorMyeongjong of Joseon
SuccessorGwanghaegun of Joseon
RegentCrown Prince Gwanghae
Born26 November 1552
Hanseong, Kingdom of Joseon
Died16 March 1608 (1608-03-17) (aged 55)
Hanseong, Kingdom of Joseon
ConsortQueen Uiin
Queen Inmok
IssueGwanghaegun of Joseon
Posthumous name
King Seonjo Sogyung Jeongryun Ripgeuk Seongdeok Hongryeol Jiseong Daeeui Gyeokcheon Heeun Gyungmyung Sinryeok Honggong Yungeop Hyeonmun Euimu Seongye Dalhyo the Great of Korea
Temple name
HouseJeonju Yi
FatherYi Cho, Grand Prince Deokheung
MotherGrand Princess Consort Hadong
Seonjo of Joseon
Revised RomanizationSeonjo
Birth name
Revised RomanizationI Yeon
McCune–ReischauerYi Yŏn



King Seonjo was born Yi Yeon in 1552 in Hanseong (today, Seoul), capital of Korea, as the third son of Prince Deokheung (덕흥군), himself son of King Jungjong and Royal Noble Consort Changbin Ahn-ssi (창빈 안씨, 1499–1549). He was given the title of Prince Haseong. When King Myeongjong died young without an heir, Prince Haseong was the next in the line of succession. Then, by decision of the royal court, he was crowned king in 1567 at the age of 16.[1][2] As a result, his father was promoted to the status of Daewongun (대원군, 'Great Prince of the Court)[3]

Early Reign (1567–1575)Edit

King Seonjo focused on the improvement of the lives of the common people, as well as rebuilding the nation after the political corruption during the chaotic reign of Yeonsangun and King Jungjong. He encouraged Sarim scholars, who had been persecuted by entrenched aristocrats in four different purges between 1498 and 1545 during reign of Yeosangun and Jungjong. Seonjo continued the political reforms of King Myeongjong, and put many famous Confucian scholars, including Yi Hwang, Yi I, Jeong Cheol, and Yu Seong-ryong, in office.[1]

Seonjo also reformed the civil service examination system, particularly the civil official qualification exam. The previous exam was mainly concerned with literature, not with politics or history. The king himself ordered the system to be reformed by increasing the importance of these other subjects. He also restored the reputations of executed scholars such as Jo Gwang-jo, who died in Third Literati Purge of 1519, and denounced the accomplishments of corrupt aristocrats, notably Nam Gon, who instigated the purge under Jungjong and contributed greatly to the corruption of the era. These acts earned the king the respect of the general populace, and the country enjoyed a brief era of peace.[1][4]

Political division and East-West feud (1575–1592)Edit

Among the scholars King Seonjo called to the government were Sim Ui-gyeom and Kim Hyowon. Sim was a relative of the queen, and heavily conservative.[5] Kim was the leading figure of the new generation of officials, and called for liberal reforms.[6] The scholars who supported King Seonjo began to split into two factions, headed by Sim and Kim. Members of the two factions even lived in the same neighborhood; Sim's faction lived on west side of the city while Kim's followers gathered on the east side. Consequently, the two factions began to be called the Western Faction and the Easterners ; this two-faction based political system lasted 200 years and later helped bring about the collapse of the dynasty.[2][4]

At first the Westerners earned the favor of the king, since Sim was related to the queen and also had larger support from wealthy nobles. However, their attitudes on reformation and Sim's indecisiveness helped the Easterners take power, and the Westerners fell out of favor. Reforms were accelerated during the first period of influence of the Easterners, but then many Easterners began to urge others to slow down the reforms. The Easterners were once again divided into the Northern and the Southern Faction. Yu Seong-ryong led the Southern faction while the Northerners divided even further after arguments over many issues; the Greater Northerners Faction was an extreme leftist faction, while the Lesser Northerners Faction became less reform-minded than the Greater Northerners Faction, but still more leftist than the Southerners.[2]

The political divisions caused the nation to be weakened, since the size of the military was also one of the issues on the reform agenda. Yi I, a neutral conservative, urged the king to increase the size of the army to prepare against future invasions from the Jurchens and Japanese. However, both factions rejected Yi's suggestions, and the size of the army was decreased further since many believed the peaceful period would last. The Jurchens and Japanese used this opportunity to expand their influence in East Asia, resulting in the Seven-Year War, and the foundation of the Qing Dynasty in China, both of which would lead to devastation on the Korean Peninsula.[4]

King Seonjo faced many difficulties dealing with both new threats, sending many skilled military commanders to the northern front, while contending with Japanese leaders Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu in the south. However, after Toyotomi Hideyoshi unified Japan, the Japanese soon proved themselves to be the greater threat; and many Koreans began to fear that their country would be taken over by the Japanese. Many officials concerned with the defense of the kingdom urged the king to send delegates to Hideyoshi, their major purpose being to find out whether Hideyoshi was preparing for invasion or not. However, the two government factions could not even agree on this issue of national importance; so a compromise was made and one delegate from each faction was sent to Hideyoshi. When they returned to Korea, their reports only caused more controversy and confusion.[1][2][4] Hwang Yun-gil, of the Westerners faction, reported that Hideyoshi was raising huge numbers of troops,[7] but Kim Seong-Il, of the Easterners faction, told the king that he thought these large forces were not for the war against Korea, since he was trying to complete his reforms quickly to prevent lawlessness and quash the bandits now roaming the countryside.[8] Since the Easterners had the bigger voice in government at the time, Hwang's reports were ignored and Seonjo decided not to prepare for war, even though the attitude of Hideyoshi in his letter to Seonjo clearly showed his interest in the conquest of Asia.[7][9]

Six-Year War (1592–1598)Edit

In 1591, after the delegates had returned from Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi sent his own delegates to visit King Seonjo, and asked permission to pass through the Korean Peninsula to invade China, in effect declaring war against the Joseon kingdom. The king was surprised; after refusing the Japanese request he sent a letter to Beijing to alert the Chinese that the Japanese were actually preparing for full-scale war against the Korean-Chinese alliance. He also ordered the construction of many forts in the coastal regions and sent generals Sin Rip and Yi Il to the southern coast to prepare for war. While the Koreans were busy making their preparations, the Japanese manufactured muskets for many of their soldiers, mobilized warriors from across the entire country.[9][10]

On April 13, 1592, about 700 Japanese ships under Konishi Yukinaga invaded Korea. Konishi easily burned Fort Busan and Fort Donglae, killed commanders Jeong Bal and Song Sang-hyeon and marched northward. On the next day even more troops under Katō Kiyomasa and Kuroda Nagamasa landed, also marching toward Hanyang. A huge Japanese fleet under Todo Takatora and Kuki Yoshitaka supported them from the sea. General Yi Il faced Katō Kiyomasa at the Battle of Sangju, which was won by Japanese. Then Yi Il met General Sin Rip, but their combined forces were also defeated at the Battle of Chungju by Konishi Yukinaga. Then Seonjo appointed General Kim Myeong-won as Commander-in-Chief and Field Marshal, and ordered him to defend the capital. Then the king moved to Pyongyang, since the Japanese began to seize the capital. He later moved even further north to the border city of Uiju just before the fall of Pyongyang. While the king was absent from the capital, many people who had lost hope in the government plundered the palace and burned many public buildings. This resulted in even more damage than that perpetrated by the Japanese after they had captured the city.[9][10]

Although the army continued to lose men and battles, the navy successfully cut the Japanese supply line from the sea; Admiral Yi Sun-sin defeated the Japanese fleet several times and did much damage to the supply ships. With the navy blocking supplies, Chinese forces under General Li Rusong arrived, and began to push the Japanese southward, eventually retaking Pyongyang. Konishi Yukinaga successfully blocked a Chinese advance at Battle of Byeokjegwan, and again tried to push the Koreans northward,[11] but the crucial blow came at the Battle of Hangju, where General Gwon Yul defeated the Japanese with a much smaller force.[12] The Japanese then decided to enter into peace negotiations, while both sides continued fighting. During these negotiations Koreans retook Seoul, but the palaces had all been burnt to the ground, so Seonjo repaired one of the old royal family's houses and renamed it Deoksugung, making it one of the official palaces.[13]

The peace negotiations between the Chinese and Japanese ended unsuccessfully, due to a lack of understanding between the two sides and misrepresentation of the Koreans. The Japanese again invaded Korea in 1597; but this time all three nations were ready for war, and the Japanese were not able to advance as easily as in 1592. The Japanese tried to take Hanyang from both land and sea routes. At first the plan seemed to work well when Todo Takatora defeated Admiral Won Gyun at the Battle of Chilchonryang,[14] but the plan was abandoned when the Korean navy under Admiral Yi Sun-sin defeated the Japanese fleet under Todo Takatora in the Battle of Myeongnyang with only 13 ships. The battle effectively ended the war, and in 1598 the Japanese at last withdrew from Korea after the sudden death of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The Battle of Noryang marked the end of the war, with the last Japanese units under Konishi Yukinaga leaving Korea.[4][9][10]

Later days (1598–1608)Edit

Despite all the efforts put in by Seonjo during the war, such as establishing army training facilities and reforming taxation laws – people were awarded with increase of social class, exemption of labor or crimes in return for payment of tax in rice – the war left a devastated land and starving people.[1] After the war, his wish of reconstructing the nation was impeded by the political turmoil caused by quarrelling political factions and famine.[2] King Seonjo lost hope in governing the nation, and let his Crown Prince Gwanghaegun rule in his place. However, when the queen gave birth to a son (Gwanghaegun was the second son of Lady Kim, the king's concubine), the succession also became a matter of contention.[15] King Seonjo died in 1608, while political division and outside threats still darkened the skies over Korea.[2]


  • Father: Yi Cho, Grand Internal Prince Deokheung (2 April 1530 – 14 June 1559) (이초 덕흥대원군)[3]
    • Grandfather: King Jungjong of Joseon (16 April 1488 – 29 November 1544) (조선 중종)
    • Grandmother: Royal Noble Consort Chang of the Ansan Ahn clan (1499 – 1549) (창빈 안씨)
  • Mother: Grand Internal Princess Consort Hadong of the Hadong Jeong clan (23 September 1522 – 24 June 1567) (하동부대부인 정씨)
    • Grandfather: Jeong Se-Ho (1486 – 1563) (정세호 )
    • Grandmother: Lady Lee of the Gwangju Lee clan (광주 이씨)
  • Consorts and their Respective Issue(s):
  1. Queen Uiin of the Bannam Park clan (5 May 1555 – 5 August 1600) (의인왕후 박씨)
  2. Queen Inmok of the Yeonan Kim clan (15 December 1584 – 13 August 1632) (인목왕후 김씨)
    1. Princess Jeongmyeong (27 June 1603 – 8 September 1685) (정명공주)
    2. Yi Ui, Grand Prince Yeongchang (12 April 1606 – 19 March 1614) (이의 영창대군)
  3. Royal Noble Consort Gong of the Gimhae Kim clan (16 November 1553 – 13 June 1577) (공빈 김씨)
    1. Yi Jin, Prince Imhae (20 September 1572 – 3 June 1609) (이진 임해군)
    2. Yi Hon, Crown Prince Gwanghae (4 June 1575 – 7 August 1641) (이혼 광해세자)
  4. Royal Noble Consort In of the Suwon Kim clan (1555 – 29 October 1613) (인빈 김씨)
    1. Yi Seong, Prince Uian (1577 – 24 February 1588) (이성 의안군)
    2. Yi Ho, Prince Shinseong (6 January 1579 – 8 December 1592) (이후 신성군)
    3. Yi Bu, Prince Jeongwon (2 August 1580 – 29 December 1619) (이부 정원군)
    4. Princess Jeongsin (1583 – 1653) (정신옹주)
    5. Princess Jeonghye (22 March 1584 – 1638) (정혜옹주)
    6. Princess Jeongsuk (1587 – 6 November 1627) (정숙옹주)
    7. Yi Gwang, Prince Uichang (1589 – 1645) (이광 의창군)
    8. Princess Jeongan (1590 – 1660) (정안옹주)
    9. Princess Jeonghwi (1593 – 15 July 1653) (정휘옹주)
  5. Royal Noble Consort Sun of the Gimhae Kim clan (순빈 김씨)
    1. Yi Bu, Prince Sunhwa (10 October 1580 – 18 March 1607) (이부 순화군)
  6. Royal Noble Consort Jeong of the Yeoheung Min clan (1567 – 1626) (정빈 민씨)
    1. Yi Gong, Prince Inseong (29 October 1588 – 20 May 1628) (이공 인성군)
    2. Princess Jeongin (1590 – 10 January 1656) (정인옹주)
    3. Princess Jeongseon (1 April 1594 – 1 August 1614) (정선옹주)
    4. Princess Jeonggeun (1601 – 11 July 1613) (정근옹주)
    5. Yi Yeong, Prince Inheung (1604 – 1651) (이영 인흥군)
  7. Royal Noble Consort Jeong of the Namyang Hong clan (27 July 1563 – 1 March 1638) (정빈 홍씨)
    1. Princess Jeongjeong (1595 – 1666) (정정옹주)
    2. Yi Ju, Prince Gyeongchang (23 September 1596 – 16 January 1644) (이주 경창군)
  8. Royal Noble Consort On of the Cheongju Han clan (1581 – 1664) (온빈 한씨)
    1. Yi Je, Prince Heungan (1598 – 21 February 1624) (이제 흥안군)
    2. Yi Reuk, Prince Gyeongpyeong (June 1600 – 28 November 1673) (이륵 경평군)
    3. Princess Jeonghwa (1604 – 1667) (정화옹주)
    4. Yi Gye, Prince Yeongseon (24 December 1605 – 1649) (이계 영선군)
  9. Royal Consort Gwi-in of the Jeong clan (귀인 정씨)
  10. Royal Consort Suk-ui of the Jeong clan (숙의 정씨)
  11. Royal Consort So-won of the Yun clan (소원 윤씨)

His full posthumous nameEdit

  • English: King Seonjo Sogyung Jeongryun Ripgeuk Seongdeok Hongryeol Jiseong Daeeui Gyeokcheon Heeun Gyungmyung Sinryeok Honggong Yungeop Hyeonmun Euimu Seongye Dalhyo the Great of Korea
  • Korean: 선조소경정륜립극성덕홍렬지성대의격천희운경명신력홍공융업현문의무성예달효대왕

Modern depictionsEdit

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c d e f (in Korean) Seonjo at Doosan Encyclopedia
  2. ^ a b c d e f (in Korean) Seonjo Archived 2011-06-10 at the Wayback Machine at Encyclopedia of Korean Culture
  3. ^ a b (in Korean) Daewongun at Doosan Encyclopedia. An honorary title given to the father of the king who is not a direct heir from the previous king.
  4. ^ a b c d e The Academy of Korean Studies, Korea through the Ages Vol. 1 p189-p195, The Editor Publishing Co., Seoul, 2005. ISBN 89-7105-544-8
  5. ^ (in Korean) Sim Ui-gyeom at Doosan Encyclopedia
  6. ^ (in Korean) Kim Hyowon at Doosan Encyclopedia
  7. ^ a b (in Korean) Hwang Yun-gil at Doosan Encyclopedia
  8. ^ (in Korean) Kim Seong-il at Doosan Encyclopedia
  9. ^ a b c d (in Korean) Japanese invasions of Korea 1592–1598 at Doosan Encyclopedia
  10. ^ a b c (in Korean) Japanese invasions of Korea 1592–1598 Archived 2011-06-10 at the Wayback Machine at Encyclopedia of Korean Culture
  11. ^ (in Korean) Battle of Byeokjegwan at Doosan Encyclopedia
  12. ^ (in Korean) Gwon Yul at Doosan Encyclopedia
  13. ^ (in Korean) Deoksugung at Doosan Encyclopedia
  14. ^ (in Korean) Won Gyun Archived 2011-06-10 at the Wayback Machine at Encyclopedia of Korean Culture
  15. ^ (in Korean) Gwanghaegun Archived 2011-06-10 at the Wayback Machine at Encyclopedia of Korean Culture
Seonjo of Joseon
Born: 26 December 1552 Died: 17 March 1608
Regnal titles
Preceded by
King of Joseon
with Gwanghaegun (1592–1608)
Succeeded by