The political culture of Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) is characterized by bungdang politics. Bungdang is the equivalent to today’s political party system. The Joseon bureaucracy split into factions in the late 16th century. Thereafter, the politics followed the competition for power among these factions. In the past, Korean people regarded it as factional politics and had a bad image on the political culture of Joseon. They believed that bungdang politics was a direct cause for dynastic decline that ultimately led to colonization. Indeed, did bungdang give an ill effect on Joseon? What made Koreans have such a bad image of Joseon politics? We need to reevaluate the Joseon political culture.
Bungdang, or political parties, were formed from the late 16th century when the Sarimpa group seized political power. The Sarimpa was divided into two groups such as Dongin (Easterners) and Seoin (Westerners). Once again, the Dongin party was divided into Namin (Southerners) and Bukin (Northerners). Later the Seoin party was split into Noron (Old Doctrine) and Soron (Yong Doctrine). Among them, Namin, Bukin, Noron, Soron were called four colors (sasaekdangpa) which were the basic factional configuration during Joseon Dynasty. The main issues which led to factional divisions and disputes between factions were ones such as investment of crown princes or mourning periods and ritual matters in addition to political policies.
Korean people thought that political struggles hindered the dynasty’s development as well as its effective defending of the country. Such factional politics have been accused to be the direct causes for failure in defending Japanese invasion and for dynastic decline that ultimately led to the colonization of the country. However, it is felt that the negative view was exaggerated because such a bad view of the Joseon political culture was intentionally strengthened by Japanese historians during the colonial period. Japanese scholars presented a theory that factionalism was deeply ingrained into Korean political cultures. They said Joseon people were inclined to make parties to fight each other and so the dynasty was doomed to perish. The purpose was to infuse defeatism into Koreans and to justify its colonization of
After liberation in 1945, Korean historians tried to reevaluate the politics of Joseon to overcome the historical distortion by
By Sohn Jung-sook, lecturer on Korean History at Ewha