Politics and Economy
While religion provides an important backdrop, the drama’s overriding concerns are political and economic. In terms of politics, Jumong engages a range of foreign and domestic issues relevant not only to the founding of Koguryo but to contemporary Korea, both North and South. The key foreign affairs concern is the loss of national sovereignty to the Han Chinese. Here, the drama works through complex feelings of the Korean people toward foreign oppressors. Though clearly standing on the side of patriots and freedom fighters, the drama makes a point of condemning recklessness and emotionalism which it depicts as undermining patriots and appeasers alike. Domestically, the overriding issue is internal disunity which is said to have played a major role in Ancient Josun’s downfall and threatens the establishment of Koguryo. Here, in thinly veiled ways, the series addresses contemporary Korean attitudes toward politics, specifically authoritarianism, democracy and the transfer of power. Jumong treats economy as a subset of politics, highlighting its importance as a base for political independence and stability but at the same time addresses a cultural penchant for gambling, issues of deceit, bribery, the black market, and long-term versus quick-profit thinking. No less than for politics, the seriesprovides a platform for reflection about ecomomic practices in contemporary Korea.
The single circumstance which underlines all the action of Jumong is the loss of sovereignty to the Han Chinese. With few, if any, exceptions they are depicted as cruel, exploitative oppressors. They don’t hesitate to butcher migrants or even whole tribes, such as Lady Yuhwa’s Haebek tribe, as examples of the fate awaiting those who oppose their rule. They impose forced labor on the migrants, confining them in camps, and exact excessive tribute as well as compulsory military service from subject tribes and states such as Puyo. The Han maintain their authority solely by the force of arms, in partcular their “Iron Army” which due to advanced smelting techniques appears to possess inpenetrable armour.and unbreakable swords. Giving voice to those suffering under the Han yoke, Lady Yuhwa bitterly questions how the Chinese emperor can dare call himself the “son of heaven.”
As a buffer state bordered by powerful neighbors, Korea has a long history of foreign invasions and oppression. For centuries, beginning from the period depicted in Jumong, Chinese dynasties treated Korea as a vassal, tributary state. The Mongols invaded Korea from 1231-70 and the Japanese from 1592-98, neither of which succeeded in subjugating Korea but both of which resulted in a tremendous loss of lives and property. Following its defeat of China (1895) and Russia (1904), Japan occupied Korea for forty years (1905-45) during which it made efforts to eradicate Korean national identity and incorporate Korea into its imperial empire. Following World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union occupied the peninsula, dividing it into bellicose states which have remained in a state of war since 1950. These national traumas have fostered varying degrees of collective resentment among Korean people. This, in turn, has resulted in hyper-sensitivity toward real or perceived national insults, especially with respect to Japan. From the 1990s, China has been actively engaged in a “North-East Revisionist” project, attempting to define Koguryo as a regional government of ancient China rather than an independent kingdom. This has spilled over into controversies over Jumong and other Korean historical dramas which Chinese authorities and internet users have called chauvinistic and anti-Chinese11.
As is commonly the case in situations of oppression, Han dominance polarized Koreans into uncompromising and compromising camps. Jumong’s heroes are uncompromising in their refusal to cooperate with the Han Chinese. They are willing to sacrifice comfort, position, and even their lives in the effort to drive them from Korean soil. Haemosu leads the Damul Army (Damulgun), a band of fighters who conduct guerilla-syle forays into Han territory. Jumong takes up his fallen father’s cause, provokes larger-scale warfare against the Han, overruns their commanderies, and succeeds in establishing Koguryo as a successor state to Ancient Josun. Compromisers, who make up most of Puyo’s ruling elite, despise the Han and are willing to trade insults but finally unwilling to risk their positions or their nation’s well-being in ill-advised rebellion. Another category of compromisers consists of Korean collaborators who go entirely over to the Han side and, in effect, become Han Chinese. The best example in Jumong is Yangjang, former prince of Goma, who is taken captive by by Han, rises through their ranks and returns as governor of Hyunto, one of the Han commandries. Much of the drama revolves around the contending positions and interactions of these parties.
Again, this has a great deal of relevance to contemporary Korea which still struggles with its legacy of resistance and capitulation to imperial Japan. Over against the humiliation of being annexed, Koreans point with pride to the March 1, 1919 Independence Movement protests, beginning in Seoul and spreading throughout the country. However, these were violently repressed, and the Japanese proceeded to impose their language, surnames, and, humiliatingly, Shinto shrine worship upon Koreans. Some resisted violently, assassinating Japanese officials. Some fled, mostly to Manchuria. Some joined or supported the provisional Korean government-in-exile, based in Shanghai. With the outbreak of World War II, others like the future North Korean leader, Kim Il Sung, led or joined guerilla bands allied with the Chinese. Some remained within Korea, refusing to cooperate and were imprisoned. However, the overwhelming majority gave in to Japanese demands, speaking Japanese, taking Japanese surnames and performing Shinto shrine worship. Others joined the Japanese Imperial Army or became active collaborators, seemingly forsaking their Korean identity. These various positions created significant strain as Korea sought to reconstitute itself as a nation, or two nations, following liberation.
To its credit, Jumong is more nuanced than a simple uncompromising-compromising-collaborating configuration might suggest. A number of the characters vacillate between positions, sometimes as a result of genuine soul-searching, other times due to circumstances. Kumwa, Puyo’s king, is the best example. As a young crown prince, he was a patriotic, though secret comrade of Haemosu, supplying arms and engaging in covert operations. Following Haemosu’s capture and presumed death, the drama fast-forwards twenty years. The Damul army is a distant memory, and Kumwa, now king of Puyo, is caught up in the affairs of state. He still hates the Han, and one of his consuming goals is to discover the secret of fashioning steel weaponry rivaling the Han’s “Iron Army.” To this end, he maintains a clandestine and illegal iron works. Nevertheless, Kumwa’s basic motivation is to preserve Puyo’s and his own position.Therefore, he struggles mightily when confronted by Jumong’s efforts to confront the Chinese, sometimes aligning with Jumong and even committing Puyo forces to battle, other times opposing his actions and declaring him a traitor.
Jumong, like Kumwa, dedicates himself to discovering the secret of Han weapon production techniques. Also like Kumwa, he engages in a cat-and-mouse game, covertly producing arms and utilizing technological espionage as opportunities present themselves. This is another example of Jumong providing a venue to process contemporary circumstances, in this case North Korea’s clandestine nuclear program. On balance, the series seems to concede the right of smaller nations to protect themselves and develop advanced weaponry. The drama throughout places a premium on technology as the key to leveling the playing field. In this respect, Jumong and Korean culture generally, seems to embrace political realism when it comes to matters of defense.
As stated, the overriding domestic political issue is disunity which is understood to have played a major role in Ancient Josun’s downfall and threatens the establishment of Koguryo. Several characters comment that Ancient Josun fell to the Han Chinese not only because of the Han’s superior military force but primarily due to Josun’s “internal discord.” The same tendency toward discord and factionalization works to undermine Puyo. In addition to the struggle between the shrine and palace, a more consequential dispute erupts between Jumong and Kumwa’s two sons, Daeso and Youngpo, over who will be appointed crown prince. Following Haemosu’s presumed death, Kumwa returns to Puyo with Lady Yuhwa who is pregnant with Haemosu’s child. However, Kumwa has fallen desperately in love with Yuhwa and installs her as his royal concubine, or second wife, agreeing to maintain the fiction that the child she conceived with Haemosu, whom she names “Jumong,” is his own. This precipitates significant jealousy and conflict between the Queen, her relatives, and her two prince sons with Jumong, Lady Yuhwa and Kumwa who favors his concubine and adoptive son. Kumwa aggravates the situation by breaking with tradition and announcing open competition among his three sons for the position of successor. Betrayals, assassination-attempts, temporary usurpations of the crown, public confusion and general instability result.
Korean politics is famously factional and fractious. Michael Breen, in The Koreans, notes, “There is a joke among political scientists that if you put two Koreans on a desert island, they would form three political parties: one each and a coalition.” According to Breen, political parties “represent neither a social class nor a particular philosophy” but “are built around powerful factional leaders12.” Maarten Meijer reports, “The word ‘compromise’ does not exist in the political vocabulary. Opposition parties do not provide balanced leverage on government decisions but seem bent on annihilating those in power.” Most embarrassing, he says, “are the scenes from the National Assembly, broadcast on national television, where ruling and opposition parliamentarians hurl pieces of taxpayer-paid furniture at each other13.” Both Breen and Meijer point out that intense regionalism (rooted in the Korean clan system), social relations, family connections, and alumni or hometown networks characterize Korean political culture.
All of these themes play out in Jumong. With few exceptions, protagonists pursue their objectives with Machiavellian ruthlessness, switching sides as it suits their interests and seeking to eliminate any would-be stumbling blocks. The level of violence in the series is appalling. The Han Chinese are not the only ones guilty of massacres. In fact, as Puyo descends into a maelstrom of famine and internal conflict, its repressive actions begin to resemble those of North Korea. Those seeking to escape are killed. Kumwa, Puyo’s king, is said to have a swelling on the back of his neck, a seeming transparent reference to North Korean President Kim Il Sung’s famous growth. However, Jumong and his compatriots are also ferocious, accumulating Rambo-like kill-totals in virtually every episode of the series. Bodyguards are omnipresent, not only in the palace but for merchant troops and even sorceresses. If anything, the drama has the feel of something out of the American Wild West, though with swords rather than six-shooters. In this respect, Jumong servesas a cautionary tale for self-destructive tendencies within Korean politics.
As suggested, Jumong treats economy as a subset of politics. There is a subplot embedded in the series which revolves around the fortune of a tribal merchant troop. Yuntabal, the merchant leader and tribal chief of Keryu and head of a contentious tribal confederation in the area of Jolban, harbors Haemosu, Jumong’s father, while he was a fugitive. Yuntabal’s daughter Sosuhno subsequently becomes a key player in the drama and love-interest of Jumong. She inherits leadership of her father’s troop, supports Jumong’s efforts, and through a series of remarkable adventures accumulates great wealth. She constructs a magnificent palace and invites Jumong’s New Damul Army to settle in Jolban, thereby establishing the material foundation for Koguryo. She reigns as empress with Jumong for fifteen years before departing with her two sons by a previous marriage to set up a new kingdom, Paekche (or Baekje), in the South14.
The series utilizes the subplot to explore a number of themes related to business and economy. Yuntabal, for much of the drama, serves as a mouthpiece, articulating key traits of the superior merchant. This would run the risk of degenerating into set pieces on Confucian virtue were it not for Yuntabal’s nuanced realism and colorful character. He, for example, is an inveterate gambler, betting on everything from whether his wife will give birth to a boy or girl to whether he should risk all in supporting Jumong. He freely acknowledges that as a merchant, he is “guilty” before the gods. That is, to “gain others’ hearts,” he “sometimes must lie.” He also employs all manner of trade agents (spies) and strategists to aide him in outmaneuvering his rivals. On the other hand, Yuntabal strongly rejects a preoccupation with short-term profits which he characterizes as the concern of the inferior merchant. He directs much of his commentary to his spirited and head-strong daughter Sosuhno who gradually learns the lessons of patience and calculation.
Korea’s remarkable “transition from an agricultural backwater to a modern industrialized state in one generation” and it’s more precipitous monetary collapse in 1998 which led to the largest IMF national bailout in history exemplify many of the economic motifs developed in Jumong15. Yuntabal is an ancient type of the modern chaebol (or jaebol) leader, i.e., the founders of Hyundai or LG who built conglomerates spanning the country, flexed their corporate muscles in the political arena, and kept business in the family. Like the modern chaebol types, Yuntabal puts a premium on personal relationships and exhibits a minimal amount of transparency with respect to his operation, telling his chief strategist Sayong that for merchants, “even deceit is a tool of the trade.” This prompts a lively debate as Sayong, likely a representative of reformist elements within Korean management culture, objects to involvement with “fraudulent cases.” Here, as in so many other areas, Jumong dramatizes the engagement between traditional and modern practices.