|[Editor’s Note: Jumong, one of Korea's most impressive and popular historical dramas is also said to be one of Reverend and Mrs. Moon’s favorites. They have recommended this drama to church members by virtue of its emphasis on how one person is able to establish a country. The main actor, Song Il Kook, personally met with Rev. Moon in 2007 at his residence in Irvington, New York where he was presented with a signed Jumong poster as a present for his 88th birthday. The following essay is an abridged version of an article published in The Journal of Unification Studies by Dr. Michael L. Mickler, a professor at the Unification Theological Seminary in New York City.]
Jumong (2006-07) is an extraordinarily popular Korean tele-drama which in DVD and online formats penetrated beyond Korea to broader Asian and select global markets. It is a recent manifestation of the so-called “Korean wave” (Hallyu) which refers to “the surge in popularity of South Korean culture around the world since the first decade of the 21st1 century.” While strongest in China, Japan and Southeast Asia, its influence has spread to India, the Middle East, Central Asia, Iran, Israel, Turkey, and Russia, even the Americas and Europe. Matched by “growing economic power and the rise of global multinationals such as Samsung, LG and Hyundai-Kia,” South Korea is now “one of the world's top ten cultural exporters2.” At the center of the Korean wave is the export of massively popular TV dramas such as Hur Jun (2000), Winter Sonata (2002) and Jewel in the Palace(2003). A major appeal of these dramas is the way in which they fuse competing claims of tradition and modernity.
Jumong stands squarely in the tradition of Korean “fusion” dramas3. Ostensibly, it is a grand historical epic, 81-episodes in all, about the founding of Koguryo4 (or Goguryeo, 37 BCE-CE 668), the northernmost of the Three Kingdoms of Korea. Koguryo is a successor kingdom to Ancient Josun (Gojoseon or Choson), the first proper nation of the Korean people, said to be founded in 2333 BCE by the legendary Dangun, grandson of Heaven. In 108 BCE, the Han Chinese defeated Ancient Josun and installed four commanderies which exerted oppressive control over the conquered peoples or “migrants” as they are called in the series. During Korea’s Proto-Three Kingdom Period (108-57 BCE), surviving Korean statelets created defensive alliances, jockeyed for position among themselves, and cooperated to greater or lesser degrees with the Han. The chief of these surviving city-states and the scene for much of the action in Jumong is Puyo (or Buyeo) which asserted its control over lesser nations and tribes. The main action of the drama centers on the efforts of Jumong, Koguryo’s founder, to liberate the suffering migrants, drive out the Han, and restore ancient Josun.
Though the series is ostensibly about the founding of Koguryo, it provides a platform for grappling with a host of modern issues related to religion, politics, economy, and culture. Protagonists deal with shamanism, Judeo-Christian motifs, a powerful and oppressive foreign power, clandestine weapon production, Machiavellian-style political in-fighting, nation-building, arbitrary rule, graft, arranged marriages, romantic love, court formalism, revenge, violence, varying child-rearing patterns, ethnocentrism, and the possibilities of personal and communal transformation. The contemporary relevance of these matters helps explain Jumong’s extraordinary popularity in Korea and elsewhere since its 2006-07 launch5.
The intent of this article is to examine core themes of Jumong as a way of opening up dimensions of Korean culture. The first thematic section will cover spirituality and religion, the second politics and economy, and the third culture. A concluding section will assess the hero’s quest and transformational journey which lies at the heart of Jumong and how that resonates with contemporary Korean consciousness.