Koreans, North and South, have a huge amount of pride in their national history. This becomes apparent when you do things like watch Heaven’s Soldiers, a 2005 South Korean hit film where a contingent of North and South Korean soldiers are somehow transported back to the time of legendary Korean general Yi Sun-sin, guns and all. After a lot of ass-kicking of foreign invaders by the Quantum Leaped soldiers, the film posits its message that Korean reunification can happen because, at heart, they’re all Korean, and Koreans are awesome. It’s a fun if naïve message, and plus you get to see dudes with guns shoot dudes with swords.
This national pride informs a lot of the work done by Korean historians, as they try to make specific incidents and events fit within the narrative of Korean exceptionalism [I know this sounds like a dumb academic essay. Be patient. We’re getting to the good stuff.] Things like the Japanese occupation of Korea and the split between North and South are problematic for Korean historians, because they don’t really fit the narrative all that much. There’s a lot of academic hemming and hawing as to how these events should be presented—as a shameful lapse in judgment? As a betrayal by some Koreans of the greater national good? This is a huge problem not just within the field of history but nationally, as, again, Koreans take a great deal of pride in their past.
All of that being said, even pre-occupation, a lot of fucked up things happened in Korean history that the historians seem to gloss over. For example, there’s the case of Prince Sado. The crown-prince of Korea in the mid-18th century , Prince Sado had some serious mental issues, which began showing up when he was around 12. He took an interest in the occult and behaved strangely, but by all accounts he was mostly a thoughtful young man. Unfortunately, by the time he was 15, it became clear the dude was crazy. He was afraid of the sky, continued to see visions of the Thunder God, and during thunderstorms, the Prince had to hide and cover his face.
This was understandably a touchy subject for the King, Yongjo, who did not appreciate the fact that his heir was insane. He constantly scolded his son, who in bouts of madness, would beat his eunuchs. This got to the point where Sado was randomly killing people who lived in the palace, and engaging in poorly-defined “sexual deviancy. [If the Marquis de Sade didn’t exist, maybe we’d have a different origin for the word “Sadism.”]” He also developed a “phobia of clothing,” meaning he walked around in the nude quite frequently.
So, the king had an insane heir who was indiscriminately murdering people. Something had to be done. So, naturally, the king ordered the Prince to climb into a rice chest and just stay locked in there until he died. They did this in front of everybody in the palace, including the Prince’s wife. Prince Sado was understandably less-than-happy with this outcome, and his wails and protestations from the chest could be heard for a few days. After 8 days of being confined to the rice chest, the Prince suffocated to death.
Now, you might be thinking, “what the fuck?” Or maybe, “No, seriously, what the FUCK?” But the king’s reasoning for doing this made a sort of demented sense within Korean custom at the time. He couldn’t have his mentally ill son run around killing people, and there was no real treatment for mental illness at the time. [Prayers and incantations had proved unsuccessful.] BUT, the King couldn’t publicly execute the Prince, because that would mean the Prince’s family would also have to be published—including the Prince’s son [the king’s new heir] and King Yongjo himself. So having him climb into a rice chest, locking him inside, and having him slowly die in front of everybody was a middle ground. It wasn’t a public execution, so they avoided having to punish everybody, but it also killed the Prince. Everybody wins! [Except the Prince. And also his wife, whose memoirs are the best source we have on these events. She seems kind of sad about her husband being locked in a chest and her son being taken away from her.]
So, yes, Koreans have a great deal of well-earned pride in their national history. The exploits of figures like Yi Sun-sin are legendary and kind of awesome. But they also shouldn’t forget about that time a guy who was almost king had to climb into a box and die.