Every country has figures in it’s past that have changed the way we live in the present. Korea certainly has a fair share of these historical heroes. Many South Koreans know a great deal about these people and will speak of them with pride. From kings to scholars to leaders, each has left an impact on the legacy of Korean History
King Sejong the Great
Perhaps one of the most famous names in history. All Koreans are taught about the fourth king of the Joseon Kingdom, King Sejong, whose epithet is “the great.” This is not only true of where his history is concerned; in learning the Korean writing system, Hangul, young Koreans are also being educated on the system that King Sejong helped create. It is this enduring legacy that has solidified his name in the history books.
Born in 1397, Sejong ascended to the throne at the age of 22. His father, King Taejong, abdicated voluntarily for Sejong’s succession to take place. He was chosen over the initial rightful heir, his older brother, as his father believed him to be more fit to rule. His reign lasted 32 years. Due to the immense cultural and technological advancements that occurred in this time, it is usually referred to as the Golden Age.
A scholar himself, King Sejong placed a lot of value on knowledge and justice; his principles were built around ideas from Confucianism, meaning education was prioritised. He is known for trying to aid the common people in his society through progressive ideas and even the most basic of necessity, such as helping farmers in times of drought. It is through that aim of aiding his people that King Sejong sought to create an easy writing system.
Before this time, Koreans used Chinese characters to write. These were complex and required years of study, time that common people in those times did not have. In the end, Hangul was created – the writing system that Korean’s still use today. It is one of the easiest alphabets in the world. It is unclear whether King Sejong gave the orders and helped in the creating Hangul, or whether he created it himself. Either way, it was a remarkable achievement. Literacy rates improved, giving more opportunities to those who had previously lacked reading and writing skills.
The achievement is honoured by a statue of King Sejong the Great, unmissable at the centre of Gwanghwamun Square in Seoul.
Yi Sun Shin (이순신)
Not far from King Sejong, and technically there before him in Gwanghwamun Square, another statue of one of Korea’s most prominent historical figures can be found. This is of Admiral Yi Sun Shin, who took part in the Imjin war against the Japanese Navy in the Joseon period. What makes him so noteworthy? He was praised for his conduct on the battlefield not only by Koreans but also by the Japanese, having immense ingenuity in the face of war. Claiming success 23 times, undefeated, he made great contributions to saving Korean from invasion – so much so that he is sometimes called a god of war.
Born in Seoul in 1545, Yu Sun Shin’s military career did not progress all that quickly. He did not draw attention to his military prowess, having joined at the late age of 32. When in 1592 Toyotomi Hideyoshi invaded Korea, however, it was Yu Sun Shin’s consistent victory on the battlefield that helped the Koreans push back the invasion, keeping the Joseon Dynasty safe. At the Battle of Myeongnyang, Yu defeated 133 enemy vessels with only 12 ships at his disposal. He used the tides and chains in order to trap the Japanese vessels, a strategic win that ended 7 years of fighting. Even more impressively, only two of Yu Sun Shin’s men died.
Highly intelligent and a man of great strength, it’s no surprise that Koreans revere him as a hero, even today.
Heo Jun (허준)
Another hero of the Joseon Dynasty, Heo Jun is a little more understated than the King and the Admiral. However, his contributions are just as important to the life of Koreans today. Born around 1539, he was appointed as a court physician at age 29, during the reign of King Seonjo. Heo Jun wrote many important texts. The most notable of these is called Dongui Bogam (동의보감) or Mirror of Eastern Medicine. Many of it’s traditional remedies are still used today and is often considered one of the defining texts of Korean traditional medicine. Not only was it important in Korea, but it spread to many other parts of East Asia too.
Heo Jun worked mostly with the royal family at the time, but this did not mean his medical practices were limited only to them. Like King Sejong, much of his work focused on making medicine accessible and understandable to common people. For example, a lot of his remedies used herbs that could be found and utilised by commoners without much cost. He also used Hangul to write the names of the herbs, so that they could be read by those who did not understand Chinese characters.
Having stood the test of time, Heo Jun’s medical advancements are still referred to as traditional methods in medicine. It’s for this reason that his name is still notable in Korea today.
Yoo Gwan Soon (유관순)
The first female to appear in this list! Yoo Gwan Soon was a crucial part of the March 1st Movement, a protest against Japanese occupation of Korea in 1919. As a peaceful demonstration, Yoo Gwan Soon became a symbol of Korea’s fight for independence, and that is the main reason she is still revered as a hero.
Born in 1902, Yoo was said to be an inquisitive and intelligent child. She was eventually given a scholarship to study at the now prestigious Ewha University. Whilst studying there, she witnessed the beginnings of the protests and took an active role in them. When the government closed all schools in Seoul, Yoo returned home to Yongdu-ri.
Alongside her family, she continued to organise more protests against the occupation, On the 1st April, one such demonstration organised with two others, saw her arrested by the Japanese military. The military told her that she would be given a lighter sentence if she admitted her guilt and informed them of where her fellow organisers were. Yoo Gwan Soon did not tell them, even despite between tortured for the information.
On the 1 year anniversary of the March 1st movement, Yoo prepared another demonstration, this time from inside the walls of her imprisonment. After this, she was taken to an underground prison. Sadly, she died only three months before her release in 1920. Even after her death, the Japanese Military was reluctant to let her body free.
Sometimes known as Korea’s Joan of Arc, Yoo Gwan Soon was an inspiring, strong woman who stood up for the rights of the Korean people. She remains a figurehead for Korean independence and inspires young women with her intelligent defiance.