Koguryŏ on the box

I know I’m way behind the times on this subject as it was already brought up at the Marmot’s Hole weeks ago, but I’d like to put out a call for people’s thoughts on the recent flurry of new historical dramas in South Korea on the Koguryŏ kingdom. I’d be fascinated to know what any of our readers and contributors who are currently in Korea make of MBC’s ‘Jumong‘ and SBS’s ‘Yeongaesomun‘ from either a historical or dramatic point of view.

In case there is anyone else who, like me, is not in Korea and wants some more background, there was an article on the popularity of the new dramas in the Korea Herald a couple of weeks back, which I’ve saved from the oblivion of the KH website here. No doubt whatever their historical problems or the nationalist motivations behind them, these dramas will make spectacular watching as in my experience Korean sagŭk pull out all the stops (although sometimes I wish they’d spend a bit more on the artificial facial hair).

By the way, just so as not to be left out, KBS will be broadcasting its historical drama on the Parhae (Balhae/발해) kingdom, beginning in September.


  1. Look how quickly I’ve been reduced by everyone’s silence to commenting on my own post…

    Actually I was just having a little look around YouTube (where else?) and found that a few snippets from the first episode of Jumong have been posted up there complete with English subtitles! I won’t post links here as I’m not sure what the legal status of that stuff is and god knows how long the clips will be up there, but if you want to have a look you can just search for ‘Jumong’ at YouTube.

    My impression from the little that I saw is that it’s very much a fantasy/martial arts drama (ironically) owing quite a bit to Hero and other recent Chinese sword epics. The subtext – actually it wasn’t a subtext at all – was the heroic battle of the people (in both the 민중 and 민족 sense of the word) against Chinese imperialism. It leads one to wonder how much of the Koguryŏ history controversy is actually the result of psychologically displaced fears about the future rather than the past. That is the coming Chinese empire rather than the disputed one of the early first millennium.

  2. “Jumong” does not pretend to be a “saguk” or a historical drama in any sense. It’s a pure fantasy. So apart from its aesthetic and possibly didactic value, I don’t know if there is much to discuss regarding it. There certainly is no reason to discuss about it from a historical perspective. Of course, this doesn’t mean the drama is worthless even for a pedant like me; beauty itself, as Keats’ misunderstood lines remind us, is of highest value on its own, and the leading actress exudes it in superabundance, though it is for most part a flat, character-less beauty.

    I have, on the other hand, strong and mixed feelings about “Yeon Gaesomun.” I share Shin Chae-ho’s view that Yeon is one of the greatest Korean heroes who was perhaps wrongfully villied by Kim Bu-sik’s Silla-centric account, as well as later Confucian ideologues who (like American neoconservatives or Wilsonian democrats) reflexively castigate violent despots, regardless of the motives of the despot, the historical circumstances, or the ends–the three evaluative tools which the wise and sober Raymond Aron said we must always account for when judging a man. And to the extent that Yeon’s greatness is forgotten now and is being revived through the drama, I am escstatic.

    But being a pedant, I adore the truth above all. And I am afraid that the drama is turning out to be what my mother derided as “sagiguk” rather than a “saguk,” as all dramas go. Of course, as contemporary sagiguks go, “Yeon Gaesomun” isn’t so bad. It is not like the revolting KBS rehabilitation of that Min woman whose sole claim to heroine status was that she was killed by the Japanese–whom she first invited in and then abandoned because for petty personal reasons. Above all, so far (with the exception of Yeongyang Wang’s bizarre boast that all of China used to be once Koguryo land during the reign of Gwanggaeto), the Chinese fears that the drama is a wholly anti-Chinese propaganda vehicle has not materialized. In fact, Tang Taizong, China’s greatest monarch arguably, has been depicted with the nobility and personal integrity that surprised the unrepentantcynic in me. Of course, that depiction could be self-serving as well. After all, Yeon’s nemesis must be great–almost equally great–to burnish Yeon. For what would Achilles be without Hector or even the rather unheroic Odyssesus without Ajax? Great men need great foil.

    No, what disturbs me is that the drama slights other great Koreans, rather than the Chinese, through its multifarious distortions! Of course, history of the era is sketch. But there are certain consensus facts that the drama distorts to lionize its favored heroes and in turn diminish its disfavored heroes. Two examples will suffice. The Battle for the Anshi Fortress, one of the signature military victories of the Korean people, is said to have been led by Yeon, when few historians think Yeon was even present at Anshi. This is most certainly a double injustice to the Lord of the Anshi, whose name we no longer have but think is Yang Manchun. Another example is the treatment of the drama’s second most favored son, Ulchi Munduk. While records here are less clear, Ulchi was most likely not the commander of the Koguryo forces during the 1st Koguryo-Sui Wars. General Kang almost certainly out-ranked him. But in the drama, Kang is Ulchi’s sidekick and in fact another Guan Yu-like figure, all brawn and no brains. And the transfiguration of Yeon’s supposed father, Yeon Taejo, into a Zhuge Liang-like Taoist sage whose wisdom and psychic powers would move heavens itself? Well…

    There are other serious distortions, many of them I am willing to live with, because they make the story interesting without fundamentally altering the meaning of the era and denying the men who shaped it their just desserts. You cannot, after all, expect absolute historical fidelity from a sagiguk. But the degradation of a man we shall call General Yang and General Kang is a substantial historical wrong and they were wholly unnecessary.

  3. Also, there is apparently a shorter series about Gwanggaeto starring Yonsama, as well as Moon So-ri. But I am not sure if it’s tied to a television broadcasting station. Do you know anything about it?

  4. Thanks for your thoughts Won Joon. Sounds as though Yeon Gaesomun is considerably more interesting from a historian’s point of view than Jumong. Obviously historical accuracy is not the paramount concern when making a TV drama (and accuracy is a difficult thing anyway when you have little hard information to work with). What is most interesting to me is what these various dramas can reveal about contemporary attitudes to history in Korea and contemporary fears and hopes about Korea’s place in the world and Northeast Asian order.

    I had a look for this other drama about King Kwanggaet’o at Naver and it turns out that it is called “T’aewang sasin’gi” (태왕사신기) and will be broadcast on MBC at the beginning of next year. Seems there is already quite a bit of hype about it, presumably because of the presence of ‘Yonsama’ and the set located in Cheju is already a tourist attraction! More info here.

    And an old story from a couple of years ago about the drama, which makes it sound rather nationlistic.

  5. Mr. Miller,

    “What is most interesting to me is what these various dramas can reveal about contemporary attitudes to history in Korea and contemporary fears and hopes about Korea’s place in the world and Northeast Asian order.”

    I think your statement is particularly germane in regard to the recent explosion of Koguryo dramas, given that 1) to my knowledge there has never been a South Korean saguk based on Koguryo; and 2) some of the directors of these dramas (in particular the director of “Yeon Gaesomun”) have explicitly said that their primary motivation is to set the record straight in the context of the Koguryo ownership war with China.

    And thank you very much for the info on the Gwanggaeto drama! I had heard that it was an independent studio creation so I was afraid I would’t be able see it for a while. (I don’t know how to use a Korean taja so an online search is problematic for me.)

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