The “Annals of the Joseon Dynasty” has some ups and downs in its quality as a reliable record depending on who wrote it and how the person wrote it.

Since Joseon society had political division between the “east” and “west” factions, its records are very much swayed by which faction is in power. Concerning the same person, one faction says he is the most evil person ever, while the other faction says that he is the greatest person in the history in the annals. Nonetheless, the annals record what the person said and how the person behaved, along with factional comments. That makes the annals a great historical record.

I think the annals is greater than any other newspapers or historical record from the present day because it sticks to its principles of recording solely the facts, even though it includes factional comments and some evaluation.

Another great factor of the annals is that it has been preserved. We, the descendants, should learn and succeed through this unprecedented system of writing history.

The way they treated history and historical records was amazing. Joseon was far better at that than us today.


Park says that the ‘Annals of the Joseon Dynasty’ are a principled record of historical fact.

Let’s talk about other kings. King Gyeongjong (r. 1720-1724) suffered because of a dramatic romance of his father. His father, King Sukjong (r. 1674-1720), loved a lower class woman. Their son, the man who later became King Yeongjo (r. 1724-1776), eventually beat out the legitimate, highborn Gyeongjong.

A lower class woman and the son she bore with a king caused similar drama earlier in Joseon history, during the reign of King Seongjong (r. 1469-1494). In other words, King Sukjong (r. 1674-1720) should have learned from history and either should have banned his low-born son from becoming king or shouldn’t have killed Jang Hui-bin (1659-1701), Gyeongjong’s mother. He repeated the same mistake as his ancestor. The faction against Jang Hui-bin which encouraged her death was obviously afraid that her son would become king. That faction had to weaken the mainstream faction that was pro-Jang and for her son. Gyeongjong, the son who eventually became king after all these uproars, was tired and weak, both physically and mentally. With the “Young Doctrine” faction (소론) backing him, he announced his ambitions, but he wasn’t able to realize them due to his bad health.

In this respect, King Yeongjo’s (r. 1724-1776) Tangpyeong Policy, which mitigated factional politics, might in fact be part of his scheme. Whether he was behind Gyeonjong’s death or not, as conspiracy-followers believe, it seems part of his efforts to clear his name and to recover some honor as king.

King Injong (r. 1544-1545) seems to have had a gentle personality.

He was nice. He was smart. I assume he was sick and tired of politics, partly because Queen Munjeong (1502-1565), his step mother, was strong and ambitious.

King Sukjong (r. 1674-1720) is another interesting figure. Being famous for his political maneuverings, he’s one of the most common kings to see on TV or in literature. He survived on the throne for 46 years, since he was a teenager, and never even had a regent in his early years.

He had the skills. He had the ability to make decisions. He changed the long standing practice of having a regent for teenage princes by becoming king himself at the age of 14. It used to be that a regent would rule over a teenage monarch, until he turned 20. However, Sukjong ruled by himself at the age of 14, and ever since, practice changed and allowed teenagers to rule by themselves from the age of 14.

King Sukjong (r. 1674-1720) wasn’t influenced by the old, experienced members of the royal court and had the political ability to manage and balance the “Southerner” faction (남인) and the “Westerner” faction (서인).

He understood politics. There are politicians who are good at politics, but aren’t as good at policy making or administration. Sukjong was great and understood politics well, but he didn’t seem to have any clear vision for ruling. King Seonjo (r. 1567-1608) was the same type of person.


The 20th and final volume of ‘Park Si Baek’s Annals of the Joseon Dynasty,’ originally published in 2013, had its second edition this year. In this new edition, minor things such as the color of the clothes or the appearance of the characters were corrected to be more faithful to the original source. Each book includes an English abstract of the original book.

There are some historical figures who aren’t spoken much about in the “Annals.” Along with Admiral Yi Sun-sin (1545-1598), politician Choi Myung-kil (1586-1647) saved Joseon by negotiating single-handedly with the Manchurian Qing Dynasty, all alone in their camp, while the Joseon king, Injo (r. 1623-1649), ran away.

I would call Choi Myung-kil (1586-1647) Joseon’s best royal prime minister. Hwang Hui (1363-1452) is one of the most frequent names you hear on that list, but he had a good king. The qualifications that a royal prime minister should have include, first, an ability to judge to assist the king in ruling and, second, an upright character that can say no to the king. Hwang had great qualifications as a consultant, but he didn’t have the ability to become a good prime minister. He was too careful about what others said.

Choi, on the other hand, never stepped away when he thought it was beneficial to the crown and to the people. In addition, he was able to make good judgments. That makes him the best royal prime minister. He was also a good poet and keen on the Neo-Confucian theories of Ming scholar Wang Yangming (1472-1529).

I personally think the rivalry between politician Kim Sang-heon (1570-1652) and Choi is amazing. We’re generally taught that they were rivals. Back then, in Joseon times, Kim was seen as an upright man, according to the annals. However, this estimation should be reconsidered. The records of the time say that “though the two [Kim and Choi] had different opinions, both cared for their nation.” This was the highest compliment paid to Choi, but what the historical records say should be reconsidered.

Nonetheless, there are some positive comments about Choi: “he never ran away when facing danger and he was truly rational, which made him, indeed, a prime minister who saved the nation at least once. King Injo said upon his death that, ‘Choi was a talented man who really cared for and worked hard for the nation. This is an unfortunate, sad loss.'”

The historians displayed their thoughts quite honestly in their comments.

I personally don’t think the historians were particularly honest or bold. Rather, they enjoyed their privilege. They knew they wouldn’t be punished no matter what they wrote. There was, though, one event during the reign of King Yejong (1468-1469). One writer wrote a very “honest” comment about the politician Han Myung-hoi (1415-1487), but then he asked the editor to allow him to revise his comments because he was afraid of being “paid back” for his comments. Other writers who heard about this also revised their comments about some politicians and they were caught by the king. Yejong was furious at the writers: not for being afraid of the king, but for being afraid of the politicians. So the king punished them.

Then there was the First Literati Purge of 1498, the Muo Sawha (무오사화, 戊午士禍), which broke out over some parts of the annals. After that, the idea that one could revise the annals after writing was considered to be not allowed and the historians and the writers of the annals enjoyed that privilege.

Maybe today’s nation also needs a similar system of recording history.

Not necessarily. Nowadays, the media does this job.

I want to say, however, that even in Joseon times, anybody was able to discuss and display their opinions about certain policies. There were the Three Offices of Joseon, or the Samsa (삼사, 三司): the Office of the Inspector General (사헌부, 司憲府), the Office of the Censors (사간원, 司諫院) and the Office of the Special Advisors (홍문관, 弘文館). These functioned as a sort of press that provided criticism and acted as a kind of checks-and-balances on the king’s policies. Public discussion was allowed and frequent.

There were also the three state councilors of the State Council of Joseon (의정부, 議政府). These three — the Chief State Councilor (영의정, 領議政), the Left State Councilor (좌의정, 左議政) and the Right State Councilor (우의정, 右議政) — acted as the final step before a policy was implemented. They could oppose certain policies if they thought they were inappropriate.


Park speaks about many aspects of Joseon history and about its kings in his version of the ‘Annals of the Joseon Dynasty.’ He has been working on his graphic novel for 13 years.

Who do you think are the most representative figures of the “Annals of the Joseon Dynasty”?

King Sejong the Great (r. 1418-1450) and Admiral Yi Sun-sin (1545-1598), of course. I’d also add the politicians Jeong Do-jeon (1342-1398) and Choi Myung-kil (1586-1647), as well as the regent Heungseon Daewongun (1820-1898), to the list, too, if possible.

It must have taken you a huge amount of time and effort to complete this job. I heard you wrote many notes by yourself.

Since the annals is a huge and complicated source of material, taking notes was the only way I was able to remember anything I read.

What are your next plans as an artist?

I used to always say I wouldn’t write any more history. I wanted to draw science fiction, that I liked to read as a child. However, I guess there’s more work to do. I think I’ll draw history for a while longer. I would do anything I want if I were thirty, but I might do some other short-term projects for fun. My main job, though, will be history projects.

Then would your next project be a graphic novel about Japanese colonialism, or maybe something else?

Yes, as long as my hands allow me to draw. also posed some questions to Wee Weon Seok, the chief editor in the Educational Cartoons Department at Humanist, the publisher. Please find his answers below.

I heard that Park’s graphic novel will be published in English. When does the English version come out?

We’re expecting it to come out at the end of next year. The translation is being done by a team of students at Sogang University. The English abstract of the second edition, that came out this year, is also part of their work. This project is partly funded by the central government.

The English edition will be a great opportunity for non-Koreans to have a better understanding of Korea.

We heard that there’s not much out there for people who want to study Korean history in English. So, when it’s published, our English edition will be a great help for people at universities all around the world who want to study Korean history in English.

By Wi Tack-whan, Chang Iou-chung Staff Writers
Photos: Jeon Han