The Tragedy of King Danjong
I’m willing to bet that most of you have never heard of King Danjong.
Well, settle in, because his story’s a good one. It’s a lot like The Lion King, but without the happy ending.
Danjong’s sickly father, King Munjong, died in 1452 when Danjong was only twelve. It was generally agreed that twelve was too young to rule, so the premier and vice-premier took over government control.
Enter Scar, also known as Uncle Sejo (or Grand Prince Suyang).
In 1453, Sejo masterminded a coup d’etat and basically killed everyone in charge, including the premier & vice-premier. He exiled and killed his own younger brother, just to eliminate any competition. Danjong was forced to abdicate in 1455 and hand over the crown to his uncle.
A year later, six government officials plotted to assassinate Sejo and restore Danjong to power. Sejo got wind of the plan and had them all tortured and executed. Danjong was stripped of his title and banished to Yeongwol.
For two months, the young ex-king was stranded on Cheongryeongpo, a small, rocky beach right around the corner from my apartment. It was considered a natural prison because it backs into a cliff and is surrounded by the river.
I can only assume Danjong couldn’t swim, because the river these days is pretty peaceful. And shallow.
By the end of 1457, Sejo accepted the advice of his court: his seventeen-year-old nephew was just too much of a threat. He had to be disposed of.
The story they tell us in Yeongwol is that Danjong was poisoned. Wikipedia says that he was locked in his room, where the ondol (under-floor heating) blazed so hot that he suffocated to death.
Either way, Scar won the day.
The 46th Annual King Danjong Festival
In the late 1600s, King Danjong’s title was restored. He is buried here in Yeongwol, so the town throws a big festival every year.
It usually rains, prompting the organizers to claim that Danjong’s tears are presiding over the festival. This year, Danjong must have been in a good mood because the sun shone brilliantly all weekend.
Students from schools all over Yeongwol county converged on Jangneung, the King’s Tomb, to celebrate the arrival of spring. The elementary school students had two choices: Draw a picture (theme: spring) or write a poem (theme: future dreams).
“I wish it would rain,” one of my students said, pouting.
“Why?” I asked. “Are you hot?”
“No,” she said. “I don’t want to write the poem.”
Troubles sure have evolved since Danjong was a boy.
In the evening, the festival tents were in full swing on the banks of the Donggang.
The night concluded with a rip-roaring fireworks display to rival New Year’s Eve in Sydney. Just when we thought it was all over, streams of fireworks poured from the Yeongwol bridge, eliciting appreciative oohs and ahhs.
Danjong would have been proud.
In the morning, a parade marches from the town center to the King’s Tomb, about a 15-minute walk. It’s comprised of local students in traditional dress, except for the all-female high school band in kilts playing “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.”
When the procession arrives at the tomb, a re-enactment of Danjong’s funeral is performed. I’m fairly sure he didn’t actually have a funeral at the time, so it’s a re-enactment of the funeral they gave him hundreds of years after his death.
Sort of a, “Hey, sorry about all that shit you had to deal with. I swear we’ll make it up to you.”
Saturday night was much like Friday night, except Jared and I met a Korean friend for some makgeolli and snacks.
Afterwards, we played some carnival games, bringing me back to my carny days. Everyone walked away with a soft toy or a complimentary firework.
The Saturday night crowd was much larger due to the evening’s entertainment, a series of K-Pop concerts. The headline act, Dal Shabet, danced to their hit songs “Hit U” and “Bling Bling.”
It was a real cultural experience. King Danjong would have loved it.