More often than not, a sageuk (historical Kdrama) will center on the shenanigans of royalty. And what is royalty without a king? Kdrama not only offers a wide array of historical kings, but also imbues them with personalities that enthrall modern audiences.
Any discussion of kings in Kdrama must start with King Dongmyeong, or Jumong, the founder of Goguryeo, one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea. While Jumong enjoys a mythic origin, like many ancient rulers, what is not disputed is that he founded the kingdom in 37 BC. The kingdom he established enjoyed unprecedented influence, lasting for over 700 years.
In terms of Kdrama, Jumong centers on THE historical king. This behemoth Kdrama spans 81 episodes and dramatizes Jumong’s rise to the throne. It was extended from its original 60 episodes due to its popularity.
Such popularity is reflected in reviews of the show. When addressing possible flaws of the show, KdramaGuk writes: “Nothing comes to mind, honestly. There were story arcs that made me scream in frustration and anger, but in a good way…I was way too invested.” The strong writing captures KdramaGuk’s attention, while the character development draws in Dramafanatic: “I enjoyed the show a lot specially the fight scene, how Jumong improved with his archery and swordsmanship and how Soh Suh No appears so brave and wise in all her undertakings. She relentlessly supported Jumong never minding her circumstances. She was forever putting Jumong’s life before hers that she was willing to give up on him and the throne just so they could avoid conflict in the palace.” With such a sprawling epic, there are critiques as well. Most have to do with the sheer number of episodes.
In terms of Kdrama, however, the figure of Jumong is very significant because so many other Kdramas reference the king. King Geunchogo dramatizes the founding and development of Baekje, but it starts with events from Jumong’s time, including the tension-filled disintegration of the relationship between Soseno and Jumong. Kingdom of the Winds follows the exploits of King Yuri, Jumong’s son, and Muyhul (later King Daemusin), Jumong’s grandson.
If Jumong stands out for dramatizing one of the most significant Korean monarchs, then King Geunchogo stands out for having the highest number of monarchs in a Kdrama. Not only does it recount Soseno’s departure from Goguryeo (and King Jumong), it spends a significant amount of time on the political situation in early Baekje. King Biryu banishes Yeogu, the man who would be King Geunchogo, to a life of selling salt in order to qualm fears that he, as second son, will ascend the throne. Yeogu’s return to the kingdom puts Biryu in the unenviable dilemma of whether to pass the throne to the capable Yeogu or his inept, power-hungry elder brother, Yeochan, the Crown Prince. Audiences see Biryu’s indecisiveness. He caves to pressure from Yeochan’s mother, the First Queen, even though he knows that Yeogu would be a better leader for Baekje. They also have little sympathy for Biryu, especially when he stands by and allows Yeogu’s mother, the Second Queen, mercilessly bullied by the First Queen.
But wait, there are MORE kings in King Geunchogo. In Goguryeo, King Sayu is on a mission to crush Baekje under his feet. More temperamental than Yeogu, Sayu uses political intrigue to achieve his goals. For instance, he accepts Yeohwa, the daughter of a rival Baekje clan of Yeogu’s family, to sow seeds of mistrust among the ruling class of Baekje. Sayu also has to contend with adversaries of his own, fending off kingdoms that threaten Goguryeo. Sayu comes off as a blowhard. He takes his rulership very personally: a defeat for Goguryeo is a defeat for him. His emotional reactions interfere with his ability to make rational decisions for the country.
Before Yeogu can ascend the throne, however, there’s the brief stint by King Gye, or Yeojun, leader of Wiryegung faction. Gye harbors decades-long resentment for being passed over by Biryu’s father for the throne. Upon the death of Biryu and amid the confusion regarding the legitimacy of Yeochan, Gye briefly ascends the throne. Things are more complicated than he ever imagined once he gets the position he coveted so much. Gye is shrewd, but ultimately, a bad ruler. His desire for power overshadows his concern for the country. He makes alliances only to abandon them when they are no longer useful, and he is not above using anyone to achieve his goals. He is wiling to sacrifice wives and children to be king.
In the wake of Gye’s death, Yeogu becomes King Geunchogo, and is beset with chaos of his own, including battling First and Second Queens as well as underlings who seek to maintain their own power positions. To his credit, Geunchogo unites rival factions as he amasses a power base to take his rightful place in the palace in Baekje. However, like so many kings in Kdrama, he has a difficult time balancing his personal and political aspirations, and it is the people around him who suffer. While he cares for his First and Second Queens, he ignores their timely advice. He also overlooks the brewing tensions between them, much like Biryu did, which will grow to the extent that they will threaten to tear Baekje apart. Instead, he favors his relationships with the men who serve under him.
If Geunchogo gains prestige for spreading Baekje’s military influence over the peninsula, Lee Do, later known as King Sejong, gains the love of the people and the audience. Tree With Deep Roots dramatizes his quest to create a language that all Korean people can use. While the previous Kdramas draw their tensions from political and military confrontation, Tree With Deep Roots presents Sejong, arguably the most powerful man in the country, as very human. He comes to power while his father, King Taejong, continues to brutally crackdown on anyone who disagrees with his plans. As a teenage king in name only, he can only stand by idly and watch the violent campaign of his father. But even when he ascends the throne, he feels helpless as his scholars are killed as part of a larger conspiracy against his aims.
And yet, Sejong also shows us a king who can smile, laugh and joke with those who serve him. He is one of the most personable kings in Kdrama. He rarely takes himself too seriously, often using sassy language that mortifies his servants. He’s a king who despises the bureaucracy of ruling, and uses every opportunity to challenge the worldview of the officials. He would rather read a book or tend the palace farm. He displays a subtle sense of humor, which serves him well during his difficult reign.
Kdrama uses these character-driven kings to invite audiences to know more about Korean history.
Jumong (2005/2006), KdramaGuk
Review on Korean Drama: Jumong (2007), All About Asian Drama