The Words of the Mickler Family
Editor's Note: Jumong, one of Korea's most impressive and popular historical dramas is also said to be one of Reverend and Mrs. Moon's favorites. They have recommended this drama to church members by virtue of its emphasis on how one person is able to establish a country. The main actor, Song Il Kook, personally met with Rev. Moon in 2007 at his residence in Irvington, New York where he was presented with a signed Jumong poster as a present for his 88th birthday. The following essay is an abridged version of an article published in The Journal of Unification Studies by Dr. Michael L. Mickler, a professor at the Unification Theological Seminary in New York City.
Jumong (2006-07) is an extraordinarily popular Korean tele-drama which in DVD and online formats penetrated beyond Korea to broader Asian and select global markets. It is a recent manifestation of the so-called "Korean wave" (Hallyu) which refers to "the surge in popularity of South Korean culture around the world since the first decade of the 21st." While strongest in China, Japan and Southeast Asia, its influence has spread to India, the Middle East, Central Asia, Iran, Israel, Turkey, and Russia, even the Americas and Europe. Matched by "growing economic power and the rise of global multinationals such as Samsung, LG and Hyundai-Kia," South Korea is now "one of the world's top ten cultural exporters." At the center of the Korean wave is the export of massively popular TV dramas such as Hur Jun (2000), Winter Sonata (2002) and Jewel in the Palace (2003). A major appeal of these dramas is the way in which they fuse competing claims of tradition and modernity.
Jumong stands squarely in the tradition of Korean "fusion" dramas. Ostensibly, it is a grand historical epic, 81-episodes in all, about the founding of Koguryo (or Goguryeo, 37 BCE-CE 668), the northernmost of the Three Kingdoms of Korea. Koguryo is a successor kingdom to Ancient Josun (Gojoseon or Choson), the first proper nation of the Korean people, said to be founded in 2333 BCE by the legendary Dangun, grandson of Heaven. In 108 BCE, the Han Chinese defeated Ancient Josun and installed four commanderies which exerted oppressive control over the conquered peoples or "migrants" as they are called in the series. During Korea's Proto-Three Kingdom Period (108-57 BCE), surviving Korean statelets created defensive alliances, jockeyed for position among themselves, and cooperated to greater or lesser degrees with the Han. The chief of these surviving city-states and the scene for much of the action in Jumong is Puyo (or Buyeo) which asserted its control over lesser nations and tribes. The main action of the drama centers on the efforts of Jumong, Koguryo's founder, to liberate the suffering migrants, drive out the Han, and restore ancient Josun.
Though the series is ostensibly about the founding of Koguryo, it provides a platform for grappling with a host of modern issues related to religion, politics, economy, and culture. Protagonists deal with shamanism, Judeo-Christian motifs, a powerful and oppressive foreign power, clandestine weapon production, Machiavellian-style political in-fighting, nation-building, arbitrary rule, graft, arranged marriages, romantic love, court formalism, revenge, violence, varying child-rearing patterns, ethnocentrism, and the possibilities of personal and communal transformation. The contemporary relevance of these matters helps explain Jumong's extraordinary popularity in Korea and elsewhere since its 2006-07 launch.
The intent of this article is to examine core themes of Jumong as a way of opening up dimensions of Korean culture. The first thematic section will cover spirituality and religion, the second politics and economy, and the third culture. A concluding section will assess the hero's quest and transformational journey which lies at the heart of Jumong and how that resonates with contemporary Korean consciousness.
Spirituality and religion are core elements in Jumong, notably the practices of court sorceresses and tensions between the shrine and palace. Here, the drama addresses deeply ambivalent feelings of contemporary Koreans toward shamanism (still widely practiced in Korean society) and the role of religion in public life. Not surprisingly, given Korean Christianity's dynamic growth, the series also engages Judeo-Christian motifs. It does not do so explicitly since the action of the drama predates the advent of Christ or direct encounter with biblical sources. Nevertheless, unmistakable references to Hebrew Bible and New Testament are embedded within the series.
Shamanism, or spirit-worship (sinkyo) exerted historically and continues to exert a pervasive influence in Korean life. The persistence of "primitive folk belief or superstition," as Maarten Meijer points out in What's So Good about Korea, Maarten? (2005), is something of an embarrassment to "modern" Koreans. He states, "the government-sponsored Handbook of Korea, designed for foreign consumption … dismisses the practice of shamanism by asserting that 'this system of belief still persists in obscure corners of Korea today'." However, Meijer maintains, "though Korean society is highly modernized and industrialized, shamanistic rituals are widely practiced … [and] even on the increase." He notes that "The government officially registers practicing shamans, and they number in the tens of thousands." He cites a Korean scholar who "thinks … the total number of active shamans of various types could be as high as 300,000."
Jumong shares in this ambivalence but makes a distinction between court sorceresses who appear to possess genuine spiritual powers and "local" or "common" shamans who exploit the masses for profit. For these, the drama expresses nothing but contempt. Yeomieul, Puyo's sorceress, expresses disdain for "common" shamans who deliver "false prophecy." A corrupt merchant Dochi, although a questionable source himself, calls them "all imposters" with "no powers," just "after the money." Similarly, Jumong, the series' hero, criticizes shamans in the street "taking advantage of confusion in society," terming it a "new trend," saying they are "only making money bewildering people." Puyo's Queen Wonhu, when attempting to undermine the king, hires shamans to spread falsehoods and bad omens. Another court sorceress terms them wretches, "confusing the people and shaming the gods." Lady Yuhwa, Jumong's mother, threatens to behead several of them, accusing them of speaking "nonsense to people, confusing them."
However, even court sorceresses, who in to the series possess supernatural gifts, are capable of faulty judgments and serious, even fatal mistakes. The most obvious example is Yeomieul. Years before, she had "seen" a "3-legged crow" (the eventual symbol for Jumong's Koguryo nation) obstructing Puyo's sun. She interprets the crow as Haemosu, Jumong's father, whose efforts to liberate the migrants and restore Ancient Josun, she says, will have one of two negative outcomes: they will either invite Han reprisals or he will become a new hero drawing the people away from Puyo and establishing a rival power. As a consequence, Yeomieul became a key player in betraying Haemosu to the Han Chinese and imprisoning him in a cave for twenty years. She later repents of her actions, admitting "I made an error and misread God's will. I committed a great sin and must be punished." In atoning for her sin, she becomes a key support for Jumong until she is slain by the very prime minister with whom she had plotted Haemosu's downfall.
Here, the drama conveys a cautionary message about the role of religion in public life. It acknowledges that certain individuals (mainly women) have genuine spiritual power. Bruzilla, Yeomieul's young protégé, for example, consistently delivers accurate pronouncements and a legendary oracle at Mt. Shijo is unwaveringly on target. Nevertheless, the series adopts a critical stance toward the involvement of tribal or national shrines in matters of state. Puyo's King Kumwa, Haemosu's erstwhile comrade, is embittered by Yeomieul's betrayal and imprisonment of his friend, all behind his back. He mounts an unrelenting offensive against the shrine, telling Yeomieul that he will no longer discuss political matters with her and ignoring her rituals. His son Daeso adopts a similar stance, telling the Queen that sorceresses "say they act through revelation, but they abuse their power. When I am king, I will make sure they stay out of national affairs. " Koguryo, Jumong's new nation, adopts a similar position. Several of those commissioned to develop Koguryo's constitution conclude that "the monarch must also be able to act as high priest. Puyo is a mess because the sorceress and king keep fighting. We must limit sorceresses' rights."
There is no evidence in Korea's recent history of shamans exerting undue influence on government or of there being a palace cult. However, some of the action in Jumong recalls Queen Min (1851-95), Korea's last empress, who "probably raised Shamanism as a cult to the highest place of prestige it has ever enjoyed, for she was greatly devoted to it, and brought mudang [female shamans] into the palace itself." Unfortunately, her plots and conspiracies helped bring down the nation. In modern Korea, shamanism has been largely privatized though politicians are said to seek out fortune-tellers as much or more than professional pollsters.
Besides shamanism, Jumong also engages Judeo-Christian motifs. Christ symbolism and themes of death and resurrection are the most obvious. Haemosu and Jumong are fairly transparent Christ figures. Both give up peaceful lives for the sake of saving the migrants. Puyo's prime minister betrays Haemosu to the Han in the manner of high priests turning Christ over to the Romans because, as he notes, it is better to sacrifice one man than see the nation destroyed. Once captured and blinded, Haemosu is exhibited and mocked, arms outstretched, Christ-like, on a cross-beam. Presumed dead after being pierced in the side by arrows and falling from a cliff into a river, Haemosu miraculously reappears twenty years later, emerging from a prison cave in a death-and-resurrection motif. He appears, descending from a hill in a white robe, back-lit, to meet Lady Yuhwa, reminiscent of Jesus' Easter morning encounter with Mary Magdalene. The series depicts Jumong in much the same way, though more as a Christus Victor ("Christ the Victor") than crucified Lord. Jumong, likewise, disappears, is presumed dead, and miraculously reappears, though in his case it is to fulfill Haemosu's dream. Jumong resists the temptations of King Kumwa, his adoptive father, who offers him Puyo's earthly throne and all power in an effort to dissuade him from establishing a new nation. In addition, Jumong's three chief followers, Mari, Hyupho, and Oyi act in the manner of Jesus' disciples, continually misunderstanding him and having to apologize time and again for their "narrow-mindedness," especially their preoccupation with "short-term gains."
The series also contains unmistakable references to the Hebrew Bible. The Han Chinese in their relationship with Ancient Josun's migrants, whom they treat as slaves, are functional equivalents to the ancient Egyptians. They are depicted throughout as harsh, cruel taskmasters. Puyo's palace, to the extent it compromises with the Han and opposes Jumong, is a second pharaoh's palace. Jumong could have a peaceful life there, but, Moses-like, chooses to identify with the migrants and go into exile. In one episode, Jumong fools Puyo's leadership, leading them to believe he is returning migrants to the Han only to undertake a flight to freedom. The migrants, with Jumong at their head, dramatically cross Puyo's border river (read Red Sea) with Puyo forces in hot pursuit. Meanwhile, Lady Yuhwa and Jumong's wife Yesoya, left behind at the palace, continually petition Kumwa (read Pharaoh) to let them go. To switch metaphors, Jumong parallels David, pursued by Kunwa (read Saul), forced to become a brigand, and determined to defeat the Han (read Goliath). Later, Jumong and his band find works of history and records of ancient Josun which serve as a basis for constructing Koguryo, reminiscent of the ancient Israelites, liberated from Babylon, who recover their foundational documents as a basis for constructing the Second Temple. In utilizing the Judeo-Christian framework, Jumong underscores the dynamic role of Christianity in contemporary Korean culture.
While religion provides an important backdrop, the drama's overriding concerns are political and economic. In terms of politics, Jumong engages a range of foreign and domestic issues relevant not only to the founding of Koguryo but to contemporary Korea, both North and South. The key foreign affairs concern is the loss of national sovereignty to the Han Chinese. Here, the drama works through complex feelings of the Korean people toward foreign oppressors. Though clearly standing on the side of patriots and freedom fighters, the drama makes a point of condemning recklessness and emotionalism which it depicts as undermining patriots and appeasers alike. Domestically, the overriding issue is internal disunity which is said to have played a major role in Ancient Josun's downfall and threatens the establishment of Koguryo. Here, in thinly veiled ways, the series addresses contemporary Korean attitudes toward politics, specifically authoritarianism, democracy and the transfer of power. Jumong treats economy as a subset of politics, highlighting its importance as a base for political independence and stability but at the same time addresses a cultural penchant for gambling, issues of deceit, bribery, the black market, and long-term versus quick-profit thinking. No less than for politics, the series provides a platform for reflection about economic practices in contemporary Korea.
The single circumstance which underlines all the action of Jumong is the loss of sovereignty to the Han Chinese. With few, if any, exceptions they are depicted as cruel, exploitative oppressors. They don't hesitate to butcher migrants or even whole tribes, such as Lady Yuhwa's Haebek tribe, as examples of the fate awaiting those who oppose their rule. They impose forced labor on the migrants, confining them in camps, and exact excessive tribute as well as compulsory military service from subject tribes and states such as Puyo. The Han maintain their authority solely by the force of arms, in particular their "Iron Army" which due to advanced smelting techniques appears to possess impenetrable armor and unbreakable swords. Giving voice to those suffering under the Han yoke, Lady Yuhwa bitterly questions how the Chinese emperor can dare call himself the "son of heaven."
As a buffer state bordered by powerful neighbors, Korea has a long history of foreign invasions and oppression. For centuries, beginning from the period depicted in Jumong, Chinese dynasties treated Korea as a vassal, tributary state. The Mongols invaded Korea from 1231-70 and the Japanese from 1592-98, neither of which succeeded in subjugating Korea but both of which resulted in a tremendous loss of lives and property. Following its defeat of China (1895) and Russia (1904), Japan occupied Korea for forty years (1905-45) during which it made efforts to eradicate Korean national identity and incorporate Korea into its imperial empire. Following World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union occupied the peninsula, dividing it into bellicose states which have remained in a state of war since 1950. These national traumas have fostered varying degrees of collective resentment among Korean people. This, in turn, has resulted in hyper-sensitivity toward real or perceived national insults, especially with respect to Japan. From the 1990s, China has been actively engaged in a "North-East Revisionist" project, attempting to define Koguryo as a regional government of ancient China rather than an independent kingdom. This has spilled over into controversies over Jumong and other Korean historical dramas which Chinese authorities and internet users have called chauvinistic and anti-Chinese.
As is commonly the case in situations of oppression, Han dominance polarized Koreans into uncompromising and compromising camps. Jumong's heroes are uncompromising in their refusal to cooperate with the Han Chinese. They are willing to sacrifice comfort, position, and even their lives in the effort to drive them from Korean soil. Haemosu leads the Damul Army (Damulgun), a band of fighters who conduct guerilla-syle forays into Han territory. Jumong takes up his fallen father's cause, provokes larger-scale warfare against the Han, overruns their commanderies, and succeeds in establishing Koguryo as a successor state to Ancient Josun. Compromisers, who make up most of Puyo's ruling elite, despise the Han and are willing to trade insults but finally unwilling to risk their positions or their nation's well-being in ill-advised rebellion. Another category of compromisers consists of Korean collaborators who go entirely over to the Han side and, in effect, become Han Chinese. The best example in Jumong is Yangjang, former prince of Goma, who is taken captive by Han, rises through their ranks and returns as governor of Hyunto, one of the Han commandries. Much of the drama revolves around the contending positions and interactions of these parties.
Again, this has a great deal of relevance to contemporary Korea which still struggles with its legacy of resistance and capitulation to imperial Japan. Over against the humiliation of being annexed, Koreans point with pride to the March 1, 1919 Independence Movement protests, beginning in Seoul and spreading throughout the country. However, these were violently repressed, and the Japanese proceeded to impose their language, surnames, and, humiliatingly, Shinto shrine worship upon Koreans. Some resisted violently, assassinating Japanese officials. Some fled, mostly to Manchuria. Some joined or supported the provisional Korean government-in-exile, based in Shanghai. With the outbreak of World War II, others like the future North Korean leader, Kim Il Sung, led or joined guerilla bands allied with the Chinese. Some remained within Korea, refusing to cooperate and were imprisoned. However, the overwhelming majority gave in to Japanese demands, speaking Japanese, taking Japanese surnames and performing Shinto shrine worship. Others joined the Japanese Imperial Army or became active collaborators, seemingly forsaking their Korean identity. These various positions created significant strain as Korea sought to reconstitute itself as a nation, or two nations, following liberation.
To its credit, Jumong is more nuanced than a simple uncompromising-compromising-collaborating configuration might suggest. A number of the characters vacillate between positions, sometimes as a result of genuine soul-searching, other times due to circumstances. Kumwa, Puyo's king, is the best example. As a young crown prince, he was a patriotic, though secret comrade of Haemosu, supplying arms and engaging in covert operations. Following Haemosu's capture and presumed death, the drama fast-forwards twenty years. The Damul army is a distant memory, and Kumwa, now king of Puyo, is caught up in the affairs of state. He still hates the Han, and one of his consuming goals is to discover the secret of fashioning steel weaponry rivaling the Han's "Iron Army." To this end, he maintains a clandestine and illegal iron works. Nevertheless, Kumwa's basic motivation is to preserve Puyo's and his own position. Therefore, he struggles mightily when confronted by Jumong's efforts to confront the Chinese, sometimes aligning with Jumong and even committing Puyo forces to battle, other times opposing his actions and declaring him a traitor.
Jumong, like Kumwa, dedicates himself to discovering the secret of Han weapon production techniques. Also like Kumwa, he engages in a cat-and-mouse game, covertly producing arms and utilizing technological espionage as opportunities present themselves. This is another example of Jumong providing a venue to process contemporary circumstances, in this case North Korea's clandestine nuclear program. On balance, the series seems to concede the right of smaller nations to protect themselves and develop advanced weaponry. The drama throughout places a premium on technology as the key to leveling the playing field. In this respect, Jumong and Korean culture generally, seems to embrace political realism when it comes to matters of defense.
As stated, the overriding domestic political issue is disunity which is understood to have played a major role in Ancient Josun's downfall and threatens the establishment of Koguryo. Several characters comment that Ancient Josun fell to the Han Chinese not only because of the Han's superior military force but primarily due to Josun's "internal discord." The same tendency toward discord and factionalization works to undermine Puyo. In addition to the struggle between the shrine and palace, a more consequential dispute erupts between Jumong and Kumwa's two sons, Daeso and Youngpo, over who will be appointed crown prince. Following Haemosu's presumed death, Kumwa returns to Puyo with Lady Yuhwa who is pregnant with Haemosu's child. However, Kumwa has fallen desperately in love with Yuhwa and installs her as his royal concubine, or second wife, agreeing to maintain the fiction that the child she conceived with Haemosu, whom she names "Jumong," is his own. This precipitates significant jealousy and conflict between the Queen, her relatives, and her two prince sons with Jumong, Lady Yuhwa and Kumwa who favors his concubine and adoptive son. Kumwa aggravates the situation by breaking with tradition and announcing open competition among his three sons for the position of successor. Betrayals, assassination-attempts, temporary usurpations of the crown, public confusion and general instability result.
Korean politics is famously factional and fractious. Michael Breen, in The Koreans, notes, "There is a joke among political scientists that if you put two Koreans on a desert island, they would form three political parties: one each and a coalition." According to Breen, political parties "represent neither a social class nor a particular philosophy" but "are built around powerful factional leaders." Maarten Meijer reports, "The word 'compromise' does not exist in the political vocabulary. Opposition parties do not provide balanced leverage on government decisions but seem bent on annihilating those in power." Most embarrassing, he says, "are the scenes from the National Assembly, broadcast on national television, where ruling and opposition parliamentarians hurl pieces of taxpayer-paid furniture at each other." Both Breen and Meijer point out that intense regionalism (rooted in the Korean clan system), social relations, family connections, and alumni or hometown networks characterize Korean political culture.
All of these themes play out in Jumong. With few exceptions, protagonists pursue their objectives with Machiavellian ruthlessness, switching sides as it suits their interests and seeking to eliminate any would-be stumbling blocks. The level of violence in the series is appalling. The Han Chinese are not the only ones guilty of massacres. In fact, as Puyo descends into a maelstrom of famine and internal conflict, its repressive actions begin to resemble those of North Korea. Those seeking to escape are killed. Kumwa, Puyo's king, is said to have a swelling on the back of his neck, a seeming transparent reference to North Korean President Kim Il Sung's famous growth. However, Jumong and his compatriots are also ferocious, accumulating Rambo-like kill-totals in virtually every episode of the series. Bodyguards are omnipresent, not only in the palace but for merchant troops and even sorceresses. If anything, the drama has the feel of something out of the American Wild West, though with swords rather than six-shooters. In this respect, Jumong serves as a cautionary tale for self-destructive tendencies within Korean politics.
As suggested, Jumong treats economy as a subset of politics. There is a subplot embedded in the series which revolves around the fortune of tribal merchant troop. Yuntabal, the merchant leader and tribal chief of Keryu and head of a contentious tribal confederation in the area of Jolban, harbors Haemosu, Jumong's father, while he was a fugitive. Yuntabal's daughter Sosuhno subsequently becomes a key player in the drama and love-interest of Jumong. She inherits leadership of her father's troop, supports Jumong's efforts, and through a series of remarkable adventures accumulates great wealth. She constructs a magnificent palace and invites Jumong's New Damul Army to settle in Jolban, thereby establishing the material foundation for Koguryo. She reigns as empress with Jumong for fifteen years before departing with her two sons by a previous marriage to set up a new kingdom, Paekche (or Baekje), in the South.
The series utilizes the subplot to explore a number of themes related to business and economy. Yuntabal, for much of the drama, serves as a mouthpiece, articulating key traits of the superior merchant. This would run the risk of degenerating into set pieces on Confucian virtue were it not for Yuntabal's nuanced realism and colorful character. He, for example, is an inveterate gambler, betting on everything from whether his wife will give birth to a boy or girl to whether he should risk all in supporting Jumong. He freely acknowledges that as a merchant, he is "guilty" before the gods. That is, to "gain others' hearts," he "sometimes must lie." He also employs all manner of trade agents (spies) and strategists to aide him in outmaneuvering his rivals. On the other hand, Yuntabal strongly rejects a preoccupation with short-term profits which he characterizes as the concern of the inferior merchant. He directs much of his commentary to his spirited and head-strong daughter Sosuhno who gradually learns the lessons of patience and calculation.
Korea's remarkable "transition from an agricultural backwater to a modern industrialized state in one generation" and it's more precipitous monetary collapse in 1998 which led to the largest IMF national bailout in history exemplify many of the economic motifs developed in Jumong. Yuntabal is an ancient type of the modern chaebol (or jaebol) leader, i.e., the founders of Hyundai or LG who built conglomerates spanning the country, flexed their corporate muscles in the political arena, and kept business in the family. Like the modern chaebol types, Yuntabal puts a premium on personal relationships and exhibits a minimal amount of transparency with respect to his operation, telling his chief strategist Sayong that for merchants, "even deceit is a tool of the trade." This prompts a lively debate as Sayong, likely a representative of reformist elements within Korean management culture, objects to involvement with "fraudulent cases." Here, as in so many other areas, Jumong dramatizes the engagement between traditional and modern practices.
The dominant cultural theme addressed in Jumong relates to the family, specifically marriage and child-rearing. There is a pervasive tension within the series between romantic love, of which there is plenty, and arranged marriages. It seems nearly every significant protagonist has a special love with whom, due to fate or circumstance, they must live without. The heroes and heroines of the drama accept this as the will of the gods or a necessary sacrifice for the welfare of the larger whole. The less admirable characters stubbornly cling to their romantic obsessions and generally make life miserable for those around them. The series also explores variations of indulgent and strict patterns of child-rearing. The tension here is between parents or relatives who will stop at nothing to obtain preferential treatment or positions for their progeny and those who, in effect, "throw their tiger cub off the cliff," hoping for them to make their own way. The dynamics of child-rearing, in turn, play into the broader issues of social development and cultural identity.
Loyalty, filial piety and obedience are traditional public virtues which have come under increasing strain in Korean society. Michael Breen introduces the term "han" to describe the collective pain, rage, helplessness, and resentment of the Korean people in the face of oppression and deprivation. Psychologically, it implies a "prohibition of one's instinctive urges." Breen cites a Korean psychologist who states, "Traditionally … if a man loved a woman, but his parents ordered him to marry another, he would obey, and live with han." However, the same psychologist suggests what had been static han has been superseded by "dynamic han" in contemporary Korean society: "The id impulse is no longer suppressed. Instinctive demands surface. Koreans want it all now." This, he says, is "behind the drive for economic growth and political freedom." It also factors into "soft" areas of marriage and family life.
The tension between static and dynamic han is apparent throughout Jumong. Interestingly, the two main heroines, Yuhwa (Jumong's mother) and Sosuhno (his empress), both reject arranged marriages. Yuhwa, as a young girl, refuses a match, telling her father that he "looks like a pig" and that she would "drop dead" if he continues. Sosuhno, likewise, tells her father to "find another daughter" if he persists in marrying her to one she refused. Nevertheless, in the course of the drama, both Yuhwa and Sosuhno accept circumstances where they must let go 'the love of their lives'. This is something that the series' less admirable characters cannot do. King Kumwa, trapped in a loveless political marriage, is obsessed with Lady Yuhwa. He refuses to let her join Jumong, finally slaying her in a fit of passion rather than letting her go. His son Daeso is similarly smitten by Sosuhno. Though accepting an arranged marriage, he claims it's "only politics" and that as king he will be able to do as he likes. Based on these and other instances, the drama appears to take a nuanced position favoring romantic love but acknowledging that its potent energies can do serious damage unless pursued within an acceptable ethical or religious framework. Jumong's relatively liberal approach toward romantic attachments is most apparent in the series' depiction of a homosexual liaison between the merchant Yuntabal's chief strategist Sayong and Jumong's lieutenant Hyupbo. Though subject to a good deal of comic relief and joking, at least early-on, their relationship is finally not only tolerated but openly acknowledged. Here, as elsewhere, Jumong reflects tensions in contemporary Korean sexual mores.
Jumong also explores variations of indulgent and strict patterns of child-rearing. The drama's sharpest contrast is between Queen Wonhu and Lady Yuhwa. Queen Wonhu and her relatives go to whatever lengths necessary to secure the privileges, benefits and positions of her two sons. They cover-up the young princes' lapses of judgment, attempt to eliminate rivals, and go to the extent of fomenting rebellion and usurping the crown. By way of contrast, Lady Yuhwa, realizing her mistake in indulging Jumong, cuts him off and consents in his exile from the palace for irresponsible behavior. She declares that she had been meaning to "drive him off the cliff" and states, "he must climb up alone if he wants to fulfill his mission." Other parents or surrogate parents in the drama fall in between these extremes. Yuntabal, likewise, gives Sosuhno an extraordinarily long leash in sending her out to lead dangerous trade expeditions. He maintains that he "can't expect her to take over without experience," that he "can't protect her forever," and that "she needs to go on to a greater world." In this respect, the indulgent model of child-rearing (what recently has been referred to in the United States as hovering or "helicopter" parenting) would appear to limit development. The drama suggests that the stricter or at least more accountable pattern, by forcing self-reliance, enhances development.
It is here that child-rearing practices connect to broader issues of societal development and cultural identity. The tension between indulgent and disciplined, accountable child-rearing relates directly to transitions in Korean society. Though trampled upon by formidable outsiders, or because it was trampled upon by formidable outsiders, Korean culture tended to insulate itself, developing a parochial, ethnocentric façade. Ironically, Korean identity became a privileged identity hedged in by homogeneous blood-ties, Confucian formalism, and rabid nationalism. Of course, this masked a deep insecurity or even self-loathing in the face of Korea's tragic past. These structures of closure may have had some utility in preserving Korean identity under conditions of oppression. They are less meaningful, even problematic as Korea has emerged on the world stage. Breen, for example, states, "It is apparent from the volume of stories you hear about Koreans abroad that they are giving their country a name for coarse selfishness." In this respect, the tension in Jumong between child-rearing practices and cultural identities that facilitate self-absorption and self-promotion and those that facilitate legitimate engagement with others, or what Yuntabal terms the "greater world," is a live question in contemporary Korea.
Spirituality and religion, politics and economy, and culture are important themes in Jumong. However, Jumong's heroic quest and transformational journey lie at the heart of the drama and are the main source of its appeal. Jumong is far from a hero at the start of the series. In fact, he is pathetic and incompetent, given to harassing palace maids and utterly incapable of protecting himself or anyone else. In the earlier portions of the drama, he shakes off his indolence, disciplines himself, masters the military arts (notably swordsmanship and archery), discovers his true identity (as the son of Haemosu), and commits himself to liberating the suffering migrants, driving out the Han, and restoring Ancient Josun. In the later episodes, he expands his leadership capacity, develops powerful bonds of heart with his men, forgives their shortcomings, wins over would-be enemies, and, in the end, promotes non-violence as an essential component of national unification. These themes as well as the motif of personal and communal transformation resonate strongly with contemporary Korean consciousness.
As stated, Jumong is far from a hero at the beginning of the series. However, there are extenuating circumstances. Basically, both he and his mother, Lady Yuhwa, were forced to "lie low" to survive the wrath of Queen Wonhu and her prince sons who are jealous of them. Jumong's particular survival strategy was to play the incompetent in order not to be perceived as a threat. His strategy unravels when Haemosu, his true father, re-surfaces after twenty years of confinement and precipitates a chain of events which leads to Jumong's awakening. Exiled from the palace, Jumong encounters Haemosu whom he regards as his teacher, serves an apprenticeship under him, and discovers his inherent gifts in the military arts. After Haemosu's death at the hands of his prince "brothers," Jumong learns his true identity and embarks on a quest to find out what his father did and why. He travels to Hyunto, one of the Han's major commanderies, where he witnesses the suffering migrants first-hand and determines to take up his father's mission.
The remainder of the drama follows Jumong's ups and downs as he works toward and finally accomplishes the 'great mission" of liberating the migrants, driving out the Han and restoring ancient Josun (in the form of Koguryo). One of his key attributes is his ability to draw a clear line between the "determination to fight to the death," and recklessness. Perhaps mindful of a Korean penchant for brinkmanship (witness the current standoff on North Korean nuclear weapons), the drama is unrelenting in its criticism of impulsiveness, especially retaliation against others for perceived sleights. Jumong provides a counter-weight to the culture of revenge which otherwise permeates the series. He advises a boy-soldier who lost his parents to the Han to "let go of the hatred inside," saying that a grudge "can be both a strength and a weakness," and that revenge can only come "when we feel and know why we must beat the Han." He holds back his soldiers from revenge following a massacre, telling them to "make their deaths worthwhile by building a nation." Upon taking the Hyunto commandery, he acknowledges the migrants' desire to kill prisoners, especially the Han governor, but counsels that they can satisfy their fury or save additional fellow migrants through prisoner exchanges. The migrants admit they were short-sighted and tell Jumong they will follow his will. In one of the series' most striking reversals, given its seeming celebration of militarism, Jumong determines to unite the disparate and feuding Korean tribes and states by non-violent means. Inspired by a mountain oracle that this is "Heaven's will," Jumong allows himself to be put in compromised, even humiliating circumstances to win the natural submission of others including his "brother" Puyo princes. Jumong's heroic quest and transformational journey finally leads him to become a peacemaker and unifier.
Jumong delivers all of this in highly dramatic fashion which, itself, signals an important shift in the Korean "historical drama" or Sageuk genre. These are a staple of the Korean film and television industry but slumped during the 1990s. One reason for this was that the later Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) was mostly mined-out. A second reason was that the dramas had become overly captive to official documents. As one critic put it, "With countless trendy dramas boasting pretty young faces and easily digestible stories, who would sit down to watch old men with fake beards regurgitate lines from complicated historical records?" The solution, which helped fuel the "Korean wave," was the "fusion" drama. These allowed for considerably more dramatic license in wrestling with the competing claims of tradition and modern culture relevant to people outside of Korea. They also emphasized more attractive characterization and character development. Hur Jun (2000) followed the hero from humble beginnings to success as the king of Korean traditional medicine. The Jewel in the Palace (2003) dispenses with previous patriarchal models in depicting the inspiring story of Jang Geum, a commoner who became Joseon's first female royal physician. Jumong is only the latest in a line of Sageuk dramas utilizing the genre to deal with contemporary themes. Its focus on personal and communal transformation reflects changes within Korean society more generally.
Jumong is an extraordinarily rich drama of epic proportion which provides a platform for considering a host of modern issues related to religion, politics, economy, and culture. It resonates with a number of themes in Korean culture but finally must be judged on its own merits. The fact that it reached a global audience suggests that it deals with topics of broad significance or, at least, broad appeal. Nevertheless, whatever universality the series possesses is likely less due to any specific theme or even the interplay between tradition and modernity than it is to its core message of personal and communal transformation.