The King’s Face

The King’s Face 왕의 얼굴 is a 23 episode KBS2 drama that takes place during the reign of 14th King of Joseon, King Seonjo (1552-1608) who reigned from 1567-1608.  The drama centers on Prince GwangHae (1574 – 1641) and the turbulent relationship with his father, King Seonjo. Although his road to becoming the Crown Prince is a rocky one, the Crown Prince GwangHae ultimately becomes the future 15th King of Joseon who ruled from 1608 -1623. 

There have been many dramas and movies that center on King Seonjo and Crown Prince Gwanghae, including currently airing dramas, MBC’s Hwajung (aka Spended Politics) and KBS1’s JingBiRok 징비록; MBC’s 2013 hit drama Goddess of Fire, Jung Yi 불의 여신 정이 and the international box office hit film, Masquerade 광해: 왕이 된 남자. The Korean title of the film translates to GwangHae: The Man Who Became King


The King’s Face’s retelling of the Seonjo/Gwanghae story portrays Gwanghae as the hero and King Seonjo as a jealous and petty king-man-father who is riddled with insecurities. Central to this drama is the fictional story line about Face Reading or Physiognomy 관상 GwanSang in Korean. Face Reading is a form of fortune telling practiced in Korea and China for hundreds of years. If you haven’t already, check out the movie, The Face Reader on Dramafever.  

Fiction aside, here’s a brief historical overview to familiarize yourself with the Seonjo/Gwanghae history

King Seonjo’s wife, Queen Euiin 의인왕후 was unable to bare children of her own, as a result, there was no real legitimate successor to the throne.  Seonjo did have sons, but from his concubines. One of Seonjo’s concubines Lady Kim (GongBin) 공빈 김씨 bore him his first two sons, Prince Imhae 임해군 and then Prince Gwanghae 광해군.  A couple other of Seonjo’s sons worth noting are Prince ShinSung 신성군, portrayed in several dramas and Prince Jeongweon 정원군, also portrayed in dramas, but also the father of the future King Injo인조왕,16th king of Joseon.  Both sons were from of another of Seonjo’s concubine, Lady Kim GyungHae (InBin) 경혜 인빈 김씨. 

Rather than making his first son, Prince Imhae, the crown prince simply because birth order, he made Imhae and Gwanghae prove their valor on the battlefield, which Gwanghae had stood out over his older brother. As a result, King Seonjo named Gwanghae as Crown Prince and his successor.  This proved to be problematic for both father and son because not only was he NOT the legitimate heir as the queen’s son, he was the SECOND son of a concubine with a currently living first son still in the scene. As a result, the Gwanghae was unable to get Ming China to approve the Crown Prince installment for a long time. It wasn’t until King Seonjo’s ill health forced him to install GwangHae as Crown Prince, which caused a political rift between opposing political factions.  

Why such interest in King Seonjo and Prince Gwanghae?

Here are the two reasons I could come up with as to why their story has been retold in numerous dramas and movies based on my own personal observations (keep in mind I’m not a historian nor in academia). Feel free to chime in if there are more scholarly explanations.

Explanation #1 

In the historical scheme of things, King Seonjo’s reign is still important and memorable in the Korean psyche because it was under his reign that the Imjin War aka The Seven-Year War aka The Japanese Invasions of Korea takes place.  

The Japanese Invasion, which lasted from 1592 – 1598 was led by the Regent Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who re-unified Japan when it was divided among squabbling feudal lords. On a campaign of expansionism, Japan had its eyes set on the vast lands and wealth of the Ming Dynasty in China and made an attempt to invade the Ming. The only thing standing Japan’s way was Joseon. Japan made several requests to King Seonjo to look the other way in order for their army to cross Joseon so they could invade Ming. Since Joseon and Ming were close allies, Seonjo refused. Throughout the war, Prince Gwanghae remained in the capital and became the de facto regent while King Seonjo went closer to China’s border to join the Ming. 

The Japanese had many initial successes by getting far into the Joseon Kingdom, but Joseon forces and later Joseon-Ming allied forces, beat back the Japanese. In 1598, the Japanese invasion was finally crushed and the Japanese went back home empty handed. 

Although Joseon was totally demolished after years of war directly on their land, The Imjin War can also be viewed as the beginning of Korean nationalism and it is remembered as a testament to the unrelenting tenacity, strong will, fighting spirit and fierce determination of the Korean people in order to protect their their land from invaders at all costs– no matter how much stronger they might be. 

This was the same war that produced one of the Korea’s most famous and beloved heroes of all time – Admiral Yi Sun Shin 이순신.

Explanation #2

The stories that seem to survive in our collective memory and through the course of history are the tragic ones. The story of Oedipus the King (400 BC) to 400 year old tragic stories like Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet still resonate with us.  And like the rest of the world, the Koreans especially love a good tragedy. The story of Prince Gwanghae ranks up there as one of the most tragic ones in all of Korean history, which explains the continued interest in him, even after nearly 400 years.

After 15 years on the throne, Prince Gwanghae was caught in the midst of a factional political struggle and in 1523 he was deposed. He was then sent to exile on Jeju Island, where he eventually died in 1641. If his life wasn’t tragic enough, the greater tragedy is in death and his place in history. Despite the accomplishments he achieved during his reign, he is only one of two Joseon kings who was not given a temple or a temple name, which is why he is still referred to in history as “Prince Gwanghae.”  The only other king not given a temple name was the 10th King of Joseon, Prince Yeonsan 연산군 (1476 – 1506, r. 1494–1506) who was overthrown because he was a sociopathic tyrant (as seen in the drama Dae Jang Geum aka Jewel of the Palace).  

The ultimate tragedy is that Prince Gwanghae’s place in history will forever sit alongside someone such as Prince Yeonsan, who is considered to be the worst king in Joseon history, if not all of Korean history. Since Joseon no longer exists, there will never be an opportunity to correct Prince Gwanghae’s rightful place in history.  

For more on this topic and other drama pages, here are some other links worth checking out: