“Secret Royal Inspector” drama: historical context

Kim Myung Soo (Infinite L) and Kwon Nara are acting in a new historical drama “Secret Royal Inspector”.

Secret Royal Inspector - AsianWiki
Photo Credits

L is likely to star as a royal inspector of Joseon, and Kwon Nara as an intelligent, beautiful gisaeng. For more information, you can check out this website.

Kwon Nara is most famous for her roles as Oh Soo-Ah in Itaewon Class and this advertisement for Han Don where she awed many with her unbelievable proportions. L is known for his tear-jerking performance in Angel’s Last Mission and role as a judge in Miss Hammurabi.

Photo Credits
Photo credits

The drama casting & date are to be confirmed, but I’m one of many hoping that Kwon Nara and L will star in the drama together 🙂 As we hope for the casting news to be confirmed, let’s find out more about the historical background of the drama.

Who were royal inspectors?

It was a temporary position that only existed in the Joseon era (1392~1897).

A royal inspector was personally chosen by the king to report on the livelihood of the common people and check for acts of corruption committed by government officials. Throughout his mission, he was required to keep his identity and activities a secret unless he had to arrest corrupt officials.

Who became a royal inspector?

According to historical records, chiefly low or middle-ranking officials who were intelligent, knowledgeable in the common people’s livelihood and experienced in government work, were selected.

The king personally assigned the royal inspector. Naturally, the king and the inspector were on close terms, and any attempt on the inspector’s life was considered a direct challenge to the authority of the king and hence deemed as an act of treason.

Who are some famous royal inspectors?

Photo Credits

Not this guy who looks really good in a uniform…

To the left, Jung Yak-Yong. To the right, his direct descendant, Jung Hae-In. Photo Credits. This comparison picture was circulated in South Korea, touted as the illustration of the “power of genetics”.

But this guy’s direct ancestor, the renowned scientist and public servant Jung Yak Yong. (Fun fact: even King Jung Jo at the time acknowledged that Jung Yak Yong to be quite a handsome man.)

There is also the legendary Park Mun Soo, known as the avenger of the common people. At least 300 tales about his journey as a royal inspector are in the historical records and folk tales. He is most famous for his persistent fight against corruption.

Painting of Park Mun Soo. Photo Credits

How were the inspectors appointed?

A royal inspector was given a “bongseo”, which contained the king’s order to carry out certain duties without revealing his identity.

He was also given a “mapae”, which he could use to borrow horses throughout his journey as an inspector.

From the top left, clockwise: mapae, bongseo, samok and yuchuk. The 4 items a king bestowed upon a royal inspector. Photo Credits

He was always sent out with a group of other officials who often disguised themselves as groups of commoners like merchants. To gather information about villages, they often went to crowded places.

What exactly did a royal inspector do?

An inspector wrote reports…lots of them.

He observed the lives of the common people, the systems and rulers of villages, and occasionally penned down his opinions on how to improve the lives of the people.

If he discovered that a commoner was unjustly judged in court, he reported the wrongdoings of officials, recommended talented, morally upright people to their positions instead, and dismissed even high-ranking officials like governors in the name of the king.

How was the life of a royal inspector like?

Very, very hard.

They could be killed by assassins sent by their political enemies, eaten by tigers (nearly 70% of Joseon consisted of forested areas), robbed (and again killed) by bandits. They could also be accused of being “fake royal inspectors” by suspicious village rulers.

Painting of a tiger in the Joseon era. Photo Credits

Inspectors also had to write many reports to the king, and could be punished for all sorts of reasons like: 1) report written too frequently 2) report written too infrequently 3) messy handwriting (seriously…maybe give them a break?)

Typical image of a royal inspector wielding his “mapae” as soldiers arrest a corrupt official. Photo Credtis

Inspectors even had to pay for their expenses out of their own pockets and could not even receive any form of support (even food) from anyone because it could be considered as bribery.

The job was such hard work that rumor has it officials assigned as royal inspectors occasionally mourned, “Your Majesty, what did I do so wrong that you would give me this job?”

The work of royal inspectors was so laborious and even life-threatening to the point that there even circulates a statistic that the survival rate of royal inspectors was only 30%. This frightening number, however, is not based on any historical record or evidence.

Given that highly intelligent, educated and experienced men of Joseon were selected as royal inspectors, it is highly unlikely that the precious young talent of Joseon were sent to missions of death. The survival rate was probably a lot higher than 30%.

Was the royal inspector policy successful?

To a large extent, yes.

Inspectors like Park Mun Soo are famous for having made the common people’s lives much better by fighting against corrupted officials who exploited the people. Some like Jung Yak Yong are famous for having pushed for policies and even inventions to better the lives of commoners based on the insight they gained during their stint as inspectors.

But unfortunately, as the cases of corrupted royal inspectors and serious political retribution against returning royal inspectors increased, the policy of royal inspectors ceased in the year of King Gojong (1896) as Joseon itself neared its demise.

The last king of Joseon, Gojong. Photo Credits
The last princess of Joseon, Princess Deokhye. Imported

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