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    Episode 176: The Climax of the Reform (Part 1)

    In the Giyu year, towards the end of the year,

    King Sejong gathered his ministers in Geunjeongjeon and commanded:

    “Prepare to initiate the Household Registration Law[1] as planned in the reform.”

    https://mblogthumb-phinf.pstatic.net/MjAyMjExMThfMTI1/MDAxNjY4NzQ3ODI3MjE4.vWoUxXPvVLEAXwd9qE12zTfZhDioBTB2S5-1wzeUx4gg._wkF-Gqr0TqKDekUnW7S24_hveprdxtcG9kHg9OHsDQg.JPEG.unesco114/20061116151949762000.jpg?type=w420 (Identification tag)

    “We shall follow Your Majesty’s command!”

    The ministers replied in unison to King Sejong’s order.

    The Household Registration Law was not a novel concept introduced by Sejong; it was first attempted during King Taejong’s reign but led to various side effects and eventually became obsolete.

    The failure of the Household Registration Law under King Taejong was primarily because the identification tag, intended merely as an identification document, turned into shackles that restrained the people. In an economy centered on agriculture, the citizens had no freedom to relocate, and the identification tag served as a mechanism to prevent them from arbitrarily leaving their hometowns.

    While the identification tag made it easier for Joseon to collect taxes and impose corvée labor, it simultaneously intensified the suffering of merchants and lower-class commoners.

    As a result, many started forging identification tag to claim the status of Cheonmin, a class exempt from certain duties – especially military service, leading to the obsolescence of the Household Registration Law attempted during King Taejong’s time.

    However, Sejong was determined to give the Household Registration Law another try.

    ‘This time it will be different! This time!’

    Sejong was fueled with determination, reflecting on the failures of King Taejong’s era.

    * * *

    With King Sejong’s order, carts loaded with tools and materials for making identification tag, along with artisans, began to move across the nation.

    “I would like to deploy artisans and equipment in every corner of the country, but the situation does not permit it,” Sejong remarked.

    The ministers bowed their heads in agreement.

    “That is true, Your Majesty.”

    “So, where should we start?”

    At Sejong’s question, the ministers began to discuss, suggesting the optimal regions for the initial implementation of the Household Registration Law.

    Unlike previous debates, this discussion was conducted calmly and ended with a decision to start the production and distribution of identification tags on a trial basis in Hanyang (present-day Seoul), followed by implementation starting from the Samnam region (the southern provinces).

    “Why is that?”

    At King Sejong’s inquiry, Chief State Councilor Lee Jik explained the reason.

    “Due to the rebellion incident that occurred last autumn, a considerable amount of state-owned farmland has emerged in the Samnam region. To utilize these lands without missing the farming season next year, we need to find tenants. If the issuance of identification tags and the organization of household registers are delayed, we risk missing the planting season.”

    Sejong nodded at Lee Jik’s explanation.

    “Your opinions are sensible. Then, let’s begin the distribution of identification tags starting from the Samnam region.”

    “We will follow Your Majesty’s command!”

    Thus, the distribution of identification tags started in the Samnam region.

    On the day the artisans and officials set out, King Sejong summoned those in charge to Gyeongbokgung Palace.

    Due to the lack of space, tents were set up in front of Geunjeongjeon, and several large braziers were placed to warm the area, where a feast was prepared.

    The artisans and officials, seated in front of the lavish banquet, looked at the table with stern faces.

    “Wasn’t there a saying, ‘The day you receive Ministry of Taxation provisions?'”

    “It seems this task will indeed not be easy.”

    “Long live His Majesty!”

    The officials and artisans, who were grumbling in front of the banquet, quickly rose from their seats at the sound of the royal approach.

    “We greet His Majesty!”

    Receiving the bows of the artisans and officials, King Sejong sat down and gave a command.

    “Everyone, please take your seats comfortably.”

    As the officials and artisans sat down, Sejong began his address.

    “The task you all are about to undertake is of great importance. It is crucial for you to adhere to the schedule, as starting from the road construction, all policies of the reform rely on timely execution. I sincerely wish for you all to do your best.”

    At Sejong’s exhortation, the officials and artisans responded loudly.

    “We shall devote ourselves wholeheartedly!”

    “Then, since tomorrow will be the start of busy days, enjoy this evening. Let the music begin!”

    As the musicians started playing, the officials and artisans began to enjoy the food and drink.

    The next day, the production of identification tags commenced in all areas of Hanyang.

    It was the beginning of a major endeavor that was expected to take about 5 months if everything went smoothly, or 7 months if any complications arose.

    * * *

    Naturally, Hyang got involved in the process of creating and distributing the identification tag.

    Visiting the Ministry of Taxation, Hyang grabbed hold of Kim Jeom and started a discussion.

    “Minister Kim.”

    “Yes, Your Royal Highness.”

    “In the process of making the identification tag, don’t you think it’s a waste of time to make them in the order of arrival?”

    “What do you mean?”

    Perplexed, Kim Jeom asked for clarification, to which Hyang explained with a simple example.

    “Imagine the first person to come is born in the year of ‘Gap’, the next in the year of ‘Byeong’, and then ‘Eul’. Wouldn’t it be cumbersome for those stamping the identification tag?”

    Realizing Hyang’s point, Kim Jeom nodded.

    “Ah! That does make sense!”

    “So, what if we use a bit of strategy?”

    “What kind of strategy?”

    “The first day, we only invite those born in years starting with ‘Gap’ and ‘Eul’, and the next day ‘Byeong’ and ‘Jung’, and so on. We can also examine the household registry in advance to determine which years have the most people and adjust the schedule accordingly.”

    Hyang suggested applying a method commonly used in the 21st century to Kim Jeom.

    Kim Jeom’s face brightened upon hearing Hyang’s suggestion.

    “A brilliant idea! It would reduce the workload of the artisans and minimize errors! I will implement it immediately! Thank you very much!”

    “It’s nothing…”

    Hyang humbly dismissed the praise with a nonchalant expression.

    * * *

    Thus, after one improvement, the procedure for creating identification tags was established.

    “Today, all adult men and women born in years beginning with ‘Gap’ and ‘Eul’ should come to the town hall to receive your identification tag! Those who fail to do so will be fined!”

    At the proclamation of the town criers, people from all over Hanyang, who met the criteria, headed to the town hall.

    Soon, a long line formed at the venue.

    While the town criers and soldiers managed the line with their batons, inside the hall, officials with the household registry and artisans were busy verifying information and creating the identification tag.

    “Your household number, name, year of birth, birthplace, and residence, please.”

    An official called out, and a person came forward to receive the identification tag.

    “My household number is 134 in Chang-dong, my name is Han Pan-sul, born in the year of ‘Gap-Sul’. I was born in Gyeonggi Province.”

    After Pan-sul’s response, the official checked the household registry, verified the information, and nodded.


    After verifying the details, the official wrote the birth year, birthplace, and name on a piece of paper with a golden pen and handed it to the artisan seated behind him.

    “Wait over there, and you’ll receive your identification tag in due time.”

    “Yes, sir.”

    Following the official’s instructions, Pan-sul moved to the waiting line set up beside them.

    After Pan-sul’s processing was completed, the official called out for the next person.


    * * *

    The production of the identification tag that followed the verification of personal details was akin to a Ford-style assembly line operation.

    The artisan, receiving the paper with personal details, combined the typeset letters accordingly and placed them into a frame.

    Once the frame was ready, a thin metal plate was placed over it, and the artisan turned a large wheel attached to the printing press.

    As the wheel turned, a heavy iron block pressed down on the metal plate, imprinting the details of the identification tag owner onto the soft cast iron plate.

    After turning the wheel to lift the iron block, the artisan removed the plate to check if the imprint was clear.

    Satisfied with the imprint, the artisan passed the plate to the next artisan sitting beside him.

    The second artisan placed the imprinted plate inside a thin metal frame and covered it with another metal frame. This top frame had a hollow center, fitted with a piece of glass.

    The artisan aligned the two frames and screwed bolts into the holes at each corner. As the screws tightened, the two frames securely interlocked.

    Once the frames were properly combined, the artisan handed over the assembly to the next artisan.

    The final artisan, upon verifying the assembly, poured melted lead into the largest hole among the corner screw holes and waited for it to cool before stamping the official seal.

    After sealing, the artisan handed the completed identification tag to a waiting official.

    The official receiving the identification tag called out the name written on it.

    “Born in the year of ‘Gap-Sul’, Han Pan-sul! Where is Han Pan-sul?”

    “Here! I am here!”

    Pan-sul, who had been waiting, stepped forward, and the official marked the registry before handing over the identification tag.

    “Take good care of this. If you lose or damage it and need a reissue, you’ll have to pay 300 won.”

    “Goodness! That’s expensive!”

    “That’s why you need to take good care of it.”

    At the official’s words, Pan-sul pointed to the glass in the center of the identification tag.

    “This has glass embedded in the middle?”

    To Pan-sul’s query, the official added an explanation.

    “Do you see the iron netting embedded in the glass?”

    Upon the official’s question, Pan-sul examined the identification tag again. Indeed, there was a finely woven iron net inside the glass. The official continued the explanation.

    “That iron netting makes the glass stronger.”

    “I see…”

    “And remember, this identification tag is a proof of your identity. Don’t be careless with it. If some miscreant steals it and uses it for ill, you could face serious trouble.”

    “Yes! I will keep that in mind!”

    Leaving the town hall, Pan-sul looked at the identification tag in his hand with a complex expression.

    “It’s really peculiar. What is this really… It makes me feel as if I’ve become someone important.”

    The identification tag, with its expensive glass, seemed to imbue Pan-sul with a sense of unexplained pride.

    Pan-sul scrutinized the identification tag, murmuring to himself.

    “Whose idea was this? Truly a marvelous invention…”

    * * *

    Indeed, the design of the identification tag was Hyang’s work.

    “Simply carving wood takes too long, and securing materials is a problem…”

    If the identification tag were to be made of wood like the previous ones, there would be many issues with preservation.

    “What would be better?”

    While pondering for a solution, Hyang snapped his fingers as a soldier passed by and saluted.

    “That’s it!”

    What Hyang remembered was the dog tags worn during military service in the 21st century.

    Based on the design of the dog tags, Hyang made some modifications.

    Instead of rubber, he wrapped the edges with metal, inserted glass to add a touch of sophistication, and finally, secured it with screws, covering it with lead and stamping an official seal to prevent forgery. Hyang presented this prototype to King Sejong.

    “Excellent! Let’s proceed with this design!”

    King Sejong immediately approved the prototype upon seeing it.

    * * *

    The distribution of the identification tag began with King Sejong and was carried out methodically. After completing the distribution in Hanyang, the smooth progress of the identification tag distribution starting from the Samnam region was reported daily, and Sejong praised Hyang.

    “Your contribution is truly significant!”

    “It was merely good fortune on my part!”

    Receiving King Sejong’s praise and returning to the Eastern Palace, Hyang stopped by the research institute. Looking at the various devices on display, he mumbled to himself.

    “We have created so much. The problem is…”

    Observing the empty spaces in the display case, Hyang continued.

    “There’s still so much more to make. I wonder if, a few hundred years from now, historians studying Father’s and my reign will criticize us?”

    Imagining the distant future, Hyang let out a wry chuckle.

    “Who knows?”

    1. A legal system established to enforce the carrying of 호패 (identification tags). It was implemented during the reign of King Taejong, the third king of the Joseon Dynasty, and was temporarily abolished before being reinstated in 1458, the 4th year of King Sejo, the seventh king of Joseon. It remained in effect almost until the end of the Joseon Dynasty. Under this system, those of the second rank (이품) and above in the Dongban (Eastern Class) and Seoban (Western Class) carried a specific type of tag (아패), those of the third rank (삼품) and below and those who passed miscellaneous examinations carried another type (각패), scholars such as 생원 (students) and 진사 (licentiates) carried 황향목패, and lower-ranking officials, commoners, minor clerks, and local officials carried a 소방목패 (small rectangular wooden tag). Public and private menials and temporary officials carried a 대방목패 (large rectangular wooden tag).[]
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