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    Although Sejong and the ministers shuddered at Hyang’s deviousness, they also thought his method was the best course of action.

    Hyang continued his explanation.

    “In the process of recruiting Japanese to work in the mines and cultivate cotton, we will try to exclude the Japanese lords as much as possible.”

    At Hyang’s words, Maeng Sa-seong immediately asked a question.

    “Does excluding the Japanese lords mean that Joseon will directly recruit the workers?”

    “In principle, yes. Once we obtain permission from the Japanese lords, Joseon will step in and make the contracts from then on.”

    In response to Hyang’s answer, Sejong expressed his doubts.

    “Will the lords allow it?”

    “We just need to create a justification. ‘We will personally select diligent workers.’ Isn’t that a good reason? They will profit by collecting taxes from the wages we pay.”

    “That’s true.”

    As Sejong nodded, Hyang made a meaningful remark.

    “Lords who can see the big picture will rise to greatness, while the petty ones will shorten their own lives.”

    Sejong and the ministers, after briefly pondering the meaning of Hyang’s words, shook their heads.

    ‘So devious!’

    ‘How cold!’

    Amidst their head shaking, the Minister of Rites pointed out a problem.

    “But if we do this, won’t too much power be concentrated in the Ōuchi clan? If we’re not careful…”

    Hyang promptly responded to the Minister of Rites’ concern.

    “I don’t plan on entrusting this to the Ōuchi clan.”

    “Then who?”

    “Isn’t there Minamoto no Michisada, the Kyūshū Tandai?”

    At Hyang’s answer, Sejong and the ministers all exclaimed in admiration.

    “Aha!”

    ***

    Hyang, who had selected Minamoto no Michisada as the second lord to bring under Joseon’s influence, explained his reasoning.

    “First, Michisada is an outsider directly appointed by the bakufu. If Joseon wins over such a person, we can expand our influence against the bakufu.”

    In response to Hyang’s explanation, Sejong asked a question.

    “What kind of person is Michisada?”

    The Minister of Rites stepped forward to answer Sejong’s query.

    “According to our investigation, his original surname is Shibukawa. He originally ruled Bitchū and Aki Provinces but was appointed as the Kyūshū Tandai. After being appointed Kyūshū Tandai, he was ordered by the bakufu to govern Hizen Province and has established his base in Chikuzen and Hakata.”

    “How are his relations with neighboring regions?”

    “The reason the bakufu dispatched Michisada was to strengthen its control over Kyūshū. And in recognition of his merits, it was decided that the Shibukawa clan would inherit the position of Kyūshū Tandai.”

    Sejong immediately grasped the meaning of the Minister of Rites’ answer.

    “In other words, their relationship is not good.”

    “That is correct, Your Majesty. He is particularly in constant conflict with the Shōni clan, who originally ruled Hizen and the surrounding areas. Moreover, the Shōni clan is suspected to be the mastermind behind the Wokou pirates who troubled Goryeo since the late period.”

    “Is that so?”

    Sejong’s voice following the Minister of Rites’ words had turned bitterly cold.

    The Ministry of Rites’ speculation that the Shōni clan was behind the Wokou had considerable basis.

    The biggest evidence was that the Sō clan, the lords of Tsushima Island, were under the Shōni clan.

    The second piece of evidence was that conflicts between the Shōni clan and the Muromachi bakufu intensified as the bakufu began to take full control of Kyūshū, and from then on, the appearances of the Wokou (Japanese pirates) became more frequent.(Note 1)

    When the ‘Wokou’ were mentioned, Sejong immediately made up his mind.

    “Strengthening the Minamoto clan’s power will benefit Joseon.”

    Hyang immediately followed up on Sejong’s words.

    “If we can get both the Ōuchi and Minamoto clans in our hands, we can control the regions of Kyūshū and the main island of Japan that are closest to Joseon.”

    “Hmm…”

    At Hyang’s words, Sejong looked at the map hanging on the stand. Connecting the areas Hyang and the Minister of Rites had just mentioned would create a defensive line blocking the sea routes heading toward Joseon.

    With his mind made up, Sejong turned to the ministers.

    “I will tell you, my subjects.”

    “We are listening with utmost attention.”

    “Handle Tsushima Island as you have suggested, and for Kyūshū, proceed based on the Crown Prince’s plan.”

    “We shall obey your command!”

    “If this strategy succeeds, not only can Joseon break free from the threat of the Wokou, but we can also subjugate Japan, the home base of the Wokou, so we must ensure its success.”

    “We will engrave it in our bones and minds!”

    Thus began the operation named ‘Laughing While Concealing a Knife.’

    ***

    Once Sejong’s determination was set, things progressed rapidly.

    “I believe securing the navy’s strength is most important for this operation to truly succeed. I ask the Crown Prince, how is the production of the high-speed Haeung-class warships going?”

    Hyang promptly answered Sejong’s question.

    “We are currently constructing the third warship. The shipyards are being expanded, and the craftsmen are becoming more skilled. By the end of this year, we should be able to complete about eight ships.”

    Upon hearing Hyang’s answer, Sejong immediately made some calculations.

    ‘The warships to be deployed to Murung Island… And the training of the naval forces to board the warships… The time it will take to build the naval base and port on Murung Island…’

    “It will take at least three years for the facilities on Murung Island to function properly, right?”

    “Yes.”

    At Hyang’s response, Sejong looked at Jo Mal-saeng.

    “Can the turtle ships handle the South Sea until the Haeung ships are deployed?”

    “If we can properly deal with Tsushima Island, it will be more than enough.”

    Jo Mal-saeng answered immediately.

    There was a basis for Jo Mal-saeng’s answer. The Joint Chiefs of Staff had previously devised plans and conducted map exercises under the premise of using military force against Japan.

    With favorable winds, it only took a day to travel from Dongnae to Tsushima Island. Therefore, even with just the turtle ships, they could exert sufficient deterrence.

    Hearing Jo Mal-saeng’s answer, Sejong showed a relieved expression.

    “Phew~. That’s fortunate. Very fortunate. Then, we can start the operations against Tsushima and Kyūshū as soon as possible. The Ministry of Rites shall select the envoys to send to Tsushima, the Ōuchi clan, and the Minamoto clan.”

    “Yes, Your Majesty.”

    “I trust you understand the importance of this matter.”

    “Yes, Your Majesty!”

    Sejong did not forget to urge the Minister of Rites.

    ***

    Sejong showed particular interest in selecting the envoys. As a result, the Minister of Rites had a harrowing experience. And the reprimands continued.

    “They’ve already been rejected twice! Do they not want to do their job properly?!”

    “I, I apologize.”

    Whenever the Minister of Rites’ shouts rang out, the officials of the Ministry of Rites became docile and apologized profusely.

    They selected candidates they deemed suitable, created a list of names, and submitted it to Sejong along with their performance evaluation reports.

    “Here is the list of names we consider suitable to send as envoys this time. Please select from among them.”

    At the Minister of Rites’ words, Sejong placed the list on one side of his desk and replied.

    “I will do it as quickly as possible.”

    “Pardon?”

    The Minister of Rites involuntarily raised his head to look at Sejong, surprised by his response after urging him so hastily.

    In response to the Minister of Rites’ reaction, Sejong pointed to the documents piled on his desk and explained his reason.

    “As the Minister of Rites can see, there are many matters that require immediate resolution. Also, considering the importance of this matter, I want to carefully examine the envoys.”

    “Ah, yes… I understand.”

    The Minister of Rites answered Sejong’s words and left Gangnyeongjeon Hall.

    And five days later, Sejong summoned the Minister of Rites.

    “None of them pass.”

    “Pardon?”

    Sejong explained the reasons for failing the candidates one by one.

    “They all seem capable, but their mouths are too loose.”

    “Pardon?”

    “Rumors are rampant in the alleys of Hanseong. They say that when these people get drunk, everyone in Hanseong learns about the court’s affairs.”

    “Ah…”

    “What is most important in this matter? Isn’t it to conceal our intentions as much as possible?”

    At Sejong’s point, the Minister of Rites bowed his head.

    “I will select the candidates again.”

    “Work hard.”

    The Minister of Rites, having been rejected by Sejong, once again selected candidates and submitted them to Sejong.

    And he was rejected by Sejong again. What made it worse was that among the candidates put forward, there were some with suspicions of taking bribes.

    “I had warned you before, yet another person who took bribes has appeared! Not only that, but you recommended such a person to me? Minister of Rites! Do you lack discernment to that extent?!”

    “Please have me killed!”

    This was why the Minister of Rites, after being severely reprimanded, was now urging his subordinates.

    “Where did you keep your eyes and ears to select a bribe-taker as a candidate?! Do you know how much I was scolded by His Majesty?! Should I have to be scolded at this age?!”

    “We, we apologize!”

    “Select them again immediately!”

    “Yes, sir!”

    “Someone capable, tight-lipped, and not crooked!”

    “Yes, sir!”

    As soon as they answered, the officials who left the Minister of Rites’ room let out a long sigh. After catching their breath to some extent, the officials discussed the criteria.

    “Find someone capable, tight-lipped, and not crooked? Does such a person even exist?”

    “Ever since they weeded out people over the bribery issue before, there are quite a few who aren’t crooked, but the first two are the problem…”

    “No, that’s not it. There are many capable people, but the problem is finding someone tight-lipped. Is there anyone in the court these days who can keep a secret?”

    At their colleague’s words, the officials quietly nodded their heads.

    ***

    What loosened the lips of those working in the court was alcohol. Officials suffering from overwork relieved their stress by drinking hard liquor at gisaeng houses.

    As they drank hard liquor and got drunk quickly and heavily, all sorts of words they had kept inside burst out.

    It started lightly with lamenting the hardships of work and went as far as boasting about the tasks they were in charge of.

    The real problem was that among the words that spilled out, there were many confidential matters.

    Even those who would rather die than open their mouths when sober had lips lighter than feathers after a bottle of the famous hard liquor called hongjoo (red wine).

    And all these incidents were reported to Sejong by the secret royal inspectors, and Sejong was creating his own personnel evaluation reports.

    ***

    The grumbling officials clicked their tongues as they watched the military officers from the Office of the Inspector General rush in.

    “The number of human pillars at the Office of Records will increase again.”

    “You’re right about that. How did they end up taking bribes?”

    “Foolish fellows…”

    As they were grumbling, the Minister of Rites’ voice rang out from behind them.

    “Hurry up and get to work! Do you want to become pillars too?!”

    “Yes, sir! We’ll do it, we will!”

    And so, the Ministry of Rites selected new envoy candidates and submitted them to Sejong.

    “This is the third time… Are you confident?”

    In response to Sejong’s doubtful question, the Minister of Rites answered while sweating profusely.

    “We did our best!”

    ‘They say the third time’s the charm! Please!’

    “Hmm… Leave it and go.”

    “Yes, Your Majesty.”

    Five days later, Sejong summoned the Minister of Rites.

    “Form the envoy groups with those I have selected.”

    “I shall obey your command!”

    The Minister of Rites’ steps as he left with Sejong’s order were as light as if he could fly to the sky.

    Fifteen days later, Cheongjin.

    As the development of the northeast region progressed, Hwang Hui’s governor-general’s office also moved up to Cheongjin.

    “Jong-seo~.”

    “Yes, sir.”

    “You’ll have to go on a business trip to Kyūshū.”

    “Kyūshū?”

    At Hwang Hui’s words, Kim Jong-seo turned his head to the map hanging on the wall.

    “I’ve heard the name Kyūshū before…”

    “Not this Kyūshū, the one across the sea.”

    Kim Jong-seo asked with a pale face at Hwang Hui’s words.

    “Kyūshū across the sea? Don’t tell me… Are you talking about Kyūshū Island in Japan?”

    “That’s right.”

    “When I go on a boat, I get severe seasickness…”

    “Don’t worry. The royal physicians will go with you.”

    “I get terrible motion sickness even with slight waves…”

    “What about that fishing trip you went on with me last time? Is the East Sea a lake?”

    “Sir…”

    “Shut up and pack your bags right now!”

    ***

    Note 1) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sh%C5%8Dni_clan

     

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