top of page

Introduction. What is the "Mission: Impossible"?

Korea is the only country in the world that celebrates the birthday of its alphabet, 한글날, and remembers who created it: King Sejong the Great. People are still learning from his life and accomplishments. Let’s take one more lesson he taught us.

Who was Sejong the Great?

Sejong the Great (세종대왕, 世宗大王 in Korean),May 6, 1397 – May 18, 1450; r. 1418 - 1450, was the fourth ruler of the Joseon Dynasty of Korea, and a beloved Korean folk hero. Highly educated and a gifted military strategist, he is most famous for commissioning the creation of the phonetic Korean alphabet Hangul by scholars of the Hall of Worthies, despite strong opposition from officials educated in Hanja (Chinese character); the "Hangul" alphabet continues to be used today. King Sejong also established a library and an institution for scholarly research, and promoted men of talent to positions of authority in his government. Under his patronage Korean literature and culture flourished. He encouraged technological advances in weaponry and initiated the use of printing presses.

King Sejong is one of only two Korean rulers honored with the appellation the "Great," the other being Gwanggaeto the Great of Goguryeo, the king who expanded Korean territory to China and Manchuria. King Sejong was honored with the appellation “Great” for his accomplishments and contributions.








Fig. 1.King Sejong, 세종대왕, 世宗大王


King Sejong came to the power after years of continuous turmoil caused by establishing of the Joseon dynasty and Strives of Princes. Moreover, after the end of the Goryeo Dynasty, the coastal areas of Korea were often invaded by Japanese pirates (Wakou). Two decades of coups, strives and fights brought substantial losses in agriculture and, as a result, chronical famine.


As a responsible ruler, King Sejong started from strengthening the defense of country. First, on the northern border, King Sejong established four forts and six posts to safeguard his people from the hostile Chinese and Manchurian nomads living in Manchuria. The Jurchens (女真) inhabited this area and the borders were unclear. King Sejong aggressively explored the border and created various military regulations to ensure the safety of his kingdom. Then, he repelled the Japanese pirates from their main base, Tsushima (대마도) Island, and thus stopped their invasions.


Next his Mission was to fight the famine:


He wanted to help farmers, so he decided to create a farmer's handbook. The book – the Nongsa jikseol (hangul: 농사직설, hanja: 農事直說) – contained information about the different farming techniques that he told scientists to gather in different regions of Korea. These techniques were needed in order to maintain the newly adopted methods of intensive, continuous cultivation in Korean agriculture.


Sejong depended on the agricultural produce of Joseon's farmers, so he allowed them to pay more or less tax according to fluctuations of economic prosperity or hard times. Because of this, farmers could worry less about tax quotas and work instead at surviving and selling their crops. Once the palace had a significant surplus of food, King Sejong then distributed food to poor peasants or farmers who needed it.


Accomplishment of this Mission, however, was not so simple. In order to adopt the new methods of agriculture, the peasants should understand what they do, they should be literate. However, there was a substantial barrier to literacy: use of Chinese hieroglyphic system:


During his reign, King Sejong always deplored the fact that the common people, ignorant of the complicated Chinese characters that were being used by the educated, were not able to read and write. He understood their frustration in not being able to read or to communicate their thoughts and feelings in written words.


This was a serious obstacle on the way to total literacy of Korean people. Illiteracy hindered implementation of new agriculture, the only viable response to the permanent threat of famine. To anybody less creative, the Mission seemed impossible. But King Sejong found his unique way to accomplish his Mission. He designed the phonetic alphabet:


King Sejong created the Korean alphabet (which numbered 28 letters at its introduction, of which four letters have become obsolete), with the explicit goal being that Koreans from all classes would read and write. Each consonant letter is based on a simplified diagram of the patterns made by the human speech organs (the mouth, tongue and teeth) when producing the sound related to the character, while vowels were formed by combinations of dots and lines representing heaven (a circular dot), earth (a horizontal line) and humanity (a vertical line). Morphemes are built by writing the characters in syllabic blocks. The blocks of letters are then strung together linearly.


Hangul was completed in 1443 and published in 1446 along with a 33-page manual titled Hunmin Jeong-eum, explaining what the letters are as well as the philosophical theories and motives behind them. The Hunmin Jeong-eum purported that anyone could learn Hangul in a matter of days. People previously unfamiliar with Hangul can typically pronounce Korean script accurately after only a few hours of study.


Shift from meaning-based hieroglyphs to sound-based letters was a unique, huge step forward in evolution of writing. Similar step, in the other side of world, was made by Jewish people: Hebrew alphabet consisted of sound-based letters, not meaning-based hieroglyphs widely used in neighbor countries.


What was the main reason to design Hangul and what were the consequences?


In his Preface to the Hunmin jeong eum (훈민정음), King Sejong explained why he was introducing the new alphabet:


Our country’s phonetics are different from the Chinese language and the two languages cannot relate to each other. Because of this, when Korean people want to speak and express themselves using Chinese writing, they are unable to do so. As I regret this situation, I have created a new alphabet of twenty-eight characters, which the Korean people can easily learn and use in their daily lives.


…Although the upper classes mostly refused to learn Hangul, the new, simple writing system enabled the women of Yangban families and the commoners to be literate, providing a means of general communication and contributing to the rise of a new culture in Korea. King Sejong established the Office for Publication in Hangul.


Implementation of Hangul was not easy:


Initially, King Sejong faced a backlash from the scholar elite, who felt the new system was vulgar (and who likely did not want women and peasants to be literate).


Resistance came from multiple directions:


Conservative pro-Chinese government officials opposed the usage of Hangul, calling it onmun or “vernacular language” and citing the superiority of the use of Chinese characters (Hanja). …the upper classes mostly refused to learn Hangul.


Despite of this strong resistance, King Sejong managed to overcome all these obstacles that seemed insurmountable and implemented the new alphabet. This accomplishment changed the situation dramatically. Some consequences were the long-term ones:


Illiteracy is virtually nonexistent in Korea. This is another fact that attests to the easy learnability of Hangul. It is not uncommon for a foreigner to gain a working knowledge of Hangul after one or two hours of intensive studying. In addition, because of its scientific design, Hangul lends itself to easy mechanization. In this age of computers, many people now are able to incorporate computers into their lives without difficulties, thanks to a large number of programs written in Hangul.


So, what is the main lesson King Sejong teaches us? This lesson comprises many aspects:

  1. If you take really important Mission, there always are multiple obstacles that make it look impossible

  2. Mission looks impossible to those who are afraid of obstacles

  3. Responsible people understand that obstacles are surmountable, and there are ways to accomplish the Mission

  4. Overcoming the obstacles is not a simple job, it requires a lot of thinking: analyze the situation and obstacle, invent the solution, find the available means to implement it

  5. Accomplishment of important Mission provides for substantial benefits, both immediate and delayed (sometimes, for many centuries!)


This lesson, in all its aspects, was the motivation to write on the topic of "Mission: Impossible."


| "Mission: Impossible": How to Successfully Accomplish It | CHAPTER I

bottom of page