“Trust is more important than life. Kill them all!”
So declares Soseono (소서노) with admirable equanimity on her first outing as the leader of the trade troop owned by Yeontabal (연타발), Chief of Keru and Leader of the Jolbon (졸본) confederacy. Soseono is destined to inherit the troop from her father and this is her first opportunity to prove her mettle as a trader and to freely wield her authority as the troop leader. Responding to the treachery of the Heangin emissaries sent to buy steel swords from her, Soseono orders Wootae to kill them on the spot.
The order seems, at first glance, rather ruthless and overzealous, the mark of a novice overcompensating for her lack of real experience and authority. However, the moment she utters the words quoted above, it becomes clear that her order stems from the unbending adherence to a strict ethical code based on the primacy of trust. By this code, it is not enough to merely exist; one must also be unquestionably trustworthy in order for one’s life to be significant. By extension, this code implies that to be part of a society in which there is no trust amongst its individual and collective members is to be part of a society in which life is not worth living.
Considered objectively, this principal makes a great deal of sense both in theory and in practice since ultimately, trust and trustworthiness comprise the connective tissue of any functional, prosperous society. For in order to do their work, cultivate, and thrive, individuals and groups need to be able to rely upon the declared intentions and promises made by those upon whom they depend. But holding a principle and actually living by it are two very different things. Following Wootae’s refusal to comply with her order, Soesuno resignedly observes with considerable wisdom, “[Wootae] addresses me with respect but I know he thinks I am just a kid.”
The wisdom in this observation resides in acknowledging the difference between youthful idealism – the notion that one can live according to one’s principles – and experienced pragmatism. For his part, Prince Jumong initially sees the situation in purely transactional terms; he even describes Wootae as “merciful” in his refusal not because the young prince considers it a prudent choice, but because he deems it a position with greater potential for profit in the future when the Haengin may “return the favor.” Well intentioned though he might be, Jumong is but a young naive who has much to learn in his journey to becoming the founder of Goguryeo.
It is worth noting that in a subsequent trade, a buyer tries to cheat Soseono by “demonstrating” the defect in her merchandise by sleight of hand and she is almost taken in. Yontabal, however, spots the deceit and immediately orders the primary instrument of the offending party’s deceit, his hands, be chopped off forthwith. Here too, Yontabal cites the unquestionable importance of trust and his allotted punishment is just as ruthless, if not as final, as Soseono’s had been with the Heangin. Seosuno’s declaration focuses attention on the central theme of 주몽 (Jumong): trust is the connective substance of all social structures, from the individual to the institutional, and its practical robustness in a society determines the health of that society.
Time and again, 주몽 (Jumong) will illustrate the detrimental consequences of betraying trust. Where intimate relationships are concerned, the effects of the betrayal have a primarily sentimental expression whereas in utilitarian, transactional relationships, they find expression in the collapse of economic enterprises, military campaigns and political realms. It makes a great deal of sense that in the narrative logic of 주몽 (Jumong), the primary players are traders, soldiers, and monarchs and their courts. In the machine of fiction, these different categories of players provide perfect models through which to explore exemplary instances of the success and failure of social vitality depending on either the conscientious cultivation of trust or its calculated betrayal.
I am watching 주몽 (Jumong) again for (I believe) the sixth time in conjunction with my new regimen of Korea language and history lessons and am rather enjoying my increased familiarity with the language and the knowledge of the story which allows me to watch without subtitles!
And now, this: