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The World’s First Referendum – and its aftermath


Korea is a country of hidden wonders. These wonders, which have remained hidden in some cases for centuries, are continually being unearthed. Many have something to teach us about the world we live in today.

The Sillok – royal annals that documented every day of the Joseon dynasty for the five centuries it governed Korea – is currently in the process of being translated into English. The annals of King Taejo’s reign are already available.

As yet untranslated is an extraordinary account of the world’s first national referendum, initiated by King Sejong in 1430.

Sejong was, at the time, trying to reform the tax system. At the time, tax was calculated subjectively by the official in question, meaning that bribery was common. Rich people could pay to have their taxes reduced, and poor people could be unfairly over-taxed if the magistrate wanted to raise extra money.

The solution Sejong originally proposed was a fixed metric linked to the area of land owned by the tax payer. As it was an objective measure, it was much harder for officials to manipulate.

Sejong’s style of governance was typically consultative in nature, and given the scale of the reform and its implications for the poor and for the national treasury, he asked his officials to ask the opinion of the citizens on whether the new law seemed fair to them.

The Sillok relates that the officials did not initially comprehend the king’s request, assuming that he meant something else. The King confirmed that he wanted the citizens across the country to be consulted in person by way of a ballot, rejecting or accepting the new proposal.

“Ask everyone – even the poorest in the land – whether they think the new law is right or wrong, and report their responses to me.” Sejong Sillok, 12th year Sejong’s reign, 5th March)

– Excerpt from the Sillok

Over the course of five months, Sejong’s officials surveyed a total of 172,806 people – from past and present high-ranking officials to poor farming folk – concerning their opinion on the new law.

Today, those studying university courses in Journalism and Broadcasting are taught that the world’s first ever opinion poll was conducted in the US state of Pennsylvania during the presidential campaign of 1824. However, 400 years before this, a national opinion poll of even greater magnitude was carried out in Joseon Korea.

투표내용: 토지1결당 세금10두;
투표기간: 1430.3.5.~8.10;
당시 가구수; 692,477호.

– 세종실록지리지

Issue for consideration: For one gyeol [2.5 acres] 10 du of crops;
Period: May 3rd to August 10th;
Number of households: 692,477.

– Excerpt from the Sillok

The results of the votes were 98,000 in favor of the new system, and 74,000 against (57% vs 43%). The country was thus marginally in favour of the new law.

Although a majority were in favour, the lack of an overwhelming majority appears to have led Sejong to interrogate the data further.

The data revealed that the country was in fact highly polarised. The fertile farming lands of the southern provinces were overwhelmingly in favor of the new law (For: 99% Against: 1%), and the less fertile provinces of the north overwhelmingly against (For: 4% Against: 96%).

Part of the 888-volume Annals of the Joseon Dynasty (photo: Cultural Heritage Administration)
Part of the 888-volume Annals of the Joseon Dynasty (photo: Cultural Heritage Administration)

This made sense, given the undiscriminating nature of the new legislation, which did not take into account fertility.

Through a painstaking process of consultation and refinement, Sejong spent the next 14 years altering the law and introducing it by stages.

The eventual system was based not only on the amount of land, but also the soil’s fertility (graded according to six levels), and the quality of the previous year’s harvest (graded on a nine-point scale).

The new law was first implemented in Jeolla and Gyeongsang provinces, where approval of the original legislation had been highest.

Three years after that, Sejong expanded the system to cover Chungcheong province, and after continuous improvements and amendments, in the 26th year of his reign, the new system was finally implemented across the nation.

In total, it took 17 years to create a system that was both straightforward and equitable. It was included in the country’s official legislation and became the new foundation of subsequent tax laws in the Joseon dynasty.

Since ancient times, politicians have cited the ‘will of the people’ in order to support their own agendas, using it as a mandate to carry out their own wishes. Sejong the Great, by contrast, sincerely examined the people’s will in detail, and directed the country’s affairs with the people’s needs in mind.

The story of the tax reform, together with an analysis of the process Sejong followed to refine and enact the law, can be found in this paper by Park Hyun-mo in the Review of Korean Studies.


  • Park Hyun-mo: King Sejong’s Deliberative Politics: With Reference to the Process of Tax Reform, The Review of Korean Studies Vol. 8, No. 3 (2005) can be downloaded here:

2 thoughts on “The World’s First Referendum – and its aftermath

  1. Thanks for the great article Matthew – very topical.
    And thanks to Hannah Giles for pointing out the error in the translation. Now corrected.

  2. This should be better known in the world! King Sejong and his many inventions and innovations really deserve more recogition from the people around the world.

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