Behind the Veil of Power: State Statistics and Benford’s Law in Chosǒn Korea

15 Pages Posted: 10 Jan 2014

Date Written: August 11, 2011


Situating the Chosǒn period (1392-1910) in Korea within the larger historiographical framework has proved no easy challenge. While its economy was basic, relying largely on agriculture, its system of rule comprised a complex bureaucracy superintended by highly educated officials selected by impartially administered examinations. While generally consigned to the catch-all historiographical category of “pre-modern” some scholars such as Alexander Woodside have pointed to the rationality of the Chosǒn bureaucracy and deemed it an alternative form of modernity. Central in such attempt to reappraise the sophistication of rule in Chosǒn are the sophistication and accuracy of its administrative record keeping. This paper uses the mathematical insights garnered over the past century concerning “Benford’s Law” or the “First Digits Law” to examine the internal consistency of a set of Chosǒn-era government statistics. Benford and others discovered that the distribution of the left-most digits in a wide variety of statistics follow a non-uniform distribution, one not obvious to those unfamiliar with it. Through a comparison of the actual numbers with their theoretical distribution under Benford’s Law, it has been possible to uncover a wide variety of malfeasance and accounting fraud. This paper finds that government documents from both the 15th and 19th centuries generally comport with the Benford distribution, adding weight to an understanding of the Chosǒn period as more competent and sophisticated in its rule than has previously been thought.

Keywords: Chosǒn, Joseon, Korea, history, Benford’s Law, social statistics, East Asia

JEL Classification: C12, B15, B10

Suggested Citation

Hejtmaenk, Milan, Behind the Veil of Power: State Statistics and Benford’s Law in Chosǒn Korea (August 11, 2011). Available at SSRN: or

Milan Hejtmaenk (Contact Author)

Seoul National University ( email )

Seoul, 151-742
Korea, Republic of (South Korea)

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