[NOTEBOOK]Court politics in the modern age

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[NOTEBOOK]Court politics in the modern age

A television show, "Jang Heuibin," starring the actress Kim Hye-soo, is being promoted heavily by the network that produced it. The network is promising viewers that the program will include topics and scenes that would have landed the producer in jail a decade or two ago, such as ladies of the royal court learning sexual techniques and a king and his consort bathing together. The planned 100-part drama is based on a historical character, a concubine of the Joseon dynasty's King Sukjong (1674-1720). Jang Heuibin, the heroine, has been the subject of countless movies and other television programs.

Historical dramas set in the royal court always include secret feuds, conspiracies, artifices and revenge plots among the people surrounding the king. Questions regarding the succession to the throne, such as which woman will be the first to produce a male heir and which prince will be installed as the crown prince, are the essence of the court dramas. Power flows in the direction of whoever has been named crown prince, so competitors risk their lives to be on the winning side in these dramas.

"Jang Heuibin" is no exception. The essence of the show is a struggle for power, under the guise of a competition for love, between Jang Heuibin and Queen Inhyeon. Jang Heuibin shrewdly uses King Sukjong's concern about not having produced a male heir during his 15 years on the throne in the story. Jang Heuibin belonged to the South People, a political faction that was trying hard to take power. Queen Inhyeon belonged to the West People, the most powerful political faction of the time. So the rivalry between the two women for the body and the mind of the king stemmed from the factional politics of noblemen, which was a constant during the 500-year history of the Joseon dynasty.

Time has passed, society has changed, and court politics has been relegated to television dramas. But the nature of a transfer of power has not changed. There are many political systems in the world, ranging from the hereditary despotism of North Korea to full democracy, depending on how politically mature a country is. But in any political system, power transfers always bring disputes.

Even in the United States, where democracy is well-developed, conspiracies seem to accompany every election. Such phenomena are natural in China, where a dictatorship still rules. During the 16th Chinese Communist Party Congress that ended recently, Jiang Zemin retired and Hu Jintao was promoted to be the party general secretary, but the public changes were just the product of secret negotiations between politicians and factions.

With Korea's presidential election upcoming, political parties are at war. They are competing not for the king's blessing but for public favor and votes. But they are no different from the factions of the Joseon dynasty. They are obsessed with fear that they will suffer revenge and losses if their opponents take power, just as factionalists in the Joseon dynasty were afraid that they would die in prison if their rivals took power.

The people support a law-governed society rather than a human-governed society, and say that the personal qualities of political leaders are not an issue but the political system is. But personal qualities are important; an example is U.S. president George W. Bush's simple way of distinguishing good from evil, which is causing problems in international society. Confucius said "Discipline yourself and then rule over the people." Those words were meant for leaders in the age of human-governed society. But even now it is an important proverb. If King Sukjong had followed the proverb, Jang Heuibin could not have swayed the court and become the frequent heroine of TV dramas. If Kim Dae-jung had followed it, he would not have two convicted criminals for sons.

Whether a candidate can break the vicious cycle of political revenge and whether a candidate has disciplined himself should be an important point in deciding for whom to vote. Violent partisanship will repeat the history of Jang Heuibin.

* The writer is international news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Bae Myung-bok

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