[VIEWPOINT]A wise counselor of JoseonThe newly found truth revealed to me as I was reading “The Chronicles of King Sejong” was of the scandals involving the highly esteemed Hwang Hi, who had moved up to the prime minister’s post under King Sejong of the Joseon Dynasty.
According to the historical record, “Hwang Hi accepted bribes in return for personnel appointments in the court while he was in power,” and “forged investigation reports to the king to cover up a murder committed by his son-in-law and delayed the judicial proceedings of the case for several months.”
Hwang Hi’s image as a clean-handed officer is further tainted by the book. “Deputy Prime Minister Hwang Hi accepted a personal request for a favor from an official, and gave an order to those under his command to be lenient with the guilty officer.” The chronicle also noted, “His personality was overly tolerant, and this had negative effects in managing his family members and relatives.”
What is even more surprising, however, was King Sejong’s attitude toward Hwang Hi. Except for the “bribery case” mentioned above, King Sejong was always protective of him. Why was that so?
The person who had recognized Hwang Hi’s talents was Park Seok-myeong. While repeatedly being sacked or relieved of active duty, Hwang Hi moved around local offices in the countryside until the age of 40. Mr. Park was a childhood friend of King Taejong, the father of King Sejong. He chose Hwang Hi because of his ability to find the most important point of any situation, no matter how complex it was, and summarize it in a brief and concise way.
Even the king himself sometimes could lose peace of mind and wonder what to do. When King Sejong met with Hwang Hi at times like that, everything became clear again. Hwang Hi told the king how to prioritize state affairs and even recommended suitable people for certain jobs.
The second reason why Hwang Hi won the trust of the king was his ability to find a variety of talented people. His stints at many government posts allowed him to meet a variety of people, and when he became the king’s chief secretary he strongly recommended these people.
Heo Jo, who streamlined court protocol in the early days of the Joseon Dynasty; Choi Yun-deok, who conquered invaders on the northern frontiers; and Chang Yeong-sil, who invented the water clock, were all recommended by Hwang Hi.
The third and the greatest contribution Hwang Hi made was his role as “the nation’s counterweight.” He made sure to give thoughtful consideration to people who were left out or sacrificed in the process of revolution and the establishment of the country, so that they would not turn their backs on the Joseon Dynasty.
King Sejong, who confided in Hwang Hi and gave him important responsibilities, was not an ordinary king either. The king accepted Hwang Hi’s advice, although the latter criticized his policies. King Sejong is the one who protected Hwang Hi when political opponents such as Cho Mal-saeng and Ha-ryun attacked Hwang Hi. King Sejong thought that Hwang Hi’s achievements were great enough to cover his faults.
As if repaying the king after the incident of reaching the brink of being fired from the king’s court, Hwang Hi “helped the king make great achievements” as a poor but honest prime minister.
At the beginning of King Sejong’s rule he made sacrificial efforts to overcome famine in Gangwon province, and personally went on a spot inspection of the security and defense situation in Hamkyeong province at the age of 66.
He also played an important role in tax reform, which was a core problem to be dealt with in the middle of the king’s reign.
Settling the new tax reform system with the participation and support of the majority of the people owed a lot to his critical support. If in fact Hwang Hi was born again as a clean-handed government officer thanks to King Sejong, it can be said that Sejong became the “Good and Wise King of the East” thanks to the help of Hwang Hi.
Looking back, it seems that Hwang Hi did not consider himself “one of the many servants of the king.” He did not strongly push a policy, nor was he ever unreservedly against a policy. He never exclusively appointed just his own people to public posts.
As prime minister, Hwang Hi considered all the jobs of the nation his responsibility. He went back and forth between the king and many of his courtiers like a careful balance weight, and guarded his moderate politics between the conflicts of the older and new generations.
In particular, even if people had different opinions from his own and had faults, he appointed them without hesitation if they were judged to be talented or helpful to the country.
“The Chronicles of King Sejong” shows us how the various scandals of Hwang Hi the person became subsumed by his great achievements as a prime minister. This truly gives us hope for the politics of Korea.
* The writer is a research fellow at the Academy of Korean Studies. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Park Hyun-mo