[FOUNTAIN]Reform effort refined by King Sejong

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[FOUNTAIN]Reform effort refined by King Sejong

King Sejong is remembered as a sage king. We, the descendant Koreans, imagine that his wise words could resolve the most complicated entanglements. Surprisingly, even the wise king found reform challenging. In fact, it took a full 17 years for him to reform the taxation system.
When King Sejong acceded to the throne, farmers were supposed to give one-tenth of their crops as tax, but tax inspectors would determine whether the year’s harvest was rich or poor and set the exact percentage. However, the corrupt inspectors would exploit the system and pocket taxpayer’s money. As a result, the farmers paid too much tax while the national treasury’s income declined. King Sejong wished to reform the unreasonable system. The alternative was a tax program of paying a certain portion of the average yield of recent years.
The task was a viable one for King Sejong, who inherited a stable political basis from his predecessor. However, the king spent more than half of his 32-year reign planning the new system.
The discussion of tax reform started in 1427, nine years into his reign. When the result was less than successful, King Sejong initially stepped back. Then in November 1429, he again ordered the Ministry of Finance to survey the opinions of his subjects. When the report came out four months later, the king was not satisfied and ordered a nationwide opinion poll.
While most people supported the new plan, the king analyzed the outcome further. He was concerned that people in the south where crops were rich welcomed the change while those in the north where harvests were smaller were less in favor. In Gyeongsang province, 36,262 people approved the change while only 377 opposed it. In contrast, the residents of Pyeongan province were overwhelmingly against the idea, 28,474 to 1,326. The king postponed the implementation of the new taxation system indefinitely.
The discussion resumed in 1436, and an agency in charge of reform was organized. In 1444, the new program was finalized.
In the name of reform, society often demands drastic and immediate decisions over sensitive issues. However, King Sejong highlighted the other side of reform.
The wisdom of King Sejong also teaches us that short-winded reform is more prone to failure.


by Ahn Sung-kyoo

The writer is a deputy political news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
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