[VIEWPOINT]Roh’s lesson from King Jeongjo

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[VIEWPOINT]Roh’s lesson from King Jeongjo

The comment made by the administrator of the Cultural Properties Administration, Yoo Hong-joon, has caused uproar in Korea. It started with his idea of changing the wooden plaque on Gwanghwamun gate with the handwriting of King Jeongjo and ended with criticism of his earlier remark to President Roh Moo-hyun at Changdeok Palace last fall.
Mr. Yoo is said to have flattered the president, when he greeted him by saying, “Mr. President, you have a lot of likeness with King Jeongjo.” Regarding this incident, Mr. Yoo explained in a radio interview that he actually meant to give advice to the president that he should “learn from King Jeongjo.”
Frankly, as a person who specialized in the study of King Jeongjo, I think it does not matter whether what Mr. Yoo said was “flattery” or “advice.” My view is that even if the head of a history-related organization attempted to flatter the president, if the president took the flattery as “advice” and tried to learn from King Jeongjo, this is a kind of flattery that can really go down in history!
If in fact President Roh wants to learn from King Jeongjo and history to find a way that will lead him through his current hardships, what can he learn from him? I believe the main point of wisdom to be found in history lies in changing “the method of politics.”
Korean politics until now has mainly focused on “what is to be changed.” Previous administrations and the current government too have put most of their efforts into shuffling people and changing systems endlessly. However, it seems that there has not been much sincere self-reflection on how things should be changed and through what kind of process. What can King Jeongjo tell us about the method of politics or reform?
King Jeongjo once asked his subordinates, “What do you think is the reason the Chinese Tang Dynasty military always lost whenever it went out to fight?”
One senior courtier, Lee Jae-hak, replied, “It was because the king did not rely on the generals.” Then Lee Yu-kyeong, who was standing next to him, replied, “It was because of a failure in personnel appointments.”
King Jeongjo then asked, “Even if they failed to appoint right people to right positions, how could it be that no one could win a battle during three years of war?” The king explained the reason as the following:
“First, the king should be very careful in appointing people, but once appointments are made, the king should not have doubts about them. Only then the king will gain results. However, the Tang Dynasty emperor, after he sent a general off to war, sent a eunuch to watch over him.
“Next, the general has to be totally in charge of all things related to the military to have complete command over his troops. But the emperor ordered that everything should go through him.
“As a result, the generals lost grip of the situation each time. In other words, the Tang Dynasty military lost each and every battle it fought despite experienced commanders because it had no faith in the generals.”
Reflecting on this analysis of factors that contributed to the Tang Dynasty military’s defeat, how then was King Jeongjo himself? First, King Jeongjo had excellent skill in personnel appointments. He believed that “big logs are needed in order to build a big house,” and so he paid a lot of attention to training talented people and selecting talented people as ministers.
Before appointing a person to the post of a minister, he made the candidates work at hard posts in remote areas for a certain period of time, normally eight years, and selected the one who “showed both sincerity in his heart and achievements through action.”
Once a person was appointed, however, the king put trust in him with the attitude that “even if he fails me, I will not fail him.”
However, it seems that the king was not all that successful in the second task of delegating. He was so busy with taking care of almost all things himself that he met the morning sun seated in his chair and worked until after the sun set.
As a result, most of his officials did not have a sense of responsibility and were busy studying how the king felt or acted.
The king lamented near the end of his reign, “It is only me alone who is guarding this palace with one thousand rooms.” King Jeongjo showed us that knowing politics is difficult, but putting a theory into practice is even more difficult.
Mr. Yoo should have spoken of King Jeongjo’s “method of politics” before he spoke of “the king’s failure in reform.” He himself should have learned more from King Jeongjo first before advising President Roh to learn from him.

* The writer is a research professor at the Academy of Korean Studies. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.


by Park Hyun-mo
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