[VIEWPOINT]Does Roh understand history?It is reported that President Roh Moo-hyun frequently talks about history these days. At the recent year-end party with the Blue House press corps, President Roh said that “heroes” like Kings Sejong and Jeongjo consistently pursued reform but were ultimately unable to change the course of history. He said they failed because the ruling class at the time rejected the use of hangul, the Korean alphabet after King Sejong passed away, and the scholars whom King Jeongjo supported were all arrested right after the king’s death.
Looking back at history is useful for understanding reality in a proper light. It is good that the president is interested in history. However, his belief that the reforms pursued by Kings Sejong and Jeongjo failed is a pre-modern conception which focuses on heroes or is a remnant of Japanese imperialists’ perspective.
The historical facts show that some progressive scholars were driven out after the deaths of Kings Sejong and Jeongjo, but it was just a temporary phenomenon and the tide of reform did not actually stop. Hangul was gradually adopted after the death of King Sejong and disseminated widely throughout the country, becoming the basis for our national culture today. Five years after King Jeongjo died of natural causes, the scholars who were nurtured by the king arrested the conservatives. The progressive scholars belonging to the northern and western schools became the mainstream of the ruling class at the time. Korea’s modern political culture is an extension of the traditions they established.
The tide of reform that began with Kings Sejong and Jeongjo continues today because it corresponds with the direction of historical development. This development did not stop after a “hero” died because history is not something that is led by one “hero.” President Roh was discouraged by the supposed collapse of such historical reforms and worries about the future of his reforms. However, he should look straight at reality and ask whether the reform he pursues today corresponds with the direction of historical development.
For instance, let’s examine some of the serious problems that a misguided understanding of King Jeongjo’s era has caused today. Two hundred years ago, King Jeongjo and a group of pragmatic scholars carried out wide-ranging progressive plans in the new town of Hwaseong near Suwon. The Hwaseong castle wall and advanced urban infrastructure facilities, model state-run farms with large-scale irrigation systems and advanced commercial facilities serve as historical evidence showing the direction of reforms pursued in that age.
However, we have followed in the footsteps of the Japanese in distorting such historical facts. Thus we have designated only the castle walls of Hwaseong as a cultural asset. The government registered the castle walls as a world cultural heritage site, while indiscriminately damaging the other advanced facilities of Hwaseong under a loose cultural asset preservation project. In 1996, to mark the 200-year anniversary of the completion of Hwaseong new town, the government drained the reservoirs Manseokgeo and Seoho at the cost of tens of billions of won. Now, in order to make the castle walls of Hwaseong “a sacred precinct,” a rash development plan worth over 1 trillion won ($1 billion) and a special bill is being pursued by the governing party.
Meanwhile, the agricultural college and veterinary school of Seoul National University, which were located on the site of the advanced farms of King Jeongjo’s era, have abandoned the responsibility of protecting the site and moved to Seoul. The Rural Development Association also decided to move to Jeolla provinces, abandoning the site of 200 years of tradition and agricultural development.
Even more surprising is that the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry and the Rural Development Association say that 1906 is the starting point of modern Korean agriculture, although that is the year the Japanese established model agriculture promotion centers and started to plunder our agricultural community. To promote commemorative projects for the 100-year anniversary this year, a budget of billions of won has been set aside. This plainly shows us the distorted historical understanding of government officials and leading figures of our society, and the reality we are in today.
President Roh’s intentions in placing importance on history and pursuing reforms today can be compared to the prevailing theory of King Jeongjo’s time, which emphasized the need to create new ways by studying the past. However, it is much more important for us to promote genuine reform that corresponds with historical development by understanding the reality properly in the context of historical experience.
After all, it is no use making new things from the past if you do not look for truth in reality. Therefore, President Roh must first establish a proper understanding of history so that he can correct the errors of our reality, carry out reform efforts safely and lead us to the point where we can pursue historical development.
*The writer is a professor of history at Hanshin University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Yoo Bong-hak