[FOUNTAIN]Perils of private meetings

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[FOUNTAIN]Perils of private meetings

Byeon Gye-ryang, a scholar during the rule of King Sejong (1397-1450), said, “Among the court retainers, some would come and go like vagabonds. They are just like fish eyes mixed in pearls. In the golden days of the Tang and Sung Dynasty, there was a rule in the court that the officials had to take turns answering the emperor’s questions.”
In order to make sure that officials were not relegated to positions they did not deserve, the king was advised to summon them one by one to test their abilities. King Sejong accepted the proposal and established a system of one-on-one meetings with high officials every day.
While it was a law that chroniclers had to attend the meetings, King Sejong often told them to leave and held secret conversations with his officials. It was during the king’s rule that the term dokdae, meaning one-to-one meeting, was coined.
King Seongjong (1457-1494), however, avoided dokdae meetings. When the retainers asked him to permit dokdae, he countered, “If you cannot speak up because you are afraid of other officials seeing and listening, how can you fulfill your duties as retainers?” King Seongjong’s prime minister said that some retainers could theoretically make false accusations in the meetings, but that that was unlikely to happen under such a wise king. However, the King said that even if he did not believe charges made in private, he did not want to leave room for suspicion.
After King Seongjong, dokdae became a rare event. The meetings between King Hyojong and Minister of the Interior Song Si-yeol in 1659 and between King Sukjong and First Vice Premier Lee Yi-myeong in 1717 are two examples. King Hyojong talked of his plan to conquer the north for the first and last time to Minister Song. King Sukjong revealed his intention to change the crown prince to Vice Premier Lee. The kings conveyed their intentions to their trusted retainers in order to promote agendas that could not be discussed publicly. King Sejong also utilized the one-on-one meetings to push projects that were opposed by most officials, such as the creation of hangul.
Recently, a former minister stated that he could not fulfill his duties because he could not have dokdae with the president. We must not forget that dokdae meetings can be poisonous. Not so long ago, Kim Woo-choong, the former chairman of the Daewoo Group, had the privilege to having one-on-one meetings with the president because he was the chairman of the Federation of Korean Industries. Mr. Kim, however, experienced clashes and discord with ministers until the Daewoo group finally collapsed.

by Lee Hoon-beom

The writer is the head of the JoongAng Ilbo’s weekend news team.
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