[VIEWPOINT]When times call for prudent leadershipThe debate over whether the transfer of wartime control of South Korean troops from Washington will help establish self-reliant national defense or not is still hot in the news. Another is that the leader of the governing party has met with businessmen with proposals to revive the economy. The papers also carry reports on those who were once in high positions but were removed, complaining that they have been unfairly treated. At a chaotic time like this, I think it’s best to go on a journey ― by reading books.
Whenever I read “the Chronicles of the Joseon Dynasty,” I cannot help admiring the ancient records. How could our ancestors have kept such monumental and detailed records of the times? In the book on the chronicles of King Gwanghae, “The Chronicles of the Joseon Dynasty ― War and Peace during Joseon Era,” written by Kim Yong-sam, the uneasy security situation in the midst of a rapidly changing international situation is revealed as it unfolded. Even as the Qing Dynasty loomed as the emerging strong power on the Chinese mainland, most of the courtiers of the Joseon Dynasty remained indifferent to the threat to national security. The king’s court was full of voices in support of groundless optimism. As King Gwanghae, who experienced seven years of Japanese invasion, felt uneasy, he hurriedly strengthened defenses and ventured in diplomatic tightrope. When the courtiers who were insensitive to the international situation continued to insist on keeping the “moral obligation” toward the Ming emperor, the king scolded them, saying, “Now, the situation outside our country is very tense. If violent enemies invade us, do you think you can save your life from the swords of enemies with your noble words and empty talk?”
Not long after King Gwanghae was driven from the throne by a coup, the Qing empire invaded Joseon ― twice ― in 1627 and in 1636-1637. Those who relied on groundless optimism had no plan for saving the country, and it was the people who had to endure the painful experience of occupation under the violent Manchus.
If King Gwanghae came back to life now, what would he say about today’s Korea? I think he would say, “You have witnessed the invasion by the Qing empire in 1636. You should not trust those who speak with baseless optimism. You have to follow the old saying, ‘Instead of believing that the enemy will not provoke a war, you’d better be ready for the enemy by strengthening your defense posture thoroughly.’”
Many books on Genghis Khan are being published nowadays. Genghis Khan was not only a great conqueror, but also had preeminent capability in managing territory he conquered. He recruited talented people widely and installed various creative systems. He always tried to learn. In his old age, he summoned a sage of the times, Changchun-jinin, or “a true man in Changchun.” Genghis Kahn asked him, “I still have a lot of things to do, but there are not many days left in my life. Is there a secret prescription for eternal life?” The sage replied, “Your Majesty, one can live long by taking care of health always, but there is no secret prescription for eternal life.” If the chairman of the governing party met Changchun-jinin and asked him, “I worry because the Korean economy is not in good shape nowadays. Is there a good remedy for the economy?” What would his answer be? Wouldn’t it be like this? “There is no secret prescription that can revive the economy. As one sows, so shall he reap. If you change the atmosphere completely and work hard continuously, only then will the buds start to come out.”
Nowadays, the number of people who complain of unfair treatment has increased conspicuously. So, I re-read the book about the late General Hong Sa-ik. General Hong was educated at the Japanese military academy and the Japanese army university. As a career military officer, he later rose to the rank of major general in the Japanese imperial army. Therefore, he is considered pro-Japanese. Originally he was a soldier in the army of the Joseon Dynasty’s last emperor. He was sent to a Japanese military school for further studies, but became a Japanese soldier due to Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910. The commander of the Korean Liberation Army, Ji Cheong-cheon, who was his classmate in the Japanese military academy, once tried to induce him to fight against the Japanese. Mr. Hong refused Mr. Ji’s invitation, saying, “I belong to the highest rank among Koreans in the Japanese army. How can I desert the army and join the Liberation Army?” It seems he refrained from defection out of worry over those who he would have left behind. Mr. Hong commanded the line of communications of the southern regional headquarters of the Japanese imperial army toward the end of the Pacific War. After the war, Mr. Hong was caught in the Philippines and tried as a war criminal on charges of maltreating prisoners-of-war. His subordinate officers, mostly Japanese, wrote petitions to the U.S. military headquarters in Japan to save his life, but he was finally sentenced to death. During trial, it is said that he kept silent throughout, not saying a word in his defense. On the way to his execution, his final words were: “Since the old days, what a large number of people have been executed unfairly! I will only be adding to their number.”
When he was asked to make one last wish, he asked to read chapter 5 of the Book of Psalms, then walked to the gallows. My advice to those who think they have been unfairly treated is to reflect on General Hong’s life.
* The writer is a columnist for the JoongAng Ilbo. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Choi Woo-suk