[Outlook]The Korean Machiavelli

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[Outlook]The Korean Machiavelli

Secret letters written by King Jeongjo of the Joseon Dynasty have been discovered. Few kings wrote secret letters and if they did, most of them were destroyed. It is unbelievable that as many as 299 letters were found, complete with envelopes and dates.

The original letters haven’t been publicized yet but you can get an academic thesis on them.

The recipient of the missives was Shim Hwan-ji, a man who had long been considered the king’s rival, and one of the representatives of Byeokpa, one of the two major political factions at the time.

The letters have changed the perspective found in history books. They reveal that King Jeongjo was a typical Machiavellian ruler.

In order to weaken opposition and resistance among court officials, the king ordered Shim to put on an act. The king had sent his aunt, Princess Hwa-wan, into exile, and later wanted to pardon her in an attempt to protect and strengthen the royal family.

As all officials opposed the move, King Jeongjo sent a secret letter to Shim and directed him on how to act in great detail. In the next meeting, Shim was told to express his strong opposition, to walk down to the yard and ask to be reprimanded. The king said he would fire Shim, but promised to reinstate him later. Shim did exactly what he was told.

King Jeongjo was also acting as he said the high state council went too far and ordered him stripped of his post.

Up until the letters were found, historians had believed that the king really hated Shim. Jeongjo fooled not only the officials of the era, but also future generations.

It used to be believed that King Jeongjo favored Sipa, the other political faction. But in fact, the king was talking to Byeokpa through secret letters. In those communications, Jeongjo ridiculed Sipa, but encouraged Byeokpa to seem as if it were against him. In order to manipulate the factions’ stances, the king would order Shim to write letters to the throne, or to persuade those who were about to send letters not to do so.

In his secret letters, the king compliments his secret agent in flattering terms. According to other records, however, the king had told people that he was not very fond of Shim.

The king favored a person at one moment and disregarded him the next. He said one thing to one faction and something entirely different to another. The king ordered that his secret letters be destroyed so his moves would not be discovered, and sometimes even used secret codes.

But King Jeongjo was not a tyrant. Even though he had absolute power, he did not exercise it excessively. He often suppressed his personal feelings. In a letter, he wrote that he was so angry over what some officials had recently done that he couldn’t sleep. He accepted certain situations in personnel affairs even though he was dissatisfied with them.

The king also made sure that figures from different factions would not be ignored in terms of opportunities. When Chae Je-gong of Sipa died, the king told Shim to go to his funeral in an attempt to improve communications between the two factions. The king probably wrote the secret letters in order to smoothly take care of state affairs when faced with conflicts between different factions.

He wrote similar letters to Chae Je-gong, head of Sipa. It seems Chae did not destroy all of the missives as he was ordered, as a few have remained. Looking at this, we can understand that Jeongjo wanted to use both Sipa and Byeokpa to keep each other in check.

Machiavelli’s style is generally regarded negatively, but it is effective when strong leadership is needed in times of crisis. King Jeongjo probably took on this style because of the events that led up to him becoming king, including his father being murdered by being locked in a rice chest. According to Machiavelli, there is no more serious sin for a state leader than failing to protect the people’s lives and assets. Therefore, a ruler is allowed to use trickery in order to achieve stability. Machiavellian diplomacy can be accepted as long as it is for the public good.

Jeongjo’s Machiavellian tools were secret letters, that is, information and communication. These have proved effective in history. Jeongjo brought about a renaissance of the Joseon Dynasty that ended when the king died. After his demise, his in-laws dominated the throne and the dynasty headed for collapse.

These days, politicians talk about Jeongjo’s letters when they gather, revealing their longing to communicate with President Lee Myung-bak. The ruling party asked a veteran legislator close to the president about possible ways to communicate with Lee.

He answered flatly, “Write what you have to say in the newspaper, then the president will probably read it.”


The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Oh Byung-sang


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