Following a dark path“The messengers on the dark path. They must receive a sealed order from the king but must not open it until they are outside the capital city. They must head straight to their destination without stopping at home. They must disguise themselves fully, travel secretly and observe public sentiment and the actions of authorities.”
“They” are royal secret commissioners, as described by William Elliot Griffis in “Corea, the Hermit Nation.”
Royal secret commissioners were part of an inspection system unique to the Joseon Dynasty. They carried around special rulers called yuchuk that contained their identity plates, which they used for various purposes, such as to measure the size of sticks used to beat criminals or the gourd bowls used to weigh rice.
They thoroughly observed whether punishments and taxations were fair, Lee Sung-moo wrote in “How Was Corruption Stopped in the Joseon Dynasty?”
Kim Jeong-hui was also a “famous royal secret inspector.” There is an Everlasting Remembrance Monument that pays tribute to him in Daesan, South Chungcheong, where he lessened the tax burden of the people when he was a royal secret inspector. Kim even exposed around 10 corrupt local governors. He also caught people of the Andong Kim family, who were proud of their mighty power. Yi Hwang, Jo Gwangjo, Jeong Yak-yong and Kim Man-joong, too, were active royal secret inspectors, according to Lim Byung-joon in “Royal Secret Commissioners of Joseon.”
The system disappeared with the Joseon Dynasty. However, the Republic of Korea also created a unique inspection system run by the National Assembly to keep tabs on the administration. Korea is the only country where the National Assembly regularly inspects general national affairs, not just specific agendas. In the 1950s, assemblymen went out to inspect the field with their assemblyman identity cards, just like the identity plates of royal secret commissioners. In other words, assemblymen who were elected by the people - not secret envoys of the king - started to inspect people in broad daylight.
Inspection of the administration is a strong method of controlling affairs of the state. Perhaps this is why the inspection system was abolished together with the direct presidential election system when the Constitution for Revitalizing Reform was enacted. It was only revived in June 1987, after the democratization movement. In 1988, the inspection system came back into operation at the 13th National Assembly, 16 years after its abolishment. The Samcheong education incident, a torture that resulted in the death of Park Jong-chul and the merger and abolition of the press in 1980 all stimulated inspection of the administration.
Twenty-two years have passed since the revival of the system by the National Assembly, which currently conducts these inspections. However, officials seem more focused on intense political attacks rather than efforts to expose corruption.
Are they pursuing a “neo-royal secret commissioner” system? Are they trying to become people who relay the dark political maneuvers by the government and opposition parties, just like “messengers on the dark path,” in the words of Griffis? What a waste of the sunny autumn weather.
The writer is a reporter of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Ku Hee-ryoung