[Viewpoint] Taking a page from Jeongjo

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[Viewpoint] Taking a page from Jeongjo


Hwaseong Fortress in Suwon, Gyeonggi. [JoongAng Ilbo]

It may be far-fetched to compare a monarch in a feudal society with a president in a modern democracy. Nevertheless, King Jeongjo (1752-1800) of the Joseon Dynasty and former President Roh Moo-hyun are strangely both similar and different in many ways.

As heads of the state, they were both unwelcome by the mainstream and faced strong political challenges. Despite this opposition, they moved forward boldly and fought back through various reform drives.

They also both attempted to pull off major political stunts to build a new strategically important city to develop a stronger footing.

At the tender age of 11, King Jeongjo saw his father suffocate to death in a wooden box, the result of a conspiracy against him. The boy grew up with the image seared in his mind of his father dying as the result of hawkish political forces.

He eventually succeeded his grandfather and upon taking the throne, King Jeongjo bravely fought political opposition to reinstate his family’s honor by choosing Suwon as the site for his father’s grave. He established Kyujanggak, a court library, by employing the talents of people beyond just the noble class. He formed his own security force to strengthen his authority.

In 1794, he built Hwaseong Fortress in Suwon, building a new city surrounded by walls for the alleged purpose of guarding his father’s grave.

Roh Moo-hyun’s administration was also unprecedented in its own ways. It escapes easy classification, as it was not entirely minority, radical or left-wing. The administration fired off attacks against conservative groups from the outset.

“The pro-Japanese military forces have been living well for three generations. They must be sent to the museum,” he said, labeling them one of the country’s biggest domestic foes.

Throughout his five-year term, Roh’s administration obsessively focused its reform efforts on conservatives. It took particular aim at Gangnam, southern Seoul, which it alleged was the base of the rich and conservative element of society. As a result, the government bombarded the region with major real estate taxes.

It also concluded that graduates of the elite Seoul National University occupied the upper rungs of the social ladder. The government therefore frequently talked about closing the university. Conservative newspapers were also the target of reform, and they were restrained under a new newspaper law. Additionally, the prosecution and the courts came under scrutiny following Roh’s heart-to-heart talks with young, reform-minded prosecutors. Large conglomerates were slapped with bribery charges and subject to audit inspections.

The late Roh joked that he had “fun” with his campaign promise to move the capital to the Chungcheong region. But he didn’t come up with the idea because it was fun. Rather, it was an ambitious move to wipe out the former conservative power by building a new foundation of authority in a new capital. The idea was barred by the Supreme Court, which ruled that a capital relocation was “unconstitutional.” Roh revised the plan, detailing an effort to build a second administrative city called Sejong.

Let’s go back to Jeongjo for a moment. The king took no retaliatory action against the people and forces behind his father’s murder. When the leader of those forces, Shin Hwan-ji, fell ill, Jeongjo sent a consolatory letter wishing him good health. He built a new power base among the young and reform-minded, yet continued to engage the old conservative powers. While building the country’s biggest new city near the capital, he sent his own security forces there with the sole mission of helping with defense, placing no political offices there.

The visionary king’s desire with Hwaseong was to create a self-sufficient, comfortable city. He used his own money to pay for the labor to build the city walls, water supply channels and farms to turn the region into a major agricultural producer. He offered merchants low taxes to attract them to the city.

He persuaded the country’s wealthiest merchants to lend capital to smaller traders to boost the trade industry. The city had been relatively small, consisting of 244 households with a population of 677. The number jumped to 15,000 households with a population of 55,000 after Jeongjo refurbished the city. Known as Suwon again, it remains as one of the country’s largest satellite cities with a population of over one million. It may not have flourished as such if Jeongjo had political and military designs in mind. In fact, the city might have vanished from history with his death.

Today’s political mainstream forces have fallen into a pit and are now in disarray. The majority ruling party is split by minority forces. They are wasting precious time talking about trust and betrayal as if they are two lovers. To solve the Sejong City problem, we need look no further than the ancient city of Hwaseong.

*The writer is the president of the Gyeonggi Cultural Foundation.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

By Kwon Young-bin
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