[Viewpoint] Look over the wallsIf you take a stroll in the Deoksu Palace these days, you will find Seokjojeon undergoing reconstruction. We recently welcomed the news that the blueprint for Seokjojeon was discovered, and the royal structure will be reconstructed according to its original design. On the cover of the blueprint, you can find the map of Gyeongun Palace at the time of King Gojong as well as the history of Seokjojeon.
In 1898, Gojong decided to build a Western-style palace. The year before, Gojong had returned to the palace after taking refuge at the Russian Embassy for nearly a year. The Kingdom of Joseon was so fragile that even the king could not protect his own life and had to escape to the safety of a foreign delegation.
At the end of that humiliating experience, Gojong declared the Great Han Empire. Joseon was no longer a kingdom that needed approval from China but an empire of its own right. The first project of the empire was Seokjojeon, which was to be the main palace for the emperor.
In 1910, the imperial palace was completed, but Joseon was annexed to Japan. The emperor started to build a palace without realizing that his empire was crumbling. The blueprint of Seokjojeon conjures complicated feelings about history.
The emperor may, of course, have needed a new palace in order to restore the dignity of his empire. Perhaps, he felt Deoksu Palace was too small. Nevertheless, did he really think a new palace was a top priority? At the time, Joseon was barely surviving. The people were in distress, and the fate of the country was a candle flickering in the wind.
Only a few years earlier, in 1894, Isabella Bishop, a member of the Royal Geography Association, travelled all over Joseon and wrote “Korea and Her Neighbors.” She wrote that Seoul was pervaded by the foulest smell and it was hard to believe that the capital city was so filthy. Drains were filled with sewage from households.
When the people were in misery and the nation declining on the other side of the palace wall, the emperor was building a new palace. Enlightenment activist Yun Chi-ho lamented in his diary that the emperor was building a “toy palace.” Even if the cost of building the palace was insufficient to save the empire, Gojong should have used every possible means to buy weapons, build railroads and create industries. Gojong believed the king was the state, but the eyes of the king could not see beyond the palace perimeter.
The tragic fate of Seokjojeon mirrors Korea’s reality today. We may be building a new palace without looking over the wall. More accurately, the leaders of the country are immersed in building their own palaces - just like King Gojong.
On Aug. 24, citizens of Seoul will vote on free school lunches. The result is directly related to the future of Korea. Today, the United States and many European countries are struggling with their economies. One of the main problems is oversized national debts due to unplanned financial spending. Politicians liberally used money to please the voters.
It is only natural that President Lee Myung-bak emphasizes healthy government finances. This is not an issue of “Let’s have children eat free.” Rather, it will be the beginning of the break in the levee. Mayor Oh Se-hoon is trying to put a finger in the dike, all alone, just like the Dutch boy who saved Holland.
However, no one is coming forward to help Oh. Even the party with which he is affiliated is not backing him up. Why? His supposed supporters are only thinking about their own palaces. “I might run for president next year, so what are the consequences?” “I barely got a party executive position, and I don’t want to risk it.”
They all have their own calculations. Without caring about the future of the nation, they are building their palaces. They are no different from Gojong, whose empire fell before the completion of the palace.
Conglomerate owners are not much different from Gojong. The world outside their palaces is full of criticism and complaints. It is about time they look over the wall and see what’s going on in the real world. They should not just proceed in the name of free competition. Warren Buffett said that those who earn more than $1 million a year should be taxed heavily. Of course, that isn’t a prescription to revive the U.S. economy. But Buffett has certainly looked over the wall and knows noblesse oblige.
Former Grand National Party chairman Chung Mong-joon recently set up the Asan Sharing Foundation with a fund of 500 billion won, saying: “Corporate Korea has been successful, but when the community of citizens is damaged, businesses will fail.” He is right. When the streets are full of foul odors and suffering, the rich have been building palaces within their walls. They shouldn’t forget that King Gojong was deprived of the palace even before living there.
We need to see if we are obsessed with building glitzy palaces, especially those with money and power. Are we turning away from the community outside the wall because of our personal interests? Free meals for our children are all about our greater philosophy. We have a sense of responsibility to take care of our children. Should we transfer the bulging debt to the next generation just to pursue a little more comfort now? We shouldn’t be locked in the palace of the present and fail to look over the wall into the future.
*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Moon Chang-keuk