What would King Sejong do?

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What would King Sejong do?


Lee Jung-jae

Dr. Park Hyun-mo, who served as the Director of the Sejong Leadership Institute at the Academy of Korean Studies until last month, has been studying King Sejong for 13 years. He said that his lifetime academic achievement is to bring King Sejong out of the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). The book he published eight years ago is titled “King Sejong’s Royal Walk Out of the Annals.”

Park’s research ignited the Sejong leadership boom a few years ago, and he earned the nickname “Sejong leadership evangelist” as a result. While he received his Ph.D. with research on King Jeongjo, Park began focusing on King Sejong when he learned that he was the king Jeongjo respected the most. Every day for 13 years, he read and studied the Annals of Sejong, and he came to “see the world in the eyes of King Sejong.” The new perspective inspired him to write his latest book, “What Would Sejong Do?”

I asked him about the newly nominated prime minister and the cabinet reshuffle. The time has come for the confirmation hearing. What would King Sejong have done?

“In the reign of Sejong, there were so many competent officials. Sejong’s prime ministers Hwang Hui and Maeng Sa-seong are considered the best in the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910),” said Park. “Jang Yeong-sil, inventor of cheugugi (the rain gauge) and the water gauge, was a genius scientist, and Park Yeon was a musical master.”

Seong Sam-mun and Shin Suk-ju helped the king create the great hangul, or the Korean alphabet, and Kim Jong-seo was the bravest general, the academic explained.

“It is not that the most talented people were born in his time during the five centuries of the Joseon Dynasty,” Park said. “It’s just that King Sejong searched all over the country and promoted the most suitable people regardless of class, background and flaws. His leadership was all about personnel management.”

He cited the example of Prime Minister Hwang Hui. Hwang was born to a concubine and was charged with taking bribes. He allegedly had an adulterous relationship. During the reign of Taejong, he was criticized as a wicked man. While many officials opposed, King Sejong promoted him and said, “I know all his flaws. I will make sure his faults are discouraged and only his strengths are revealed.” Without Sejong’s decision, Hwang wouldn’t be remembered as the longest-serving minister in the Joseon Dynasty, according to Park.

Some ruling party members say that even Hwang wouldn’t be able to pass the confirmation hearing. What would King Sejong have done?

“There was a kind of appointment hearing called Seogyeong at the time of Sejong as well. The Saheonbu, or the Office of Inspector General, and the Saganwon, the Office of Censors, had to approve appointments of officials below fifth grades,” said Park.

When King Sejong designated Lee Bal as the defense minister, Heo Jo and other officials opposed the appointment. They questioned Lee Bal’s state view and conduct when he was sent to China as an envoy. But King Sejong showed trust and persuaded Heo Jo and others.

However, Seogyeong in the Sejong days and the current confirmation hearing are very different. The protest of the officials in Joseon and the offensives of the media and opposition party are not comparable. It is not easy to get through the ideological verification and family history. When Jeong Un-chan, who served as prime minister during the Lee Myung-bak administration, was preparing for the confirmation hearing, he cried and said he would rather give up. Sometimes, incompetent ministers were not replaced because having a new minister pass the confirmation hearing was so hard.

“Getting through the confirmation hearing should not be the objective,” said Park. “King Sejong said, ‘It is a shame on the ruler to leave talented people unused.’ Kim Sejong thought about how to use each official. He was more concerned of what someone could do, not whether he could pass the verification process.”

The confirmation hearing has more positive functions. Most of all, it reminds us that not anyone can become a minister. It has become an iron rule that someone who wants to serve as a minister should be moral in both their personal and private lives. The opposition party can also use it as a weapon to restrict the ruling party’s power of appointment. If used properly, it can be a tool of fairness.

But no system is perfect. The strict screening sometimes prevents competent people from being appointed. Yet we don’t have an alternative.

“Even King Sejong doesn’t have a secret solution,” said Park. “The administration needs to persuade the opposition party and the citizens. That’s what King Sejong did. In order to appoint the people he wanted, he consistently persuaded the ministers.”

“When the country was hit by famine or natural disaster, he went to meet the peasants and hear their voices,” Park continued. “When Gangwon was suffering from a famine and the governor made a false report, he said that officials should work among the people. Communication and persuasion is the power of Sejong’s leadership.”

I wasn’t fully convinced and asked, “What about if it still doesn’t work?”

Dr. Park didn’t have an answer.

JoongAng Ilbo, June 12, Page 34

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

BY Lee Jung-jae

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