Lessons from King SejongAs chaotic situations continue at home and abroad, our need for a lesson has grown stronger from a great elder statesman who led a reign of peace in our history. On May 15, an academic symposium in Sejong Studies, in commemoration of the 618th anniversary of the king’s birth, took place at the tomb of Sejong the Great in Yeoju, Gyeonggi.It was also an event to mark the first anniversary of the foundation of the Sejong Leadership Institute, jointly established by the city of Yeoju and the Yeoju Institute of Technology. As a series of talks and debates continued through the event, my exploration continued to find a resolution for today’s Korean crisis from the history of Sejong the Great.
It may sounds strange to look for a clue to resolving the crises of a contemporary democratic republic from the reign of King Sejong of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), going back about 600 years. But the historic duty for Sejong, who was born only six years after Joseon’s foundation and became ruler at the age of 22, was creating a new framework that would sustain the country for the next 1,000 years and building a social community to support it. It appeared to be in line with the needs of contemporary Koreans, who are marking the 70th anniversary of the country’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule.
The first challenge for Korea is establishing a pragmatic way of running the country by overcoming political schisms. The second will be finding social unity to resolve polarization in society, including the ever-widening wealth gap. The third task is, of course, preparing for unification while maintaining the country’s security and competitive power in an international environment ruled by the law of survival of the fittest.
To this end, we must remember the two principles that Sejong the Great underscored in governance. The first principle is that the people are the very basis of the country and the country can maintain peace only when the basis is firm. Borrowing from the words of Professor Chung Yoon-jae of the Academy of Korean Studies, Sejong the Great managed to practice the “politics of care.” The second principle is that a firm, effective governance system is a must for building a country in which the people live well.
The framework of realizing politics for the people comes from establishing fair laws and implementing them strictly. To this end, Sejong the Great started a grand project of publishing law books, which were completed by King Seongjong with the Gyeongguk Daejeon, a complete legal code that comprises every law, act, custom and ordinance from the late Goryeo Dynasty to the early Joseon period. Seoul National University Professor Jung Geung-sik pointed out that building a country from a code of law is only possible when the leader puts meticulous efforts into creating laws that the people can agree and comply with.
The tax law reforms made during the reign of Sejong the Great provide a telling example. During 14 years of the king’s reign, tax reforms took place through various processes, including an opinion poll involving 173,000 people. That accomplishment is also relevant to the lengthy duration of Sejong the Great’s reign — 32 years. In 1987, Korea adopted a single-term, five-year presidency and we have to think about it carefully. How to create an effective governing system that can establish and enforce a long-term strategy, while preventing the hazards of too long a rule by one leader, is our urgent need.
In fact, the great achievements of Sejong’s reign — such as the creation of the Korean alphabet, promotion of culture and the arts and advancement of science and technology — are accomplishments that cannot be done under the presidential system of today. But our ancestors respected the idea that we must know the past to plan for the future, and King Injong of Goryeo (918-1392) ordered Kim Bu-sik to spend five years completing the SamgukSagi — a history of the three kingdoms. King Taejo also started the project of recording the history of Goryeo as soon as he founded Joseon and completed it during the reign of Sejong. And yet, the project of completing the history of Joseon has not been attempted although we have vast amounts of data based on the annals of the Joseon Dynasty.Professor Oh Hang-Nyeong of Jeonju University expressed frustration that the project has not been attempted even 70 years after liberation, and many people shared his view.
Recently, the appointment of top government officials has become a crucial barometer of the success — or failure — of Korean politics and Sejong the Great has left a specific lesson to us. He saw that human resources were the treasure of the country and human resources management was a key to the country’s success. At any given time there are talented people, but a leader may not know of their existences, Sejong the Great said, and that is still true. But Professor Park Hyun-mo, director of the Sejong Leadership Institute, said a leader must make a significant investment to systemize human resources management in order to find talented people and use them in the right places. There are many lessons to learn from the system and organization of Jiphyeonjeon, or the Hall of Worthies. By having incessant discussions with scholars of the royal research institute, a leader could find a path for the country and meet the people who could be in charge of the tasks.
Korea faces its 70th year since liberation. In two years, it will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the start of an electoral democracy in 1987. At this point, we need to have an awareness of history, that we will redefine the basis of this country, and inherit the tradition of grand politics left by King Sejong the Great.