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Lessons from Sambong

President Moon Jae-in is bound to make mistakes if he continues at the current dizzying pace.
May 30,2017
Modern Koreans’ infatuation with statesman and scholar Jeong Do-jeon (1342-1398) lives on. Better known by his pen-name Sambong, Jeong established the foundations for the longest-lasting dynasty, Joseon (1392-1910). He challenged mainstream noblemen to carry out sweeping reforms. This is why scholars, politicians and the contemporary public all wish to draw lessons from his achievements.

The first was land reform aimed at rooting out illicit accumulation and concentration of wealth. He fixed the recruiting process and refurbished a military law that included a military chant as well as defense and attack strategies. To ensure a strong and sovereign military, the sons of the king and members of the royal palace had to receive regular military training regardless of their social status. None of these stopped at rhetoric and were implemented, resulting in an entirely new system for the Joseon Dynasty. His reforms were based on a vision to create a nation that would serve the people instead of the monarch.

The reformist, however, maintained a regressive conviction that did not ensure sustainability in the economy. The Joseon dynasty inherited a poor nation from Goryeo (918-1392). He introduced a policy promoting farmers and discriminating against merchants and technicians. Under the slogan of creating a country of seonbi, or virtuous scholars, and farmers, he cemented the league for yangban, or the nobles. Merchants and technicians were looked down as people “lazy and with a penchant for entertainment.” Fishers, sailors, livestock farmers and salt traders were also regarded with disdain. They were at the bottom of the social stratum. Naturally, the trades of fisheries, livestock and trade were shunned. External commerce and exchanges became rare. The economy became further isolated and impoverished.

The failures and achievements of the reforms of the scholar who had helped set the foundation for Joseon dynasty could have ramifications in today’s Korea, which also demands some reinventions with the launch of a new administration replacing the previous one under an impeached president. A popular protest movement helped remove former President Park Geun-hye and aspirations are high for a new kind of power at the center.

Liberal president Moon Jae-in has so far been living up to expectations by rolling out one exceptional measure after another. His recruitment of unorthodox figures also has received positive reviews.

But there are some anxieties that he may be overwhelmed. He is bound to make mistakes if he continues at the current dizzying pace. The Blue House has already clashed with the Korea Employers Federation. Kim Young-bae, vice chairman for the business lobby group, criticized the new government’s policy of forcing companies to put non-salaried workers on the permanent payroll, claiming that conditions are different in each workplace. The Blue House responded harshly by blaming the employers for making complaints after having done little to address income inequalities. It is true that companies have opted to employ workers on a non-permanent basis to save costs. They even collaborated with unions to discriminate against contract workers.

Still, the presidential office’s overbearing response does not help. The employers’ group is as important to society as a union. It is unfair to discredit its opinions because it represents the elite. Social unity is essential to push reforms. Stigmatizing a certain group makes unity impossible. Offering to be communicative and sympathetic should be the first stage of rebuilding Korea. There is too much work to be done and a long way to go.

JoongAng Ilbo, May 29, Page 32

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

Kim Ki-chan