(98) An Examination of King Sejong’s Achievements

By Yang Sung-jin

Political leaders carry tremendous influence in both positive and negative ways. The problem facing Korean politicians these days is that most are incurably corrupt and incredibly incompetent.

Finding a pioneering, visionary figure in Korea’s political circles is as difficult as a search for a spotted owl outside of a zoo.

Given that the self-styled national leaders are slow to reform themselves and yet quick to seek bribes, it’s little wonder that politicians in most cases are despised.

Compared with today’s politicians, King Sejong (1397-1450; reign 1418-1450) is indeed a great figure to admire.

His towering achievements are relatively well known. During the reign of King Sejong, a truly Confucian-oriented political process was formed, social and economic foundations were cemented, the Korean alphabet Hangul was created and eye-popping technological advancements were made, among others.

In point of fact, what King Sejong did for the Choson Kingdom is hard to sum up in one paragraph since he was involved in so many projects that affected society at large in an unprecedented fashion.

There is no doubt that King Sejong’s remarkable achievements should be appreciated. But that does not mean the fourth monarch of the Choson Kingdom deserves reckless myth-making.

For a start, King Sejong was an unbeatable bookworm. His interests extended to history, law, astrology, music and medicine and the scholarly king commanded an expert-level knowledge on those subjects.

Yet he did not pay much attention to calligraphy, a field which gentleman-scholars deemed essential. The basic reason was that King Sejong felt a ruler should be a generalist to govern the nation, not a fine calligrapher.

King Sejong, from his childhood, was intelligent. But he sometimes showed stubbornness in pursuing his appetite for knowledge. Since the king put much emphasis on the lessons of history and the teachings of renowned thinkers, he persistently studied a certain theory in the hope of finding a solution to the Choson society.

With power of concentration and thinking, he placed prime importance on the compare-and-comparison ability, shunning away from mere encyclopedic knowledge. That is why he often expressed displeasure at swaggering officials who were bold to show off their knowledge of a subject without understanding its contextual significance.

King Sejong’s meticulous approach was applied to his nation-building. At the time, Choson society had yet to find its own social foundation. The influence of the Koryo Kingdom was still powerful and King Sejong knew that all the systems should be reconfigured from the bottom up.

To set up reliable political and social systems, King Sejong studied historical precedents relentlessly to come up with his own idea. Not only were past systems examined, but their background, details, underlying philosophy and historical differences were examined thoroughly.

In conducting such a burdensome study, the major obstacle was the absence of reliable history books. So he pushed scholars and historians to publish history books covering the Koryo Kingdom, while assigning talented officials to major in specific subjects.

To apply the systems of the past to Choson society, King Sejong needed geographical information about the nation. He required local magistrates to turn in reports on geography, folklore, social traditions and natural resources.

As the need for a variety of publications and history books suddenly exploded, King Sejong felt frustrated by the turtle-paced efficiency of the printing system, which relied chiefly on wood and manual casting.

He ordered officials to develop faster methods and printing capabilities advanced by leaps and bounds with the introduction of metal type casts.

In an effort to utilize basic materials, King Sejong founded a state research institute, the Hall of Worthies (Chiphyonjon), staffing it with talented officials who were encouraged to conduct a variety of research activities.

But officials did not like the idea of studying a subject extensively as instructed by the king. Some officials filed a petition to the king, arguing that specialized research should be halted.

Unfazed, the king strengthened the specialized nature of the Hall of Worthies, banning the research officials from entering politics.

Thanks to the drastic measure, the Hall of Worthies produced a number prominent scholars who also contributed to the brilliant flowering of the Choson culture in the following years.

Unfortunately, King Sejong’s superman-like efforts to reform the entire society hit a snag when his health visibly declined due to his tireless pursuit of knowledge for the nation.

But the people of today do not admire King Sejong for his scholarly genius and workaholic lifestyle. The ruler had also devoted himself to helping poor citizens who were likely to be exploited by the aristocracy.

King Sejong often issued national amnesties to release those imprisoned for minor crimes, defying the opposition from officials. He also improved the social status of servants, banning owners from punishing servants at will.

In 1425, the nation suffered a prolonged drought. King Sejong went out to the fields himself and talked to a farmer about the situation, which turned out to be worse than expected. Distressed and depressed, he returned to the palace and did not eat.

In later years, King Sejong’s reform measures faced strong opposition from conservative officials.

His personal life was bumpy as well, especially when his fifth and seventh sons and his wife suddenly died between 1444 and 1446. And he struggled with a variety of chronic diseases with little success.

Prematurely wrapping up his life-long devotion to the nation and the populace, King Sejong died on Feb. 17, 1450. It was a great loss for all Choson people, regardless of age and class.

The story for today’s politicians is different. If they (especially greedy bribe-takers) die prematurely, it’s not a loss but a blessing for the entire nation.