History Told Through Reforms

In any organization or society, there are always those who resist change. The more their interests are tied with the status quo, the louder and stronger their resistance.

Confrontations ensue between those who favor change and those who do not. This struggle can lead to significant societal transformation or just fizzle out.

That explains how the previous couple of government administrations came up with 'reform' as their political motto in their early stages, and how they slowly backed away from those ambitions. The more they push ahead with the social overhaul, the bigger the obstacles, namely the intransigent resistance of the champions of the status quo.

Historian Lee Duk-il’s new book Successful Reform, Failed Reform gives an excellent explanation to historical cases of 'challenge and response' of reform. Out of 16 cases, some were stifled immediately by conservatives and other reforms took more than 100 years. Still others were revolutionary, overturning longstanding orders.

The author explains that the success of reform highly depends on the set agenda, contents of the reform, support from the populace and the ability of the reform initiators.

In the case of Kim Yu-sin (595-673), who ended thousands years of division on the peninsula, Lee said Kim succeeded in setting a future-oriented and revolutionary agenda of unifying the three nations.

While his rival political parties were engrossed in winning the short-term power struggles in the narrow frame of the court, Kim could present the unimagined plan to his motherland, which had long been an underdog on the peninsula. The vision led the general to win the heart of the kingdom’s monarchs and the majority of the people, which ended the division in the kingdom’s court and, further, on the peninsula.

In another chapter, the author takes the example of King Kwangjong (949-975) of the Koryo Kingdom (918-1392). The third king of the ancient kingdom could bulldoze out the powerful family noble clans in the court by introducing a series of advanced political systems. He adopted the state examination to recruit public officials for the first time, liberated many slaves and designated hierarchical uniforms among his vassals.

The bold introduction of new systems led to the establishment of a stable and lawful state, which, at the same time, expelled wayward political clans from the court. The author points out that Kwangjong’s campaign shows that the reform’s content can justify change itself and fend off any challenge.

The study of 'Taedong-pop law,' a traditional tribute system for the central government, illustrates the conflict’s tedium between supporters and opponents of reform. The law, ruling a progressive taxing system to levy heavier taxes on the rich, faced fierce opposition from the gentries of the 17th century. Even though a group of reform-minded politicians pushed ahead with the overhaul to alleviate pain of the grass roots, it took a century since its tentative implementation in Kyonggi Province in 1608 until its nationwide introduction in 1708.

Kim Yuk (1580-1658), the system’s most fervent champion, said ``Since the implementation of the system in the Cholla provinces, farmers dance in the fields and dogs no longer bark at public officials.’’ The author Lee notes the success of the reform is a very exceptional case of silencing the diehard denunciation from the landlords, for the sake of the commoners. ``They are very rare examples of reformers’ victory,’’ he writes.

Lee also takes notice of King Chongjo (1752-1800). When he ascended the throne at age 24, the court was dominated by the 'Noron' political faction, which set up the assassination of Chongjo’s father, Prince Sado. Fending off the challenge from the aristocracy, he led a flowering cultural renaissance in the 18th century despite the rampant faction-dominated politics of the day.

He was a great king in that he went forward step-by-step accepting his limited authority. For example, the monarch established 'Kyujanggak,' saying it is merely a royal academic institute. In fact, it served as a seedbed for the future reformers free from the faction politics,’’ Lee writes.

The case of Lee Ha-ung (1820-1898), father of Choson’s 23rd monarch testifies how important public support is in driving reform over opposition from the aristocracy.

Even if he could not be a king, Lee made the most of his son’s authority and defeated the dominant political faction. The author observes how the politician won over the public. He overhauled the corrupt military service system and social service system for the sake of grass roots as well as crack down on covetous public officials. ``The public applauded Lee because his reformative measures were focused on enhancing the livelihood of them,’’ the author writes.

While illustrating a few successful cases, the author also analyzes a couple of examples of reform failures, including the Kapsin coup in 1884. The author said the reformers at that time failed to communicate with the public.

The author occasionally goes to far in forced analogies between historical cases and present situations, and there are a few omitted words in the book due apparently to mistake during the publication. The shortcomings do little to the qualities of the book as testifying that the history is a fine mirror of the present.

Caption: Leaders of reform through Korean history have used different methods to deal with conservatives, usually their biggest enemies. Kim Yuk (1580-1658), left, a high-ranking bureaucrat, negotiated with them, King Chongjo (1752-1800), center, struggled against them and Lee Ha-ung (1820-1898), father of King Kojong, suppressed them. Courtesy of Mariseosa.

By Kim Ki-tae (Staff Reporter)
2005-06-24, the Korea Times

(writer : admin, date : September 12, 2007)  
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