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2010/01/07 08:00 KST
King's secret letters: traits of a good leader

By Kim Hyun
SEOUL, Jan. 6 (Yonhap) -- When a cache of secret letters by King Jeongjo, considered one of the most visionary and effective monarchs of Korea's Joseon Dynasty, was discovered last year, the local academic community was shocked and delighted at how revealing they were about royal politicking and the otherwise shrouded personality of the king himself.

   The king who died 210 years ago was not quite the reserved, relaxed sage depicted in television dramas and novels. The workaholic and avid reader had a hot temper and commanded a vocabulary thundering with expletives, but he also strove to communicate with humor and showed he cared in small ways.
A personal letter, written in classical Chinese, that King Jeongjo wrote to Sim Hwan-ji, one of the king`s major critics.

The juicy revelations of King Jeongjo, who was born in 1752 and achieved a cultural and industrial renaissance during his 24 years on throne, are now captured in "Secret Letters of King Jeongjo" by Ahn Dae-hoe, a professor of Korean literature in classical Chinese at Sung Kyun Kwan University. Besides their historic value, the personal letters bring to life the revered king in a more human form and with the qualities that made him a good leader.

   "I felt he is sweet. He is hot-tempered, throws a wobbly when he's angry. And then in the next letter, he says, 'I'm sorry. That was my temper. Be understanding,'" Ahn said in a press conference earlier this week.

   Ahn was one of the scholars who discovered the stack of the 297 royal letters from an unidentified individual who, allegedly on unresolved debt issues, had acquired them from descendants of the letters' sole recipient, Sim Hwan-ji (1730-1802).

   To Koreans, King Jeongjo is one of the two most recounted and revered monarchs of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) along with King Sejong the Great, who invented the Korean alphabet, hangeul, in the early years of the kingdom. Jeongjo fiercely advanced reform, deftly balanced power factions and spearheaded agricultural and industrial development to improve the people's livelihoods.
Jeongjo`s handwriting as a child. As was the tradition of the era, Jeongjo used the Korean language when writing to female relatives.

He was also a moderate on the budding influx of Catholic missionaries from the West, a rare policy in the Confucian era that was rolled back by his successors amid the advance of neighboring powers.

   Some understand Jeongjo's strong leadership as a reflection of his tortured childhood experience. His father Sado Seja, then the crown prince, was deposed by his own father, King Yeongjo, and was later confined to a rice chest, where he starved to death at age 28. The filicide, one of the eeriest chapters of Korean history, is now seen as an outcome of factional fighting that drove a wedge between father and son.

   Taking over the reins from his grandfather Yeongjo at age 24, Jeongjo mastered the art of communication with an unruly officialdom to push through his reform drive, Ahn says.

   "It is very rare for a king to have such passion and exchange secret letters to such a large extent. It remains a question whether in the political history in the world there is one monarch who wrote letters so prolifically and made use of them for governing," Ahn wrote in the book.

   Ironically, the sole recipient of the newly discovered secret letters, Sim Hwan-ji, was one of the king's major critics. The devoutly conservative prime minister was a ferocious opponent of the reform-minded king, insisting on maintaining close ties with China's waning Ming Dynasty instead of turning to the emerging Manchu-led power Qing Dynasty.

   Through personal letters, the book says, Jeongjo deftly commanded the art of politicking, sometimes reproaching Sim's stubbornness and but always rewarding with a personal bond. The king did not forget to send small gifts, like snacks and drinks, to the older man when he moved to a new house or had domestic events, often asking about his health and his family's well-being.

   When Sim divulged their written conversation to a third party, an infuriated Jeongjo wittily wrote, "I have no secrets with you, but you don't watch your mouth. Then I can't help but keep my mouth shut when I see you. This is funny, like the saying goes, 'Take this rice cake and don't spread this word.' Again, I want you to keep this in your mind."

   The king pilloried incompetent officials in letters to Sim, sometimes using expletives. In one such case, Jeongjo called a dull official "a stripling who still smells of mother's milk."
The portrait of Sim Hwan-ji, one of the prime ministers of the Jeongjo era and the king`s major critic

The workaholic king, who never relegated his tasks to others and sometimes stayed up many nights, demanded merciless dedication to work from the officialdom, the book says. And he preferred outspoken opponents to quiet pacifiers.

   "All my life, I have had a deep aversion to the habit and manners of those people who have no edges and are of no use like antiques," he said in one of the letters.

   In another letter, he says, "I just cannot waste time goofing around. When I have no visitor or don't have state affairs to oversee, I read. I have always something to do, even practicing archery."

   Perhaps because they held contents that would not be normally discussed officially, Jeongjo repeatedly ordered Sim to tear up his letters after reading them. But somehow, the stiff-necked minister did not follow the directive.

   The author rules out rumors that have long circulated among minor academic circles alleging that Jeongjo was poisoned to death by Sim. The author says there is no evidence to suggest so.

   The author believes Jeongjo may not have been the prototype of an ancient sage, but his big-hearted personality made him a good leader.

   "When he gave gifts, he gave them to everyone. And he always sent them with small messages. It's not easy for a CEO to write to everyone," Ahn said. "In his era, people believed that they could be appointed to a post if they were competent."

   "Secret Letters of King Jeongjo" is the second book in the "Korean Culture in Keywords" series published by the Munhakdongne Publishing Group this week. The publisher hopes to find partners abroad to publish editions in English and other languages.