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Click Into the Hermit Kingdom (6)

Public Opinion Played Political Pacemaker


By Yang Sung-jin


Last Wednesday Gallup Korea announced its opinion poll result: 54.3 percent of respondents believe it will take more than two years for Korea to recover from the economic turmoil and 69.3 percent said their living standards have worsened over the past year.


It was the new presidential office that requested the statistics, which proved gloomier than ever. It can be interpreted that the newly launched Kim Dae-jung administration wanted to gauge public sentiment through the poll at this critical juncture. After all, the opinion poll can be an effective tool for the government to make political decisions, even though its accuracy is still arguable.


The Choson Dynasty had already put the public opinion survey into practice for the same policy-adjusting purposes as far back as 595 years ago. On April 5, 1403, the government office in charge of national taxation requested the revision of the related law affecting the national land tax system. King Sejong (reign: 1418-1450) ordered an opinion poll on the issue: "Report what people say about this proposal after asking all the government officials in Seoul and other provinces, including the general public.''


"King Sejong's instruction for an opinion poll indicates his strong will to decide the implementation of a specific policy only after identifying the general sentiment of the populace,'' explained Lee Nam-hee, senior researcher of the Korean Studies Database Institute.


It was three months after King Sejong's order that the first report about the poll appears in the Annals of the Choson Dynasty in an article dated July 5 of the same year. Minister Ahn Sun said: "The Kyongsang-do governor and the majority of its residents approve of the proposal. However, Hwanghae-do, Kangwon-do and other provinces have disapproved.''


King Sejong said: "If our people disapprove, we cannot implement the policy. Report how we can resolve the demerits of the law as soon as all the results of the poll from each province are collected.''


The first government-brokered opinion poll, however, failed to show on which side public opinion lay concerning the new land taxation system. Of the diverse respondents ranging from the highest-ranking officials to the lower class, 98,557 approved and 74,149 rejected the proposal.


"King Sejong noticed the public opinion was squarely divided over the issue, so he asked Prime Minster Hwang Hee to further discuss the proposed law,'' Lee explained.


So Many Men, So Many Opinions


Efforts at reflecting the public opinion in the enactment of a new law are found in other articles of the Annals.


For instance, King Yongjo (reign: 1724-1776) deeply lamented the deteriorating living standards of the day in 1750: "People are the very foundation of the nation, which should be sound and strong for the nation's peace and prosperity. . . Now, hundreds of thousands of people are crying for help but I regret I am unable to save them.''


To save the populace, King Yongjo pushed ahead with a new land taxation law called "Kyunyokpop'' (Equalized Tax Law) aimed at lessening the burden of the general populace and stabilizing the national tax revenue.


King Yongjo went so far as to levy taxes on Confucian scholars, who were previously exempted from national land taxes.


"Even though you [Confucian scholars] may be displeased about the new tax placed upon you, taxation must be conducted fair and square without favoring a specific class. Although you may think you are different from the general populace, I think all of you are the same people of the nation. I also have to pay the tax,'' King Yongjo said.


Yet, King Yongjo's proposal faced stiff opposition from the Confucian scholars, citing the possibility it would undermine the class structure of the day.


As the high ranking officials and Confucian scholars furiously opposed the new law, King Yongjo resorted to grassroots politics in a bid to silence the interest group. King Yongjo went outside the palace himself and asked the general public about the new law, most of whom responded favorably.

Despite the King's arduous efforts to represent public opinion, the officials continued to block the legislation, claiming the opinion of the commoners was not to be trusted.


Whatever reaction it may have caused from the biased interest groups, King Yongjo's attitude of respecting public opinion, especially that of the lower class, is admirable. During his 52-year reign, King Yongjo went out to the doors of the palace 55 times to listen to what the people actually wanted.

In addition, a recent study by Lee Tae-jin, professor of Seoul National 

University reveals that King Chongjo (reign: 1776-1800) made great efforts to listen to the opinions of the ordinary people whenever he paid reverence to the royal tombs, which numbered as many as 70 times, a remarkable figure in light of the relatively short reign of 24 years.


Different Drummer


Appealing to the king in person was difficult, but not inconceivable. Two widely known systems are "sang-on'' and "kyok-jang,'' both of which indicate the rather unusual means of appealing to the king by blocking the road in front of the royal procession.


According to the data researched through the CD-ROM Annals of the Choson Dynasty, King Chongjo resolved 2,671 cases of public discontent through these two methods.


The most famous route of appeal during the Choson Dynasty is doubtlessly the "shinmungo'' (drum of appeal), a system imitating that of China, in which the discontented person can beat a designated drum in order to appeal to the king directly.


The CD-ROM Annals have a total of 172 articles containing the word "shinmungo'' or the equivalent of the system. The first article is at the very beginning of the Choson Dynasty dated in 1401. Officials Yun Cho and Park Chon cited the case of the Sung Dynasty in China and requested the establishment of the special drum designed to provide a chance for commoners to speak about their innocence, which King Taejong duly granted.


Yet, contrary to the today's perception of the shimungo playing the cure-all for public discontent, the system was not without its problems.


As early as three months after the shinmungo was set up, official Ha Yoon reported to King Taejong: "The establishment of shinmungo is good for the nation, but there are some people who wrongly beat the drum. Therefore, the government should accept their allegations only after proven true; if not, the person should be punished.''


"Beating the shinmungo was not easy. Two officials were on guard in front of the drum, making it rather difficult for commoners to approach. Moreover, beating the drum was allowed only after all the other appeals to different organizations had failed, a process complicated enough for the public to prefer,'' Lee explained. 


Due to the time-consuming procedure and limited circumstances, the shinmungo system faded into insignificance in the 16th century.


"The government by the royal in-law families in the 19th century distorted the political order, blocking the channels through which the commoners could express their opinions,'' Lee said.


Notably, the late Choson period saw the lower class opting for riots and uprisings, not least because the dissatisfied public had no official route to get across their resentment. 


All of which imply that the new government should pay more attention to the result of the latest Gallup poll, at least to avoid repeating the mistakes of the 19th-century Choson.


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