Recently, I came across a book by Lee Seog-yeon, a famous Korean lawyer and civil rights activist, entitled “Sima Qian’s Korea Travelogue.” Sima Qian was a legendary Chinese historian of the Han Dynasty (206 BC to AD 220) who wrote the celebrated book “Records of the Grand Historian,” compiling Chinese history covering approximately 2,000 years. In his intriguing book, Lee, the Korean lawyer, perceives and interprets modern Korea through the eyes of Sima Qian, who enlightens us with his extraordinarily clairvoyant vision and the remarkably insightful sense of history.
Since Sima Qian is my favorite historian and Lee Seog-yeon one of my favored lawyers, I read Lee’s book with great enthusiasm. Using Sima’s profound perceptions and insights, Lee powerfully criticizes contemporary Korean society and politics in his book. Lee’s critique of Korea, backed up by Sima’s brilliant theories and colorful examples, is so persuasive and penetrating that the reader cannot but help nodding constantly while reading it.
First, Lee agrees with Sima that anybody can turn evil if he is egotistical, dogmatic and self-righteous. We tend to think that evil men are born evil, different from us. Contrary to our popular belief, however, Lee and Sima point out that even a plain, ordinary man can easily turn into an evil terrorist if he is ignorant, obstinate and selfish. Ideologically-oriented political leaders, too, can legally terrorize their political opponents and the people in the name of ideology and social justice. That is exactly what has been happening in Korea since the liberation in 1945.
That is why Lee argues that the leader of a nation should govern his country and people not with strict rules and regulations but with generosity and magnanimity. Indeed, Confucius and Sima Qian alike maintained that a king should rule his kingdom with morality and flexibility rather than with punishment and retribution. According to them, law should exist to make people comfortable, not to intimidate them. Besides, when and if the leader becomes exemplary by being virtuous and morally impeccable, the people will respect and follow him. If he severely punishes people, however, they will turn against him.
Lee persuasively contends that Korean politicians have a bad habit of denouncing everything accomplished in the previous administration and incriminating high-ranking government officials who were involved in them. Oftentimes they arrest even former presidents and lock them in prison. But that is something we expect to happen only in an underdeveloped country, not in an advanced country such as South Korea. Lee writes that regrettably, in Korea, not a single ex-president has stepped down with applause.
Borrowing from Sima Qian, Lee also maintains in his book that it is extremely important for the leader of a country to appoint highly competent professionals as his secretaries and cabinet members. Unfortunately, however, no Korean president has succeeded in doing so. Instead, all our presidents have been surrounded by those belonging to their faction. Since most of them were amateurs and incompetent, they could not lead the nation in the right or prosperous path.
The result has always been disastrous.
If the leader favors only sweet talkers and flattering disciples, he will ruin his country. Lee writes that the leader will be doomed to fail if he cannot recognize a talented man, does not invite him to his cabinet and fails to make the most of him.
Meanwhile, Lee laments that we seriously lack true intellectuals in our society, who have the courage to say “No!” when everybody chants “Yes!” Intellectuals should not be silent in times of national crisis or in front of injustice, oppression or tyranny. When politicians lead the nation in the wrong direction, it is the intellectual who must play the role of a warning prophet.
Borrowing from Sima Qian, Lee also asserts that the government should not interfere with people’s wealth and personal property. Both the historian and lawyer point out that taking from the rich to give to the poor does not help the economy at all. They agree that government should leave everything to the market economy. Indeed, it is true that when the rich open their purses, the economy will prosper. Then the benefits will go to the poor. If the government treats the rich as thieves, then the rich will zip up their purses. If so, it is the poor who will suffer the consequences.
Inspired by Sima, Lee advises that the leader of a nation not wage war according to his own personal belief or political ideology. If so, he will eventually destroy his nation and put his people in misery. Moreover, Lee warns that the leader not be obsessed by the past or his own personal vendetta. In addition, he should not be obsessed with the notion that he must do something during his tenure, either.
Our political leaders should listen to the wisdom and warnings of the great historian and the insightful lawyer, for the sake of the future of Korea.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting professor at the University of California, Irvine. -- Ed.