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September 01, 2006


Won Joon Choe

Lankov is surely right, Abiola. Though he concentrates on the Choson experience, you will find the same relative tranquility in all of recorded Korean history from the Unified Silla (7th century) onward, even if you were to include Parhae (which most non-Korean historians I've read do not consider Korean).

In fact, the only Korean kingdom that faced the type of continuous invasions the Korean psyche imagines is Koguryo, which was invaded some 12 times by China (Sui-Tang) in a period of half a century or so. And the exception proves rather ironic. Koguryo started the entire chain of wars by pre-emptively attacking the nascent Sui for the control of key Liadong fortresses.


The most obvious giveaway, to my mind, of the unusual tranquility of Korean history is the lower status awarded the warrior class during the Choson era by comparison with the literary elite: a country continuously in the grips of turmoil caused by foreign invasions would have been expected to have a large, powerful and influential "noblesse d'epee" caste upon whom the "noblesse de robe" should have looked in envy and admiration, rather than the other way around. Look at any society in which warfare is a constant - whether we're talking ancient Rome, Europe before 1945 or pre-Tokugawa Japan - and you'll see that this is universally the case, with the military men calling the tune to which scholarly and artistic types must dance.

Indeed, I believe the very marginality of Choson's military elite played a major role in enfeebling its ability to fend off foreign encroachments at the end of the 19th century: just look at how quickly the Bakufu was discredited by the arrival of the black ships, and how little time disgruntled samurai wasted in seizing upon the inability of a "barbarian subduing" shogunate to live up to its military responsibilities as an excuse to overthrow it. Choson's elite didn't base its legitimacy on its martial prowess, so it wasn't as easily threatened by failure on that score, nor - unlike the ever-feuding samurai who'd always been quick to seize upon any new foreign technologies which might give them an advantage against their rivals - was it particularly alert to just how far behind Korea had fallen in the economic military stakes, which is as one would expect with scholars who disdained fighting and trading as "common" and spent all their lives with their noses stuck in esoteric Chinese books.

Won Joon Choe

Yes, Choson was a demilitarized society. Its founder, General Yi Song-gye, and his descendants made a conscious decision to base the dynasty's security on the protection from the Ming--prefiguring the dominant Korean security approach up until today.

(The chief rationale behind this choice seems to have been the fear of military coups--the type that plagued the middle Koryo [that saw 5 different military faction gain dictatorial powers in succession until the Choes consolidated their power] and brought Yi Song-gye himself to power and the destruction of the Koryo dynaty.)

And the Ming did serve an instrumental role in ejecting the Japanese from Korea during the Im-jin War (though the Korean historians never fail to neglect the Chinese contribution, as if Admiral Yi--whose achievements are perhaps over-rated to begin with in the context of the vast Korean technological superiority in terms of naval arms fought--all the land battles too). The Ming also did ensure peace on the peninsula except for the aforementioned Im-jin War until the emergence of the Manchus and the Manchu invasions in the 17th century.

Now, as I have said before elsewhere (and as confided to me by at least one prominent South Korean politician), it seems to me that the current geopolitical thinking in South Korea is dominated by the historial paradigm of the 17th century Northeast Asia. There the Choson, under one of its most incompetent kings (which is saying volumes about the man's incompetence), In-jo, courted disaster by adhering to its relationship with the decaying Ming and foolishly spurning the rising Manchus. (Ironically, this policy was a reversal of the pro-Manchu policy of In-jo's brilliant and energetic predecessor, Kwang-hae-gun, whom In-jo supplanted by coup.)

Today, those who propose to read the present-day Northeast Asia as an atavism of the 16th century casts the U.S. as the Ming and China as the Ching; and I think here lies perhaps the true basis of the present-day South Korean elites' tendency to distance itself from the U.S. (which is not limited to Leftist elites represented by the Roh administration but also characteristic of many centrist and even conservative businessmen and politicians as well). I do not buy the parallelism but historical analogies die hard in a nation with, well, lots of history.

Won Joon Choe

Hmmm, I accidentally deleted my last paragraph and a bit of my penultimate paragraph before posting. The gist of it was: While South Korea's current foreign policy seem entirely whimsical or driven by a woolly Leftist ideology, there is a geopolitical calculus based primarily on interests behind it. Of course, I do not agree with that particular calculation of South Korean self-interest, but that is another story.


Yes, you're right, this take on things does have a certain warped consistency of its own, at least if one adheres to a romanticized, whitewashed vision of just how splendid life was for Koreans under Chinese vassalage ...

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