The grand game on the Korean Peninsula
Posted by ampontan on Saturday, June 21, 2008
PEOPLE WHO INSIST ON DEBATING Northeast Asian history at the top of their cyberlungs owe it to themselves and to the rest of us to realize that some issues are too complex for two-dimensional, monochrome explanations.
That should be clear from reading this Korea Times review of Early Korean Encounters With the United States and Japan, a collection of essays written in English by Lew Young-ick.
As other Korean historians have pointed out, the Joseon Dynasty’s misrule created a backwards and xenophobic state that seemed ripe for the picking by imperial powers. Explains reviewer Lee Hyo-won:
(Japan) sought to manifest its imperialistic ambitions on the Korean peninsula, which would additionally act as a buffer against the perceived Russian threat. Japan would also be able to generously “share” the blessings of their newly acquired Western culture.
“Inadequately equipped” for such advances, the xenophobic state started to recognize “the beneficial aspects of Western civilization.” The alarmed Korean rulers “tried to gain time by dilatory tactics, hoping in the meantime to achieve national ‘enlightenment’ and ‘self-strengthening.’” In 1882, Korea signed the Shufeldt Treaty with the U.S., establishing its first diplomatic ties with a Western state.
However, Korea’s tributary debt to China was omnipresent, and the agreement, according to the author, “was the strategic calculation of the Chinese statesman Li Hongzhang, namely to ‘play the American barbarian’ off against the Russian ‘barbarian.’” Li’s main aim was leveraging China’s assertion of suzerainty over Korea.
Nevertheless, King Gojong (1852-1919), the second to last Joseon monarch, saw the U.S. treaty as a potential buffer against Japan’s growing imperialistic tendencies and, to Li’s discontent, repel China’s suzerainty.
…after the Shufeldt Treaty, Korea was “set adrift on an ocean of intrigue which it was quite helpless to control” (Tyler Dennett), with subsequent pacts with Great Britain and Germany (1883), Italy and Russia (1884), France (1886) and Austro-Hungary (1889). The small peninsula thus became “a major playground for contending imperialistic powers.”
On the one hand, $30 is a lot to pay for a 249-page book, but the KT article cites reviews that praise the collection of papers and keynote speeches as being very readable.
All of us (including the KT reviewer) would benefit from the realization that it’s not possible to unravel the tangled skein of the past as long as people want to use history as a weapon in the present, and that pointing misdirected fingers will yield no benefits for the future.