Japan from the inside out

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.

3 Responses to “The grand game on the Korean Peninsula”

  1. Bender said

    From the review:

    Ultimately, in violation of the Shufeldt Treaty, the U.S. supported Japan’s imperialistic designs on Korea (1905 U.S.-Japan Taft-Katsura Agreement), allowing the Joseon Kingdom to crumple.

    But the U.S. had, perhaps unwittingly, collaborated with Japan far before 1905.

    So it’s America’s fault?

    Between 1867 and 1905, Japan attempted to play three roles in the evolution of Korean-American relations: mediator between the leaders of the two countries; self-appointed champion of Korean independence (from China) and enlightenment; and as an arch-imperialist encroaching on Korean independence. While it failed in the first two, it succeeded in the latter, writes the author.

    Of course, it’s Japan’s!

  2. ampontan said

    Bender: That’s why I mentioned the KT reviewer in the last sentence. The use of the expression “arch-imperialist” (imperialist will do; Japan certainly wasn’t worse than the British, French, Spanish, or Russians) and the idea that the comfort women issue is “unresolved” are the giveaways.

    The idea is the pointlessness of most of these political, historical, and cultural shouting matches.

  3. Bender said

    I agree.

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