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[VIEWPOINT]History’s lessons for Korea’s future

Apr 28,2005
Generally speaking, there’s little point in thinking about “the road not taken.” But sometimes, contemplating what might have happened if we had made a different decision at a crucial point in history is necessary, if we wish to change our thinking for the better.
A case in point was the time when the British general Lord Amherst dropped anchor off the shores of Chungcheong province in 1832, seeking trade negotiations. The magistrate of Chungju, Lee Min-hoe, sent this reply: “As a vassal state of China, our country cannot engage in relations with foreign states on our own. So please bring some documents indicating that you have been in contact with China.”
Fourteen years later, when French Rear Admiral Cecille paid a call on the Joseon Dynasty, the situation was different. He anchored a battleship with an army of some 870 men off Chungcheong province, and pressed for justice in the 1839 killing of a French Catholic priest and others.
The royal court, not surprisingly, was alarmed by the admiral’s warning that the king should be ready with an explanation for the killing when he returned the following year with a bigger warship. Countless foreign ships frequented the coasts of the South and Yellow Seas, but this was the first time a battleship had come with an explicit threat.
Embarrassed by the warning to “be prepared,” King Heonjong asked his subjects for ideas. Surprisingly, the suggestions from the royal court were to quickly notify China of the incident and to look for Korean Catholics who were “fluent in foreign languages.” They thought the French ship had been called in by Koreans who were dissatisfied with the court. Wasn’t it said that history repeats itself as farce?
Fortunately, or unfortunately, the French war vessels that arrived the following year washed up on the shores of the Yellow Sea, having struck rocks while passing behind the Gogunsan islands. French sailors pitched tents on the beach and sent messages asking to borrow a ship to take them to Shanghai, and for something to eat.
Reading those passages in “The Chronicles of the Joseon Dynasty,” I allowed myself to engage in “unrealistic” speculation. What if the court of the Joseon Dynasty had engaged in heated debate on trade with Great Britain, instead of being flattered to receive a letter from the Chinese emperor reading, “Joseon is a good vassal state, well-versed in the ways of courtesy”? What might have become of Joseon if it had taken the advice of Hyegang Choi Han-ki and learned about American politics, and sent students to London on government scholarships?
Perhaps those ideas might have been attacked as premature and unrealistic. But given the historical facts, they were realistic suggestions in the truest sense, in that they were necessary for the country to catch up with the changes taking place in the international order.
Thirty years later, the Treaty of Ganghwa was signed, and a diplomatic delegation was sent to Japan immediately afterward. Describing his first glimpse of Japan’s “staggering” military facilities, one envoy, Kim Gi-su, said, “How skillful! How could a fireworks wheel perform every task in the world? Still, I did not want to see it, because Confucius did not say anything about that.”
A noteworthy fact is that the Joseon Dynasty was surprisingly well informed about the suffering the Western powers inflicted on Japan and China to make them open their ports. Nevertheless, the government did not fully understand that this meant the ports would have to be opened. And so it was unable to come up with a plan. It was a failure of imagination.
It is often said that we are living in times of great change in the international order. In other words, we don’t know what new order is going to develop.
Given this uncertainty, what should we do? We should listen to the people around us, and we should consider the past. History does not always have to be repeated as farce.
In this respect, I would like to make a couple of suggestions. The first is that we develop a clear understanding of our present situation, and prepare for the future course of the country at the level of national administration.
The second is that we send 100 students to China on government scholarships every year, with the goal of raising a corps of experts who know China better than the Chinese do. Rather than simply declare that we will become a “balancer” in Northeast Asia, isn’t it a more urgent task to develop the capability to act as one?

* The writer is a professor of political science at the Academy of Korean Studies. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.


by Park Hyun-mo


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