[FOUNTAIN]History’s lesson in strategyWatch the situation and define your attitude. Those were the secret orders that King Gwanghaegun of Korea’s Joseon Dynasty gave in 1618 to Kang Hong-rip, commander of the Joseon reinforcement army that was dispatched at the request of China’s Ming Dynasty. For both king and subject the wish was the same: they did not want to confront Later Jin Dynasty, the country of the Manchus and predecessor of the Ching Dynasty, which was on the rise. Even so, it was hard to ignore the Ming rulers of China, who demanded repayment for having saved an almost dying country. A mere 10 years earlier they had sent an army to Korea to help defeat its enemy, Japan, during the two Japanese invasions of the peninsula. Also, Confucian scholars in Korea were of the firm opinion that the Joseon rulers should help the “parent country.”
King Gwanghaegun was convinced that the Ming Dynasty was just a paper tiger in front of the armored horsemen of Later Jin and that the Joseon reinforcement army was a rabble. He tried to avoid the request, but it was not easy because people like Yang Ho, the Ming commander of the Manchuria region, who participated in the war against the Japanese invasion, were well versed in Joseon’s circumstances. Moreover, it was a long-established strategy of the Chinese that China use the force of neighboring barbarians to deter an invasion of another barbarian. The king, as a desperate measure, gave secret orders along with the command to Kang Hong-rip, a resourceful general who was acquainted with the conditions of Manchuria.
General Kang and his 10,000 men engaged in battle, and when defeat seemed certain he surrendered as scheduled. He sent all the surviving soldiers home, but he remained and continued the secret activity that provided information on the situation in China to the Joseon rulers. In return, the king protected the commander’s family. During Gwanghaegun’s reign a Manchu invasion was avoided through accurate judgment of the situation and a neutral diplomatic strategy. But Gwanghaegun was overthrown, and Korea subsequently suffered through two Manchu wars.
History is always written by the winner. Gwanghaegun has been described as a brutal and foolish king. But history is endlessly reinterpreted. Now that views are divided over dispatching combat troops to Iraq, Gwanghaegun’s secret orders should be read again. History is a choice.
by Oh Byung-sang
The writer is London correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.