[Viewpoint] Korea at a crossroads in history

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[Viewpoint] Korea at a crossroads in history

“Chen Bingde, chairman of China’s People’s Liberation Army General Staff, made a diplomatic discourtesy by criticizing the United States for about 10 minutes during his meeting with Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin,” said Professor Hahn Myeong-gi of Myongji University. “After reading the news, I, as a historian, was reminded of the letters sent to Joseon by Qing’s Nurhaci when he declared war against Ming in 1618.”

It was a very interesting lecture. I attended the first session of the special lecture on history on July 18, prepared by the Purun Academy, an institute of publisher Purun Yeoksa. The topic was “International relations of the Joseon Era redefined in the G-2 Era,” and Hahn was the lecturer. I was very attracted by the two and paid a significant fee to attend four lectures.

Around the time of declaring war against Ming in 1618, the Qing Dynasty sent a letter to Joseon, calling the country “you” and threatened it to stay out of the war against Ming. Joseon’s Prince Gwanghae used wise, pragmatic diplomacy to escape the predicament.

But it went against Qing under the reign of King Injo and they faced two invasions, in 1627 and 1636. After the brutal second invasion, King Injo was forced to come out from his refuge in the Namhansan fortress and lowered his head before Hong Taiji of Qing nine times and gave three bows. After the Manchu army had its victorious party, Hong Taiji handed down armor to King Injo as a present, and the king once again lowered his head and dropped to his knee to express his appreciation.

That was the cruel reality that the king had faced, and the situation was worse for the ordinary people. Up to 500,000 Koreans became prisoners of war and forcibly sent to Qing. Many of them were captured during escape attempts and the Manchu army brutally cut off their heels.

Joseon women who became sex slaves of the Qing Dynasty were tortured with boiling water by the Manchurian wives. After they came back, they also became a subject of humiliation and insult.

The brutality of the troops of the Ming Dynasty deployed to support Joseon in the Japanese invasion of 1592 was no different. The people said the plunders of the Japanese troops involved less pain than that of the Ming forces.

Professor Hahn said the Korean Peninsula faced a crisis almost every time a new, rising power tried to challenge the existing superpower. The transition time from Yuan to Ming in China, the rise of Japan during the 16th century, the transition period from Ming to Qing in China and the shift of regional power from Qing to Japan during the modern period all brought about a crisis to Korea, Hahn said.

From the Chinese and Japanese invasions to the colonization by Japan, the tragedies of Joseon were triggered by failures to manage relations between the existing power and the rising power.

For our ancestors, suffering indignity due to China’s actions was a part of their daily lives. Historically, China’s high-handedness and disrespect were familiar events. It was just 115 years ago that Korea tore down Yeongeun gate, which literally means a gate receiving imperial favor, which was used to welcome China’s envoys, and built Independence gate to replace it. That was around the time that Yuan Shikai enjoyed power.

In China, the Japanese invasion of Korea during the Ming Dynasty was called a deployment to Joseon to fight against Japan. The Korean War, which took place 419 years after the Japanese invasion, is called in China a deployment to support Korea to fight against the United States.

It is natural to see history with a nationalistic perception.

We probably forgot about the existence of superpower China because we were so captivated by the fierce animosity toward Japan and the bamboo curtain during the Cold War era.

But the extraordinary time has ended. The time has come for Korea to seriously contemplate how it will position itself between China and the United States. Or else it may face another tragedy, just like their ancestors had done. The time of relying only on the United States appears to be over.

Come to think of it, the recent discourtesy committed by Chen to Kim is probably not even a serious disrespect. Wrapping up his lecture, Professor Hahn told a joke with a sharp edge. “I think we are facing a time period of a serious headache,” he said.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Noh Jae-hyun
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