Joseon mistakesThe winner of the box office during the Chuseok holidays was “The Fortress.” The movie is based on Kim Hoon’s novel, Namhansanseong, depicting the Qing invasion of the Joseon Dynasty in 1636. The sad history of Joseon, which was lost between the sinking Ming Dynasty and rising Qing Dynasty, didn’t feel like the distant past. In the movie, two ideological cliques battle each other; a pro-peace faction that wanted to accept the reality and seek an opportunity in the future, while the anti-peace faction refused to compromise. The ideological battle is still continuing even today.
Today, Korea is caught between the United States and China. It is also our reality that the country is divided between hard-liners and those prompting engagement when dealing with a nuclear-armed North Korea. The battle is also between the pro-alliance faction that promotes the Korea-U.S. alliance and the independence faction. As we can see in the conflict between Kim Sang-heon, the head of the anti-peace faction and Choi Myeong-gil, the leader of the pro-peace faction, in the movie, no one is right or wrong. They just had different values and beliefs. When a country’s security is in peril, pragmatists and idealists always battle each other.
If King Injo had paid closer attention to the larger picture and acted more sensitively and quickly, he probably would have avoided the humiliation of ceremoniously bowing to Hong Taiji nine times. A just and great cause is important, but if the king had put priority on the people, the biggest victim of the war, he could have stepped back and shown flexibility. Or he may have prepared a fatal blow, like the young David against Goliath, Joseon may have not faced an absurd defeat. And yet, it is just too late.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, an American strategist who died in May, presented three options for Korea when it is in a situation of isolation. It was advice for a scenario where China aims for hegemony in East Asia. First is admitting China’s hegemony and living as its subject. Although Korea’s self-esteem and independence will be damaged, it will survive. Second is joining forces with Japan to fight China. Third is finding its own way of survival by developing nuclear weapons.
The United States is still the most powerful country in the world. It is hard to imagine that the United States will be pushed away from East Asia by China. But the problem is North Korea. Kim Jong-un is speeding up the operational deployment of intercontinental ballistic missiles. If the deployment is realized and the U.S. mainland falls under the nuclear missiles’ range, will the United States defend the South?
Furthermore, the current U.S. president is Donald Trump, who promotes an “America First” policy. He is playing the madman strategy in a competition with Kim and it is hard to predict what his choice will be. In 1950, the United States excluded Korea from its Far Eastern defense perimeter. Is it possible that it will abandon the Korean Peninsula once again?
Brzezinski recommended that security cooperation with Japan is the best option. It is a nearly impossible option for Korea, taking into account its long-running animosity with Japan. But we cannot go back to the Joseon era by choosing the first option. That is why the third option of independent nuclear development is gaining momentum.
Not only politicians, but scholars are now making the argument. Cheong Seong-chang, unification strategy research chief at Sejong Institute, sent emails to journalists during the Chuseok holidays, urging a nuclear-armed South Korea for the sake of self-defense. He stressed that not only the U.S. administration but also Congress is allowing a nuclear-armed South, quoting Mac Thornberry, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, who said on Oct. 5 in a discussion that he completely agrees with a nuclear-armed South.
Korea once made an attempt. President Park Chung Hee was determined to have nuclear weapons after the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, but the project was dismissed after intervention from Washington.
Right now, Korea has the technological capability to build nuclear arms. But the price is too high. It won’t be incomparable to the damages from the decision to allow the Thaad antimissile system. And the people will be the biggest victim, just like 400 years ago.
At this stage, the development of a nuclear weapons program will cause more losses than gains. We have to trust the Korea-U.S. alliance and reinforce cooperation. At the same time, we have to quietly make diplomatic, military, technological and economic preparations. It is the state’s responsibility to prepare for the worst possible situation. It will prevent another tragedy of Namhansanseong.
In the movie, Kim Sang-heon ended his life with suicide, but the truth is different. He actually lived until the age of 82 and prepared the foundation for his descendants to become the most powerful family in the country. His descendants produced three queens, 12 top ministers and dozens of ministers, playing a leading role in late Joseon politics.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 10, Page 31
*The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.