Fighting for dignityThe clock has gone back to the 19th century in East Asia. Using its economic power and political influence, Beijing has been playing the bully and continues to pressure Seoul on security issues that can put the country at risk. It won’t let go of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) antimissile system deployed in South Korea even after bilateral relations were patched up after Seoul yielded to its conditions of the so-called three nos — no additional Thaad deployments, no joining of a broader U.S. missile defense system and no Korea-U.S.-Japan military alliance. Chinese President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang, and Foreign Minister Wang Yi have all been pressing Seoul to oblige with the three nos.
A year ago when Chen Hai, deputy director-general of Asian affairs at the Chinese foreign ministry, came to Seoul, he bluntly complained to executives of large Korean companies that small states must not stand up to a bigger one. He outright threatened that Beijing would teach Seoul a lesson if it went on with the plan to deploy Thaad with punitive actions as severe as cutting diplomatic ties.
We are experiencing a similar shame to what young general Yuan Shikai gave the Joseon people by acting as their colonial ruler. It may not have been a coincidence that Xi told U.S. President Donald Trump that Korea used to be a tributary of China. Joseon — despite its feebleness back then — bit back and strongly resisted yielding to the Qing dynasty. South Korea today is a major economy and a trade powerhouse and yet it chooses to stay mute and swallow its humiliation.
Yuan attempted to remove King Gojong, who defied the Qing dynasty and colonized Joseon. He blocked financing from other countries to make Joseon entirely hinge on loans from Qing. He interfered in the domestic and foreign affairs of the Joseon court and profiteered from seizing monopolies. He even encouraged Chinese merchants to use military vessels to smuggle Joseon ginseng. Chinese merchants turned into rioters and attacked security guards at Incheon Port. Beijing’s retaliation over Thaad is nothing compared to the excesses of the Qing dynasty.
Even 120 years ago, a contest over the Korean Peninsula among global powers was intense. China meddled to prevent Joseon from seeking diplomatic ties with the United States, claiming it to be its tributary. Before Park Jung-yang got on a U.S. naval ship as the first Joseon minister to America, Yuan gave him outrageous commands: He was to report to the Qing mission in Washington D.C. first and visit the host foreign ministry together with the Qing minister. He was also ordered to sit behind the Qing emissary in diplomatic events and discuss with him any diplomatic issues.
King Gojong told Park to ignore Yuan’s orders. Yuan became enraged upon learning that Park went directly to present credentials to U.S. President Stephen Grover Cleveland without reporting to the Qing emissary. King Gojong summoned Park home, ordered punishment out of formality and then re-appointed him. Owen Nickerson Denny, an American adviser to Korea at the recommendation of a Chinese official, defined Korea as an independent state and asked China to summon Yuan home by calling him “unjust, brutal and conspiring.” He pointed out that although Great Britain had also paid Qing tribute in the past, its sovereignty had not been impaired. He went on arguing that Korea was independent regardless of its tributary offerings to China. His publication defined the relationship between China and Korea. The Japanese media called his writing “insightful and logical.”
President Moon Jae-in will make a state visit to China and hold a summit with his Chinese counterpart Xi later this month. Xi will surely give him a warm welcome. At the same time, Xi will attempt to force Seoul to settle the Thaad issue in China’s favor as Beijing defines it as a “key national interest.” The Korea-China relationship could become decisively imbalanced.
Regardless of its intimidating rhetoric, there would be limits to Beijing’s economic retaliations over a security issue. First of all, Chinese industry, which still relies heavily on South Korean intermediary products, could suffer. And when the bilateral relationship with China becomes poor, Korea will have to turn to the United States, Japan and Southeast Asian nations for stronger ties. Turning its back on a friend that made an overture of normalizing diplomatic ties 25 years ago when China was isolated after the Tiananmen Square massacre would paint Beijing poorly on the international stage.
King Gojong stood up to the tyrannies of Qing to defend the sovereignty of his weak country in the late 19th century. Mongolia invited the Dalai Lama despite threats from Beijing, but China did not retaliate. Vietnam fought Chinese intrusion and pressure through a war. A weak country can confront a stronger counterpart if it has the will. Moon must confidently argue that if China wants Thaad out of South Korea, it must do all it can to denuclearize North Korea. China won’t look down on us if we stand strong. It is how we can defend the Korea-U.S alliance, our economy and sovereignty. Our state leader has the duty to fight for our national interests and dignity.
JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 4, Page 35
*The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.