Revisiting past crises
The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Two key phrases were used by the top leaders of Korea as the country was hit by an economic retaliation by the Shinzo Abe administration in Japan. One is “12 ships,” mentioned by President Moon Jae-in a recent speech, and another is “bamboo spears” mentioned by Senior Presidential Secretary for Civil Affairs Cho Kuk.
Of course, people of the current generation would naturally feel emotional whenever they hear about the miraculous victory of Admiral Yi Sun-sin with only 12 warships in a sea battle with Japan. They will also sympathize with the sense of justice the farmers who rose against the corrupted government felt when they held bamboo spears 125 years ago.
Starting from Toyotomi Hideyoshi to Emperor Meiji, Ito Hirobumi and Terauchi Masatake — who forcibly annexed Joseon through the Sino-Japanese War — Japan caused a great deal of pain and misfortune on the Korean Peninsula. The Japanese leaders — including the extreme right military leadership, which caused the Pacific War and forced countless Koreans into conscription, forced labor and sexual slavery — are continuously accumulating sins.
If history is truly a dialogue between the past and the present, the top politicians responsible for state affairs must have a different point of view from the public. They must wonder “Why did Admiral Yi only have 12 ships?” and “Why did the peasants of Gobu County have to hold bamboo spears instead of other tools?” The answers to the questions are our poor politics and weak national power.
Admiral Yi was left with only 12 ships after he was imprisoned for having denied King Seonjo’s orders and because of slander from other officials. Won Gyun — a trusted military leader of the king who replaced Yi — suffered a crushing defeat against the Japanese navy and lost 122 out of 134 ships during the naval Battle of Chilcheonryang due to his lack of strategy, leadership and laziness.
The starting point of the tragedy of the 12 ships was international affairs. After unifying Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi paid attention to the failed governance of Wanli Emperor of Ming Dynasty, the fall of Ming and the rise of Nurhaci, the founding father of Qing Dynasty. Taking the chaos in the continent as an opportunity, he planned to conquer Ming and annex Joseon.
Due to the Sino-U.S. economic war, a nuclear armed North Korea and a weakened Korea-U.S. alliance, the Korean Peninsula is also facing a power vacuum. It offers a chance to the Abe administration, which promotes Japan as a “normal” country capable of going into war based on the economic prowess revived after 20 years.
If Korea managed the alliance with the United States smoothly, can Abe still make surprise provocations?
One year before the Japanese invasion of Korea in 1592, Hwang Yun-gil and Kim Song-il — diplomats of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) — made two completely different reports and conclusions. Kim, a member of Dongin Faction, said he did not see any sign of Japan’s invasion, while Hwang, a member of the rival Seoin Faction, issued a warning. Eventually, Kim’s conclusion was accepted by King Seonjo, perhaps because the Dongin Faction was in power at the time.
The mood of Joseon was well documented in Ryu Seong-ryong’s “The Book of Corrections.”
“This is a peaceful time, and why do we have to build a fortress,” many people complained, according to the book. Soldiers questioned the effectiveness of the Japanese military’s rifles.
Japan was armed with rifles from Portugal for 50 years, but Joseon only had bows, spears and swords at the time. According to the book, the government hurriedly conscripted soldiers after Busan fell, but they came with books in hand. The only thing King Seonjo did was ask for Ming’s military support shortly before his evacuation to the border city of Euiju.
This is no different from what top officials are doing now, except Japan using export restrictions as a weapon.
A senior trade ministry official criticized local companies for having failed to foresee the crisis, while Minister of SMEs and Startups Park Young-sun said Korea does not have competitive component and material industries because conglomerates did not purchase domestic products. The government said it is time to start the development. This is no different from 427 years ago.
Ironically, there were many talented public servants during the King Seonjo era. It was the era of outstanding officials like Yi I, Ryu Seong-ryong and Yi Won-ik. But factionalist politics and clanship wasted their talents. Yi I — who promoted the idea of investing in the people’s livelihoods and the military to better prepare for crisis — was impeached from his government office by the rival faction.
The bamboo spears held by farmers during the Donghak Peasant Revolution (1894-95) also started with the abuse of power, the royal court’s squandering of state money and cruel taxation to make up for the deficit. One year before the Donghak Revolution, a tenant farmer in Gochang was left with rice that would last for an average of four months a year.
After the revolutionary troops with bamboo spears seized Jeonju Fortress, the Joseon government rushed to ask for help from the Qing Dynasty, which prompted Japan’s interference and the Sino-Japanese War.
I revisited the history because whenever Japan invaded Korea, the government was always incompetent, split and the national power was diminished. Reminding the public of the uncomfortable truth and stressing the importance of self-examination is the responsibility of the press in a democracy and an act of patriotism.
Those in power cannot label someone as just a traitor because of their attacks. Critics are not traitors. Traitors are those who would agree with the government’s wrong choices or do nothing about it.
JoongAng Ilbo, July 23, Page 31