2007
05.25

Korea under the Joseon dynasty lasted from 1392 – 1910, over 500 years. Suffering invasion from the Japanese and Chinese. A remarkable historical achievement. This kingdom elite was using Chinese and getting a position in the government required passing torturous exams in Chinese, which you could prepare for only if you were well enough of to begin with, and literally had the right ancestors (lineage was everything [a window could remarry, but her children would not be able to take the exams]). Culturally, the Korean saw themselves as part of the Chinese world order, considering the China to be the center of the universe.

Following the wars with Japan in the end of the 16th century, Korea closed up to foreign visitors. A limited trade went on with Japan on a designated island, and relation with China were somewhat limited. And so Korea became the Hermit Kingdom.

Closed for so long, fanatically Confucian, slowly but surely the system got corrupted. To begin with, the kingdom was ruled by the Yangban class (officials), which were being supported by the rest of the people, which were of a lower class (i.e., majority of the society working as farmers). Next, the central government, was weak compared to local aristocracy, which in turn lead to inability to collect taxes effectively, and corruption, as bribing the tax man was cheaper than paying taxes (which lead to insane taxes on the people that could not avoid being taxed).

And so, when the west came knocking (>1860), the country was weak and unable to respond to tides of the time. Repeatedly, the Koreans responded by “leave us alone” to any effort to foreigners to contact them. The Koreans were quite vigilant in rejecting such intrusions. The General Sherman Incident is a good example – an American trading ship entered a Korean river (1866), demanded trade, was rebuffed, opened fire, and was immediately destroyed.

Compare this to Japan, that also closed up, but still had trading station with the Portuguese, thus still having western technology trickling in. Then, when the west opened up Japan (see here – opening up meant signing unequal trade treaties), a powerful and aggressive reform kicked in, turning Japan in 30 years, from a backward country into a regional power, that had beaten both the Chinese and Russians in war. Of course, this opening to some extent was motivated by the militaristic mindset of wanting to have a strong army (this in turn lead to Japan own situation that was not necessarily to Japan’s advantage).

So, naturally, Japan also wanted to become a colonial power, and Korea was just there for the taking. And under the pressure of Japan, Korea had to open up. Competition with China and Russia, did not stop Japan to take over slowly but surely, till in 1910, Korea was under total Japanese control. Korea would be independent again, only when Japan lost WWII in 1945. Interestingly, Koreans elites knew that they were in deep trouble, but they were a fish out of the water, clueless and too weak to prevent the loss of independence of Korea. A grassroots rebellion to kick out the foreigners just hasten the process of the Japanese taking over.

Japanese had abused Korea like any other colonialist power, but had also transformed Korea, by introducing better administration, heavy industry, roads, rails, trains, etc. By the end of this period Korea was well ahead of China and Taiwan economically. Of course, crediting the Japanese with any positive influence on Korea is a hearsay for Koreans. But it is doubtful if Korea would have progressed so quickly in such a short time on its own (the society was too conservative and inflexible to change).

This left Korea in an excellent situation to be devastated by the Korean war (1950-1953), which would be the topic of the next snippet of Korean history.

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