As news coverage focuses on the upcoming round of six-party talks this Monday aimed at resolving the standoff with North Korea, I am reminded of an historical event that occurred more than 100 years ago.
At that time Korea was one country but struggled to reconcile internal and external pressures for modernization with powerful forces determined to maintain the traditional Confucian system. Pro-reform groups like the Independence Club looked to Japan as a model for the successful modernization of an East Asian country, while despising China as a symbol of a tradition bound state, wholly in opposition to modern values.
Traditionalists fought to resist modernization, which amounted to Westernization and the collapse of a system in place for half a millennium.
In the midst of this struggle a rebellion broke out among disgruntled military men resentful of the favor shown by the Korean royal house to a new and elite group of Japanese trained soldiers. The ensuing turmoil engulfed the entire peninsula, forcing an already shaken Korean monarchy to call for aid from China, its traditional ally in times of crisis.
What resulted was a confrontation between Japanese and Chinese forces on Korean soil, as each sought to defend their own national interests in a Korea barely in its infancy of national independence.
War between the two East Asian powers would not erupt for another 10 years. Japan would emerge triumphant over a China in turmoil to become, along with Western powers, an imperialist nation. Prior to this, hostilities were abated by the signing of what came to be called the Tientsin Treaty, or more aptly the Li-Inoure treatry, named for the two men leading negotiations over Korea’s future status. Li Hong Zhang was the leading proponent of China’s self-strengthening movement.
Inoure was Tokyo’s jingoistic ambassador general in Seoul. Significantly, neither name is Korean. In negotiating Korea’s position, both China and Japan had completely ignored the interests of Korea’s rulers.
Today press coverage of North Korea is unanimous in its ignorance of this isolated nation. Adjectives like “mysterious,” “reclusive,” and “Stalinist” are used to disguise what ultimately amounts to a resounding question mark when it comes to understanding the position of North Korea and its leaders. Yet modern Korean history can shed important light on the reasons behind the North’s go-it-alone, juche mentality.
Some 100 years ago China, Korea’s one-time suzerain and political ally, in its own struggle with encroaching Western powers and an increasingly militarist Japan, sought to annex the peninsula. Tokyo had interests in Korea to fuel its growing military-industrial complex and to prove to Western powers that it too could play the game at colonizer. More recently Russia made attempts at controlling Korea, halted only by the arrival of American military forces in Seoul after the Japanese surrender of WW II. What resulted was the 38th parallel, better known as Korea’s DMZ, drawn in Washington D.C. by the American secretary of Defense Dean Rusk, in 30 minutes.
As the next round of six-part talks is set to take place Monday, leaders of Japan, China, the United States and Russia again prepare to discuss the fate of the peninsula, while South Korea remains relegated almost to the position of an insignificant bystander. Perhaps it’s the fate of a small nation surrounded by larger powers to have its future decided by outside intervention, yet it is striking that modern Korean history remains scarred by the aggressions of external powers acting to defend their own national interests, without regard to the independent and sovereign status of the Korean peninsula.
The fissures wrought by outside interference on the Korean peninsula go beyond the DMZ. South Korean politics are divided not only over how to deal with North Korea, but also in its relations with the United States, Japan and the larger world. Conservatives favor a tougher stance against the North and friendlier policies towards America, while liberals support reconciliation with Pyongyang and a gradual distancing from America.
The Japanese colonial legacy in Korea remains a sensitive and divisive issue as scholars and politicians argue over the nature of Japan’s role in Korea’s modernization and the role of Korean “collaborators.”
In this globalized, nuclear age Japan, the United States and indeed the entire world have a stake in the outcome of the six-party talks, and yet it seems ironic that the very same powers involved in the initial division of the peninsula in 1950 should again be discussing the future of the Korean peninsula.
Is it any wonder why North Korea proves the paranoid and unpredictable sixth member? As in the past, major powers are paying little heed to the concerns of the Korean people who are inheritors of this historical memory, and the prospects of a future unified Korean nation.
Peter Schurmann, a UC Berkeley student in Asian Studies, has visited Korea several times.