The Making of Modern Korea
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The Making of Modern Korea

Adrian Buzo

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eBook - ePub

The Making of Modern Korea

Adrian Buzo

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About This Book

This fully updated third edition of The Making of Modern Korea provides a thorough, balanced and engaging history of Korea from 1876 to the present day. The text is unique in analysing domestic developments in the two Koreas in the wider context of regional and international affairs.

Key features of the book include:

• Comprehensive coverage of Korean history.

• Expanded coverage of social and cultural affairs.

• A new chapter covering the end of the Choson Dynasty in the context of Japanese imperialist expansionism.

• Up-to-date analysis of important contemporary developments in both Koreas, including assessments of the Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un administrations and the North's nuclear weapons program.

• Comparative focus on North and South Korea.

• An examination of Korea within its regional context.

• A detailed chronology and suggestions for further reading.

The Making of Modern Korea is a valuable one-volume resource for students of modern Korean history, international politics and Asian Studies.

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1 The setting


Korea symbolically entered into the modern world of sovereign nation-states in 1876 with the signing of the Treaty of Kanghwa with Japan. Since then, Korean governments and Korean civil society have struggled and contended with foreign powers and amid the defining currents of political, economic, cultural and intellectual life in the modern age – imperialism, capitalism, colonialism, nationalism, militarism, Marxism-Leninism, democracy, hot and cold war, the rise and collapse of global communism, Asia-Pacific economic dynamism, globalism, consumerism, and the constantly changing parameters in the international economic and security environment. The story of modern Korea is thus a rich one, even if present outcomes are mixed – the tragedy of enduring division, the emergence of the Republic of Korea (ROK) as a prospering, stable nation and an international economic, diplomatic and cultural force, and the continuing despair of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).
In debating the impact of modernisation on both the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), people naturally tend to place differing emphases on degrees of change or continuity. On the one hand, those who emphasise change tend to concentrate on the massive scale of political, economic and social transformation in both Koreas. They see Koreans in the South as having broken free of the shackles of a status-ridden past (which is commonly, but misleadingly, termed ‘feudal’), to create an open, meritocratic, mass society characterised by high social mobility. The North is more problematic, first sharing many of these traits in the immediate post-1945 period, but ultimately acquiring pronounced anti-modern features under the Kim Il Sung autocracy from the 1960s on. On the other hand, those who emphasise continuity in either Korea tend to see many facets of social behaviour as still bound by such traditional Neo-Confucian norms as hierarchy, status, personalised loyalties, rigorous social etiquette, and social stratification in terms of gender, age, education and family prestige. In this view, the composition of the elites has changed, but these norms constitute features of a deeply internalised system of basic values which continue to guide social and political behaviour.
Such polarities introduce themes that are deeply relevant for our understanding of both modern Korean states. They therefore underlie much of this book, and they merit careful attention, for the need to strike a balance between these forces is as clear as it is subjective and elusive. With these thoughts in mind, then, we turn to our first task, which is to ask ourselves just how the foundations of modern Korea were laid during the Choson period (1392–1910). In essence, before examining the making of modern Korea, we need to ask ourselves what was there in the first place.

The kingdom of Choson

In both the landforms and the people one immediately senses the powerful, contradictory forces of engagement with and isolation from the world on the Korean Peninsula. Engagement derives from the modern geopolitical setting of Korea, centred in the most economically dynamic region of the twenty-first century, while isolation derives from well-defined external boundaries created by three seas and a northern wilderness, and from internal boundaries reinforced by a distinct and remarkably uniform internal pattern of steep hills and narrow valleys. The modern air traveller is usually struck by the rugged uniformity of the Korean landscape and the standard Korean phrase ‘Over the hills, hills and hills without end’ similarly describes a unique terrain. Though they are steep, the hills are rarely high, and yet they often seem to tower over the intervening narrow, fertile valley floors, and only rarely is this pattern broken.
In its entirety, the Korean peninsula resembles a sloping table-top, tilting south. The highest mountains are in the rugged far north, and the land gradually subsides until it disappears into the East China Sea, in a maze of off-shore islands. The north-south tilt is supplemented by a lesser east-west tilt, whereby the east coast mountains gradually subside into the plains of the west coast. Here we see one of the most obvious ways in which internal geography has shaped Korea, for with the sole exception of the remarkable Silla kingdom, the rich west coast farmlands and major riverine estuaries have provided the setting for the major cities and dynasties of Korea – the Koguryo capitals of Hwando on the Yalu and P’yongyang on the T’aedong, the Paekche capital of Puyo on the Kum, the Koryo capital of Kaegyong (present-day Kaesong) near the Imjin, and the Choson capital of Hansong (Seoul) near the Han.
While the Korean landscape does not offer up great scenic diversity, closer inspection of its rugged uniformity reveals further distinct geographical boundaries, which in turn have reinforced distinct regional characteristics. Most prominent among these are the mountain ranges that spread south from far northern Korea, dividing the more populous P’yongan provinces in the northwest from the remote, sparsely populated northeast Hamgyong provinces. These mountains feed into the ridge-line of the T’aebaek mountain range, which runs almost the entire length of the eastern coast, providing the source of the many rivers which cross the peninsula westward into the Yellow Sea, including the Ch’ongch’on, the T’aedong, the Imjin, the Han, the Kum, the Yongsan and the Somjin. As the T’aebaek range begins to taper off, a major spur turns inland and becomes the Sobaek range, which dominates the southern part of the Korean peninsula, dividing the Cholla provinces in the west from the Kyongsang provinces in the east, and providing a physical basis for a well-developed sense of regional identity.
Aided by favourable climate and soil, human settlement in Korea first developed some thousands of years ago in the estuaries of the western and southern coasts and gradually spread inland. The peninsula contained innumerable small valleys of sufficient fertility to support a viable village-based agricultural economy, and in time the rugged terrain acted as a strong factor of uniformity, shaping and binding together what was originally a diverse population in common experience and response. The terrain, the lack of navigable rivers, and the high degree of food self-sufficiency inhibited any large-scale movements of people, and so before 1900 few Koreans saw horizons beyond their immediate neighbourhood.
The prevailing neo-Confucianist ideology of Choson saw no inherent value in trade and commerce, taking it as a given that one person’s profit must entail another person’s loss, and that the resultant disequilibrium was ruinous to social harmony, but in any case, this terrain provided a disincentive to the development of large-scale internal trade and commerce. Without broad navigable rivers such as those in China, markets remained small, and without much internal variation in climate and soil, there was little product differentiation, and so most markets remained local markets. Regional centres did not remotely compare in size to their counterparts in China and Japan, and by the nineteenth century Seoul, for example, was still only a fraction the size of such vibrant Japanese commercial centres as Osaka and Tokyo. Thus while local economies were vibrant, they were restricted in possibilities for development by a largely self-sufficient pattern of agriculture and a set of geographical factors that were inhibiting, even without the added factor of ideology.
The village community was the heartland of Korean culture, and with its surrounding fields and hills, constituted the basic economic and social unit for over 90 per cent of the population. Koreans derived a powerful sense of place within such communities, and this was reinforced by the nature of village society, where typically a single clan lineage predominated, and where marriages were contracted outside the clan and outside the village but within the broader district. Geomantic practices (p’ungsu) also reinforced a sense of the spiritual significance of land forms in the immediate surroundings, and further emphasised the ties that bound a local community to its land. Popular legends and more serious scholarly works associated heroes and villains alike with the geomantic properties of their place of origin, and the reputation of people from a given district could be affected for generations by the actions of a local individual. We still see echoes of this today in the long memories of Korean politicians, whose fights are not always confined to their direct opponents but to their opponents’ political pedigree stretching back over two or three generations.
Koreans see themselves as a single race, or minjok, and use the concepts of nationality, culture, and ethnicity interchangeably, but in fact it was these innumerable ‘little Koreas’ which constituted significant political, as well as social, communities, and which made the sense of being Korean real to the individual, far more so than the abstract concept of the Korean ‘state’ or ‘nation’. In a very important sense, then, Korean polity and culture is the sum of its individual communities, spreading outward like innumerable, intersecting ripples on a pond, to form the common historical entity we call Korea. An understanding of modern Korean history obviously requires some understanding of this complex, multi-faceted heritage, for it was highly significant in forming the contours of the nationalist movement, and its vestiges may be seen today, most obviously in the personalistic, regional basis of ROK politics.
Local politics were authoritarian. The elite ruled over commoners and outcastes alike, but they also shared the same space, governed by a complex set of communal institutions and behavioural traits centred on mutual obligation, reciprocal service and obligation and solidarity against outsiders. Beyond the insolence of office and sufferance of corrupt behaviour by magistrates, the local community was not subject to sustained central government control, nor was central control so weak as to allow local tyranny or other forms of private arrogation of state functions such as feudalism to emerge. The resulting high degree of village self-regulation therefore played a key role in blunting the possibilities of class-based conflict, for it lent immediacy and legitimacy to the exercise of local authority and reduced the scope for conflict.
The key to the balance between local and central authority lay in the severe limitations placed on royal authority, for such authority presided over a government structure that was rationally conceived, and which issued fundamentally out of a system of education centred on the mastery of the Neo-Confucian canon. This canon was not only a philosophical system but also a detailed blueprint for the ordering of human society, and the opportunity to master it was essentially restricted to the sons of local elite families. It began at the village-level school under elite supervision, and this in turn reinforced a sense of local tradition in the intellectual life of the country. From these schools, students could proceed to sit for centrally-administered examinations, and those who were successful comprised an elite cadre who staffed the central government bureaucracy and assumed guardianship over the Dynasty’s rich intellectual and spiritual life. In this manner, the political tradition enforced a local allegiance to the political centre that was normative and based on a shared elite culture.
Commoners were disqualified from formal political participation by their non-participation in the education system, and from this flowed a distinct attitude to authority. This was marked by a tacit acceptance of place in a hierarchical society, but it was also balanced by a strong sense of the reciprocal rights and obligations of ruler and ruled, which was, moreover, ethically sanctioned by Neo-Confucian ideology. When reciprocity was not forthcoming, mainly in situations where the centrally-appointed magistrate overstepped the bounds, or where the community became subject to overwhelming external pressures, the law of the popular riot was often invoked. But riots, revolts and rebellions do not figure prominently in the history of the Choson Dynasty, and where they do occur they are often associated with severe conditions such as drought, famine and disease, rather than with simmering class-based hatred – the 1811–1812 Hong Kyong-nae rebellion being a case in point.

Of myths, legends, narratives

The myths and specific narratives that are current in both Koreas – in other words, what people are taught to believe about their country’s history – are as important and as revealing as the actual historical record. While the forces of history and geography may be powerful shapers of tradition, we often set these aside in favour of myths, legends and specific narratives. These may or may not be ‘true’ or ‘accurate’, but they are powerful because they give us a collective identity, and seem to say something profound and satisfying about who we think we are. And so for generations the British have been inspired by the legend of King Arthur, the Scandinavians by the sagas of the old Norse gods, and the Koreans by the legend of Tan’gun with its image of the Korean people as a unique race descended from a deity who came to earth to benefit humankind (hongik ingan).
Such stories come from many sources, ranging from ancient campfires to the laptops of modern nationalist intellectuals. It is more the latter that we are specifically concerned with here, for in the world of modern standardised education they are the group whose values often dominate the specific historical narratives that people are taught in school, and so usually come to accept as ‘fact’. Such narratives are vigorously contested in many countries in what are usually termed ‘culture wars’, and in Korea at the time of writing yet another round of the on-going history textbook war is being fought with considerable vehemence between camps with competing visions of Korea’s modern history. Shifting, competing views of history are intrinsically interesting to the professional historian, even if they tend to be confusing to the lay person, who seeks a more solid, permanent footing from which to survey the past. Nevertheless, among other things, competing views are useful reminders that history is not a fixed revelation of truth, but an unending dialogue between past and present, with interpretations constantly changing as human society itself changes. With these thoughts in mind, we turn to what we think we know about Choson.

Choson a Hermit Kingdom?

If non-Koreans are confident of one ‘fact’ about Korean history it is the presumed accuracy of the term ‘The Hermit Kingdom’. It is therefore hardly possible to discuss the historical pattern of foreign influence in Korea without becoming aware of this term, by which is usually meant a country which shut itself off from outside contact in response to its frequent victimisation by foreign invaders. Like most such shorthand descriptions, though, grains of truth have been so adulterated as to become both simplistic and misleading – as we should immediately suspect upon learning that the term itself is of Western, not Korean origin, dating from the late nineteenth century when Europeans first became aware of Choson.
Are we justified in labelling Choson as a Hermit Kingdom? While most people will be quite aware of the strongly xenophobic nationalism prevalent in the DPRK, opinion polls in the ROK today also reveal the existence of a strong degree of isolationist sentiment. This is perhaps a bit more surprising, given the strength of the ROK relationship with the international community, but not only is the ROK far from unique in holding such sentiments, a defensive sense of distinctiveness is more or less to be expected in a small country surrounded by powerful neighbours with whom relations have often been problematic. Moreover, the policy of isolationism adopted in Choson contrasts strongly with the policies of earlier dynasties, and Korea’s historical experience of dealing with foreign influence has been far more varied – and frequently positive – than many people might suspect. Going back to earlier times, in the thousand years or so of recorded Korean history prior to the founding of the Choson Dynasty in 1392, the various Korean kingdoms and dynasties maintained complex and comprehensive relations with their neighbours. Where circumstances permitted, such as during the period of the cosmopolitan Chinese Tang Dynasty (618–907), significant numbers of Korean scholars, traders, Buddhist priests and laymen, travelled to and from China, often establishing significant Korean communities in the coastal towns of China. With the demise of Tang in 907, the geopolitical situation in northeast Asia became more strained and complicated, but the Koryo Dynasty (918–1392) still retained many points of political and cultural contact with foreign countries and courts, with Sung China (960–1279) and the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368), as well as with the more evanescent Khitan Liao (907–1125) and Jurchen Chin (1115–1234) Dynasties. Some of these contacts were valued and fruitful, others were exploitative, while the period of Mongol domination appears to have often been traumatic. But collectively, they do not justify the supposition that they led to a blanket fear of foreign contact. When China was in turmoil Korea almost inevitably felt the backlash, but when China also enjoyed centuries of peace between upheavals, so did Korea.
In fact, the motivation for Choson isolationism derived not from some presumed immutable combination of historical experience and geography, but from specific circumstances, namely, changes in the Chinese world view. Shortly after the founding of the Choson dynasty in 1392, the scope of relations with neighbouring countries became highly restricted and ritualised as both Ming (1368–1644) and then Qing (1644–1910) China, acting under a mix of interrelated political, strategic, economic and ideological motives, turned its back on engagement beyond its borders and adopted an inward-looking world view. As a tributary kingdom, Choson therefore had little option other than to follow both dynasties in closing the country off from all meaningful non-Chinese foreign contact. Japan’s adoption of a policy of rigid seclusion under the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603–1868) was a further disincentive to maintaining such contact, as was the disinterest of all parties in maintaining active trading and commercial relations.
The major point to emphasise here is that such so-called hermit-like behaviour was dictated by political realities. It was a calculated, not a reflexive policy, based on a rational assessment of the requirements for living within the Chinese world order, and there is little question that this policy suited Choson’s needs well. Moreover, when the time came in the nineteenth century, and the policy outlived its usefulness, Choson adopted the same principles as China and Japan: engagement was something they would rather not do, but would do so as circumstances, force majeure, and state interest dictated. The fact that the pressure to open up reached Choson much later than its neighbours meant that for a considerable period of time Choson presented a glaring contrast with them – hence the term ‘Hermit Kingdom’, a term which first gained wide currency through the writings of W. E. Griffis who, in the preface of his 1882 work Corea, the Hermit Nation, wondered ‘Why should Corea be sealed and mysterious, when Japan, once a hermit, had opened her doors and come out into the world’s marketplace?’ This is essentially a distorting view because the contrast was as much circumstantial as behavioural – a view that the strong international engagement of the ROK today also confirms.
Official policy is one thing, but instinctive xenophobia is another, so was Choson in fact hostile, like a true hermit, or simply and calculatedly indifferent? There is not much clear evidence either way, but the Hermit Kingdom tag has invited us to overlook signs of keen interest in foreign objects and customs. In addition to the Dutchman Hendrick Hamel’s account, based on his thirteen captive years in Choson (1653–1666), we see an early, instructive illustration in the account left by the British naval captain Basil Hall, who visited the west coast of Korea in 1816, where he noted both the vehement public reluctance of local officials and villagers alike to be seen to be interacting with him and his men, and contrasted it with the friendliness, curiosity and interest displayed in private. Hall clearly depicts the gap between public hostility and private goodwill, but the latter dimension is rarely given its due as most depictions of Choson tend to emphasise xenophobia and are based on the interactions of foreigners with Choson officialdom. This seems oddly similar to perceptions of North Koreans today, where a similar gap between public policy and private attitude often prevails.
Equally debatable is the associated explanation that Choson’s purported xenophobia was a reaction to repeated foreign invasions. The mantra that Korea has been shaped by the historical experience of countless foreign invasions appears to have an almost unassailable place in modern Korean historiography. But even a cursory examination of the record during the Choson dynasty suggests that the extent of such invasions has been the subject of curious exaggeration by modern Korean historians, from where it has spread to the works of unwary foreign mimics. In fact, in the five hundred or so years between the founding of the d...

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