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Forget Thucydides, South Korea looks to a Manchurian Trap as China rises
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When Westerners look to historical analogies to augur the future of Sino-US relations, they turn to the Cold War, World War 1, Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, or even Thucydides’ history of the war between Athens and Sparta. South Koreans reach for the Manchu conquest of China.

It’s a story Korean students learn from textbooks. Comic books, dramas, and even a film have been made about it. As the Manchus rose to what would become the Qing Empire, King Injo of the Joseon dynasty upturned the wise neutrality of his predecessor, Gwanghaegun. Out of naïve ideological alignment and misplaced loyalty, he threw in Korea’s lot with fading Ming China. If only he had read the evolving power transition correctly, if only he had acted pragmatically in the national interest, the nation would’ve been spared the horrors and humiliations of two Manchu invasions. Maybe it could’ve even come out ahead. As prominent Korean foreign policy figure Joong-Kyung Choi lamented, if it had’ve played its cards right, Joseon might’ve restored Korea’s rightful territory in Manchuria at the Ming’s expense.

Many Korean pundits draw direct parallels between Injo and the choice between China and the US facing South Korea in the “G2 era” today. Recently, Park Min-hee, editorial writer at the left-wing Hankyoreh wrote that right-wing President Yoon’s diplomacy was “even more irresponsible than King Injo and a definite cause for concern”:

The current fluctuations in the international order can be compared to the transition period between the Ming and Qing dynasties. At the time, the incompetent diplomacy of King Injo of Korea remained tied up in loyalty to Ming, inciting the calamity of the second Manchu invasion of Korea. The king ultimately suffered the humiliation of being forced to bow before Hong Taiji of the Qing dynasty.

Hyeon-Ik Hong with Korea’s prestigious Sejong Institute sees the same dangerous factional divisions that plagued Gwanghaegun and Injo’s time, but worse since the division is between North and South Korea. He argues the wisest choice is to adopt Gwanghaegun’s “pragmatic neutral diplomacy”. One journalist used the example of Injo to warn that right-wing Saenuri Party leader Kim Moo-sung’s July 2015 remarks in Washington aligning Korea with its US ally (and not China) was ignoring the international situation and the changing times. Salisbury University’s Taehyun Nam argued that Korea’s situation was still the same as it was during the Ming-Qing transition. In his view, it is not a choice but fate that Seoul will strike a balance between China and the US, as well as lower tensions between the two Koreas.

According to this nationalism-infused view, the lesson for today’s Korea is clear. China is rising inexorably to assume the mandate of superpower-dom. Korea relies on China as an export destination, so it must pragmatically ride the wave of future. Alas, misguided ideological commitments to the liberal order and inappropriate loyalty to the US risk yet again dragging Korea into war and humiliation. Better to distance ourselves from the US, move toward cooperation with North Korea, and see Korea’s dignity and power rise alongside China’s. There is only one problem: this has the history all wrong.

Let’s travel back in time to the cold, early Manchurian spring of 1619. The Chinese Ming and the Korean Joseon dynasties had jointly fought off a massive Japanese invasion some twenty years earlier. The Ming was still under strain, both fiscally and socio-politically, from the campaign to save its fellow Confucian ally-cum-tributary state from Japanese unifier Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s rapacious armies. Joseon had incurred an even heavier cost, with its economy and population laid to ruin by the Japanese and ostensive Ming saviors alike. Even more seriously from the ruling house’s point of view, the king’s undignified flight north as the Japanese advanced on the populace had severely undermined royal legitimacy.

Unhappily for the Ming and Joseon, a new menace had risen in the North. Chieftain Nurhaci had united the Jurchen tribes in the vast area above Joseon’s border, founding the Later Jin dynasty and engaging in hostilities against the Ming and Joseon. In response, the Ming had sent its forces against him, calling on Joseon to contribute soldiers.

Gwanghaegun agreed, but reluctantly. He resisted this further strain upon his country. More pointedly, his army had tangled with the Jurchens, and was reluctant to face them again. He was also wary of playing the pawn in the Ming’s standard operating procedure of using barbarians to control barbarians. Besides, his country had no choice but to find some accommodation with the rising Jin and he saw little benefit in infuriating Nurhaci for the sake of the haughty and unreliable Chinese. After all, Beijing had dragged out the decision to legitimize his ascendancy to the throne for years. He had also fought in the war against Japan alongside Chinese forces, and that experience had left him ambivalent about the Ming. Some latter-day Koreans would agree, seeing the Ming defense of Joseon as motivated by its strategic interests (not unlike the Americans’ liberation of Korea from Japan in 1945 and defense of South Korea during the Korean War), and therefore not deserving of gratitude. After deliberation, the king ordered some 13,000 infantry north to join up with Ming forces.

Although the Ming and its Korean and Jurchen allies outnumbered Nurhaci’s forces (perhaps 100,00 vs. 60,000), they were proven outmatched in terms of intelligence gathering, mobility, operational coordination, and morale. Against sound advice from their Korean officers, the Ming commanders took the combined army to a disastrous defeat at the 1619 battle of Sarhu. While the balance of power still greatly favored the Ming, according to historian Yan Hon Michael Chung after this “epic victory”,  the Jurchen-Manchus, later re-styled as the Qing Dynasty, would hold the initiative against the Chinese. Evelyn Rawski, another historian, also sees it as a turning point.

Up to this point, the cost to Joseon in terms of both lives and resources had been small. But the country now lay exposed. Though still unwilling to recognize his regime, Joseon sent an envoy to congratulate Nurhaci. Nurhaci continued to insist on recognition as an empire equal to the Ming, and Gwanghae appeared to be wavering. Beijing threatened to send a governor-general to rule the country, while one Ming commander described Joseon as “a rat looking both ways.”

The pragmatic “neutrality” praised by current-day Koreans meant conceding significant autonomy to Nurhaci. A central pillar of Joseon ideology was that Chinese civilization (hua) was supreme, with Joseon elites steeped in the Chinese classics partaking in that rarefied air. To concede that Jurchen culture was equal to that of the intellectual heirs of Confucius may not seem like much to us moderns. But in a world where the thin line between governed order and ungoverned chaos was readily apparent, and invading armies would indiscriminately rape, murder, and enslave as a matter of course, attacking the ideal of civilization was a matter of life and death. Of course, it was also a serious threat to the socio-political order and the ruling elite. So to equivocate over the hua-yi, Chinese civilized/barbarian uncivilized distinction was a major subversion of Joseon ideology.

Moreover, while not without some cajoling and angst from Joseon, the Ming had fought until the end against Hideyoshi, at great cost to itself as well as Joseon. Now, Joseon was considering neutrality after losing mere several thousands of men. One doesn’t need to inhabit the cultural assumptions of that time to understand the dishonor this represented, whatever the Ming’s interest had been in preserving a buffer state against the Japanese.

Unsurprisingly then, the domestic political situation was unsustainable. With other dynamics also playing a role, factional infighting peaked in a 1623 coup d’état that replaced Gwanghaegun with his nephew, Injo. While not as decisive a pro-Ming shift as Koreans generally believe, Joseon would again start to test Nurhaci’s limits.

The first major decision was what to do about the Ming general Mao Wenlong (who the Sejong Institute’s Hong analogized to US forces stationed in Korea). Mao had had enough success against the Jurchens to get their attention and was using Joseon territory as his base of operations. However, this was only one factor in Nurhaci’s decision to invade. A loser in Korea’s factional struggles had fled north to the Jin court and convinced Nurhaci that an invasion would go well. More importantly, the Ming were still very strong. By attacking Joseon, he could secure his flank and obtain a tribute of food and weapons to continue the war. Although Nurhaci died on the campaign, the invasion was a rapid success. The Ming sent help, but too little and too late. Injo agreed to recognize the Jurchens as the superior “elder brother” in the relationship, though still a step below paterfamilias Ming.

At this point, Koreans tend to stress the costs and depredations Joseon had endured as a result of straying from the path laid down by Gwanghaegun. Mao Wenlong’s upkeep had been extremely expensive for Joseon, and his troops had killed and terrorized many Koreans. There had also been a disruptive influx of Chinese refugees to his camp. Then, the Jurchen invasion had done great violence to the population and economy and humiliated Korea’s army and leaders.

Nurhaci’s son and successor, known as Hongtaiji, renamed his people the Manchus and declared the Qing empire the following year. Not content with Joseon neutrality, he insisted that Injo break all contact with the Ming. Ideologically this was a bridge too far, and Injo drove the Manchu envoys out of the capital as the populace shouted “barbarians” at them. Egged on by advisors and notables,  he declared Joseon’s support for the Ming.

Again, the Manchus invaded, this time besieging the king within Seoul’s Namhan fortress. Following his surrender, Injo was obliged to prostrate himself three times before Hongtaiji and hand over the Ming-issued royal seal for destruction. Joseon would then remain a Qing vassal until the Japanese defeated the Manchus in 1895. Injo had paid dearly in in Korean lives and treasure, only to end up more humiliated and less autonomous than where he had started.  

Koreans emphasize that sticking with neutrality could’ve averted this disaster. But that would’ve required agreeing up front to Nurhaci’s goal regarding Joseon: Jurchen supremacy over not only Joseon but also the Ming. True, present-day Koreans would’ve been spared reading about humiliating military defeats and the King groveling before Hongtaiji. But there would be a different humiliation in its place:  kneeling before barbarians without a fight, and failing to even try to repay the Ming’s help against the Japanese. The epochal ideological concession would’ve increased instability for decades. The damage to the Korean population and economy would’ve been reduced but would’ve still been high. Joseon was obliged to support the Manchu’s war against the Ming with supplies, ships, and troops. There is no reason to assume Nurhaci or Hongtaiji would’ve placed fewer demands on Joseon simply because it gave up quicker. On the contrary, because Joseon would’ve been in better shape economically and demonstrably unwilling to resist, the Manchus may well have insisted on a much larger contribution.

So rather than the dangers of non-neutrality, this period in Korean history is better seen as a lesson in the perils of poor strategic thinking. Gwanghaegun should’ve understood that his country, the thoroughly Confucian polity that it was, wouldn’t just accept Jurchen superiority and turn its back on the Ming. To avoid being put in that situation, he should’ve swallowed his pride and resentments, and committed his full resources to the battle of 1619. Yes, this would’ve been more expensive upfront, but far less costly than losing much of the original 13,000 men, hosting Mao Wenlong, fighting and suffering through two Manchu invasions, and then contributing to the Qing war effort.  

Of course, there is no guarantee that this additional commitment would’ve changed the outcome at Sarhu. But the Ming were still much stronger than the Jurchens at that point. The battle widely seen as the most decisive in the war did not come until 1641-1642 when the Qing destroyed a Ming army of more than 130,000. So it is not farfetched to imagine that a greater commitment from Joseon earlier on may have changed the course of history. And if Nurhaci had been defeated, Joseon would’ve endured zero humiliations, instead garnering a considerable amount of honor. Who knows? This prouder, more confident Joseon may well have been in a stronger position to defend Korea’s sovereignty when Western imperialism overturned the East Asian Order, and Japan began to surge ahead. Perhaps the tragedies of modern Korean history—Japanese annexation, partition, and the Korean War—could’ve been averted.

It is a bittersweet irony that in interpreting this historical episode, Koreans risk repeating the same mistake. Advocates of neutrality between China and the US are pushing for what South Korea as a polity can’t accept. Opinion polls show most Koreans view the US very favorably. Views of China are in stark contrast, with Koreans reporting some of the least favorable attitudes toward China in the world. Opinion in favor of the alliance with the US is overwhelming. Some Koreans may think pragmatic policy-making in the national interest means downplaying the liberal order and human rights in return for exports, national prestige, and the indulgence of resentment against the Americans. But when those liberal rights are actually under pressure, as they will inevitably be if Seoul accepts the supremacy of the Chinese Communist Party, Koreans will realize how precious they are. At which point it will be too late, with tragic results.

It would be far better for Korea to commit much more to the defense of the liberal order before the modern-day equivalent of the battle of Sarhu even takes shape. As in 1619, there is a military component to balancing against China’s rising power. Rather than the vastness of Manchuria, this is more likely to involve a defense of Taiwan. Hopefully, China’s challenge to the US-led order won’t come to war, but the more Korea shows China it is prepared to stand with the US and its allies and partners, the less likely China will resort to violence. And if it does, the less likely it will be to prevail. Korea must also stop dangling the prospect of neutrality as a negotiating card with Beijing to preserve export markets and supply chains, or to manage North Korea. Like Nurhaci before him, this only encourages Chinese leader Xi Jinping to further encroach on Korean autonomy and further strengthens his position against Washington. Given that Korea can’t be neutral, it will be dragged into US-China turmoil regardless, the surest and ultimately, the least costly path is to share the burden of pushing back against Beijing’s ambitions. Otherwise, the current generation of Korean ruling elites, both on the right and the left, risk becoming yet another example for future generations of how not to secure a country. 

Joel Atkinson is a professor in the Graduate School of International and Area Studies (GSIAS) at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, South Korea, where he researches and teaches East Asian international politics.


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