(83) Neglect of Self-Defense Invites Invasions

By Yang Sung-jin

Chief investigators from Korea and the United States are scheduled to hold their first meeting this week to discuss for a joint probe into the Nogun-ri massacre.

The investigation into the massacre of civilian refugees by U.S. troops during the 1950-53 Korean War may reveal how and why hundreds of Koreans were killed upon orders from U.S. Army commanders.

Whatever the outcome of the joint investigation, the Nogun-ri massacre would not have happened if the nation had been prepared for possible attacks from North Korea.

A similar logic can be applied to the military preparedness of Choson Kingdom which suffered numerous invasions from hostile neighboring countries.

The general perception is that Choson did not pay much attention to the military buildup, which led to the Japanese Invasion of 1592 and the Manchu Invasion of 1636.

But according to annals articles, the nation did make great efforts to defend itself against foreign invasions in the earlier period.

For instance, the Choson court was eager to learn techniques to manufacture swords and spears from Japan in the 15th century.

At the time, the Japanese sharpened their edge when it came to battle- oriented swords and spears.

Occasionally, Japanese diplomats visiting Korea presented refined swords to the Choson government as gifts in a show of their advanced technology.

On June 1 of 1430, King Sejong awarded Sim Ul, a naval officer who crossed the East Sea to Japan and acquired skills necessary to produce a Japanese sword.

Impressed by the high-quality sword made by Sim Ul, King Sejong gave clothes and food to him, while exempting the naval officer from his military duty.

In September of 1628, the Ministry of Military Affairs filed an appeal to King Injo over the declining military power: “In every battle, fighting with swords is the key to securing the final victory. King Sonjo knew the principle and that’s why he ordered every military official to practice swordsmanship. But nowadays military officials do not practice with swords, which is deeply regrettable.”

Certainly, the Choson kings and officials tried to beef up military readiness in the 15th century. As a result, the nation enjoyed an extended period of peace and stability.

In the following period, officials began to ignore military issues, taking the hard-earned peace for granted.

Moreover, today’s historians point out King Sejo’s coup as a key factor that undercut the overall military policy of Choson.

King Sejo staged a military coup and took over the throne of his nephew, King Tanjong, by force. Therefore, King Sejo understood the tremendous ramification of the military power better than anyone else.

As soon as King Sejo settled down in the court, he began to reign in the military and weapons production in a bid to block any attempt of future military coup.

The tight control on the production of military weapons stifled innovation in technology, thus downgrading the nation’s self-defense level.

At the same time, officials in charge of weapons production and management lost a sense of discipline.

In June of 1463, state-owned weapons were stolen and officials involved were punished.

In 1467, an official named No Cho-kuyong was arrested on the charge of illegally producing weapons for private purposes.

Notably, a movable rocket named “Shinkichon,” which played a key role in fighting off invaders in the earlier period of Choson, became a ritualistic tool.

According to an article dated on Oct. 20, 1456, when the court staged a royal procession, Shinkichon was used as a tool to create smoke in the background.

The humiliating downgrade of Shinkichon reached a climax when King Yonsangun ordered officials to use the powerful weapon for pleasure- seeking in May of 1506.

“When I play at Mangwonjong, let no ship approach the pavilion. Use Shinkichon to fire shots at any intruder as a warning,” the notorious tyrant said.

During the reign of King Chungjong, the military issue was pushed aside, giving priority to national affairs.

For instance, officials asked the king to produce weapons by melting huge bells at Hunchon and Hungduk Temples in 1512 but the material for military purposes never reached the furnace.

Instead, the bells were melted to produce bowls and kitchenware.

In the mid-16th century, Japanese sea-borne pirates began to assault Choson villages with gunpowder and explosives.

In 1555, a group of Japanese pirates raged in the southern coastal areas, which alarmed the Choson court.

Desperate to resolve the problem, court officials asked the king to melt bells at the East Gate and South Gate in Seoul to produce necessary military weapons.

But King Myongjong did not buy the idea. Officials filed another appeal, which was also rejected by the king who deemed the bell as an important Buddhist symbol.

“Although the objects are useless, we should not destroy them recklessly. The enemies can be quickly tamed if we dispatch a skillful military general who can handle the matter wisely,” King Myongjong said.

Annals writers criticized Myongjong’s short-sighted policy, predicting troubles ahead.

And their worries proved on the mark. Four decades later, Choson suffered the devastating Japanese invasion, a shameful result of irresponsible insouciance.