(88) Turbulent Diplomatic Relations with China

By Yang Sung-jin

The U.S. media recently reported that George W. Bush, the front-runner for the Republican’s presidential nomination, is being tutored intensively about international politics from his aides.

One of the chief chapters in that cramming is the U.S. stance toward China, an emerging power that is unwilling to give in to foreign pressure, be it human rights issues or the World Trade Organization.

China’s enormous influence in East Asia is a particularly familiar story — and critical issue — for Korea, a neighbor which maintained close diplomatic relations with the “Middle Kingdom” over the past centuries.

It is generally known and widely accepted among historians that China exercised great power in East Asia, including the Choson Kingdom. Yet whether China went its way all the time is debatable.

The founders of Choson indeed regarded the diplomatic relations with China as highly important. Getting formal recognition from China’s emperors was an essential first step for Choson kings to secure legitimacy as rulers here.

But that does not mean that Choson gave up on its sovereignty and independence at the sight of the omnipotent Middle Kingdom. Rather, Choson pushed for a realistic solution to maintain national security while learning advanced culture from China.

Some Choson kings attempted to do what only Chinese emperors were supposed to do, reflecting Choson’s independent spirit as a nation.

For instance, King Sejo tried to stage a ritual called “Kojae,” reserved for Chinese emperors.

What’s more, Chong To-jon, one of Choson’s founding members, envisioned a northern expansion into the Manchuria territory of China in a bid to recover the “lost territory,” formerly ruled by the Koguryo Kingdom.

The independence-oriented spirit shared by early Choson rulers and officials, however, began to decline from the 16th century.

The decisive incident that reshaped the formula of Choson’s diplomatic relations toward China is the Hideyoshi Invasion (1592-98).

In the early chapters of the brutal war with Japan, the Choson court was literally helpless, with King Sonjo retreating to the northern town of Uiju near the Chinese border to save his life.

Desperate to defend the nation, King Sonjo sent a delegation to China, asking for military backup against the Japanese invaders armed with rifles and well-trained troops.

Afterward, China sent its army to join forces with Choson to fight off the Japanese army. In 1593, Choson and China secured a huge victory against the Japanese in the battle for the city of Pyongyang, a strategic point for both the defenders and attackers.

China, in fact, was deeply worried about the possibility that Japan might break into its own territory. Once the Pyongyang battle effectively dismantled Japan’s ambition, China achieved its aim and did not go further.

Such attitudes became a great burden on the part of Choson officials and people. Choson had to offer military food and ammunition to the Chinese army, who did not want to shed blood in a foreign nation.

At the same time, unruly Chinese generals and soldiers hurt the pride of the Choson court.

Nonetheless, Choson remained grateful. Once the war was over, a number of sites were dedicated to China’s rescue efforts and books on China were published.

As the gratitude toward China deepened in the following years, China’s interference became frequent.

More delegations were exchanged and Choson had to pay great attention to welcoming the Chinese diplomatic delegation, shouldering burdensome financial costs for a variety of ceremonies.

The most serious issue was that the Chinese delegations wanted bribes. King Sonjo and other kings had to squeeze their budget to give silver coins to the Chinese diplomats.

Originally, Choson used to exclude gold and silver from the items allowed for formal trade with China. King Sejong brokered a deal with China for such practices, arguing Choson did not produce any gold or silver.

But the trade block fell apart during the Hideyoshi War as the Chinese army found out that Choson produced some silver and gold.

At the time, China was in need of silver coins, which were circulated as a main currency. No wonder delegation after delegation wanted to get as many silver coins as possible from Choson.

In March, 1602, a Chinese delegation chief named Ko Chong-jun visited Korea and relentlessly collected silver coins.

“All the towns between Uiju and Seoul were deprived of their silver and the entire nation seemed to have just finished a war,” an Annals article said.

The thinly-veiled pillaging continued and some Chinese officials recovered as many as 100,000 silver coins here, placing a painful burden on the ordinary Choson people and the cash-strapped central administration.

In 1609, a Chinese diplomat named Yu Yong visited Choson and openly asked for silver coins from Choson officials. On his way to Seoul, he rejected welcoming ceremonies. Instead, he simply wanted silver. As a result, Yu returned to China with 60,000 silver coins, a story which inspired other Chinese diplomats.

Kang Wal-kang, a Chinese scholar who visited Choson in 1625, was the only exception. Unlike other Chinese delegates, Kang did not want any silver coins, nor did he want any other bribes.

Kang rejected any offer of welcoming gifts, which deeply moved Choson local governors familiar with greedy diplomats willing to receive any bribes on their way to Seoul.

When Kang was scheduled to leave Seoul after finishing his mission, about 15,000 Choson people crowded the downtown area to bid farewell to the “humble and honest” Chinese official.

At a time when international politics is getting complicated and China’s role is deemed critical, it may be time for Korean politicians to ponder George W. Bush’s belated cramming.