Things are quite different on the Korean peninsula.
They called it the Hermit Kingdom before its forcible opening by the Western powers, and for a very good reason: unlike Japan and, later, China, the Koreans stubbornly resisted trade – or, indeed, any sort of contact with the West, which was strictly forbidden. While Western writers routinely attribute this to the supposedly tyrannical rule of Yi Ha-ung, the Regent (1864-97), Koreans then and now revere him as the defender of the nation from European encroachment and domination, which was China’s sad fate.
An American crew in service to a British company made the first serious attempt to “open” Korea: in 1866 the General Sherman tried to sail up the Taedong river to reach Pyongyang, but were ordered back by the Korean authorities. The Westerners ignored this edict and continued on their way, but were soon beached when the river waters ran low. They were then set upon by the Koreans, who rescued the Korean officials who had been taken hostage by the crew and killed everyone on board. An inauspicious beginning to a relationship rife with conflict: today there is a monument on the spot where the General Sherman was burned which informs visitors that the leader of the attackers was the great-grandfather of Kim Il-Sung!
Several more attempts were made by the Europeans, and all were repulsed: the French sent Catholic missionaries, who were ruthlessly persecuted along with their few converts. It was the Japanese who, finally, succeeded where the Western barbarians had failed: a Japanese force invaded in 1876 and succeeded in imposing a “treaty” according to which they acquired a complete trade monopoly, locking out the Chinese, their major rivals. This was endorsed by the king, who was considered a weak ruler, but opposed by Queen Min, who resisted the Japanese westernizing influence.
As tensions rose, the Japanese demanded that the Koreans pay them tribute: Queen Min mocked the Japanese emissaries for wearing Western clothes and had them summarily deported. Shortly afterward a gang of Japanese thugs murdered her in her palace: she is today considered a symbol of patriotism and is honored in both the North and the South. During the subsequent Sino-Japanese war, the Japanese annexed the Korean peninsula, where they exercised dominion as part of their empire until the end of World War II.
Korea’s history is one of implacable and fairly constant conflict with the violent and aggressive West, as well as resistance to both Japanese and Chinese domination: it is, in short, the history of a fiercely nationalistic people determined to shape their own destiny in the face of avaricious imperialism.
The division of the Korean peninsula as the victorious Allied powers devoured the spoils of war did not erase the spirit of the courageous Queen Min, who sought an independent road for her country, or the Regent who resisted “modernization,” i.e. the integration of Korea into one or another mercantilist arrangement.
While the communist North and the Western-occupied South certainly developed along far different lines, beneath the thin veneer of official ideology the country retained its nationalistic character. Both fragments of the split apart nation set up ministries devoted to “unification,” and, despite efforts by the Bush II administration to stop it, the “Sunshine Policy” of economic cooperation and closer ties nearly succeeded in bringing the two regimes to the point where unity was at least a possibility. However, the Bushites were determined to torpedo that effort and they finally succeeded, naming the North as part of the “axis of evil,” and threatening to invade by regularly conducting military “exercises” that limn a full-scale frontal attack. This is a yearly ritual.
Despite all this, Queen Min is still looking out for her subjects: her unabashedly nationalist spirit pervades the new sense of optimism that is preceding the Winter Olympics, to be held in South Korea, with the full participation of the North. In a move that surprised – and horrified – the warmongers in the West (both inside and outside the Trump administration) North and South Korean athletes will march together under a special “unification flag”: the two countries will unite their hockey teams, and the North’s two champion figure skaters, Ryom Tai-Ok and Kim Ju-Sik, described by their South Korean counterparts as “friendly and kind and a little bit shy,” will be the stars of the show. The North Korean state orchestra is scheduled to perform.
What is saving the Korean peninsula from a war so horrific that it is unthinkable is nothing less than nationalism, i.e. love of country and a fierce desire to preserve it against the depredations of foreign powers. As I wrote last year:
“No, China is not the key to ending the impending North Korean crisis: with the installation of an antimissile system in South Korea, which the Chinese think is aimed at them, they aren’t likely to cooperate in any meaningful way. And, in any case, their influence is very limited, since their relations with Pyongyang have never been worse.
“The initiative is going to have to come from Seoul, which has the most to lose if war breaks out. And when this initiative does come, Washington must welcome it, and do everything to foster it. When Trump was campaigning for President, he questioned the US presence in the South and wondered aloud why we had to risk war and bankruptcy providing for Seoul’s defense. His instincts were right: now perhaps we’ll get to see if his policies match his campaign rhetoric.”
The initiative did come from Seoul. Trump’s bellicose rhetoric since taking the White House has caused many of the more hysterical NeverTrumpers to squeal that he’s about to launch a first strike at Pyongyang. Folks, it ain’t happening. His rhetoric no doubt helped motivate South Korean President Moon Jae-in to take the initiative in fulfilling his campaign promise to revive the “Sunshine Policy” and pursue better relations with the North in a serious way.
History isn’t all about us. Sometimes – and, in the future, I believe this will increasingly be the case in a multi-polar world – it’s about people independently determining their own destiny and pursuing the path of peace.