23 October 2009

Teaching, Week 9, Part III: Korean Relations & Historical Trends (Year 3, Day 59)

I've decided to break this week's "Teaching" entry into three parts, and you can view Part 1 and Part 2 at those links. Needless to say, it was a very productive, or at the very least interesting, week.

With the advanced teachers, we've begun reading through Outline of U.S. History again. We're on the formation of the Constitution now, beginning with the original Articles of Confederation. We talked about how the Revolution made the states realize that they needed to work together to defend each other, but also how they hadn't quite yet got the concept that they needed to work together economically and politically as well to avoid being picked apart by the far stronger European nations across the pond and to avoid the sorts of increasingly violent internal disputes that were beginning to pop up.

That discussion devolved into a discussion of why South Korea doesn't really have any strong regional economic or military partnerships along the lines of the United States (when they were individual states) or the EU. (We're all about applying history in this discussion group.) Korea isn't exactly cozy with Japan or China, and it's geographically too far displaced from SE Asia for them to be really included down there.

I can actually see why China doesn't exactly work. After all, it'd be sort of like the U.S. entering into a close economic system with Jamaica. Sure, Jamaica would benefit tremendously, but what's in it for the U.S. I can sort of see why it wouldn't work with Japan, but really, neither Japan nor Korea are going to be able to balance off of China all by themselves in the long run, let alone the world.

It's become an interesting question for me because the problem Koreans most often cite--that the Japanese are the historical enemies of Korea, that they invaded us countless times, that they destroyed our culture and livelihood, and we can never trust them again--has begun to hold less and less water with me as I've begun to learn more about Korea's own history and also as I've thought about the historical trends globally.

In the first case, the countless invasions that Koreans are usually thinking of were brief incursions by pirates. Granted, they were Japanese pirates, but they were lawless vandals nonetheless. It would sort of be like Spain and Britain still being sore over the privateering days or anybody going through Somali waters these days being sore at the actual Somalians. In fact, as far as I can determine, there were only two major invasions of Korea by the Japanese, both happening over 400 years ago, both within 6 years of each other, and both spearheaded by one particular man with a lust for power, and an additional annexation and colonization period.

Now, let me be clear, both of these were terrible, terrible events. After the Hideyoshi Invasions referenced above, the Korean economy was so deflated that rice production didn't reach pre-invasion levels until after the Korean War (Hawley, The Imjin War). Japan stole many of the technological, scientific, and cultural projects and thinkers from Korea and put them to work in Japan. It's estimated that a total of 1 million people died and only 250,000 of those from combat. During the close to 40 year annexation, Japan unleashed a deliberate campaign to stifle Korean language, culture, and identity in favor of new Japanese ones. Koreans are right to feel any range of emotions over these tragic events.

But, when I consider world history, I wonder if Korea holds its grudges for too long. After all, for all intensive purposes, NE Asia, especially Korea, has actually enjoyed a fairly irenic history with short intervals of (granted, brutal) war but far great periods of lasting and enduring peace. Europe on the other hand waged unremitting war on itself for the better part of two millennia. Most of Europe was under French control during Napoleon's brief rule as well, but they've gotten over that certainly. While most of Europe was under German control during WWII, those nations have realized that Germany was under a fascist dictatorship at the time and isn't any more. This last comparison is particularly poignant because Korea and Europe were freed from Japanese and German control respectively around the same time. Europe has moved on. Why can't Korea?

On reflecting on it further, my teachers' class pointed out that Korea has never successfully invaded Japan. (They actually tried to tell me that Korea never tried, but I pointed out that Korea was actually forced to aid in Japan invasions twice under Mongol rule. After looking this up on Wikipedia, they apparently actually encouraged it as well.) This makes Korea a little insecure compared to European nations who all had fair shots at conquering each other. Additionally, because of the imbalance of economic power in the region (China being a light- but fast growing to heavy-weight, Japan already a heavy-weight, and Korea a middle-weight), no nation is really willing to work together like the European nations who are much closer to each other in terms of economic output. Additionally, Japan's military forces are far superior to South Korea's in terms of technical capability. Though I pointed out that it is unlikely that Japan would ever attack South Korea in the near future (especially if they worked together), the concern is still valid. Partners, at least of the caliber of those in the EU, need to be equals in everything especially when the trust between them is already shaky.

I accept these reasons; I think they are accurate depictions of the current reality. The encouraging by whatever means that Koreans will forever hate and mistrust Japan because of historical atrocities is what I don't agree with. In order for nations to heal and to grow they need to move on.

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