Koreans are known to be extremely proud of themselves. Perhaps they are too proud to know their place in the world or even in East Asia. Many are so proud of themselves that they have delusions of grandeur, thinking they are one of the smartest peoples in the world.
Embarrassingly, however, foreign experts on Korea would not agree with them because of poor decisions the Korean people have made at critical moments in their history. Indeed, we and our political leaders have made astonishingly poor decisions in times of crisis.
For example, in the late 16th century when the Japanese invasion was impending, Korean political leaders not only failed to predict it but also ignored it. Even when one of the two envoys to Japan reported a strong possibility of the Japanese invasion, the other envoy denied it because they belonged to different rival factions.
At the time, the Korean government was divided into the more powerful East faction and the less powerful West faction. Since the latter envoy belonged in the East faction, the former envoy’s warning was ignored by King Seonjo who was ignorant of Japan and the international situation. The result was catastrophic. The Japanese army occupied Seoul within 20 days and ravaged the whole nation for seven long years.
In the early 17th century, the West faction gained power after overpowering the East faction through the King Injo rebellion. Once again, Korean politicians were ignorant of the changes taking place in China. Thus they unwisely kept provoking the rising Ching Dynasty while pledging their loyalty to the falling Ming Dynasty.
The result was disastrous. In 1636, the Chinese army invaded Korea and occupied Seoul within 5 days, catching Korea completely off guard. After Korea surrendered, half a million Koreans were taken to China as hostages and sex slaves. It was the people who had to suffer the consequences of their political leaders’ ignorance and incompetence.
In fact, there was a warning invasion of the Chinese army in 1627 already. However, the Korean government did not even know the Chinese army had crossed the Korean border for three days. One quarter of the country was occupied by the Chinese army in less than three weeks. Meanwhile, the Chinese soldiers plundered villages and raped women. Yet, Korean leaders did not learn any lessons from the preliminary war and invited another Chinese invasion on themselves nine years later.
One cannot help but despair at this inconceivable incompetence and ignorance of Korean political leaders who were not capable of perceiving international situations and changes at all. Divided by the East faction and the West faction, and then by the North Faction and the South faction, they were busy fighting each other over political gain, not realizing or preparing for imminent danger. There were more factions such as the Hun-gu pa (orthodox Confucians) and Sarim pa (Neo-Confucians), and the Noron (Conservatives) and Soron (Progressives).
Unfortunately, the embarrassing legacy still continues. Korean society and the political arena are still divided into mutually antagonizing factions such as the Left and the Right, conservatives and progressives, young and old, and rich and poor. The Peninsula is also divided not only by north and south but also by east and west.
Likewise, our modern-day presidents, who were naive, incompetent and ignorant of the international situation, could not read the map and frequently led the nation in the wrong direction. Some of our ex-presidents naively declared that North Korea was not capable of manufacturing nuclear weapons. Others maintained that North Korean nuclear weapons were not aimed at us and thus were harmless to us. But they were wrong.
Meanwhile, some Koreans naively thought that the North Korean nuclear weapons would be as good as theirs when the Korean Peninsula was unified. Obviously, it never occurred to them that Korea could be unified under the North Korea’s flag, if things went awry. It is North Korea, not the South, that has nuclear bombs and missiles, after all. Others assert that South Korea, too, should have nuclear weapons of its own or US missiles with nuclear warheads.
Unfortunately, however, it is unlikely to get either of these things for many compelling reasons. For example, China may not want South Korea to have nukes of its own and the States may be reluctant to redeploy nuclear missiles to South Korea, especially after the vehement demonstrations against the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system.
Regrettably, Koreans have always been woefully ignorant of international politics. To make matters worse, many of our political leaders have been amateurs, so naive, ill-advised and uninformed of international affairs. As a result, they have frequently put us in harm’s way.
As we now face unprecedented crisis, we should put an end to factional skirmishes and repeating grave mistakes. We should sail in the right direction, skillfully navigating through the ever-menacing perfect storm. No more a country of amateurs and fools! Korea should be a country of professionals and wise men. By Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and president of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. -- Ed.