Update, August 2010: An excellent article by Andrei Lankov, which deserves to be much more widely read. Unfortunately though, Tom Coyner’s site is the only site I’ve been able to find it on. So, here’s one more copy, to ensure that it remains available:
War of Details
Andrei Lankov, Korea Times, August 31 2006.
Every foreign resident of Korea is exposed to a number of habitual Korean statements, which reflect Korean ideas about themselves and their nation. Many of these beliefs are true, some are not so well founded, while others are strange — like, say, the well-known tendency of Koreans to boast that their country “has four distinct seasons” as if this is something unusual and unknown to most other countries of the globe.
One such oft-repeated statement is that Korea has always suffered invasions and wars. Koreans often say, “Our history has been tragic, for centuries we have been invaded by powerful enemies and suffered in their hands greatly.” Every visitor to Korea is bound to hear such a remark sooner or later, and most people tend to take it at face value. This statement might correctly describe Korean history of the last one hundred years, but it is hardly applicable to earlier eras.
Well, let’s have a look at the Choson Dynasty period, from 1392 to 1910. The last four decades of these five centuries were turbulent indeed, but what about earlier times? Even a cursory look demonstrates that it was hardly a “time of troubles.” Throughout 1392-1865, Korea fought three wars against foreign invaders, not including some minor border skirmishes with nomads in the north, and Japanese pirates on the coasts. In one case, the war with Japan from 1592-1598, known as “Hideyoshi’s invasion” in the West, and as the “Imjin War” in Korea, was disastrous and the entire country was devastated. As you know, the medieval armies, all those “knights in shining armor,” were not too nice when they encountered the civilian population. The two other conflicts, of 1627 and of 1636, were of much smaller scale — essentially, two blitzkriegs brilliantly executed by Manchu generals whose cavalry units broke through Korean defenses, approached Seoul, and forced the Korean government to agree to an unfavorable peace.
Let’s compare this with the fate of more or less every European country. Throughout the same period of 1392-1865, almost every country in Europe fought a much greater number of conflicts, and suffered much greater casualties. Let’s have a look at German history. The period under consideration is marked by at least four major military conflicts, each lasting for one or several decades, and resulting in mass death and destruction: the Reformation Wars, the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), the Prussian campaigns of the mid-18th century and the Napoleonic wars. And these are only large-scale wars, each being as significant and bloody as Korea’s war with Japan in 1592-1598 (in all probability, all these conflicts were more destructive than the “Hideyoshi invasion”). Apart from these, there were a number of smaller conflicts, many of which were not small at all– like the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714), or the chain of conflicts that accompanied German unification in the 1850s and 1860s. And, of course, there were countless quarrels between the mini-states which formed the Germany of the era, each such quarrel being a military conflict on its own right, far exceeding Korea’s occasional skirmishes with Japanese raiders.
Is Germany an exception? By no means. This is the fairly typical history of any European country, and against such a background Korean history appears rather quiet. Rather than being a country with a uniquely turbulent history, Korea actually was a country, which enjoyed stability undreamed of in most other parts of the world!
The same is true in regard to domestic policy. Of course, old Korea had its own share of court conspiracies, poisoned dignitaries, and scheming royal concubines. But throughout the same period of 470 years, only two Korean kings were actually overthrown (and in one case the life of the ex-sovereign was spared — an almost unthinkable leniency by the standard of medieval Europe or the Middle East!). There were two unsuccessful gentry revolts, each lasting for but a few weeks, one peasant uprising on moderate scale, some local disturbances, a bit of banditry — and that’s all! Once again, in comparison with France (at least a dozen major revolts, revolutions, and civil wars), Germany, or even relatively peaceful England demonstrates that Korea was indeed a very secure and stable place.
Suffice to say that the Korean army for most of the period had about ten thousand soldiers on active duty — a very small army for a country with population of some ten million. The armed forces were increased when the government faced a perceived security threat, but for most of this long period the Korean army was essentially a police force, sufficient to fight bandits, patrol borders, restore order in some villages, and ensure the personal security of the king. So much for the talk of the permanent invasions Korea allegedly faced: a country, which lives under threat, does not have such a small army.
But why did such a view develop? There might be few reasons, but I suspect that Korean intellectuals of the 1950s or 1960s were shocked by the turbulent nature of the last hundred years of Korea history (to be more precise, the period between 1865 and 1960). This came as a sharp contrast to the tranquility and predictability of earlier times. This shock made Koreans believe that their history has always been that difficult and hard. And, of course, Korean nationalists used these feelings for their own gains. But this is another story…