Nation in Crisis and Empire-Building in Northeast Asia

Title: 1025 | Nation in Crisis and Empire-Building in Northeast Asia
Area: Border Crossing and Inter-Area
Stream: History
Presentation Type: Panel Presentation
Song Yeol Han, Independent Scholar, United States (co-organizer, presenter, discussant)
Loughlin Sweeney, Edinburgh University, United Kingdom (chair, presenter)
Mayuko Mori, Tokyo Christian Women’s University, Japan (presenter)
Seung Beom Kye, Sogang University, South Korea (presenter)
Thomas Quartermain, Yonsei University, South Korea (co-organizer, discussant, presenter)


The purpose of the panel is to survey the two most important periods of conflict and transformation that affected Chosŏn Korea before the modern-era: The Imjin-Manchu Wars of the 16th and 17th Centuries, and the informal imperialism in late 19th Century Korea. These two distinct, yet interrelated eras, are of great interest to global historians and illustrate the workings of a China-centric international order that has the potential to redevelop in contemporary East Asia. Korea was, and remains, the lynchpin for empire systems in NE Asia as a game-changing variable but also as an imagery and material site of imperial desires. Based on recent scholarship and hereto inaccessible documents, this panel surveys the effects of national crises and their effects on the perceptions of empire construction, hierarchy and rebuilding. This is done in order to better understand a world-order often characterized by a false narrative of “undisturbed harmony and peace” that was, in reality, in near constant conflict and seldom monolithic during these pivotal decades when the international system saw successes, re-appropriation, and then complete dissolution. The five papers on the panel explore the myriad of viewpoints and influences, including broad topics such as Chinese culture, the Chunghwa ‘world’-order, alongside specific analyses of individual opinions of the eras and European observations of regional change. By presenting a number of variegated perspectives from these transformative periods, we seek to open up the veiled past, bring clarity and add continuity to an otherwise buried and disconnected era that may soon impact the entire region.

Panel Abstracts:
From Tributary Diplomacy to Treaty Diplomacy: Korean Envoys to Qing and the Korea-Japan Treaty Negotiation, 1863-1876
This paper re-examines the impact of Qing China’s Opium Wars and the Self-Strengthening Movement in Kanghwa Treaty negotiation in 1876. According to conventional understanding, the treaty was a passive response to Japan’s gunboat policy. This paper suggests that the traditional diplomatic relationship between Qing China and Chosŏn Korea being a prelude to the transformation of Korea’s foreign relations. Chosŏn envoys’ witness of Western military powers over the Qing in the Opium Wars, and Qing China’s appeasement policy toward Westerners facilitated King Kojong’s adoption of progressive manner to Japan. Kang Wi (1820-1884), a genius scholar-writer and a pioneer of Korean enlightenment thought, is a significant figure whose diplomatic career exemplifies Korea’s transition from traditional tributary diplomacy to the modern treaty diplomacy. Kang Wi was a member of Chosŏn envoy mission to Qing in 1874 and 1875, and later a personal assistant to the plenipotentiary of Chosŏn in Kanghwa treaty negotiation. This paper examines Kang’s writings on his diplomatic missions and shows how Kang deepened his understanding of the long-pending question of “negotiating with the barbarians” as a member of Chosŏn envoy, and how he made best use of the information he gathered from Qing officials to justify Chosŏn’s new diplomatic approach to Japan. From these findings, I argue that Chosŏn envoy missions to Qing, recognized as a ritual of traditional Sino-Korean relations, played a significant role in Korea’s progressive manner toward the treaty negotiation with Japan as well as Korea’s transition to a new regional order in East Asia.

Korea in the British imperial context: military, scientific, and commercial networks and the creation of Korea as an imperial site, 1870-1910
In the late nineteenth century, Korea existed at the nexus of Great Power contestation in East Asia. As the China-centric East Asian world order gave way to the expansionary ambitions of European, American, and Japanese imperial spheres, Korea became a site for military and economic rivalry, and for the strategic projection of imperial power. Great Britain, which by the mid-nineteenth century was the predominant trading power in East Asia, was facing increasing geopolitical competition in the region by the late nineteenth century, and British policymakers frequently expressed fears of imperial decline. This paper examines the status of Korea, and its creation in the British official mind as the linchpin of geopolitical contestation in East Asia. Drawing on British parliamentary papers and metropolitan opinion, as well as the writings of British officials, naval officers, and merchants in Korea, it will examine what Fan Fa-ti and Barry Crosbie have termed ‘scientific imperialism’, or the collection of scientific, cultural, and antiquarian knowledge to reinforce claims to legitimacy and authority by imperial powers. By examining the institutional networks through which this information was transmitted to the imperial metropolis, including the Royal Asiatic Society, the British consular and diplomatic services, the Korean Customs, and the Royal Navy, a more in-depth understanding can be achieved of the way imperial powers created exterior visions of the Asian crossroads.

Rethinking the "Japan Problem" in the Context of Dual Sinocentrism in Choson Korea, 1868-1874
After the Meiji Restoration of 1868, Japan broke out the so-called “Credential Letters Incident” and strained Korean-Japanese relations, which had existed for 300 years. Previous studies have conventionally viewed Chosŏn Korea’s foreign relations of this time through a “challenge-response framework,” hence addressing the assumption that the Chosŏn government lacked active responses to Japanese demands by acts of refusal, evasion, and delay, which caused the Kanghwa Incident of 1875. This paper emphasizes the break of the impasse immediately after the arrival of a secret letter from Qing Zongli Yamen, when the Chosŏn government resumed negotiations. What was Chosŏn government’s response? What were the new countermeasures taken according to the letter, and what were the underlying premises that allowed such dramatic change? This paper argues that the Chosŏn government deployed its measures to cope with the Japan problem under its own rubric of two different, but coexisting, modes of sinocentrism: a public sinocentrism embodied in the Qing Empire’s suzerainty over Chosŏn, and Chosŏn-sinocentrism which registered Chosŏn Korea as the legitimate successor of the Ming Empire. This study opens new pathways to understanding the development of Korea’s diplomatic claims and practices from 1873 to 1989, from King Kojong’s direct rule to the foundation of the Korean Empire, as a process of conflating the dual mode of sinocentrism into Chosŏn’s self-centered imperial diplomacy, which was in-line with an ever increasing multilateral contact with Western powers.

Two Different Wars - The Identity of Choson Korea in the Ming-Qing Transition, 1592-1683
The Japanese invasion of Korea, also known as the Imjin War, from 1592 to 1598 became a historical event that closed the first-half of the Chosŏn dynasty. Three decades later, Chosŏn suffered the Manchu invasions of 1627 and 1637. While the Japanese devastated Chosŏn’s physical resources, the Manchus shook the ideological foundations of the dynasty in the form of Neo-Confucianism based on Zhu Xi’s (1127-1200) cosmology and his interpretations of the Classics. The Korean kings and the ruling yangban class had been indoctrinating their people with the principles of loyalty to the monarch (ch’ung) and filial piety to parents (hyo) and had also praised the Ming emperor as the ‘father’ who gave Chosŏn a second life by saving it from Japanese aggression. Under Manchu interference, however, in reality and theory Chosŏn was now forced to betray its ritual father and vow to serve the father’s enemy. The surrender to the Manchu emperor indeed functioned as a symbolic event signifying that the ethical and diplomatic foundations of the Chosŏn dynasty were now destroyed. The Korean kings and the ruling yangban elites under Manchu dominance, therefore, needed to solve the crux of inconsistency between moral law and reality so as not to lose their legitimacy. With an emphasis on the identity and the raison d’être of the Chosŏn dynasty on the international stage in the course of the Ming-Qing transition, this paper looks at the different aftermaths of the two major wars in the larger context of contemporary East Asia.

The Post-Imjin War Era, 1599-1609: Economic, Social and International Aspects
The Imjin War (1592-1598), which saw the states of Ming China, Chosŏn Korea and Japan face off on the Korean Peninsula, was one of the most destructive events in Korea’s history. However, Korea was transformed both during and following the conflict with the entire period now regarded as the start of Korea’s early modern era. Owing to changes in society, educational and economic developments, and increased inter-connectivity to the world at large, the post Imjin-war era of Korean history is a fascinating subject of inquiry that has received relatively little attention. This is due to the fact that the vast number of documents from the time have not been made available to academia outside of Korea. This presentation seeks to present some source materials from the era and thereby analyse the social, economic and educational rebuilding of Korea from 1599, right after the end of the Second Japanese Invasion, to 1608, the death of King Sŏnjo 宣祖. Using a textual comparison of the government’s source record, Sŏnjo wangjo sillok, and four civilian journals written during the period, the presentation will clarify how society, from the government to individuals, understood the reworking of the state and economy after the destruction of the Imjin War, how they debated the restarting of various national projects, and how both groups commented on the loss and rebuilding of economic centers and educational institutions which affected each level of society and their national and international outlooks differently

This panel is on Thursday - Session 01 - Room 3

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