In the late 19th and early 20th century, Korea was an arena of international conflict where foreign powers fought like gladiators for control of the peninsula. Unfortunately, the Korean people were not aware of the crisis and remained mute spectators to the power struggles taking place in their nation as if they had nothing to do with them.
The political leaders were incompetent and pathetic as well, not knowing what to do in the whirlwind of foreign aggressions and interventions. Caught in a power struggle with her father-in-law, Daewongun, who was close to Japan, Queen Min or Myeongseong asked the Qing Dynasty for help to eliminate her political foe. The Qing Dynasty, which did not want Japanese influence in the Korean Peninsula to grow, detained the Daewongun in China for a while. As the Japanese ambition became a serious threat to Korea, King Gojong and Queen Min leaned toward Russia, hoping that Russia could suppress the Japanese expansion. Japan did not want Russia to intervene and thus decided to eliminate Queen Min. In 1895, a group of Japanese soldiers infiltrated the palace and murdered the queen.
King Gojong fled to the Russian Embassy and stayed there for a year. As Russian influence grew in the Korean Peninsula, Japan declared war against Russia and won the Russo-Japanese War. As Korea’s foreign policy fluctuated, political power also swung from the pro-Japanese faction to the pro-Chinese one, then to the pro-Russian faction and back again to the pro-Japanese faction. In 1910, Korea lost her sovereignty as Japan annexed the Korean Peninsula.
I feel a sense of deja vu these days. Just like the late 19th or early 20th century, Korea is facing an unprecedented crisis once again, surrounded by strong nations that do not like Korea’s undulating foreign policy. Recently, an internet cartoon parodied the current situation of Korea by depicting a shaman president surrounded by a domineering emperor, an overbearing tycoon, and a brawny shogun who represented America, China, and Japan respectively.
Unfortunately, however, Koreans do not seem to realize the grave situation their nation is now facing. Every day, TV channels are busy broadcasting the recent Choi Soon-sil scandal all day long. People, too, are busy organizing or participating in demonstrations either calling for the impeachment of the president or defending the president. Wherever you go, you find people constantly gossiping about all sorts of rumors and conjectures regarding the scandal.
Meanwhile, our political leaders are busy with factional brawls and power politics, condemning each other every day. Instead of worrying about the future of their country, our politicians’ main concern seems to be to take advantage of the current chaotic situation to win the next presidential election.
A few days ago, a group of politicians from the opposition party flew to China, presumably to buffer tensions between Korea and China. The ruling party sharply criticized them for their untimely trip, condemning it as low-posture diplomacy. Our relations with Japan are strained again because of the comfort woman statue installed in front of the Japanese Consulate in Busan. In the meantime, we keep hearing President-elect Trump hinting he might withdraw US forces from the Korean Peninsula. Indeed, Korea now seems to be at a loss, surrounded by aggravating, if not hostile, nations on every side.
Unfortunately, however, just like the late 19th century, Korea is still divided by pro-Chinese politicians and pro-American ones, and hopelessly swayed by factional gain in the swift torrents of international politics. There are also pro-Japanese and anti-Japanese people in Korea, confronting each other. Not knowing where the exit is, we keep stumbling between China, Japan and the States. Meanwhile, our sovereignty is at stake once again.
Myopic and even blind to global changes, we are still intoxicated by the dangerous notion, “We are right and all others are wrong,” or “We can judge you in the name of justice.” If we thought of ourselves as an executioner of justice, we would be likely to justify another type of violence and tyranny, inflicting injuries on others in the name of justice. In his novel “The Human Stain,” Philip Roth poignantly criticizes those who constantly gossiped and condemned Bill Clinton for the Lewinski scandal as if they were guardians of justice. Roth indicts the hypocrisy of those self-righteous people who pass judgment on others in the name of political correctness.
In “Gravity’s Rainbow,” Thomas Pynchon compares modern man to those in a theater who could not hear “a screaming coming across the sky,” the warning sound of an imminent V2 rocket attack. Likewise, while enjoying the Choi Soon-sil show in a theater called Korea, we are deaf to the warnings that a nuclear weapon could hurtle across the sky to annihilate us.
In order not to lose our sovereignty again, we should refrain from enjoying the political scandal and prepare for the crisis we now face.
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.