Implications to the present


Korea has a long history of getting along reasonably well with big and strong neighbors. From early days of history to the end of the 19th century, the strong neighbor was the Chinese empire. Korea's relation with China became extremely close during the Mongolian Century. At the next stage, between Chosun and Ming, the relation was highly idealized according to Confucian principles. The idealized relation went on with Qing without formal changes, but with reduced ardour.


The traditional relationship with China came to an end at the end of the 19th century. Korea was forced to adopt Western rules of international relations in the name of 'wan-guo gong-fa(萬國公法)' and was declared a sovereign state, but in no time fell prey to Japanese imperialism. After the fall of imperial Japan, Korea was split into two states under Russian and US influences. While Russian influence on North Korea disappeared with the dismantling of USSR, US influence not only continued to work on South Korea, but became a defining factor for North Korea's destiny as well. Meanwhile, China's influence on both Koreas has been growing in a less obtrusive way.


A big change began to emerge in the Korean situation this year. Much is still left unclear about this change, but it is certain to be a change big enough to bring along considerable shifts in international relations.


This change is asking (South) Koreans to think about many things in new perspectives. One of the things will be the relation with China. Korea was under strong Chinese influence throughout the history which can be seen as a matter of natural course, in accordance with the inverse square law of energy transmission. It tells you that the intensity of the energy received is proportional to the inverse square of the distance. Korea was under the influence of other powers during the 20th century because China's energy emission was very weak.


Now that China is strong again, if the on-going change removes or reduces the pretext for the strong alliance with (or heavy dependence on) the US, the increase (or restoration) of China's influence on Korea is a very likely thing to happen. The relation with China is becoming an important factor for the future of Koreans.


Many Koreans are concerned about their country's sovereignty being compromised by too strong Chinese influence. But I see no reason to be too much concerned. Koreans have been quite accustomed to 'compromised sovereignty' throughout the history. The idea of absolute sovereignty is only a new import from the West. It is wisdom, not valour, that is needed by a small country to keep its realm, as Mencius said. The restoration of 'shi-da zi-xiao‘ relationship is an option worth considering.


In fact, the establishment of Chosun-Ming relationship had a sense of restoration in it. Koryo-Yuan relationship had departed somewhat from the traditional tian-xia system based upon Confucian ideas. As a purely Chinese dynasty, Ming naturally had reasons to want the restoration, but apparently Chosun seems to have been more eager for it. There is much to think about the reason.


In my view, Chosun leaders wanted a highly idealized form of relationship with Ming because they were in need of a fundamental reorganization of the country which also needed the support of Confucian ideas. They wanted to introduce something like the public concept of land ownership, but if the king simply says, "The land is public, so it is mine," many people would be dissatisfied. It would have been much easier with a coherent ideology supported and endorsed by the Chinese emperor. Chosun leaders wanted close relationship with Ming for more than the guarantee of non-aggression. They wanted the moral support for their domestic reforms as well.


It is of great importance that Chosun leaders' persistence influenced decisions of Ming emperors after Hong-wu. Hong-wu was a realist inclined to rely more on forces than on ideas for his rule. He had no taste for rites or for relationships closer than he deemed necessary. But when his successors Jian-wen(建文, r. 1398-1402) and Yong-le entered a contest the support of Chosun became critical, and they realized the merits of the idealized tian-xia system.


Supposing that the 15th century Ming, as the leader of tian-xia, offered moral support for the public concept of land ownership to Chosun, what could today's China, as a leader of the world, offer to other countries? Couldn't she offer moral support for a new attitude toward the nature?


Failure to deal properly with the nature has presented itself as the most serious threat to the human civilization. Previous pretenders of world leadership have had geopolitical conditions unsuitable for dealing with this problem. Compared to England, an island with 1% of world population, or to America, on a separate continent with 4-5% of world population, China has better conditions to realize the seriousness of the problem.


China has been industrializing herself during the past decades largely in the modern Western fashion. The result is more pronounced than in other areas because of the scale. Some people say that one earth will be by far inadequate if the Chinese industrialization goes on for some more time. They even say that several earths will be needed if the average energy consumption of the Chinese gets to the level of Americans.


I believe the Chinese leaders are well aware of the problem. There have been many policies that did not reflect this awareness, but with time 'concern for the nature' has been getting more and more prominent. Policies on renewable energy and on the railroad building are good examples. On the whole, I have faith in the Chinese leaders' call for 'eco-civilization(生態文明)'.


Despite the awareness of the ecological problem, there have been and will be all kinds of motives to ignore it. International cooperation is critically needed to overcome them and achieve the eco-civilization. If China's call for eco-civilization inspires other countries to attend to the cause, their responses will in turn work to weaken resistance in China. It could be seen as a practice of tian-ming.


Now back to Korea's role. If the current change leads to the peace in the area, many ecological questions will be presented in dramatic ways. What will be the standard for land ownership? What forms of transport will prevail? How will the industries be distributed? As the social and economic integration proceeds, many questions will arise, which cannot be easily settled between the two parties alone. Good-willed advice by neighbors, especially by China, could be of much value.


I see today's Koreans back in the position of early Chosun leaders. They are faced to a task of reorganizing the country, whose desirable direction is difficult to be decided by existing invested interests within the area. The support of a strong neighbor to sound ideas is to be welcomed. It will not be a matter of dependence or independence. It will be a relationship of interdependence because it will also help the strong neighbor to realize the idea of eco-civilization.



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