Asia Program

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Chinese Imperialism on the Korean Peninsula: A Historical Window on Sovereignty and Power Relationships

June 09, 2008 // 3:30pm5:30pm
Event Co-sponsors: 
North Korea International Documentation Project
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Kirk W. Larsen, Korea Foundation associate professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University, explained that by the end of the 19th century, China exhibited imperialistic tendencies in dealing with Korea similar to the way the Western imperialists were dealing with China. In the Korean port city of Jemulpo, which was eventually to become Inchon, for example, Chinese merchants enjoyed extraterritoriality and the benefits of unequal treaties similar to those that Western powers enjoyed in Chinese cities such as Shanghai—and which the Chinese argued vociferously against. Larsen posed the following question: "When we think about imperialism and empires, why don't we think about China?"

In part, he explained, imperialism is a Western phenomenon, and notions of superiority in the West have led to definitions of Westerners as imperialists and non-Westerners as victims. Additionally, the Chinese have been more than happy to go along with this view. They characterize their past as a benevolent Confucian empire, acting to civilize their neighbors. Modern Chinese leaders claim China has never been imperialistic, and that no one has anything to fear about China's peaceful rise. Furthermore, in the late 19th century, China certainly was the victim of Western imperialism, and this is what the Chinese remember: their country being carved up into spheres of influence. Nevertheless, stated Larsen, what the Qing Empire did to Korea in the 1880s and 1890s "looks like imperialism to me."

Larsen noted that Li Hongzhang was the architect of China's Korea policy. It was centered on aggressive activity, but not the annexation of territory. Thus, it was an informal empire. The Qing, observed Larsen, like the West, were masters of international law, and concluded their own treaty with Korea, which was unequal. The Qing was also mercantilist—Chinese merchants entered Korea by the thousands. Like Westerners, China used technology to advance its interests: the telegraph, railroad, and Maxim gun were all used to project Chinese power into Korea. Larsen concluded that all this matters because it significantly alters our view of the Qing dynasty. On the one hand, it was a victim of imperialism. But on the other, it was a practitioner of imperialism.

Christine Kim, assistant professor at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University, noted that China and Korea have had a very long history, and given the imbalance in power, Korea had always acquiesced to a tributary relationship. Indeed, Josean Korea, which existed from 1392 to 1910, has been characterized as a model tributary state. Nevertheless, throughout this history, Korea always had "keen" notions of sovereignty.

The Sino-Korean border, for example, was in dispute for hundreds of years. The issue was finally resolved in 1909. Despite Korea being outweighed by the size of China, Kim asserted that the Koreans were constantly pushing the border out in their favor. In the 1870s, when the Qing opened the Manchurian border to allow Chinese immigration, it discovered that much of the land was already inhabited—mostly by Koreans. When the Qing court tried to expel the Koreans, the latter pushed back. Another factor in the equation was that both countries, at the time, found themselves losing to the encroachments of Japan.

David Kang, associate professor of government at Dartmouth College, characterized the Qing worldview as evolving from a clash between the Chinese traditional tributary system and the modern Westphalian system of nation states. In the modern world, observed Kang, there is a tendency to think that only power matters. But even in the Westphalian system, there are other factors involved as well, such as legitimacy and status.

In the 19th century, claimed Kang, debates in Asia over sovereignty were intense. The definitions of sovereignty shifted. Under the "old way," sovereignty was derived from investiture by the Chinese emperor. The Japanese were not happy with this, and began to shift to a more Western definition of sovereignty, and to a more legalistic one. With regard to Sino-Korean relations, Kang agreed with Larsen that China's move into Korea had many characteristics of imperialism. Shifting to the present, Kang noted that the big question is whether China will be content with a mixture of increased power and increased status. His conclusion is that it probably will—assuming the rest of the world does indeed accord it increased status.

Drafted by Mark Mohr, Program Associate, Asia Program
Michael Kugelman, Program Associate, Asia Program Ph: (202) 691-4020

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