This book is based on lectures at Harvard by Odd Arne Westad, the Elihu Professor of History and Global Affairs at Yale University. He contends that “the main responsibility and potential to find a solution to Korea’s ills remains with the Koreans themselves.” Neighboring countries, the United States and the rest of the world can assist. The role of China is crucial. So, Koreans and others must understand the historical background of China’s involvement in the Korean Peninsula.
Westad’s 600-year survey of China-Korea relations outlines the relevant historical background. To assign the main responsibility for finding a solution to Korea’s ills to Koreans, however, is jarring. Outside powers have often invaded Korea or tried to control its internal affairs. Japan invaded Korea in the 16th century. Russia and Japan fought over Korea in 1904-1905. Shortly before the Portsmouth, New Hampshire peace that ended the war, the Taft-Katsura accord consigned Korea to Japan and the Philippines to the United States. After Japan formally annexed Korea in 1910, the word “Korea” was not spoken in public again by a US president until 1942. Japan helped to industrialize parts of Korea but practiced cultural genocide. Japan used Koreans as “comfort women” during the Second World War. Japan left Korea in 1945 but has not fully apologized for its exploitation or compensated those who suffered. This is the main reason why Koreans — North and South — remain hostile to Japan.
China shared much of its culture with Korea over the centuries, but exchanges took place in both directions. China expected Koreans to show deference but demanded less of them than other tributary states. China did nothing to counter Japanese occupation of Korea. Mao Zedong reluctantly came to North Korea’s aid in 1950. China’s Peng Dehuai and Chinese volunteers saved the Kim Il Sung regime from obliteration. But neither the recipients nor the providers of this assistance grew fond of one another. From 1950 to the present, Chinese policies toward both South and North Korea have been determined by the zigs and zags of China’s relations with the United States. Realizing that Korea has been a pawn in this larger struggle, neither Pyongyang nor Seoul has been grateful to China.
This book is full of gems, such as the Korean appraisal of the British after hearing about their first visits to China. A Korean report averred that the British are “very quick and fierce and like to loot.” They are also good swimmers and “move as swiftly as ducks.” The book also abounds in deep insights, for example, that Koreans in the mid-19th century were torn between their traditional ties with the Chinese emperor and their growing awareness of Western military and economic power. China’s defeat in the first Opium War made Korean elites aware of their own vulnerability. Still, the advances of Western powers strengthened Chosôn dependencies on the Qing. The Koreans assumed a shared interest in protecting propriety and correctness when faced with domestic heterodoxy (such as Christianity) and other disturbances.
A survey of 600 years in 200 or so pages may include a few assertions that readers may challenge. In one, Westad says that most people were surprised that a dirt-poor Korea could produce a successful economy and democracy. But Korea’s drive to modernize in the late 19th century — before the Japanese takeover — could be seen in 1887 when the Thomas Edison Lamp Company electrified the royal palace in Seoul — a model for illuminating Tokyo’s Mikado Palace and Beijing’s Forbidden City two years later.
In another example, Westad blames the weather and North Korea’s distribution system for mass starvation in the mid-1990s. Rightly so, but he says nothing about the regime’s continued outlays for nuclear and missile development, which could have been diverted to buy food abroad. The author reports that since the 1950s North Korean scientists and engineers participated in joint research on nuclear issues in the Soviet Union, and that the Soviets helped build a nuclear reactor that became operational in 1965. While the Soviets were preoccupied elsewhere in the 1980s, “North Korea started its own nuclear weapons program.” He omits to say that the USSR, the People’s Republic of China, and the Soviets’ East European allies all refused, time and again, to assist North Korea in its nuclear weapons development. North Korea’s plutonium-fueled bombs can be seen as a boot-strap success by a poor country’s very determined regime.
Here are two insights from the chapter titled “China and Korea Today.” First, the apparent end of the Cold War made it hard for North Korea to survive, but South Korea thrived on it. Second, South Korean money and technological know-how played a significant part in China’s modernization.
The final chapter articulates a profound dilemma for Beijing. Chinese experts believe that a united, prosperous and peaceful Korea would be better for China than the present situation. They also believe this cannot happen unless the Kim dynasty departs. But Beijing fears any threat to stability. Some East Asians wonder if any major change in Korea is possible unless there are changes in the Chinese government.
Westad provides his readers with a provocative overview of a relationship that, as he says, “has the potential of influencing how all of us live our lives, one way or the other.”