(538) Which path to choose
By Andrei Lankov
When in the 1880s Western and Japanese merchants, diplomats and spies began to arrive in Korea in ever increasing numbers, it became clear that the old social and political system was declining.
Something had to be done about the situation, especially since news about the demise of other Asian countries and the spread of Western colonialism were well known in Korea. So, the period between 1880 and 1910 was a time of heated debate regarding the path the country should choose.
Politicians and intellectuals argued and fought over strategies to follow, but few people doubted that the survival of Korea as an independent state was at stake (or perhaps, even survival of the Korean ethnicity).
How did this debate unroll a century ago? What, at the first approximation, were the major groups and the ideas they advocated?
To start with, one of the most unusual peculiarities of Korea was a weakness of extreme traditionalism, which now would be probably called ``Confucian fundamentalism.”
It existed for a while, in the 1880s and 1890s, but from around 1900 no political or intellectual figure in Korea would seriously argue that the wrongs of the modern world would be easily healed by stricter adherence to the teachings of Confucius.
Yes, as late as the 1930s a stern old gentleman would sometimes refuse to allow his grandson to attend a school where they studied such corrupting and morally useless subjects as physics. Yes, in the 1890s local geomancers would insist that telegraph poles are bad since these contraptions ruin the fengshui of the area. However, these were isolated incidents.
So, the Korean elite of the late 19th and early 20th century did not debate whether Western technology should be introduced. Everybody agreed it should. The questions were, first, about how much of this new technology was necessary and, second, within what political and cultural framework such an introduction would take place.
So, the difference was tactical, rather than strategic, even though this did not prevent supporters of different factions from bitterly fighting and sometimes even slaughtering one another.
The least radical group were conservatives, centered around some old dignitaries and the powerful clan of the charismatic and influential Queen Min. Normally, King Gojong himself tended to support this faction, even though he was perhaps more radical on personal level.
Frankly, by the then standards of Asia, these people would not appear ``conservative” at all. They clearly wanted reforms, but they also believed that these reforms should be limited.
Their ideal was an absolute monarchy which perhaps would even maintain the hereditary privileges of the yangban gentry, but would have a Western-style army, supported by all necessary infrastructures.
They also understood the need for modern economic development, and did not mind, say, railways or even modern factories ― as long as people in charge of those facilities did not challenge the established social order.
Prior to the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, the conservatives gravitated toward China which they often saw as a model to emulate. In the 1880s and 1890s China was introducing the same program of military-centered modernization.
Eventually, this program proved to be a failure, but back in those days it looked attractive. When in 1895 China lost the war with Japan and had to withdraw from Korean politics, the conservatives turned toward Russia.
Russia was both useful as a counterweight against Japan and attractive as an example of a technologically advanced absolute monarchy where old land-owning classes still maintained their privileges.
Another group was of radicals who wanted a wholesale transformation of the society. Until 1900 most of them would probably have accepted a monarchy of the Japanese type with the power of the king limited both by a written constitution and cliques of powerful ``advisers.”
Culturally, they wanted to jettison most of the old tradition and introduce radical reforms, making Korea as Westernized as possible. They planned to abolish the hereditary class distinctions, slavery. Even traditional dress, long smoking pipes and haircuts were seen as retrograde symbols of the old.
Those reformers not just emulated Japan but believed that Japan would help them to save Korea. They often actively sought Japanese support for their undertakings. In many cases these illusions about Japan made some former reformers into active pro-Japanese collaborators after the colonial takeover of 1910.
From the 1890s, a small but growing part of the reformers split from the mainstream and moved further, to the complete rejection of the monarchy. They wanted a democratic republic and complete Westernization.
These people often cited the U.S. as an example to emulate, although at that early stage Washington was unable and unwilling to interfere in Korean affairs, and American support for them was either non-existent or purely symbolic.
The Japanese forced annexation of Korea in 1910 ended this great discussion. All its participants in a sense lost. The discussion was restarted only after 1945, but without conservatives (and with a decisively important addition of the pro-Soviet Communists).
Prof. Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He can be reached at email@example.com