(579) 'Hermit nation'
By Andrei Lankov
The ``Hermit Kingdom’’ ― this is how Korea was widely known during the 18th and 19th centuries. It is now more frequently referred to as the ``Land of the Morning Calm.’’ But, how did the former label arise? Why did Korea come to be known as the ``Hermit Kingdom’’ or “Hermit Nation”?
This handle, that conveys a stereotypical characterization of Korean reticence, can easily be challenged, but it still holds a kernel of truth. During the few centuries that preceded the forced ``opening’’ of Korea in the 1870s, the state was resistant to contact the outside world. Contact did exist, but was carefully controlled.
Recently, scholars have attacked the idea of a ``hermit nation’’ as another example of ``oriental stereotyping’’ (a common form of polite abuse among the politically correct intellectuals nowadays). The critics point to the fact that Korea itself did not see its foreign policy as isolationist.
This critique is partially correct, since Korean international behavior in the 16th-19th centuries, fits perfectly well into what was seen as the norm in East Asia. That said, this norm does appear both restrictive and isolationist when compared to other regions of the globe or, for that matter, to other periods of East Asian history.
From the 17th to the late 19th century, Korea only maintained regular relations with China and Japan.
Relations with Japan consisted of infrequent visits from ceremonial ambassadors that were sent to Japan to congratulate a newly ascended shogun (hereditary military ruler). Apart from this, Korea also sent missions to the island of Tsushima which lies in the straits between Korea and Japan.
Japanese missions were prohibited from visiting the Korean capital, but a few hundred Japanese merchants and officials were allowed to maintain a permanent trade settlement in the vicinity of present-day Busan.
Normally the Japanese were not allowed to venture out from this settlement and their scale of trade activities was subjected to a detailed system of quotas and commissions. They could not bring their families to Korea, and liaisons with Korean women were prohibited on pain of death.
Interactions with China were far more frequent, and official Chinese delegations were allowed to go as far as Seoul, but no permanent Chinese presence was tolerated. Chinese missions were carefully supervised, and the Korean authorities ensured that they had few opportunities to interact with Koreans.
Korean missions also went to China at last once a year. In the years 1600-1870, participating in such missions was the only way a Korean could travel abroad. Private foreign travel was prohibited and the Korean state banned the construction of large sea-going ships and carefully policed national borders.
If Westerners found themselves shipwrecked off the coast of Korea, they were not usually allowed to leave the country. The Korean government valued western expertise in guns, so such castaways could count on good treatment, while being employed as military advisers. But it was made clear to them that attempts at escape would lead to severe punishment.
Out of some 40 Dutch sailors who, at different times found themselves marooned in Korea, a majority eventually died in the Land of Morning Calm. The exception was Dutch sailor Hamel and his friends who managed to flee after spending 13 years in Korea.
Castaways from China and Japan were treated with greater leniency; if discovered in Korea, Chinese and Japanese nationals were subjected to investigation, and if nothing improper was discovered, they were usually sent back home at the expense of the Korean state.
At any rate, the Korea of the 16th-19th century was very different from countries in Europe and the Middle East. It had no bustling seaports where sailors and merchants from different lands mixed and socialised because almost nobody ever ventured abroad.
What were the main reasons for such strict isolationist policies? It seems that security was the key factor. The officials saw every foreigner as a spy, and governments wanted to maintain a low profile in a dangerous world.
That said, one should also keep in mind that such an approach was not very different to the policies of Korea’s East Asian neighbors. If anything, since the early 1600s Japan was even stricter in its control of overseas interaction, and China did little more to promote foreign contact too. This makes a great contrast with earlier periods, when East Asian countries were quite open to interactions with foreign countries.
Why were East Asian countries so suspicious of outside influences and foreigners ― or rather why did they become so suspicious around 1500-1600? This is an interesting question, but I suspect not one that can be answered in the space of a newspaper column.
Professor Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. You can reach him at email@example.com.