Back in Korea's Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910), one of Korea's main exports to China was ginseng, which is still very popular among Chinese today. Known to be efficacious for boosting vigor, mental clarity, and touted for men's health, it is a coveted item that is also pricey due to the time (six years) it takes for ginseng to reach its maturity.
When Joseon's government delegation visited Beijing, the Korean ginseng merchants also followed them. At that time, it took two months to travel from Seoul to Beijing, and another two months to return. In Beijing, they stayed about one month before they headed back home.
Chinese merchants were keen to buy the Korean ginseng. But they wanted to cut the price. After all, Chinese people are known to be skillful negotiators. They also bemoaned the fact that the Korean merchants dominated the high-end ginseng market over the locally produced ginseng.
But the Korean sellers stuck at the pre-arranged price and didn't budge. They were well united and wouldn't compromise on the price.
To break the Korean unity, the Chinese buyers colluded to boycott the Korean ginseng altogether. After all, the Koreans came all the way from Seoul, taking two months to get there. If no Chinese merchants were to buy it, then the Koreans would have to return home without earning any money, while having to carry the loads of unsold ginseng all the way back home, the Chinese calculated. They thought time was on their side; as time passed by, the Koreans would become nervous, back down, their unity broken, and would yield to lower price biddings, one by one.
Half a month passed.
The Chinese checked to see whether some Korean merchants changed their minds and would want to sell ginseng at a cheaper price. No one. Furthermore, they noticed that the Koreans didn't seem worried at all. On the contrary, the Koreans were spending their time in Beijing, relaxed and merrymaking, as if they were there as tourists. They didn't seem to care about selling ginseng at all. The Chinese were baffled.
A month passed. It was time for the Koreans to leave.
The day before their departure, the Korean merchants collected all the ginseng and placed them in the guesthouse courtyard they were staying at. They then put them on fire.
The Korean merchants would rather burn their ginseng than sell them at a dirt cheap price to the Chinese who wouldn't give them a fair price. It was a resolute expression of confronting the Chinese strategy.
As the fire rose high, the Chinese panicked. If the Korean ginseng were all burned, then the Chinese merchants would also have nothing to sell for one year. The Korean merchants would make no profits, but so would the Chinese.
In the end, it was the Chinese who backed down. Furthermore, the Chinese were able to purchase the ginseng only after they promised to buy them at double the original price.
The cleverness of the Korean ginseng sellers was that what they burnt in front of the Chinese was, in fact, not ginseng, but bellflower -- another plant whose appearance is similar to that of ginseng. So, the Koreans didn't lose their ginseng. They returned home with a doubled profit.
This story was introduced in Choi In-ho's book "Sangdo," which was based on real events.
Today, faced with the mounting Chinese pressure on South Korea to forgo the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) deployment decision, it would be an interesting question to ask whether South Korea has good strategists -- like the ginseng merchants in the old story.
In pressuring Seoul, Beijing didn't even mind sounding out various forms of threats, comparing the South Korean decision as tantamount to "drawing fire on itself," and the Chinese defense ministry vowing to "take necessary measures."
From a negotiation strategy perspective, it's realistic to expect that if South Korea deploys THAAD, it will be affected by its decision. It is therefore important for South Korea to evaluate options it has in dealing with China. Here are some ideas.
First, anticipate impact. If the Chinese threats ever materialize (some already did), how much damage will it have on South Korea? Second, assess China's concerns. Is China using THAAD as a convenient ploy to "test" the Seoul-Washington alliance, or to exert influence on South Korea, or is China genuinely concerned about THAAD from the national strategy level? There are signs that South Korea may have made some misjudgments on this. Third, do an inventory check list of a range of retaliatory options China has in implementing the threats. Fourth, assess options South Korea can use in return. This may include a "lose-lose" option in which both China and South Korea stand to lose. This doesn't exclude brinkmanship.
A brinkmanship strategy is essentially a tool to create a self-destructive situation where the other side is also destined to be affected. It's not an easy choice that one makes every day. But without such determination, South Korea will lose the entire game.
Finally, and very importantly, South Korea should keep in mind that the matter doesn't have to end up as a zero-sum game. China also prefers not to see the discord to fundamentally undermine the bilateral relationship, at the moment. So, stay robustly engaged with China. Brainstorm ideas. And don't forget to eat some ginseng.
Lee Seong-hyon, Ph.D. is a research fellow at the Sejong Institute. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.