Published on December 11th, 2013 | by C. Adam Volle
Behind the Myth: The Many Invasions of Korea
“If one were to ask an average, college-educated Korean about the major factors and trends in Korean history,” writes Mark Peterson, associate professor of Korean Studies at Brigham Young University, “it is likely one would hear a narrative about war, chaos and invasions as the dominant themes of Korean history.”
“Likely,” he says! How silly! In fact it is certain – for few Korean sentiments are more popular than the sense of historical victimization behind Korea’s old saying, “A shrimp’s back breaks in a whale fight” (Korea is the shrimp, caught between whales like China, Russia and the U.S.). Depending on who you ask, you may hear Korea has been invaded “hundreds” of times, or even “numerous” times.
But in a 2006 article for the Korea Times (“War of Details”), Andrei Lankov tests the myth of an often-invaded Korea by comparing the military history of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) to European military history during the same period. “The last four decades of these five centuries were turbulent indeed [for Korea],” he agrees. However, “Throughout the Joseon Dynasty period, Korea fought three wars against foreign invaders.”
Of the three wars, only one – the Imjin War from 1592-1598 – caused great loss of life. The other two wars were short, unsuccessful struggles against China’s Manchu Dynasty in 1627 and 1636. Since Korea lost the other two wars quickly, few people died, and the consequences were not dire. The Manchus only forced Korea to sign unfair treaties.
So Korea suffered six years of war in over 450 years’ time, with only four years involving serious hardship. Lankov compares this record to Germany’s in the same timeframe. “[For Germany] the period under consideration is marked by at least four major military conflicts,” he says, “each lasting for one or several decades, and resulting in mass death and destruction.”
Before 1950, Korea experienced only one conflict in its whole history as long and bloody as a great war of Europe: its resistance against the Mongol Empire from 1231-1259. And if we are being honest, having been attacked by the Mongol Empire is not a very special distinction. Literally a quarter of Earth’s population received the same treatment.
Mark Peterson therefore summarizes Korea’s history in this way: “periods of war were relatively few, and the intervening spans of peace were long. Dynasties in Korea were long-lasting and transitions between dynasties were remarkably smooth.”
That smoothness disappeared after 1865, of course. The next hundred years were filled with colonization, civil war and military coups. The tragic century may explain why modern Koreans believe the myth that Korea has always suffered so much. The tendency to read the present into the past is universal.