Looking in retrospect at the neutral diplomacy of King Gwanghae, the 15th king of the Joseon Dynasty, it was effective in terms of minimizing damage to international relations for Korea and its neighbors. Soon after Gwanghae ascended the throne, China’s Ming Dynasty (to which Joseon was a tributary nation) was invaded by the Yeojin Tribe which later established the Chung Dynasty in China. The declining Ming requested Joseon for help and King Gwanghae became stuck in the awkward situation; Joseon would surely become an enemy of the rising Chung, if Gwanghae remained loyal to Ming by sending an army.
In the face of this crisis, King Gwanghae decided to remain politically neutral. He ordered General Kang Hong-lip to send the Joseon army to help the Ming but then to surrender to Chung soon afterwards. By practicing a policy of neutrality, he was able to satisfy the Ming while escaping retribution from the Chung. However, due to the people’s loyalty to the Ming, opposition to King Gwanghae’s diplomacy led to his expulsion from the throne. Nevertheless, today Gwanghae has been reevaluated as one of the wisest kings of diplomacy.
Fast-forward half a millennium, to another military challenge. This one involves the Missile Defense(MD) system which is a defense strategy of the U.S. that intercepts a missile in midair from an enemy aiming to harm the continental U.S. as well as its allies. The U.S. is now emphasizing the need for participation of allied nations including Korea, and a few countries such as Australia and Japan have already decided to participate. When it comes to East Asian security and the matter of Korea joining the MD, the U.S. and China are divided. Both countries are currently striving for supremacy in the East Asian region around Korea. The U.S. would like to keep Chinese expansion in check while taking precautions against security threats from North Korea. In a bid to accomplish this, the U.S. is attempted to align the Korean Missile Defense with its MD. China is apparently not too happy with this move and some foreign affairs experts believe a conflict between these great powers may led to a new cold war.
Now, Korea again finds itself in a very precarious situation of being stuck in the middle of two allies in a rivalry. As in the past, by taking one side, Korea’s security could be compromised as the other world power would likely view Korea as a new enemy. Therefore, when it comes to international relations, Korea should learn from history and opt for a neutral approach, no unlike King Gwanghae’s. In this sense, Korea must be more deliberate and prudent in handling this issue. The current Korean administration may be criticized by some of the public for amiable sentiments towards the U.S., but, by pursuing more neutrality, history will most likely withhold judgment in favor of praise, as in the case of Gwanghae.
▲ Editor-in-Chief Kim Ji-yoon