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[Opinion] Tribute

Posted April. 21, 2008 06:13,   


One of the greatest examples of Korean Catholic martyrdom was the Byongin persecution in 1866. More than 8,000 Catholics lost their lives and nine of 12 French missionaries in Korea were executed. An enraged French government sent envoys to China and blamed the ruling Qing Dynasty for the incident, because France thought the Joseon Kingdom was a vassal state of China. But what the Qing Dynasty said holds significant meaning in Korean history: “Joseon is a tributary country of the Qing Dynasty but its domestic politics and diplomacy have been independent. It is not a matter that the Qing Dynasty should bear responsibility for.”

We have long had a China-centered worldview. China has considered itself the center of the world. The Chinese emperor was called “the son of heaven” and China “the country under heaven.” To be honest, Korea could not have survived had it not had a good relationship with its neighboring superpower. But the 1866 incident separated Korea from the order of China and placed it into the world order.

China’s response unveiled the truth of Sino-Korean relations. Officially, Joseon was a kingdom that served and paid tributes to China, but the relationship was based on mutual interests. China needed to manage neighboring countries and boast its “son of heaven” authority. Instead, Joseon gained security in return for recognizing a master-servant relationship. Joseon sent tribute missions four or five times a year to China to exchange indigenous products and used that chance to import advanced civilization.

The liberal United Democratic Party has criticized the recent deal to allow U.S. beef imports back into Korea, saying, “It is not a negotiation but a tribute.” If the party chose the word “tribute” to mean Korea simply gave but received nothing, it is not the right choice. Although Joseon had to receive an approval of a new king from China, its diplomacy was rated as pragmatic because even as a small and weak kingdom, it maintained autonomy for more than 500 years. It is too early to judge the success of diplomacy from what is seen outside. Whether the beef deal is a benefit or a loss depends on how much we gain from the United States.

Editorial Writer Hong Chan-sik (chansik@donga.com)