International and Trade Policy of early Choson (Yi) Dynasty Korea
The aim of this paper is to examine key historical forces that shaped Traditional Korea in the period between 1392 and 1910. The paper intertwines political, economic, socio and cultural themes as it highlights a number of major issues during the Early Yi Dynasty. It will provide a through review of Korea international and trade policy during the Early Yi Dynasty and its impact on the country and others such as Japan. It will also go ahead to examine its economic development, foreign, policy, and its relationship with other countries especially with Japan and Ming China during the early Yi Dynasty.
Nohm (1993) reveals that ‘The Choson (YI) Dynasty was established from 1392 and lasted to 1910 when Korea ceased to be an independent sovereign state after being annexed by Japan.’ During the year 1392, a Koryo general named Yisong-gye deposed Koryo king and consequently established a new dynasty which he called Choson or the Yi Dynasty named after the ruling family. One of the goals of Choson or Yi Dynasty was to get rid of the Buddhist church and instead replace it with Confucianism as the state ‘religion’.
The introduction of Confucianism cleared the way for the elite class that would dominate Korea for the next 500 years and also for a peasantry society that would be affected by the dynasty. Great landowners and Confucianist scholar- gentry composing of the Yangbans dominated agriculture, politics and foreign policy at the expense of the other groups. The Yangbans were exempted from paying taxes and labor, and thus they were able to devote their time to studying while those who were not of the Yangbans did not move up in the social structure due to the fact they needed to work to survive and pay taxes. Thus, social mobility was difficult and extremely uncommon. This not only created inequality but in the long run affected the economic situation of Korea at the time. Others that were highly esteemed included the crafts people and artists because of their skills and their talents. Astronomers and physicians were also included in this group.
Commerce was controlled by the government but as time went on, government loosened its grip over trading and commerce. The class distinctions affected trade not to mention a rise of a form of discrimination and suppression of the commoners. They also existed slaves had no right over land ownership nor property holding. In fact slaves were considered to be property. The commoners worked the land but few of them owned their own land. In generally there was a social class that existed and that resulted into inequalities.
Homer (2009) points out that ‘the Choson dynasty being practiced in Korea was exemplified by strict social divisions based on one status and occupation, not to mention a close adherence of Confucian rituals. The Confucian rituals that were to be observed included such as reverence to ancestors, a disconnection of male and female, and a great discrimination towards female leading to male domination.’ Due to such practice the end of the sixteenth century saw Korea carry a self imposed isolation from most of the outside world.
There were however few achievements that were experienced during the period of Choson dynasty. Among them is the unification of the country, there was also a long a period of development and cultural regeneration. Beside that the culture at this period took another twist by flourishing. This was a time that saw also the assembling of vast instruments, music and reforming of rituals and inventing of printing and a whole new Confucian social system was established that was based on harmony between mankind and nature. ‘The early Choson period was also characterized by a time of inventiveness, artistic and scientific progress in Korea.’ (Homer, 2009)
‘This flourishing society finally soon attracted the attention of powerful neighbors. The Japanese invaded several times during the 1580s and 1590s, capturing Koreans as prisoners, and they thus helped to transform Japanese culture.’ (Nahm, 1996) This was the start of development of hostility between Korean and Japan due to this annexation. However Yi dynasty established close relationships with the neighboring Ming Dynasty, of China, which considered Korea a client state, and Chinese cultural influences were very strong during this period. Choson administration was modeled after the Chinese bureaucracy. The philosophy of Confucius emphasized personal and governmental morality, correctness of social relationships, justice and sincerity. These values gained prominence in China over other doctrines such as legalism. We realize that men could not enter the state bureaucracy without government-sponsored examinations. This was a prestigious position and anyone who got it was labeled to be of high status and his family was too ranked highly. But in Korea, the story was a bit different because the pool of eligible examination takers was officially limited to members of the upper social class, called Yangban.
Due to the good relations between Korea and China, China then under the Ming dynasty came to Korea’s aid to flee it from the rule of Japan, but in the process Korea was devastated by the war and its economy was on its knees. Korea was invaded again in 1627 and 1636 but this time around its invaders were the Manchus, a nomadic people from Continental Asia, who forced Korea to pay tribute to the Manchu King. Due to these numerous invasions, Korea decided to go into seclusions from other countries, as a result its international trade policy with other countries was affected not to mention its international relation with other countries was hampered.
‘Although the first contact with the Europeans had been established by the Portuguese in 1594, the English in 1614, and the Dutch in 1653, the country remained virtually closed until the 19th century. By the 1860s, the world powers were trying was attempting to open up the country to trade by force of arms.’ (Lone & Gravan, 1993) The interactions with Japan significantly dropped and only made contacts at Tsushima during ceremonial practices. The Choson government also limited its contacts with China to few occasions in a year. Korea continued with its seclusion mission from the rest of the world hence earning the name ‘Hermit Kingdom.’ Even when European powers were encroaching on East and South East Asia in pursuit of trade, diplomatic relations, and colonial conquest, Korea’s was still adamant on remaining secluded from the rest of the world.
In 1897, Korea became the empire of the Han as a result of King Kojong proclaiming his independence from China. This independence was nevertheless short lived. Korea came again under Japanese domination. ‘In fact a lot of people from imperial family and prominent officials were frequently poisoned or assassinated as a result of opposing them. Russia defended Korea but its (Russia) defeat in 1905, removed the only country that was for Korea. In 1910 things even took to a worse turn when Japan seized the country of Korea souring the already fragile relations. ‘ (Elliot 1911)
‘Things however improved for Korea when American and Russian troops came to their rescue and freed them from the hands of Japanese rule at the second of the world war.'(Carter & Lee, 2009)
‘The practice of new dynasties, operated alongside the mechanism of central government authority. Each province with jurisdiction over various county magistrates appointed a governor and magistrate to rule over them. These early administrative reforms of Yi Son-gye were influenced by the Confucian scholar Chon To-jon and other literati.’ (Edward 1971) A special group of “Dynastic Foundation Merits Subject” exercised great political power from their base in the Privy Council. The class of literati received a lot of power as a result King T’aejong (1400-1418) scrapped his reforms and liquidated Chon To-jon. Privy Council were abolished and in their case, State Council with centralized military control was instituted.’ (Edward 1971)
‘ King Sejong (1418-1450) established the Hall of Worthies where Confucian scholars studied the ancient institutions of China as the model for Choson Korea. King Sejo (1455-1468) opposed many scholars of the Hall of Worthies for treason and founded the National Code which prescribed statutory procedures in government.’ (Edward 1971) State Council became the highest organ in the government. A deliberative organ of three High State Councilors was instituted. Six Ministries (Personnel, Taxation, Rites, Military Affairs, Punishment and Public Works) became the principal administrative agencies. ‘To prevent abuses of political and administrative authority a special organ “Samsa” was established and included: Office of Special Advisors (drafting documents, advising the king), Office of Inspector-General (criticizing public policy mores), Office of Censor-General (examined and censured the conduct of the King himself)’
‘The latter two organs nominated people for middle and lower ranking positions. This system checks allowed people from lower classes to take charge an also to prevent over concentration of people in the same place. In each local and provincial administrative unit duties were allocated among six chambers (modeling the Six Ministries managed by the county’s petty functionaries (Hyangni).
“Hyangni” were natives of the province and unsalaried.’ (Adams, 1982) Local agencies helped the magistrate, remedied public mores, and also inspected the conduct of the “Hyangni” and served as power base for the local “yangbans. “Yangbans” were dispatched to the province from the capital. Yangbans — constituted of the class of advantaged / privileged civil and military servicemen. Yangins constituted of middle-level bureaucrats, peasants and merchants, whose children were allowed to sit the exam for governance service. “Chungins” — were technical personnel and professional specialists composed of the side children of ‘Yangbans”
Leonid (2011) points out that ‘The literati composed of the dominant social class in Choson Korea. Most of them were the “Yangbans” the members of the two orders of officialdom who served as civil or military officials.’ Since it was this yangbans who directed the government, economy and culture of Choson Korea, it may be designated a Yangban society as opposed to the aristocratic society of Koryo.
Cummings, (1997) points out on Korea as a fractured, shattered, country in the twentieth century’s history. ‘In 1910 Korea lost its centuries — old independence, and it remained exploited colony of Japan until 1945. Then came national divisions, political turmoil, a devastating war, and the death and dislocation of millions, all of which left Korea still divided and in desperate poverty. Its recovery and spectacular growth over the next generation, is one of this century’s most remarkable achievements.’ (Cummings, 1997)
‘Confucian Yi society believed in class inequality and the discrepancy between superior and inferior, this could be the supported by the existence of “the ruled and the rulers’. (Shin et al., 2003) According to them therefore there can only be two classes: the rulers and the ruled. This Confucian concept of the ruler and the ruled affected the nature of Yi foreign policy. In fact the Western concept of equality, freedom and equality as well as individual rights, was not accepted in Confucianism and because this differing concepts there was a hindrance of cooperation between Korea and Western nations.
‘Due to the differential views, with Western Nations emphasizing on the rules of international laws, and Confucianism resting on the rule of proper conduct, Korea found itself alienated from trading with other countries. This is because it had no regard or concern with international law.’ (Edward, 1982) The natural order of the day was that inequality existed among nations due to their differential policies, cultural beliefs and social norms. A case in study is Korea due to it Confucianism, while on the other hand China labeled itself as a land of sages and virtue beside considering itself superior nation. In fact Ming rulers viewed the rest of the world that is all non- Chinese people as uncivilized people and really needing China’s virtuous guidance.
Adrian (2002) argues that ‘there existed improper treatment between nations with China treating neighboring states as tributary kingdoms.’ This was experienced amongst other nations with differing policies, beliefs, cultures and social norm. This resulted to wars and trade was affected not to mention failure to have standard international rules.
China and Korea gradually started exporting Confucianism and Chinese culture something that has resulted into the Ming dynasty dominating East Asia by philosophy and example rather than by armed forces as the Mongols had done.
As the 19th century was coming to the end Japan grip over Korea loosened and Then Korea’s economy was on its knees with an extreme impoverishment of peasantry. The growth of population out spaced the availability of land which accelerated and made worse the already ill-defined property rights, incompetent resource management and a decaying system of water control. Productive activities were affected due to poor property rights in the period of Yi Dynasty and this only made situation worse by contributing to economic stasis in the late Yi Dynasty.
Many foreigner travelers and visitors in to the country carried the sad stories of income inequality, inefficient property rights and incompetent resource management. .
During this period of economic predicament money, the dynasty was characterized with an underdeveloped markets and international trade were severely affected not to mention underdeveloped with a highly distorted distribution of land holdings for the average farm household and high rate of tenancy.
Hesung (1959) argues that ‘the economic stasis of this traditional society was as a result of the failure for Korea to develop a modern commerce. The economy of the Yi Dynasty was based on community self sufficiency with little use of markets and money as late as the second half of the 19th Century and this resulted into undeveloped modern commerce. The economy was strictly under the control of the government and thus government supervised domestic trade and foreign trade was viewed as a danger to the economy. Foreign trade was thus hampered as a result. Even after signing a treaty with Japan in 1876, which opened a great opportunity with Japan, the Korean government was barely interested in encouraging foreign trade and modernizing the economy. The economic decline could be attributed to the mismanagement of common resources which resulted into poor management of water control and a decline in rice production, the main stay of Korea economy. Mismanagement also resulted to failure to protect forests, and build effective water reservoirs, and illegal farming in water reservoirs. Clearly these are failures relating to property rights and common resource management by the state and thus this led to for economic decline in the late Yi Dynasty.
Kimura (1986) points to the fact that farming was affected buy ill defined property rights, there was uncontrolled deforestation contributing to incidence of flooding. The flooding in turn led to the destruction of water reservoirs. Farmers responded to it by building waterways to divert water from rivers, but only resulted to disputes between many conflicting groups. In other word ill defined property rights to forests led to the predictable consequences of the ‘tragedy of the commons,’ and the government failure to solve disputes especially concerning water ways discouraging private efforts to improve irrigation.
Equally important to the economic growth is the individual rights especially o oneself labor and which was lacking in the Yi Dynasty. According to foreigner observers it is this that also adversely affected the economy of this traditional Korea. ‘By having no right to his own labor a slave had little interest to work hard and accumulate wealth. Even in a society where slavery was not practiced its members because the products of their own labor were not protected because they were no laws protecting such rights or and even if they existed they were not effectively enforced.’ (Hesung 1959) There were a situation of the massive underprivileged to shoulder the burden of taxation and were hard pressed by the Yang bans, who not only used their labor without paying for it, but made merciless exactions under the name of loans.
The early happenings of the period between 1392 and 1910 shaped Korea domestic and international trade as well as its international policies. The practice of Confucianism was the greatest attribute and its policies affected Korea’s economy and its relation with other countries. The invasion by other countries especially Japan also contributed to Korea shielding itself from interacting with other countries leading to seclusion that was detrimental to its economy, domestic and international trade and relation with other countries.
Buzo, Adrian. (2002). The Making of Modern Korea: A History. New York: Rout ledge
Carter J. Eckert, Kibalk Lee (2009) Korea Old and New, A history, Lehokak: Publishers for Korea Institute, Harvard pp 107-131.
Cumings Bruce. (1997). Korea Place in the Sun: A Modern History. New York: W.W. Norton.
Edward B. Adams. (1971). Through the Gates of Seoul, Seoul, Korea: Sahm-Bo Publishing Cooperative.
Edward B. Adams. (1982). Palaces of Seoul: Yi Dynasty Palaces in Korea’s Capital City, Second edition. Seoul, International Tourist Publishing Company.
Frederick. M (1946). Korea and The Old Orders in Eastern Asia. Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press.
Hesung C. (1959) Religion, Social Structures and Economic Development in Yi Dynasty Korea. Korea: Korea University
Homer B. Hulbert. (2009) Asia for Educators: History of Korea. Seoul, Columbia: The Methodist Publishing House.
Kimura M. (1986) Financial Aspects of Korea’s Economic Growth under Japanese Rule: Modern Day Studies: Cambridge: Cambridge University
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Leonid P. (2010). The Creation of Yangban Society, The University of Sydney. Department of Korean Studies
Nahm, Andrew. (1996).Traditions and Transformation: A History of The Korean People 2nd Edition, New Jersey: Holly International Corp
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