As President Trump journeys to Asia in search of a solution to the North Korean nuclear dilemma, he might benefit from this historical insight: Americans have been trying to unravel the relationship between China and Korea for more than 100 years–and they have consistently failed to get it right.
One of my prized possessions is a 1910 book entitled “China and The Far-East,” edited by George H. Blakeslee of Clark University in Worchester, Ma. It is a collection of essays by presumed experts on China. (I say “presumed” because these writers were mostly lost in a complete fog about Asia.) One essay was by Chester Holcombe, formerly acting minister to China, and author of “The Real Chinaman” and “The Real Chinese Question.”
The Ching dynasty was still in place in 1910 although it had been considerably weakened by both internal forces and by force of arms from outsiders, who had established what they regarded as permanent diplomatic relations with Peking. Holcombe writes that when the Western powers “turned their attention to nearby states, there arose a universal misunderstanding in regard to the loose-jointed and essentially Oriental connection which has just been described (between the Chinese and Koreans.) Having no accurate idea of its nature, and ignorant, or forgetful, of the fact that all forms of feudalism had been abolished in China two centuries before the birth of Christ, they decided it to be the relationship of suzerain and vassal, of which, in fact, it lacked every essential quality.”
He continues: “Korea–the Hermit Kingdom, as it was called–was shut against all foreigners except neighboring Asiatics. The United States was anxious to put an end to the horrible cruelties practiced upon American seamen when ship-wrecked and cast ashore in Korea, and, to that end, sought to make a treaty with the king. Efforts directly made having failed, the fancied authority of China over Korea was appealed to. The Chinese Government disclaimed all right to interfere.”
After military hostilities between the Western powers and the Koreans, “a formal demand was made upon the Chinese Government that it force Korea to conclude a treaty with the United States, or itself assume responsibility for the proper treatment of American seamen. But China declined to do either, in turn formally asserting that the Emperor possessed ‘No right or authority to interfere in either the internal affairs or foreign relations of the Korean Kingdom.'”
Here’s the punchline: “There is no word in any European tongue which will exactly describe the position which China claimed to hold vis a vis the smaller states named, because the idea is wholly foreign to our conceptions of international relationships.”
In other words, no outsider could figure out how to pressure the failing Ching dynasty to muscle the Koreans. Today, it will be far more difficult because China has emerged as a world power possessing the globe’s second largest economy. I don’t possess a crystal ball anymore than the sages of old, but my guess is that the United States and China have fundamentally different interests at stake regarding North Korea. We want Kim Jong Un defanged and possibly destroyed; the Chinese do not want a unified Korea on their doorstep that possesses nuclear weapons and is allied with the United States. Trump could essentially be chasing the fantasy of genuine cooperation when he lands in Beijing.