Up to the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Korea refused all intercourse with foreign nations. Peaceful ships that approached its uncharted and unlit shores were fired upon. Its only land approach, from the north, was bounded by an almost inaccessible mountain and forest region, and by a devastated “No Man’s Land,” infested by bandits and river pirates. When outside Governments made friendly approaches, and offered to show Korea the wonders of modern civilization, they received the haughty reply that Korea was quite satisfied with its own civilization, which had endured for four thousand years.
Even Korea, however, could not keep the world entirely in the dark about it. Chinese sources told something of its history. Its people were the descendants of Ki-tzse, a famous Chinese sage and statesman who, eleven hundred years before Christ, moved with his tribesmen over the river Yalu because he would not recognize or submit to a new dynasty that had usurped power in China. His followers doubtless absorbed and were influenced by still older settlers in Korea. The result was a people with strong national characteristics, different and distinct from the Chinese on the one side and the Japanese on the other.
We knew that, as Korea obtained much of its early knowledge from China, so it gave the younger nation of Japan its learning and industries. Its people reached a high stage of culture, and all records indicate that in the days when the early Briton painted himself with woad and when Rome was at her prime, Korea was a powerful, orderly and civilized kingdom. Unhappily it was placed as a buffer between two states, China, ready to absorb it, and Japan, keen to conquer its people as a preliminary to triumph over China.
In the course of centuries, it became an inbred tradition with the Japanese that they must seize Korea. Hideyoshi, the famous Japanese Regent, made a tremendous effort in 1582. Three hundred thousand troops swept over Korea, capturing city after city, and driving the Korean forces to the north. Korea appealed to China for aid, and after terrible fighting, the Japanese were driven back. They left a Korea in ruins, carrying off everything they could, and destroying all they could not carry off. They kidnapped, among others, the skilled workmen of Korea, and made them remain in Japan and carry on their industries there.
Hideyoshi’s invasion is of more than historic interest Korea has never recovered the damage then done. The Japanese desire for Korea, thwarted for the moment, smouldered, waiting for the moment to burst afresh into flame. The memories of their terrible sufferings at the hands of the Japanese ground into the Koreans a hatred of their neighbour, handed down undiminished from generation to generation, to this day.
Korea might have recovered, but for another and even more serious handicap. A new dynasty, the House of Yi, succeeded to the Korean throne over five centuries ago, and established a rule fatal to all progress. The King was everything, and the nation lived solely for him. No man was allowed to become too rich or powerful. There must be no great nobles to come together and oppose these kings as the Norman Barons fought and checked the Norman Kings of England.