Why ‘Hermit Kingdom’?

North Korea Hermit Kingdom

North Korea is the New Hermit Kingdom

In general geopolitical terminology today, references to the Hermit Kingdom apply almost exclusively to North Korea. In light of the dynastic dimensions to the country’s leadership, and also how intensely insulated it is from the rest of the world, the term could scarcely be more apt. In an earlier historical epoch, however, this nickname, resonant with mythical allusions, referred to the entire Korean peninsula. This revelation (to me, at least) arrived courtesy of an article by Andrei Lankov published a few weeks ago in the Korea Times.

Lankov begins by noting that while the term “Hermit Kingdom” or “Hermit Nation” might reflect a “stereotypical characterization of Korean reticence,” there is some justification for this handle. He notes that even though Korea’s “international behavior in the 16th and 19th centuries fits perfectly well into what was seen as the norm in East Asia,” the norm in question appears “both restrictive and isolationist when compared to other regions of the globe” or even in comparison to “other periods of East Asian history.”

During the 17th century up until the late 19th century, Korea maintained regular contact with only two nations, China and Japan. Interactions with the latter involved irregular “visits from ceremonial ambassadors that were sent to Japan to congratulate a newly ascended shogun (hereditary military ruler).” Korea, on its part, “sent missions to the island of Tsushima which lies in the straits between Korea and Japan.” Interestingly, Lankov reveals that “Japanese missions were prohibited from visiting the Korean capital,” though a permanent trade settlement was established near present-day Busan by a “few hundred Japanese merchants and officials.”

Even though, according to Lankov, “interactions with China were far more frequent” than with Japan, during this period Korea never tolerated a permanent Chinese presence on its soil. The Korean government sent missions to China at least once a year and during the years 1600 – 1870, the only way for a Korean to travel outside of the country was to participate in such a mission. To further ensure that contact with foreigners would be severely limited, Lankov writes that “private foreign travel was prohibited and the Korean state banned the construction of large sea-going ships.” In addition, national borders were meticulously policed.

Westerners who were shipwrecked off Korea’s coast “were not usually allowed to leave the country,” which may have to do with paranoia as much as a clever means for Korean rulers to gain valuable expertise in making guns. They were reputedly treated well as military advisers, but were also warned that, should there be any attempted escape, harsh punishment would be meted out. Lankov reveals that of about 40 Dutch sailors who were marooned on the peninsula at various times, a “majority eventually died in the Land of the Morning Calm.”

In something of a reversal of the current situation, castaways from China and Japan could expect far more leniency from their East Asian neighbour. If Chinese or Japanese nationals were found in Korea they were subjected to an investigation, followed by repatriation if nothing untoward was unearthed.

There may not have been much of a contrast between Korea’s isolationism and that of its closest neighbors during the period in question, but in comparison to Europe and the Middle East the differences are indeed stark. Lankov points out from the 16th to the 19th century Korea “had no bustling seaports where sailors and merchants from different lands mixed and socialized because almost nobody ever ventured abroad.”

In reflecting on why Korea should have opted for such “strict isolationist policies,” Professor Lankov suggests that security might well have been the overriding factor. This shouldn’t come as anything of a surprise to his readers, or anyone else, in light of how states throughout the world have long operated. Sticking to just the present day, we see increasingly virulent anti-immigrant rhetoric in Europe and the United States, not to mention the ever greater restrictions on immigration to those regions, and many more besides. As economic turmoil continues to roil our world, expect hatred and mistrust of the ethnic or national other to increase at an alarmingly marked pace.

To return to Korea for a final analytical flourish, the land north of the 38th parallel seems a good place to end the discussion, providing much needed symmetry in the process. While the northern realm of the Korean peninsula certainly justifies a name evoking hermiticism and regal rule, if not a few more far harsher additional appellations, the South has made many admirable strides to internationalize itself on various levels. However, despite the globalizing dynamism at play in South Korea, there remain strands of insularity and hidebound traditionalism that should ideally be tempered in the coming years. A far greater and decidedly more urgent hope is that the rulers of North Korea would be consigned to the same place as the doubly denigrating sobriquet that once referred to the whole peninsula, namely the nearest historical dustbin.

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