Some years ago, I had lunch with a director-general of one of the divisions at the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I mentioned the fact that Korea had never invaded another country; something Korea should be proud of. But to my surprise, he bowed his head, and lowered his shoulders and said, "Yes, we were so weak that we never even invaded another country."
I thought it was a unique feature of Korean history, and a thing that few, if any, other country could claim. But he took it as a source of shame, of embarrassment. I told him, "Oh no, this is a thing to be proud of. Few countries can claim to have such a peaceful tradition." But he would have none of it. He insisted on being embarrassed and shamed by the fact.
Some people disagree. I had an American high school teacher on one of my "fact-finding seminar tours" of Korea come back at me a few days after I had told the group that Korea had never invaded another country. She found a passage in a text that said the Mongols were driven back from invading Japan in 1272 and again in 1284 by the kamikaze winds, the "winds of the gods" that protected Japan. It said the invading force was a combined Mongol and Korean force. I protested, pointing out that the Koreans had been taken over by the Mongols. And Mongols couldn't build or sail ships so they forced the Korean navy to do their dirty work for them. And that you can't call that a Korean invasion. But the teacher was adamant. She insisted that I was wrong because the book said it was a combined Mongol-Korean armada. So, you, too, can call that an invasion, if you want to. I don't.
You can also find the incident of King Sejong, early in his reign, ordering the Korean navy to sail against the island of Daemado, or Tsushima, in the waters of Japan, to put an end to Japanese piracy coming from that island. Okay, you can call that an invasion, maybe? I don't, because it was only an island that was part of Japan ― not a country, itself. And the Korean armed forces did not take over the island or in any way conquer the people there ― they just forced the leader of the island to stop sending pirates, and they opened ports for trade to disincentivize piracy. You can call that an invasion if you want to. I don't.
And you can argue that Korea invaded Vietnam in the 1970s. But here again, like the Mongols, it was not Korea's idea, it was not for their plans of conquest, and to a certain extent they were pushed into the plan by the US Army. If you are hungry to call that an invasion, go ahead. I don't.
Rather, I think the fact that Korea has not invaded another country is one more indicator of the peaceful nature of Korea, culturally and historically. It is number four, out of ten, in this series of articles. It is part of the picture of Korea as a civil, civilized, educated, cultured country that did not rely on war as a primary choice of conduct.
I recently found a quotation that backs me up. It is from Kim Ku, the famous anti-Japanese freedom fighter and rival to Syngman Rhee to be the first president of the Republic of Korea ― until he was assassinated in his car driving through the Hyehwa-dong Rotary in 1949, allegedly by a henchman of Syngman Rhee.
Kim Ku said, "I want our country to be the most beautiful country in the world. I am sick of the invasions from other countries, so I do not want my country to invade others. Our buoyancy is enough to enrich our lives, and our strength is enough to stop others from invading. The only thing I want to have is the power of high culture. This is because the power of culture will make us happy and will give happiness to others."
If Kim Ku doesn't want to invade other countries, that's good enough for me, and for the majority of Koreans. It is not to be ashamed of. It is a rare attribute that few other countries in the world, if any, can claim. Peaceful Korea, man-se!
Mark Peterson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is professor emeritus of Korean, Asian and Near Eastern languages at Brigham Young University in Utah.