Sealed in blood
The Black Dragon War dramatically illustrated the depth of the bond between Ming China and Joseon Korea, but strains, stresses, even fractures in the special relationship of “lips and teeth” allies can also be gleaned from studying the war.
From the outset, intrigue and ambivalence came across in the Korean court debate over when and how to let Beijing know of Hideyoshi’s plans, and in the Chinese court debate over why the Korean were holding back information about Japan. The Korean king in fact was quite loyal to his Chinese “elder brother” in his interactions with Japan—but the mere fact of conducting their own direct diplomacy with an avowed enemy of the Ming made the Koreans anxious about how their actions would be judged from afar. The episode reveals something of Korea’s perpetual conundrum throughout so much of its history, existing as an independent state but one geographically and geopolitically linked so closely to a superpower next door. When rivals emerge to challenge China’s hegemony, Korea is one of the first to shake from the tremors, and finds itself in a precarious balancing position.
After hostilities broke out, the Ming was slow to commit. Korea begged for 100,000 Chinese troops to come to its rescue, but got only a few thousand. Only after that expeditionary force confronted the full-scale of Japanese might on the Peninsula, Beijing went all-in.
The actual fighting of the war, however, posed its own particular set of pressures on the “lips and teeth” ideal. For who would be in command? How would Korean and Chinese forces coordinate? What if differences in tactics, strategy, or national interests emerged—who would resolve them? Not surprisingly, Ming commanders assumed a simple answer to these questions—we Chinese are in control, after all you begged us to come save your king and country. Equally unsurprisingly, Korean field commanders and ministers at court resented the arrogance of their Ming saviors. In one of the most dramatic examples of wartime tension between allies, the Chinese commander ordered three senior Korean ministers to kneel in his courtyard as he excoriated them for failing to secure provisions for his men, who were bordering on mutinous and demanding they be allowed to return home. Resentful Koreas also questioned the motives of Chinese envoys as negotiations wore on.
In the end, the Sino-Korean alliance held together and stopped the Japanese challenge not only to Korean autonomy but indeed the basic Sinocentric order of East Asia. The net effect was to strengthen the bond that united the Ming Empire and Joseon Kingdom.
But a new challenge to “lips and teeth” was just over the horizon, as we will discover next week. And, as you will learn in weeks 3 and 4 when we study the Sino-Japanese War of the 1890s and Korean War of the 1950s, fighting together would strain China-Korea ties into the modern period. Indeed, it is a sensitive issue even today in South Korea. Do a quick Internet search of the phrase “US-ROK ALLIANCE OPCON” and you will get a taste of the debates about whether Seoul or Washington should have “operational control” if war were to break out tomorrow with North Korea. The long historical experience of needing great power protection but also resenting the loss of autonomy, like so many of the themes in our course, echoes down to the present day.
© John Delury