Kirk W. Larsen

Professor of History | Brigham Young University

The false promise of membership in the “family of nations”: Diplomacy, treaties, legations, and Chosŏn Korea’s fall into colonial rule in the age of high imperialism.

In the late nineteenth century, Chosŏn Korea negotiated a series of treaties with neighboring Asian and Western powers. For some, this process signaled Korea’s exit from a traditional Sino-centric regional order, sometimes labelled the “tribute system,” and its entrance into a Western-dominated Westphalian order. Some hoped that Korea’s membership in the “family of nations” with its recognition of the sovereignty and theoretical equality of its member states would help stave off the threat of foreign imperialism. However, Korea’s experience proved otherwise. Hope that either the “family of nations” in general or Chosŏn Korea’s first Western treaty partner, the United States, in particular, would help protect and safeguard Korean sovereignty and independence turned out to be ill-founded. Neither treaties nor embassies or legations were sufficient to withstand the concerted imperialist aggression of neighboring Japan.    

Kirk W. Larsen is an associate professor of history at Brigham Young University. Larsen received a PhD in history from Harvard University. He previously taught at the University of Texas—Austin and The George Washington University. His publications include Tradition, Treaties, and Trade: Qing Imperialism and Chosŏn Korea, 1850–1910 and Peace in the East: An Chunggŭn’s Vision for Asia in the Age of Japanese Imperialism (co-editor with Yi T’ae-jin and Eugene Y. Park). He has published, presented, and commented on a variety of contemporary issues including East Asian foreign relations, North Korea, nationalism and elections in South Korea, and Sino-Korean relations. He has appeared on ABC, MSNBC, VOA, the Canadian Broadcast System, and Al Jazeera.

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