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Lecture/Presentation/Talk

The Other Great Game: The Opening of Korea and the Birth of Modern East Asia

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Throughout its history, Korea has been the object of Great Power rivalry. Like the Great Game struggles between Russia and Britain over India that existed for most of the 19th century, the “other” Great Game in East Asia over control of the Korean peninsula also gave rise to lasting rivalry and bloodshed among the regional powers. The intricate chessboard on which this game was played at the close of the nineteenth century caused two major wars—the Sino-Japanese War (1894-5) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5)— that changed the East Asian region, and the world, forever. One central paradox of the Other Great Game is that the competition for control over the impoverished yet strategically important Korean peninsula by China, Japan and Russia was largely brought about the Koreans themselves who were key players in this history and the source of transformational change. The geopolitical struggles over the Korean peninsula also make clear just how much this history illuminates the present, especially in light of the fact that the Korean peninsula remains the locus of instability and conflict in contemporary East Asia. We can see how in 1894, again in 1904, and yet again in 1950, great power rivalries gave the struggle over Korea its international significance, opening the way for an uncertain passage to a new era. This presentation will illuminate some key aspects of Korea’s role in the Other Great Game. I argue that the schizophrenic nature of the North-South Korean relationship and the ensuing instability of the Korean peninsula and the region it produced after 1945 can actually trace its origins to the conflicts of the late 19th and early 20th century. Armed with the knowledge of these earlier struggles, we may gain a sharper understanding of the historical forces now confronting contemporary East Asia, by showing how these earlier conflicts and rivalries continue to influence the region’s present and future.

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About the speaker:

Sheila Miyoshi Jager is Professor of East Asian Studies at Oberlin College. Her books include Brothers at War: The Unending Conflict in Korea (Norton, 2013), Ruptured Histories: War, Memory and the Post Cold War in Asia (co-edited with Rana Mitter) (Harvard 2007), and Narratives of Nationbuilding in Korea: The Genealogy of Patriotism (Routledge, 2003). Her current book, The Other Great Game: The Opening of Korea, Wars of Empire and the Birth of Modern East Asia, is being published in May by Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. She is the author of many articles and essays in both scholarly and popular publications, including the New York Times, Boston Globe, and Politico Magazine.

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