A lesson in 7th century history for Nancy Pelosi

Agree to our demands, say Korean trade negotiators, or you will be crushed like the invading armies of the Sui Dynasty

By Andrew Leonard

Published July 5, 2007 9:22PM (EDT)

It is the year 612 A.D. A huge Sui Dynasty Chinese army has invaded the Kingdom of Koguryo, and is threatening the capital city of Pyongyang. The scene opens with the wily Koguryean field marshal, Eulji Mundeok, in council with his advisors, listening to reports that indicate that the Chinese have outrun their supply chains and are plagued by starvation and disease. He is also told that a dam on the Salsu River has been completed.

"Bring me paper and ink, it's time to hunt," he barks at an assistant, barely restraining a fiendish cackle. The music swells and the camera closes in on the minister as he composes a four-line poem on the spot, intended for delivery to the Chinese general, Yu Zhongwen.

Heaven knows how marvelous you are in your strategy,
Earth knows how shrewd you are in your calculation,
Your name already knows no bounds in this war,
Time to know satisfaction in your toil.

It is March 12, 2007 A.D. Before the eighth round of contentious negotiations between the U.S and South Korea over terms of the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA), the leader of the Korean agricultural negotiating team sends a copy of Eulji Mundeok's poem to the team's U.S. counterparts. On July 4, in an editorial warning U.S. Democrats not to block ratification of the completed agreement, the Korea Times reprises the poem, noting, in conclusion:

As Gen. Eulji's poem implies, Democrat commanders need to be content with what has been crafted by their shrewd negotiators. If they seek to rewrite provisions of the deal or undo it, the consequences might be too costly for both countries to shoulder.

(Thanks to the Marmot's Hole for the link.)

The Democratic leadership is opposed to passage largely because of objections from U.S. auto and cattle interests, who feel that the agreement doesn't serve them. Public health activists also oppose the deal, because of intellectual property restrictions included at the behest of the pharmaceutical industry. In Korea, farmers and filmmakers oppose the deal, among others. Some Korean advocates for the agreement argue that a bilateral deal with the U.S. is the best way to protect Korea from further competition with China. On the other hand, hard-line free traders say that bilateral agreements are bad for the world in general, and only serve the purposes of those groups that can manipulate the negotiating process.

The KORUS FTA is fascinating if only because of the number of reasons put forth by different parties in support of or against it. But I personally am confused by the Korean Times' interpretation of Eulji Mundeok's poem, with its suggestion that the "implication" is that consequences would be costly for both sides if the FTA is blocked. Which is why I found myself, just a few minutes ago, watching episodes of a Korean historical television drama on YouTube that depicted the delivery of the poem to the Chinese general.

There's absolutely no question of how the poem is supposed to be interpreted in Korean popular culture. Yu Zhongwen glances at the missive and his eyes bug out, his cheeks flush red with fury.

"Is this guy making fun of me right now?" he roars. "I can't retreat like this. How can you want to live after this kind of shame?"

The general believes he is being mocked. But he has no recourse. His soldiers are starving, his navy has been annihilated in a separate battle. His advisors plead with him to order a retreat, which, to his great despair, accompanied by much howling and moaning, he finally agrees to do. But as the huge army crosses the suspiciously low Salsu River, Eulji Mundeok orders that the waters upstream be released from their dam.

The Chinese army is destroyed.

Taking cues from popular TV dramas for accurate history is not something that How the World Works would ever recommend. But to understand the context for a particular historical allusion made in the present, you can't beat hugely popular big-budget entertainment. The poem is undoubtedly a taunt, directed at a numerically superior force representing a mighty empire that is about to be crushed beyond all redemption. When Eulji Mundeok suggests that the Chinese take "satisfaction in your toil" he is already initiating his plans to destroy them utterly. How can this possibly be read as a recommendation that Democratic politicians be satisfied with what has already been accomplished?

"Free trade is a war of goods and services between companies," declares the Korea Times. If so, then the invocation of this 7th century poem would seem to imply that the U.S. is on the verge of a humiliating defeat.

This strikes me as an astoundingly bad negotiating tactic, provided that Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid have been keeping abreast of the latest plot twists in Korean televised historical dramas. Or maybe it's just a joke, the kind of black humor that a nation constantly beset by powerful neighbors learns, over the centuries, to cherish. Whatever the case, it's not every day that the 7th century intrudes itself upon contemporary trade negotiations, so it's worth celebrating when it happens. Here's to you, Eulji Mundeok.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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