According to Isabella Bird Bishop, an elderly Englishwoman who traveled extensively throughout Korea in the mid 1890s, "The year 1896 opened for Korea in a gloom as profound as that in which the previous year had closed." She was referring to the ruthless assassination of the Korean queen by members of the Japanese legation and discontented Koreans in the previous October and the subsequent rise to power of pro-Japanese Korean officials.
The New Year brought unwelcomed reforms and King Gojong and the crown prince found themselves virtually prisoners in their own palace – fearing daily for their lives. But with a new year came new hope.
In early February, King Gojong and the Russian representatives (and possibly with the assistance of Horace N. Allen – the American legation's secretary) began to plan a daring escape for the king and the crown prince. One of the first measures taken was to strengthen the Russian legation guard with an additional 100 soldiers and a Maxim gun. When the Russian representative was questioned by his diplomatic peers, he merely dismissed the reinforcements as added protection due to the increased unrest in the countryside surrounding Seoul. He also suggested that the other diplomats summon troops of their own.
The date for the escape was Feb. 11. According to one missionary, this date had been chosen because the previous evening there was a large birthday celebration at the palace. The king and the crown prince's minders – two women, one said to be the king's own mother – would also take part in the feast and revelry and would thus not be as observant as they normally would.
Also on that night, there was a diplomatic party hosted by the British representative to welcome in the new Russian representative to Korea, Alexis de Speyer. According to one witness, it was "a very pleasant evening, everyone seemed jolly and in good spirits, especially the Russians."
But there were whispers of events unfolding. The German representative, Ferdinand Krien, mentioned privately to his Russian counterpart that he had heard rumors that the Korean king was preparing to flee to the Russian legation but the Russian denied it and denounced the rumors as "positively grotesque" and "mere idle chatter." But it wasn't.
The following morning, just after dawn, Gojong and the crown prince were hustled into covered chairs. Palace women were often transported through Seoul in covered chairs and thus it was not uncommon for these chairs to go in and out of the palace. As added protection, a palace woman was seated in front of the royal passenger so that if a guard should look in, he would only see her.
But this precaution seems to have been unwarranted. The gate guards had earlier been provided with a lot of food and strong drink and were so occupied with their feast that they allowed the chairs to pass unchecked.
The chairs were then taken by separate routes to the Russian legation where they arrived sometime between seven 7 and 8 a.m. "Pale and trembling" the king and the crown prince were ushered into the legation where they were given two spacious bedrooms to serve as their lodging. Quickly and quietly, Korean officials loyal to the king were brought to the Russian legation and a new court was established. For a little over a year, the Korean government would conduct its business from the Russian legation.
On that one morning, Japanese influence in Korea waned while Russia's increased. For many, this was seen as a good thing, but for others, it was a source of contention and embarrassment. Krien was furious and went to the Russian legation and demanded to know why he had been lied to. The Russian representative quietly responded, "Why did you force me to lie to you?"
Robert Neff is a contributing writer for The Korea Times.