06-13-2008 16:20
Essays Trace US, Japan Roles in Joseons Downfall

The cover of "Early Korean Encounters With the United States and Japan" by Lew Young-ick (Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch: 249 pp., $30) features a photo of the core members of the Reciprocatory Mission, the first Korean diplomatic mission to the United States in 1883: from right, chief envoy and Queen Min's (1851-95) cousin Min Yong-ik, American "secretary and counselor'' of the mission Percival Lowell, secretary So Kwang-bom and deputy envoy Hong Yong-sik.
By Lee Hyo-won
Staff Reporter

In Korea's foreign policy game, regular players are without fail the United States and Japan respectively Korea's first Western treaty partner (1882) and former colonizer (1910-45) while China and Russia can also be added to the roster.

Today, intense public outrage over American beef imports is fueling the summer heat, and while partnership among East Asian countries is a top priority, unresolved issues like the one concerning World War II sex slaves (``comfort women'') continue to haunt Korea-Japan relations.

A book written in English takes us back to the late 19th century, the beginning of it all. ``Early Korean Encounters With the United States and Japan'' gives an overview of Korea's history from the Joseon Kingdom's (1392-1910) first opening to the West in 1882 to its demise under Japanese colonial power in 1910.

The author Lew Young-ick is a chair professor at Yonsei University and council member of the Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch. The book is a careful selection of Lew's research over the past 30 years. His work have been published and presented at major international conferences and served as reading material in related courses at Stanford University.

Above is an undated picture of King Gojong (1852-1919), the second last monarch of the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910), in Western attire. At the turn of the 20th century, the king exhibited strong interest in maintaining ties with the United States, Korea's first Western treaty partner, for the purposes of protecting the country's independence against Japan's growing imperialism and promoting Korean "enlightenment.''
/ Korea Times File
``This lucidly written volume is highly recommended as a text for the classroom as well as for a wider readership,'' said Martina Deuchler, a professor at the University of London. You can dismiss the stereotype that history is boring. What unfolds is ``a most exciting and affecting drama'' (Suh Ji-moon, Korea University professor) a nation's struggle to protect its independence in a harsh imperialistic world climate.

For Korea, the turn of the 20th century was marked by reform and shaky foreign alliances. Six essays vividly focus on Korea's relationships with its protector-state China, threatening neighbor Japan and first Western treaty partners; the introduction of Protestantism into the Confucian society; and early Western historiography on Korea.

During the Tokugawa or Edo period (1600-1868), Japan regarded Korea with ``cordial deference,'' but after opening to the West in the mid-1800s, it started to look down upon the China-oriented country ``with contempt.'' It sought to manifest its imperialistic ambitions on the Korean peninsula, which would additionally act as a buffer against the perceived Russian threat. Japan would also be able to generously ``share'' the blessings of their newly acquired Western culture.

``Inadequately equipped'' for such advances, the xenophobic state started to recognize ``the beneficial aspects of Western civilization.'' The alarmed Korean rulers ``tried to gain time by dilatory tactics, hoping in the meantime to achieve national `enlightenment' and `self-strengthening.''' In 1882, Korea signed the Shufeldt Treaty with the U.S., establishing its first diplomatic ties with a Western state.

However, Korea's tributary debt to China was omnipresent, and the agreement, according to the author, ``was the strategic calculation of the Chinese statesman Li Hongzhang, namely to `play the American barbarian' off against the Russian `barbarian.''' Li's main aim was leveraging China's assertion of suzerainty over Korea.

Nevertheless, King Gojong (1852-1919), the second to last Joseon monarch, saw the U.S. treaty as a potential buffer against Japan's growing imperialistic tendencies and, to Li's discontent, repel China's suzerainty. It was, moreover, a means to ``enlighten'' the archaic state to revamp the military power and economy through American involvement.

Gojong thus opened a legation in Washington, D.C. and appointed highly paid American political and military advisors. He also gave leeway to American financiers, who made a fortune through lucrative franchises in gold mining, railroad building, electricity and water systems, among others. Despite the dynastic ban on Christianity, the king also ``opened doors'' to American missionaries.

The U.S., on the other hand, had initially been led to sign the pact ``on the misguided assumption that the hermit kingdom was almost as important as Japan, or even China, because of `fabulous' hidden resources.'' But it was soon revealed that Korea was ``stagnant and impoverished'' and the traditional Sino-Korean tributary relationship muddled affairs. Korea's importance was gradually diminished in American foreign policy.

Ultimately, in violation of the Shufeldt Treaty, the U.S. supported Japan's imperialistic designs on Korea (1905 U.S.-Japan Taft-Katsura Agreement), allowing the Joseon Kingdom to crumple.

But the U.S. had, perhaps unwittingly, collaborated with Japan far before 1905. Between 1867 and 1905, Japan attempted to play three roles in the evolution of Korean-American relations: mediator between the leaders of the two countries; self-appointed champion of Korean independence (from China) and enlightenment; and as an arch-imperialist encroaching on Korean independence. While it failed in the first two, it succeeded in the latter, writes the author.

Japan was able to carefully ``(manipulate) the United States as her collaborator in a drive to establish hegemony over the Korean Peninsula in rivalry with China and Russia.'' For example, winning the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) enabled Japan to demolish the barriers China had set up in Korea and open it up into a ``happy hunting ground of concessionists.''

Furthermore, after the Shufeldt Treaty, Korea was ``set adrift on an ocean of intrigue which it was quite helpless to control'' (Tyler Dennett), with subsequent pacts with Great Britain and Germany (1883), Italy and Russia (1884), France (1886) and Austro-Hungary (1889). The small peninsula thus became ``a major playground for contending imperialistic powers.''

However, the author shows that the treaty wasn't without benefit to Korea. Many Korean students and citizens traveled to the U.S., including the Republic of Korea's first president Syngman Rhee.

Despite the American government's unwillingness to abide to treaty conditions like providing more American officials on time, ``private'' Americans, namely merchant-financiers, diplomatists and missionaries, strongly influenced the political, economic and cultural spheres ``quite out of proportion to their numbers.'' In particular, American missionaries built modern hospitals, churches and schools.

Protestant institutions were the main vehicles for promoting social reform, and even contributed to the rise of the modern Korean identity by using ``hangeul'' (Korean alphabet) rather than Chinese characters in their publications. Today, Korea is home to the largest Protestant community in East Asia, with Christianity being the leading religion among Koreans, ahead of Buddhism by about 7 percent (National Census Bureau).

Korea's independence was lost and the colonial experience was indeed a painful and traumatic one. But the author says that it was a ``process of trial and error'' through which ``the Korean people absorbed valuable lessons in coping with the realities of the 20th century.''

After liberation from Japan in 1945, the Korean peninsula would undergo more rough times, of conflict (the Korean War, 1950-53) and division. The establishment of the 38th Parallel would once again involve the main players of the game, the United States, Japan, China and Russia. Korea remains the only divided country in the world.

* Note: Korean names and terms that appear in this article may differ from those of the book, which uses a different Romanization system (i.e. King Gojong vs. Kojong).