(66) French voyeur incident
People living in the close and cramped quarters of large cities are often deprived of privacy and residents of Seoul in the late Joseon period were no exception. Laws were enacted to protect against these intrusions and to maintain social order. One such law was the prohibition of climbing on roofs in an effort to protect the sanctity of the courtyard.
Percival Lowell, an American who lived in Korea during the winter of 1883-84, explained that “climbing to any, even one’s own, roof is in Korean eyes a grave affair, for it is a question of statute. It is forbidden by law to go upon one’s own housetop without giving one’s neighbors formal notification of one’s intention to do so. The object of the law is to prevent any woman’s being accidentally seen by one of the other sex.”
From the roof, a voyeur might gain visual access to the women’s quarters which were located in the back of the compound. It was commonly understood by all — including foreigners — that this behavior would not be tolerated.
But apparently at least one Korean servant thought that his ties with the French legation would protect him from prosecution — but he was wrong — and his actions began one of the first big scandals involving the French Commissaire Collin de Plancy.
In June 1889, while out on an errand, a Korean servant with the French legation was discovered peeking over a wall into the women’s chambers of a nobleman’s estate. The nobleman, Soh, immediately had the servant arrested, beaten and jailed.
Plancy was furious when he heard that his servant had been arrested and demanded his immediate release. He then ordered a group of Korean soldiers whom had been assigned to the French legation as a guard to immediately proceed to Soh’s house and release the prisoner. Furthermore, the soldiers were to arrest Soh and bring him to the French legation so that he could answer for his arrogance. Apparently Plancy scolded him severely and then allowed him to leave — probably outraged and shocked with embarrassment.
The Korean government was furious at the actions of the French representative and demanded that the servant be turned over so that he could be further punished. Plancy steadfastly refused.
He stressed the inviolability of the legation’s grounds and its staff. It was, he argued, his prerogative as to whether the servant was punished and to what degree. Plancy wrote up a note of protest to the Korean president of foreign affairs and asked his fellow foreign representatives to sign the note thus presenting a unified front.
The American representative, Hugh A. Dinsmore, a devoted Christian and “cool-headed lawyer” refused to sign as the nature of the crime was a very serious offense in Korea. He further chastised Plancy for using the Korean soldiers in the manner he had. Dinsmore claimed that the soldiers were there as a courtesy to protect the legation and the consuls, not to be used as Plancy’s personal police force.
Plancy was furious. He accused Dinsmore of having advised the Korean government not to give in to French pressure and had provided them with passages from law books enabling them during their negotiations to end the dispute. Dinsmore admitted that King Gojong had asked him for his opinion — which he did not give — but did allow a Korean officer to copy passages. It was in his opinion that the Korean officials would be more likely to conclude the incident in an amicably way.
The incident was resolved by the end of the month. The Korean government, likely not wanting to aggravate the easily-offended Plancy allowed him to retain jurisdiction over his servant. Whether the servant was further punished or not is unknown.
Robert Neff is a contributing writer for the Korea Times.