(77) Bonsal: witness to tragedy
By Robert Neff
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Joseon Korea was visited by several very important newspapermen ― some of them before they became famous. One such individual was Stephen Bonsal who became an inadvertent champion of Korea’s fight for independence from Japan’s occupation.
Born in 1865, Bonsal traveled extensively throughout Asia during the late 1890s serving as a junior diplomat with the American legations in Japan and China and later as a newspaper reporter. His role in Korea’s history began on Oct. 19, 1895, where he arrived in Seoul and is said to have stayed several months at the American legation. How long he actually stayed in the legation is somewhat sketchy ― the wife of the American Minister to Korea only mentions him once in her diary.
Despite not having witnessed it, in 1907, Bonsal described the murder of Queen Min as:
“The essential facts are that Japanese troops surrounded the palace grounds and held hostage the population and the loyal troops in check that Korean troops trained and officered by Japanese broke down the gates, and that a horde of Japanese soldiers together with a number of “soshi” or unattached adventurers rushed in, and under the guidance of men attached to the Japanese Legation made their way to the pavilion where the Queen slept. Her Majesty aroused by the tumult in the city, had apparently a fair opportunity to escape. Indeed, it is reported that she had already fond a safe refuge in the vast park, when her maternal instinct, her idolatry for her imbecile boy whom the Japanese would now proclaim Emperor brought her back to the palace where she met her death.”
After an audience with King Gojong which, according to him, was instigated by the Diplomatic Corps and opposed by the Japanese Minister, Bonsal reported that there was still some question as to the Queen’s fate ― some, including the King, “clung to the hope that she had made good her escape disguised as a dancing girl out of the city.”
Bonsal also felt that the United States had abandoned Korea. He wrote, “we (the United States) were the first Western power to conclude a treaty with Korea, and in making that treaty we seem to have guaranteed her safety and interests – indeed, in a Korean version of this document which has been widely read and commented upon …during the past six months, we are represented to having entered into a solemn compact to maintain the integrity of the Korean dominion and to sustain the royal house against all comers.” He suggested that because the senate had confirmed the treaty that it [could not] legally be abrogated by any arrangement between President Roosevelt and the Japanese Foreign Office.”
Apparently he was wrong. Later, at the League of Nations conference in Versailles, he witnessed the failed efforts of the Korean delegation to be heard and wrote:
“These eminent gentlemen, whose power in the Far East was only exceeded by their ignorance of the situation, ‘disremembered’ a treaty of alliance, defensive and even offensive, which was negotiated with the Seoul government forty-five years ago by one of our roving sailor diplomats. It bound Washington to defend these unfortunate people against all intruders, whatever might be the purpose with which they came. Doubtless this formal instrument was placed in the "dead" files, but even before the encroachments came from benevolent China and later ruthless aggression from predatory Japan, it was regarded by the Koreans (it being among other things the first treaty they had ever negotiated with the Western World) as the charter of their liberties and the bulwark of their independence.”
Bonsal went on to win a Pulitzer Prize in 1944 for his efforts to publicize the little nations’ plights and later witnessed not only Korea’s independence but the start of the Korean War.
Robert Neff is a contributing writer for The Korea Times.