(528) Eulsa Treaty
By Andrei Lankov
For how long did Japan rule Korea? Most textbooks note that the colonial period lasted for 35 years, from the 1910 annexation to the 1945 liberation.
This is technically correct, but for all practical purposes, Korea lost its independence earlier, in 1905 when a protectorate treaty was forced on the country by the Japanese.
The fate of Korea was sealed by the outcome of the Russo-Japanese war. In September 1905, Count Witte and Komura Jutaro signed the Treaty of Portsmouth which formally recognized the military victory of Japan.
The treaty was widely cheered in Asia: after all, it was the first time an Asian country had defeated a Western power in regular warfare, including high-tech naval engagements.
In their sincere enthusiasm for the Japanese victory, people in China and Vietnam tended to forget that the war was fought over the right to dominate and colonize vast areas of Northeast Asia, so the Japanese victory was merely the success of yet another nation's imperialism.
Koreans did not see the Treaty of Portsmouth as a cause for celebration. After its defeat, Russia essentially relinquished most of its imperialist schemes in East Asia, and recognized Korea and South Manchuria as belonging to the Japanese ``sphere of influence.''
Before that, Japanese ambitions in Korea were to an extent limited by the ongoing rivalry of Tokyo and Petersburg (in those days Moscow was not the Russian capital). The Treaty of Portsmouth meant that the era of Korea's ``balancing'' was over.
For all practical purposes, Korea fell under Japanese military rule from the outbreak of hostilities. By the end of spring 1904, the Japanese military controlled the entire country.
They forced unequal agreements onto the Koreans, but were slightly hesitant in making a decisive move as long as their war with Russia was still unresolved. The Treaty of Portsmouth changed everything.
In mid-November 1905, Hirobumi Ito, a powerful Japanese statesman, arrived in Korea to force a protectorate regime on the Korean government.
Ito, later to be assassinated by Korean nationalist Ahn Jung-geun, is still seen in Korea as evil incarnate. In reality, he was merely a politician of his era who wanted Japan to do what all other powers did in the days of gunboat diplomacy: to force its rule on the vast areas of the underdeveloped world.
It was clear that the Korean government overwhelmingly opposed the Japanese penetration, so extraordinary measures were taken. The Japanese forces surrounded the royal palace, and guns were targeted on the palace as well.
Later, when the proposed agreement encountered resistance from the Korean officials, Ito even appeared on the palace grounds, surrounded by a large detachment of Japanese soldiers.
Nonetheless, when the Korean government and King Gojong saw the draft of the treaty, they refused to sign it. In essence, the fairly short agreement amounted to a total surrender of Korean independence.
King Gojong said that he would not sign the document himself, but would leave the decision over whether it should be signed to his top officials.
This might be interpreted as a sign of cowardice, but it is a bit too easy to blame the king who had to make decisions virtually under the barrels of Japanese guns (and the fate of his wife, murdered by Japanese agents, testified that this was more than just a subtle show of force).
Nonetheless, after many efforts and much pressure, the Japanese managed to find only five high-level Korean dignitaries prepared to sign the treaty, which was known as the Eulsa Treaty, after the name of the year 1905 in the traditional Korean calendar.
Those officials, headed by the then-Minister of Education Yi Wan-yong, were eventually richly rewarded by the Japanese. However, in Korean history they are referred to as ``the five Eulsa criminals.''
The treaty itself was signed on Nov. 17, 1905, the date which is still remembered as the ``Day of National Disgrace.''
Indeed, the treaty spelled an end to Korea as an independence state, even though some trappings of sovereignty were preserved for a little while, until 1910.
The treaty's Article 1 stipulated that all international contacts with Korea, as well as consular protection of its citizens overseas, should be handled by the Japanese.
Article 2 prohibited Korea from making treaties with foreign powers. In essence, Korea had surrendered its right to an independent foreign policy.
In accordance with Article 3, Japan would appoint a high-level official, called the Resident General, to supervise all political activity in the country. Without his permission, no political decisions of nationwide importance could be made.
It was a standard device of the imperialist policies of the era; even the title was taken from the Western colonial parlance of the time. The British ``residents'' supervised assorted ``princely states'' of India, while their French colleagues toiled thusly in Africa.
The 1905 Treaty made Japan the complete and unchallengeable master of Korean affairs. For a while, the Japanese politicians were indecisive on whether they should go further and formally annex Korea. Eventually, however, that was what they did a few years later, in 1910.
Prof. Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He authored ``The Dawn of Modern Korea,'' which is now on sale at Kyobo Book Center and other major bookstores. The book is based on his columns published in The Korea Times. He can be reached at reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.