Austria-Korea: 120 years
Austria-Hungary used to be a naval power in the 19th century and ran the 8th biggest maritime force worldwide before the outbreak of the First World War. Since the opening of the Suez-Canal in 1869 many Austro-Hungarian warships had regularly set sail to East Asia.
The corvette “Zrinyi,” named after a Croatian-Hungarian noble family, was the first Austro-Hungarian navy vessel to visit Korea in 1890. It was launched at the port of Trieste in 1870 and sailed from the naval port of Pola to the Far East under Commander Wladimir von Khittel. From Nov. 21 to Oct. 2 1890, it anchored in Chemulpo.
Short excerpts of the comprehensive authorized account of this first official Austrian visit to Korea are presented in the following:
''The city Chemulpo, in the district Jenchuan (modern spelling Incheon), province Kiung-Kei, situated at the mouth of the Salee-River, extending East of Roze-Island… Chemulpo lies only 30 sea miles away from the capital Soul and seems to be its harbor… The population of Chemulpo counts around 6,000 inhabitants, 30 of whom are Europeans. Among the latter were three nationals of the Austrian states, namely the owner of the Hotel de Korea, the Galicia-born Isaak Steinbeck, his wife nee Kamerling and her minor sister Hanna.”
On Sept. 24 1890 Commander Khittel decided to undertake a journey to the Royal Capital City of Seoul, accompanied by Lieutenant Commanders Morelli and V. Friedenfels, the Sub-Lieutenant Lengnick as well as a Korean travel marshal and two servants.
Even before reaching Seoul, the Austrians were courteously received by an emissary of the Foreign Minister. After several hours on horseback, the first official delegation from Austria marveled at the Korean capital Seoul. “On the day after their arrival in Seoul our travelers witnessed a rare and imposing spectacle. There was a final rehearsal of the upcoming funeral of the Queen Mother, who had died two months beforehand. The funeral was to take place on October 14 1890.”
On Sept. 26, the delegation paid their respect to the President of the Foreign Ministry Min Chong-muk. Commander Khittel was immediately asked, if he was authorized to sign a Treaty of Friendship, Commerce and Navigation, which he unfortunately had to deny. His sole mission was to get an impression of the Kingdom of Korea which he would have to convey to his superior in Vienna.
However, the Commander promised to inform Vienna about President Min’s earnest wish to establish bilateral relations with Austria-Hungary. Furthermore, Commander Khittel reported that the Foreign Minister was pleased about the fact that Austria-Hungary was situated on the border to the German Reich, with which Korea had already been maintaining good relations. In his reports, the Commander furthermore made the correct political assessment that Korea’s interest in a mutual contract was mainly due to its intention to further preserve the Kingdom’s sovereignty and identity. According to Minister Min, even King Kojong himself would have been willing to receive the Austrian Officer:
“In the course of our meeting, President Min told me that King Kojong of Korea regretted not to have received me in audience. In fact, the strict rules of the court etiquette would not allow him to receive any foreign Ambassadors during the time of court mourning.”
In his report to the Navy Command in Vienna (addressed to the Navy Section in the Imperial and Royal ― k.u.k. ― Ministry of War), Commander Khittel declared Korea’s wish to sign a bilateral Treaty of Friendship, Commerce and Navigation. As in many other cases overseas, the Austro-Hungarian Imperial Navy became the key pioneer of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Austria and Korea.
At this time, Austria-Hungary was represented in East Asia by the Austrian Ambassador Rudiger Freiherr von Biegeleben, who was accredited to Japan, China and Siam. On June 23 1892, Ambassador Biegeleben signed the Treaty for Austria-Hungary, which marked the official beginning of bilateral relations between Austria-Hungary and the Kingdom of Korea.
In December of the same year, the cruiser “Empress Elisabeth” led by Captain Alois von Becker set sail for East Asia. From Oct. 3 to Oct. 5 1893, the ship anchored in Chemulpo in order to hand over the Austrian instrument ratifying the treaty and signed by Emperor Franz Joseph. On this occasion, von Becker confirmed the exchange of ratified documents with Korean Foreign Minister Nam Chong-chol and after that continued his voyage to Hong Kong.
While the Austrian copy of the treaty can still be found in the Austrian State Archive in Vienna, the Korean document was lost during the Korean War.
In the following years, other Austrian-Hungarian navy vessels visited Korea. The largest among them was the armored cruiser, ''Empress and Queen Maria Theresia.’’ It arrived in 1901 with rear admiral Rudolf Graf Montecuccoli and Georg von Trapp (later Captain von Trapp from the famous movie “The Sound of Music”) on board who had been sent to East Asia in the course of the Boxer Rebellion in China. First visits by Korean ambassadors to Vienna were recorded in the years 1900 and 1901. However, it was not until 1967 that the first embassy of the later Republic of Korea was inaugurated in Vienna followed by the establishment of a resident Austrian embassy in Seoul in 1985.
Wilhelm M. Donko, born in 1960, was Austrian ambassador to the Republic of Korea from 2005-2009. He wrote numerous articles and books on the subject of maritime history.