Gojong’s Korea caught in international power struggles

  • Published : Jul 11, 2010 - 18:35
  • Updated : Jul 11, 2010 - 18:35

Emperor Gojong, the second-to-last ruler of Joseon, suffered from invasion attempts from world powers throughout his reign from 1863 to 1907, culminating in the annexation of the country by Japan in three years later.

Afraid for his life after the murder of his wife, Empress Myeongseong, by Japan on Oct. 8, 1895, Gojong and his crown prince fled his palace, Gyeongbokgung, the following Feb. 11 and sought refuge at the Russian legation in Jeong-dong, Seoul. The flight to the Russian legation building took place in secrecy and was arranged by pro-Russian officials, including Yi Beom-jin and Lee Wan-yong.

Emperor Gojong, center, with his court aides (Yonhap News)

A renovated tower, the only remaining part of the Russian legation building in Seoul. (Ahn Hoon/The Korea Herald)

During Gojong’s one-year stay at the Russian legation, Russia exercised great influence on Korea’s internal governance. Russian officers were invited to Korean ministries and the army was reformed following the Russian manner using Russian arms.

Members of the old cabinet, including Kim Hong-jip, Eo Yun-jung, and Yu Gil-jun, were killed or forced to flee while pro-Russian figures were named to the new cabinet. Trade and resource concessions were granted to Russia and other Western powers, including the United States.

Facing pressure from both in and outside the country to break away from the Russian influence, Gojong returned to his palace -- not to Gyeongbokgung but to Gyeongungung (later renamed Deoksugung) -- on Feb. 25, 1897. He stayed there until Jan. 21, 1919, when he is alleged to have been poisoned by the Japanese.

Japan, which had long desired to invade Korea, was alarmed by Russia’s movements. The conflict between the Russian Empire and Japanese Empire over Manchuria and Korea led to the Russo-Japanese war which broke out on Feb. 8, 1904.

Being situated between the two major powers, Korea was a strategic point for both Japan and Russia. As the outbreak of the war became imminent, Gojong formally proclaimed Korea’s neutrality in January 1904.

Japan, however, sent troops to Seoul, occupied a number of buildings and forced the signing of a Korea-Japan protocol agreement on Feb. 23, 1904. The protocol provided legal justification for whatever political or military actions Japan might wish to take in Korea.

Japan also insisted that Japanese “government advisers” should be installed in Korean ministries and forced Korea to sign a new agreement on Aug. 22, 1904, which “invited” Japanese advisers to the peninsula. Starting with financial adviser Megata Tanetaro, a high official of the Japanese Ministry of Finance, Japan created a “government by advisers” in Korea, which took over the actual administrative authority. Korean ministers who had been accredited to Germany, France, Japan, China and other countries were recalled.

Following Japan’s victory in Russo-Japanese war on Sept. 5, 1905, the two countries signed the Treaty of Portsmouth in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on Aug. 10, 1905, in which Russia acknowledged that Japan possessed paramount political, military, and economic interests in Korea. Theodore Roosevelt, U.S. president at the time, had stepped in to mediate the terms.

In fact, before the Portsmouth Treaty was signed, Japan and the U.S. secretly signed the Taft-Katsura Agreement on July 29, 1905, in which the U.S. agreed to acquiesce to Japan’s domination of Korea in exchange for Japan’s recognition of U.S. hegemony over the Philippines.

England also acknowledged Japan’s right to take appropriate measures for the “guidance, control and protection” of Korea in renegotiating the terms of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance on Aug. 12, 1905.

Having won recognition from Russia, England and the U.S., Japan moved to establish a protectorate over Korea and sent Ito Hirobumi, a former prime minister, to Korea in November 1905. Ito forced Emperor Gojong to sign the 1905 Protectorate Treaty, also known as the Eulsa Treaty, on Nov. 17, 1905 despite Gojong’s refusal.

The treaty gave Japan full authority over all aspects of Korea’s relations with foreign countries and provided the post of Japanese Resident-General, who would be directly under the Korean emperor, to take charge of Korea’s foreign relations. Ito served as the first Resident-General.

Despite having signed the protectorate treaty, Emperor Gojong worked furtively to invalidate the document, seeking international help.

A telegram sent to Germany’s foreign minister by Gojong on Nov. 24, 1905 has been found, in which Gojong writes that the Japanese used military force to make him sign the treaty, which cannot be approved of according to international law.

In June 1907 Gojong secretly sent envoys to Hague Peace Conference in June 1907 to let the world know of the injustice done in Korea. The mission failed, however, as the president of the conference ruled that Korea was not entitled to participate, having lost authority over its own diplomatic affairs. However, the worldwide publicity the incident received did create considerable international furor.

Japan used the incident as a pretext to further strengthen its power over Korea, demanding that Gojong accept responsibility for the incident by abdicating.

Gojong’s second son, Sunjong became emperor in July 1907 and was later forced to issue a proclamation yielding both his throne and his country on Aug. 29, 1910.

By Park Min-young (