Rallies and marches erupted throughout the country this past Aug. 29 as Korea marked the 100th anniversary of one of the most tragic moment in its history: the conclusion of the Korea-Japan Annexation Treaty of 1910. Compared to the wave of self-reflection on this “day of national disgrace” when Korea surrendered its sovereignty to imperial Japan, however, another treaty between the two countries receives little attention: the Joseon-Japan Treaty of Amity of 1876 concluded on Ganghwa Island, 34 years before the annexation treaty. If the 1910 treaty was the final chapter of the imperial Japan’s invasion of Korea, the 1876 treaty was the preamble. As much as we remember the final chapter of the saddest moment of Korean history, we should not forget the preamble and how it all began.
The 1876 treaty was the outcome of Japan’s careful and thorough preparation to set its colonial foot in Joseon. Ostensibly, the treaty was to address the aftermath of the military conflict between Joseon and Japan when a Japanese warship named Unyo Maru had intruded upon Ganghwa Island the previous year. The skirmish was a mere excuse, and Japan was determined to take advantage of this rare opportunity to force Korea to accept an unequal treaty. The Japanese delegation for the treaty negotiation, headed by General Kuroda Kiyotaka, came to Ganghwa Island on Feb. 10, 1876, with the support of cannons (eight warships and soldiers) and a new weapon of choice: international law.
In fact, Japan was quick to understand the importance of international law in international relations through its reluctant prior dealings with Western countries. Japan’s negotiations with the United States for its 1858 Treaty of Amity were even conducted in Dutch because of ties between Japan and the Netherlands. The 1858 treaty ended up having three authentic texts made in English, Japanese and Dutch, which indicates the legal sophistication of Japan. When American Henry Wheaton’s famous book “Elements of International Law” was published in Japan in 1864, it became one of the must-read books in the then upper echelons of Japan. Furthermore, Minister Enomoto Takeaki, who was apparently the de facto advisor to General Kuroda during the course of the 1876 Ganghwa Treaty, spent a long time in the Netherlands studying international law.
So, when Feb. 10, 1876 came and the negotiation betweens Joseon and Japan started on Ganghwa Island, Japan was fully equipped with knowledge of international law from its 20-year study and experience of it. Not surprisingly, the record shows that the negotiations proceeded at Japan’s pace and demand. Joseon’s delegation head, General Sin Hon, was not able to overcome the obvious disparity in knowledge and skill. The negotiations ended in two weeks and Joseon was forced to accept the 12-article treaty with Japan. This treaty was the initiation of Japan’s invasion of Joseon and paved the road for the 1910 annexation treaty 34 years later.
On the occasion of the centennial anniversary of “the day of national disgrace,” it is noteworthy that the first wave of Japanese imperialism came to Korea with international law as well as with sheer military power. The final closure in 1910 was not that different with the combination of the two elements tying Korea’s hands. It is also telling how much effort Japan made in studying and mobilizing international law to drive its national interest during this period.
The rallies and marches to mark “the day of national disgrace” showed that what happened 100 years ago is still vivid for many Koreans. All possible lessons should be extracted and this tragic chapter of Korean history should never be repeated. In this regard, one of the important tasks is to thoroughly analyze how it all began. Thus, the treaty of 1876 merits an equal amount of attention as the treaty of 1910. It is sad that international law was behind Japan’s orchestration and implementation of its imperialism in the Korean peninsula. But at the same time it reminds us of the importance of cultivating the national pool of expertise in the field of international law to survive in this treacherous world. International law alone will not defend the country. But it is an essential element for the defense of the country. What happened 134 years ago is exhibit A of this.
By Lee Jae-min
Lee Jae-min is an associate professor of law at the School of Law, Hanyang University, in Seoul. Formerly he practiced law as an associate attorney with Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP. -- Ed.