(507) 1907 and Dashing Korean Hopes
By Andrei Lankov
On June 15, 1907, The Hague was scheduled to host the Second Peace Conference, a pompous international gathering where diplomats from countries large and small were supposed to discuss how to keep the peace and make wars even less likely and/or less brutal (the gathering took place seven years before the outbreak of WWI).
In that era, before the rise of the U.N., such public exercises in diplomatic demagoguery were rather unusual and therefore attracted much attention.
Nowadays the event seems to be forgotten by everybody but a handful of historians. However, in Korea the memory of The Hague Peace Conference is still alive. Indeed, the Conference had a major impact on the country.
When King Gojong learned about the forthcoming conference he decided that this venue would be the right place for Korean diplomats to take a stance against Japan and win international sympathy for the cause of Korean independence.
He decided to secretly dispatch a group of dignitaries, who would address the Peace Conference and denounce the treaties Japan had forced on Korea.
For the mission the King chose three diplomats ― Yi Sang-sol, Yi Chun and Yi Wi-chong. They were chosen, among other things, because they had received a modern education and spoke foreign languages fluently.
They secretly met the king and received the papers that confirmed their standing as secret ambassadors of the Korean sovereign.
The group went to Russia first and after traveling across Siberia by train finally arrived in The Hague on June 29. The Korean delegates translated the documents, which criticized the Japanese actions in Korea as illegal, and sent the French text to all forty delegations attending the gathering.
Then they attempted to set up meetings with foreign dignitaries who came to The Hague to attend the Peace Conference.
However, predictably, the seasoned diplomats shunned the Korean delegation. The reason was simple: despite the sweet-sounding notion of ``international law,'' ``eternal peace'' and the like, the Western delegates were hard-nosed realists and put no credence in the Korean statements.
They were trained to look after their own nation's interests, first and foremost, and from this point of view the Koreans' presence at the gathering was not welcomed.
First of all, nearly all the major players were colonial powers themselves. The Netherlands ruled what is now known as Indonesia, Russia had just finished its conquest of Central Asia, France and Britain controlled huge areas worldwide and even the U.S. had just finished off the pro-independence movement in the Philippines.
None of these countries wanted to create a precedent which would undermine its own control over its own colonies.
Second, nobody wanted to alienate Japan whose spectacular victory over Russia made it the first ``non-white'' great power. Japan was on the rise, and Korea looked doomed. The realist politicians knew it, and they would not support the Korean cause.
The Korean delegates decided to pay a call on the conference chairman, Count Nelidov of Russia, but he refused to talk to them when they came to his residence. He said that he could not meet with them without a prior introduction from the Dutch Foreign Ministry.
The delegates believed that Russia would be supportive, having recently lost a war with Japan. But this was not the case, since the new Russian policy in East Asia was aimed at repairing relations with what appeared to be the only Asian great power. So, the Korean delegates had to return home disappointed.
The Dutch foreign minister when approached, also shunned them, and asked his secretary to inform the Koreans that their presence at the conference would be impossible. The representatives of France, Germany and Britain also refused to discuss the situation with the Koreans.
Nonetheless, the delegates managed to deliver speeches at some rallies, and publish a few newspaper articles in which they explained Korea's position, and denounced the 1905 Treaty as illegal.
It was a minor success, but in general the secret mission to The Hague was a failure (and hardly could have been otherwise). In mid-July Yi Chun, one of the three emissaries, died in The Hague, a man broken by the obvious collapse of his hopes.
According to a story, which became popular in the colonial era, he was believed to have committed suicide as a protest. This was not the case, but stress and hard work did bring about his demise.
The diplomats left The Hague soon afterwards. Yi Sang-sol and Yi Wi-chong moved to Russia where they remained active participants in the pro-independence movement. Back in Seoul, the Japanese were outraged when they learned about Gojong's exercise in secret diplomacy.
The aging king was forced to abdicate, passing the throne to his son Sunjong, the last monarch of the Joseon Kingdom.
And what about The Hague Peace Conference? It passed a number of resolutions, which banned the use of sea mines (``It is forbidden to lay automatic contact mines off the coast and ports of the enemy, with the sole object of intercepting commercial shipping"); and also prohibited the ``launching of projectiles and explosives'' from any type of aircraft.
Well, the First World War clearly demonstrated the real value ― or rather lack thereof ― of this high-minded undertaking.
Prof. Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He has recently published ``The Dawn of Modern Korea,'' which is now on sale at Kyobo Book Center and other major bookstores. The book is based on columns published in The Korea Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org