By Yang Sung-jin
The road is now crowded with cars, making frustrating traffic jams a daily routine. Shopping centers are also flooded by customers willing to spend their money on expensive items.
In recent months, it has become difficult to spot signs indicating that only a year ago the nation was in the middle of the financial crisis and across-the-board economic downturn.
After all, history repeats itself, especially for those who forget the past. In late 1997, when the International Monetary Fund rushed to rescue the nation teetering on the brink of total breakdown, the local media described the incident as “IMF trusteeship.”
The expression wrongly referred to the IMF-brokered rescue deal as the taking away of the nation’s economic independence, implying a similarity with the Japanese imperial rule which ended the Choson Kingdom in 1910.
Regardless of the allusion of “IMF trusteeship,” the moment Japan took away the sovereign rights of Choson, as detailed in the Kojong and Sunjong Annals, is worth remembering.
On Aug. 22, 1910, Choson and Japanese top officials were working on that “shameful” pact. On that sultry summer day, Lee Wan-yong, Choson’s prime minister and Masadagae Terawuchi, his Japanese counterpart, repeatedly revised clauses of the pact.
The key contents of the pact were that Japan would annex Choson in order to “promote mutual happiness and cement the peace in East Asia.”
It is still a bewildering clause. Where is the correlation between forceful annexation and peace in East Asia? For Japan, the contents of the pact mattered little. The priority was placed on railroading the pact.
Curiously, the third and fourth clauses of the pact were devoted to the Choson king and his family, “The Japanese Emperor will make efforts to ensure the status of the noble king and his descendants while paying enough pension.”
The eight-point pact, in general, frequently mentioned the honor and welfare of the Choson court members including the king, which brings up an interesting historical fact.
Given that the nation was set to fall into the hands of the Japanese, the Choson rulers and royal families appeared to have focused on securing their own safety and welfare through the pact, while ordinary citizens were doomed to suffer.
On Aug. 29, King Sunjong officially handed over sovereignty to Japan. Here is the official statement that is seldom remembered by today’s politicians “I have done my best to reform the state affairs but my poor health and the decline of the court has made things irreversible. Hereby, I have decided to hand over the rule of the nation to the Japanese Emperor whom I have long counted on in order to cement the peace in East Asia and protect the populace throughout the eight provinces. I hope you will not make trouble and will instead focus on your jobs and duties, while obeying the advanced rule of Japan. Today’s measure is not taken because I have forgotten the people but because I want to rescue the people.”
With this statement, King Sunjong was downgraded to mere King Yi, a lower title under the Japanese Emperor.
After sealing the annexation pact, Japan set up the King Yi Office to control the Choson royal members and established the Governor-General’s Office to manipulate state affairs.
Interestingly, there are few articles that tell of the atmosphere in Seoul and the attitudes of its citizens in response to the deplorable incident described in the Sunjong Annals.
The main reason for the lack of historical documents is that government office devoted to writing the Annals did not function properly after sovereignty was seized by Japan.
Instead, there is an article related to the notorious pro-Japanese group, Iljinhoe. About eight months before the humiliating pact was signed, Lee Yong-ku, president of Iljinhoe, issued a statement, citing its 1 million members.
The statement, which mainly argued for the necessity of the annexation of Choson by Japan, is worth a close inspection, “In 1894, Japan waged a war with Ching China and spent an astronomical amount of money and sacrificed tens of thousands of soldiers in order to rescue Choson from China’s influence. But it was the Choson people who mishandled their state affairs and lost the historical foundation of the nation. Japan did the same favor by fighting with Russia. Nevertheless, Choson changed their diplomatic partners on a whim, inviting troubles.”
Iljinhoe’s statement, though a heart pounding gesture of betrayal in the eyes of the Choson people, was received with a hearty welcome by Japan imperialists.
Lee Yong-ku, however, did not stop there. He went a step further, filing a lengthy petition to the king, “Choson has long been dead, if I may compare it to a patient. Where is the independent diplomatic right? Where’s the financial independence? Where are the military secrets? We don’t have any ground forces, nor do we have warships. All told, how can we call this a nation? The Japanese Emperor is now as accepting as a blood brother. Historically, Choson and Japan cannot be separated. But there are still anti-Japanese sentiments.”
Lee’s preposterous argument leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Although imperial Japan’s ambition to devour neighboring nations was the primary reason for the unfortunate annexation, there existed the enemy inside, infecting the core of national unity and independence.
Nowadays, few people talk about the bad old days of the so-called IMF crisis. Perhaps historical forgetfulness can be forgiven but becoming the enemy inside — especially those who squander away their money recklessly while the poor still struggle — cannot.