(93) Absence of Leadership Leads to Debacle

By Yang Sung-jin

Few things are more important than leadership in maintaining the sovereignty of a nation and ensuring the welfare of the populace. But this respectable notion is often ignored by self-styled leaders, otherwise known as “politicians.”

To prove the point, one only needs to ask a passerby about the level of leadership displayed by self-important Assemblymen who are quick to raise their own salaries and yet slow to take action against injustice.

The worst scenario caused by poor leadership is the total collapse of a nation, which is by no means a new story for Koreans. Near the end of the Choson Kingdom, most government officials and the high-class alike only cared about their own safety and welfare.

Such a selfish attitude did not help the situation at a time when Japan set its eyes on Choson territory.

The historically pertinent incident was the Protectorate Treaty (also known as the Treaty of 1905). The Japanese used this preposterous treaty as a chief tool to commit acts of aggression upon Choson — with great success.

The Treaty of 1905 signified, among other things, that the authority of the Choson Kingdom’s foreign diplomacy was at the hands of the Japanese Foreign Office. The Choson government was barred from entering into any further treaties with other nations unless Japan gave the green light.

In addition, the treaty ensured that a Japanese resident-general was appointed to an office right under the Choson king, in an attempt to take away Choson’s diplomatic sovereignty.

The Choson Annals, meanwhile, details the incident and discloses who favored and opposed the shameful deal with Japan. On Nov. 18, 1905, Foreign Affairs Minister Park Che-sun held negotiations with Hayashi Gonsuke, a Japanese counterpart, over the Treaty of 1905.

Park and four other top ministers — Lee Chi-yong, Lee Kun-taek, Lee Wan-yong and Kwon Chung-hyon — sided with Japan. The five ministers were later branded as the “Five Betrayers” by an enraged public.

According to an appeal filed by an official named Yun Byong-su on Nov. 26, when the treaty was signed, the atmosphere at the court in Seoul was more than tense.

“One day before the treaty was signed, Your Majesty remained unperturbed despite the countless Japanese soldiers who besieged the palace,” Yun said.

Another appeal by Park Ki-yang sheds light on the true nature of the treaty between Choson and Japan: “The Japanese minister threatened us concerning the treaty. Minister Park Che-sun, who was in charge of the matter, sided with Japan and signed the agreement with the seal of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, while an official Han Kyu-sol was pushed out of the scene. Park, whose family has long served the nation, remained unrepentant even after handing over a 500-year tradition, the land and people to foreigners, without getting ratification from Your Majesty.”

Earlier, Japan sent its elder politician, Ito Hirobumi, to conclude the protectorate treaty. On Nov. 9, he met with King Kojong of Choson and then put forward the agreement proposal.

The court discussed the issue under a heated atmosphere. Most officials opposed the treaty — at least initially.

Faced with a challenge from the court officials, Ito Hirobumi and his well-armed soldiers deftly staged a show of force in and around the palace, revealing their willingness to use violence if the Choson court did not cave in.

Another court meeting was held and still the conclusion was a resounding “No.” Yet the Japanese did not step back, either. Ito Hirobumi, accompanied by soldiers, forced a meeting and asked the yes-or-no question to the ministers one by one.

Of the chief ministers, only Han Kyu-sol and Min Yong-ki vigorously opposed the treaty. Other ministers were silent and then meekly consented on the condition that specific clauses of the draft should be revised.

On that day, King Kojong was not immune to criticism. The monarch did not ratify the treaty and yet opted to take opportunistic stances in a bid to keep his post and secure the welfare of the royal family.

When the officials presented their case about the treaty, King Kojong appeared agonized over the issue but did not express outright opposition, which in turn prompted Japanese representatives to further speed up the process.

King Kojong, in fact, gave an order to the court officials that the negotiations should be conducted carefully over fears of irking the Japanese counterparts. The statement was arbitrarily interpreted as an agreement to the treaty proposal put forth by the Japanese imperialists while the court officials remained murky about their positions on the issue.

The Treaty of 1905 generated bitter public anger from the populace. Challenging the Japanese censorship, the Choson press criticized the Japanese aggression while the public outrage reached a boiling point.

With countless demonstrations held in downtown Seoul, Min Yong-hwan, the military aide-de-camp to the king, committed suicide, despondent over the sorry situation.

Other officials — Cho Pyong-se, Hong Man-sik, Song Pyong-son and Lee Sang-chol — followed Min’s patriotic example.

As the public poured out their anger directed toward the so-called Five Betrayers, Lee Wan-yong quickly came up with an excuse.

“The five ministers risked their lives to revise the draft of the treaty but there are few people among the public who know the real truth. Without knowing the situation in detail, people are calling us betrayers who sold off the nation to Japan, which is clearly wrong,” Lee argued.

Lee Wan-yong’s key point of the argument was that the treaty transferred diplomatic sovereignty to Japan but that it could be recovered if the nation built up its power again.

“The new treaty did not change the title of the nation. The royal court remains safe and the king continues to exercise great influence. The only difference is that we passed our sovereignty to a foreign nation for a limited period of time. Once we regain power, we will be able to get it back,” Lee claimed.

While Lee was focused on the justification of his act, ordinary citizens stood up against the Japanese aggression. Across the nation, guerrilla forces rose to resist Japan. For instance, Min Chong-sik seized Hongsong in Chungchong-do while Choe Ik-hyon and Im Pyong-chan staged armed resistance in Sunchang, Cholla-do.

Just watch to see whether the talkative politicians on television ahead of the parliamentary election next April have the mettle to speak out against injustice for the sake of the nation and pursue true leadership. A simple reminder: Don’t expect much.