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America abandons King Kojong
A brief history of the US-Korea relations prior to 1945
Kim Young-Sik, Ph.D.

Photo: King Kojong in his "Emperor" regalia, circa 1898.

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[This following excerpt is taken from Kim Young-Sik's paper 'A brief history of the US-Korea relations prior to 1945.']

Kojong (1852-1919) was the 26th King of the Chosun Dynasty. He became the king in 1863 at the tender age of 11. His father, Daewongun, became the Regent and ruled the nation on his behalf. King Kojong's crafty wife, Queen Min, succeeded in dislodging Daewongung from power in 1873 and King Kojong assumed the power for the first time under the shadow of his domineering wife.

The 1882 Chemulpo Treaty of Amity and Trade was largely engineered by Queen Min. The Treaty involved more than friendship and fair trades: it was in effect a mutual defense treaty. King Kojong believed that the United States would protect his kingdom from any foreign invasion. He felt safe after getting the US to sign the Treaty. But subsequent events would prove him wrong - dead wrong.

Japan defeated Russia in 1904 and became a world power. Japan's military might was recognized and respected by the Western powers, and she began to flex her muscle. Korea became the first victim. On July 19, 1904, Japanís Count Katsura met with US Secretary of War William Howard Taft to iron out outstanding problems between Japan and the United States. Japan had close ties with the Hawaiian royal family, who sought Japan's assistance in freeing Hawaii from the US occupation.

Another bone of contention was the Philippines. In 1898, the US Pacific fleet attacked the Spanish fleet in Manila and the Spanish American war spread to the Philippines. The United States had promised the Philippine Nationalists an independent nation after Span was defeated. When Spain surrendered, the Americans reneged on the promise, and the nationalists began to fight the Americans. This guerrilla war continued until 1902, and Japan expressed concern about the US encroachment into the Pacific. (Elliot, 2003)

After ten days of intense negotiations, the Taft-Katsura Agreement was signed on July 29, 1904. Japan agreed to accept the US presence in Hawaii and the Philippines, and in exchange, the United States agreed to nullify the Chemulpo Treaty and to give Japan a free hand in Korea. When the agreement was signed, Japanese troops were already in Korea in large numbers and the US military had neither the will nor the power to expel the Japanese from Korea, even if it had wanted to.

The Taft-Katsura agreement on Korea is as follows: (Elliot, 2003)

"Third, in regard to the Korean Question, Count Katsura observed that Korea being the direct cause of our war with Russia, it is a matter of absolute importance to Japan that a complete solution of the peninsula question should be made as a logical consequence of the war. If left to herself after the war, Korea will certainly draw back to her habit of improvidently entering into any agreements or treaties with other powers, thus resuscitating the same international complications as existed before the war.

In view of the foregoing circumstances, Japan feels absolutely constrained to take some definite step with a view to precluding the possibility of Korea falling into her former condition and of placing us again under the necessity of entering upon another foreign war.

Secretary Taft fully admitted the justness of the Countís observations and remarked to the effect that, in his personal opinion, the establishment by Japanese troops of a suzerainty over Korea to the extent of requiring Korea to enter into no foreign treaties without the consent of Japan was a logical result of the present war and would directly contribute to permanent peace in the East." (Elliot, 2003)

After securing the US consent, Japan moved fast and made Korea a Japanese protectorate. Unaware of the secret Taft-Katsura agreement, King Kojong sent Homer Hulbert, an American friend and advisor to the Korean court, to Washington to seek US aid under the Chemulpo Treaty. President Teddy Roosevelt, under whose name the Taft-Katsura agreement was signed, refused to see Hulbert. (Elliot, 2003)

President Theodore Roosevelt's official stance was: "The Korean Government was in the position of an incompetent defective not yet committed to guardianship. The United States is her only disinterested friend-but has no intention of becoming her guardian.... We cannot possibly interfere for the Koreans against Japan. ... They could not strike one blow in their own defense." (US Army, 2003)

After the Taft-Katsura Agreement, some of the American advisers in King Kojong's court began to work secretly for the Japanese. They believed that Korea would be better off under Japan and worked their best to help Japan annex Korea. Durham White Stevens was one of these American turncoats. Stevens was employed as an adviser to the foreign ministry of King Kojong, while secretly working for Prince Ito Hirobumi, the chief architect of Japan's annexation of Korea. Stevens was gunned down by a Korean-American, Chang In-Whan, on March 23, 1908, in San Francisco. (Sunoo, 2003, 2003a)

In 1907, Japan forced King Kojong to step down, and his son became the puppet emperor of Korea. King Kojong's son, the last prince of the Chosun Dynasty, was installed as King Sunjong. He was a pro-Japanese and approved the Annexation Agreement on August 29, 1910. The Chosun Dynasty founded by General Yi Sung-gye 519 years ago became part of Japan. Many of the pro-Japanese Koreans were rewarded with Japanese royal titles - counts, lords, etc., were given large tracts of land, and became rich and powerful under the Japanese rule.

Kim Young-Sik is editor of Korea WebWeekly.

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