Itō Hirobumi’s Iron Fist in Korea, 1905

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle pp. 640-642:

The discussion between Emperor Kojong and Itō Hirobumi lasted for four hours. The emperor must have felt humiliated, but he had no choice but to yield: Itō had made it clear that if he refused, the Japanese would intervene militarily and overthrow his dynasty. In descriptions of Itō in other situations, he is usually portrayed as an urbane, highly civilized man, but he now demonstrated he had an iron fist inside his velvet glove. His refusal to allow the emperor even the barest modicum of self-respect—by pretending that orders actually issued by the Japanese had originated with the emperor—was couched in suitably polite language, but Kojong recognized the seriousness of the threat. Kojong himself, hitherto described in most sources as a nonentity, especially in contrast with his consort, Queen Min, showed dignity and strength in this great crisis of his reign.

On November 16 Itō invited members of the Korean cabinet and senior statesmen to his hotel for a friendly chat which turned into a fierce argument that lasted until midnight. According to one Korean account: “The ministers, before coming to the hotel, had sworn to one another that they would not yield to the Japanese demands under any circumstances. The Japanese used every kind of reasoning, offered them immense bribes, cajoled them, and finally threatened to kill them if they refused to yield.”

On the following day a meeting between the Japanese (Itō, Minister Hayashi Gonsuke, and General Hasegawa Yoshimichi) and the Korean cabinet took place at the Japanese legation. Members of the cabinet continued to voice their opposition to the treaty, and no decision could be reached. The emperor appealed to Itō for a delay, lest forcing the issue lead to disorder, but Itō refused. Instead, the Japanese army and military police were called out. The same Korean account states, “Machine guns were everywhere in the streets, and even field guns were brought out to command the strategic points of the city. They made feint attacks, occupied gates, put their guns into position, and did everything short of actual violence to prove to the Koreans that they were prepared to enforce their demands.”

On November 18, 1905, the treaty of protection was signed. It was in five articles:

1. Japan would henceforth conduct foreign relations for Korea and, through its diplomatic and consular personnel abroad, protect Korean subjects and their interests.

2. Japan would carry out the provisions of treaties already concluded by Korea with foreign countries, but Korea would promise henceforth not to conclude international treaties without the prior consent of the Japanese government.

3. Japan would station in Korea as its representative a resident general who would be concerned exclusively with foreign affairs. He would have the privilege of audiences with the emperor. The Japanese government would station “residents” at opened ports and such other places in Korea as it deemed essential.

4. All existing agreements between Japan and Korea would remain in force, providing they did not conflict with the provisions of the present treaty.

5. Japan guaranteed it would preserve the safety and dignity of the Korean imperial household.

There was naturally bitter resentment in Korea over the treaty imposed by Japan. Word of how the ministers had voted soon leaked out to the press, and newspapers courageously published editorials denouncing the treaty and those ministers who had betrayed their country by yielding to the Japanese demands. The following days were marked by “howls of grief” and mass demonstrations in the square in front of the palace. Shops and schools closed in protest, and Christian churches were filled with the sounds of lamentation.

Itō Hirobumi was appointed as the first resident general on December 21, 1905. His activities in Korea, despite his assurances to Emperor Kojong, were by no means restricted to foreign affairs. He determined, for example, to rid the palace of corruption in order to end its protection of banditry and uprisings elsewhere in the country. With the permission of the Korean emperor, Itō took personal command of the palace guards.

Itō’s assassin, An Jung-geun, later listed 15 reasons why Itō should be killed at his trial.

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Filed under Japan, Korea, migration, military, nationalism

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