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15: Korea: Once the Land of the Morning Calm

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February 5, 1919

All is not quiet along the Seine tonight. Trouble is brewing and it comes from the experts of the Inquiry(1) who, to the number of two or three score, came over on the George Washington with the President determined to put the unruly peoples of Europe, Asia, and Africa in their proper places and make the world safe for democracy. They have served formal complaint to the effect that they are not in the close touch with the President, or with his lieutenant, House, to which they are entitled and the critical world situation demands. Since the day they had the privilege of holding "common council" with the chief of our delegation, our crusading President, on the voyage to France they complain that they have only had one conference with him and that it only lasted five minutes.

This morning, although it was raining cats and dogs, Mrs. House came into the office and said. "I wish you would take my lamb for a walk, under the colonnades of the rue de Rivoli so that he will not get wet to the skin, and tell him one of your stories about life in Korea, which amuse him so much. They must be nice people - at least they are not here squabbling and raising 'foreign issues,' which are so perplexing."

This gave me my cue. Mercifully, however, I did nor tell Mrs. House that while they had not, as yet, arrived, at least two Korean delegations were on their way to Paris with fully justified complaints against the arrogant Japanese supremacy under which they suffer.

In a few words the Colonel who now came in began to explain the quandary in which the President found himself. "The men of the Inquiry point out that at least once a week Lloyd George convokes the prime ministers from the Dominions, discusses with them the progress of the negotiations, and outlines his plans for the next stage. Why should the President not follow this example with the men of the Inquiry?

"I can only insist," continued the Colonel, "that the over-burdened President would like to do this but has not the time for these meetings in 'common council' of which he speaks so often but so rarely indulges in. But barring these conferences, everything possible has been done for the members of the Inquiry. For the most part they are lodged in the Crillon, they are close at hand for consultation, they have a spacious conference room where they get together to discuss the ever-changing situation, and their reports when they do arrive, nor I think as promptly as we could wish, are carefully considered."

Here I thought to rush in with what I hoped would prove a consoling thought. "How natural it is," I argued, "that the men of the Inquiry do not understand what their function is. Like all of us they were totally unprepared for the unexpected war, and now they are taken by surprise, as we all are, by the sudden peace. We are still in the shirt-sleeved stage of our diplomacy. Now in Korea " here the Colonel pricked up his ears; "Tell me about that," he said eagerly.

"Well in Korea," I went on, "while the government has not prospered, it has survived for hundreds of years and its leaders have learned to manage some things better than we do. For instance, in Seoul the high officials just naturally fall into two categories. One is that of the Mandarins-Help-Discuss, the other is that of the Mandarins-Help-Decide. When they are summoned to the palace, in a crown council over which the king presides, the Mandarin-Help-Discuss make the welkin ring with their varied plans and proposals for or against the solution of the pending problem that has been placed before them. In the meantime, the Mandarins-Help-Decide just sit in silence and listen and sweat. It would be a gross breach of etiquette for them to put in a word - even edgeways.

"When their voices have grown husky and their vocal chords are exhausted, the Mandarins-Help-Discuss announce that their last word has been spoken and with great ceremony they withdraw. These lucky fellows now go where their fancies lead them. Some to a monastery to reflect on the possibilities of the future life; others go to some pleasant mountain glade and enjoy a picnic with their lady friends leaving the Mandarins-Help-Decide in the council chamber to face the grim business of decision. If the men of the Inquiry could only be brought to appreciate how fortunate they are in being expected to function simply as Mandarins-Help-Discuss, everybody would be happier and things would move more smoothly. And," I added, "I certainly welcome the advantages of my Mandarin-Help Discuss position."

The Colonel laughed and evidently told the story to the President for, several evenings later when I was interpreting for him at the Covenant Commission, and was in a decidedly light-hearted mood because M. Bourgeois was down with a cold and could not pontificate, he said, "Mandarin-Help-Discuss! How wise it is for you to appreciate the advantages of your position!"

Unfortunately the yarn got about, and unfortunately not precisely in the form in which I had related it. The men of the Inquiry quite distinctly were not amused, and at times they assumed a somewhat sullen attitude toward those of us members of the Colonel s "family" who inevitably are in closer touch with the kaleidoscopic changes of the day-to-day situation than they are.

Speaking seriously, some of these experts were very competent and their services would have been most valuable if the "rush" and creaking mechanism of the Conference had made it possible to make fuller use of them. But truth compels me to admit that in their number there were misfits as well, and the newspaper correspondents were inclined to poke fun at them, fun which was not always good-natured. One of these mischievous fellows brought out the fact (and fact it was) that while one of the experts had been for six months in the troubled zone, to the elucidation of which he was assigned, these months had been spent in the darkness of a cave where the picture writings of men of an era that even preceded the blossoming of the Cro-Magnon race awaited interpretation. "What enlightening facts as to present-day conditions can you expect from this sojourner in the dark cave?" was the cynical inquiry at one of the Colonel's press conferences. Then, as always, the Colonel loyally supported the Inquirers. "I seem to remember," he countered, "that Diogenes, or some other great researcher, sought and found truth at the bottom of a well. I have no reason to doubt that W... met with equal success in the recesses of his cave."

February 6, 1919

"The beautiful, the halcyon days of Aranjuez are over," as the poet sang. A delegate has arrived from what was once known as the Land of the Morning Calm, and so this Naboth's vineyard of the Fast Asian coast must be classed with the other troubled zones which present so many apparently insoluble problems. In any event it is no longer one of the few sections of the globe to which I can lead my Colonel without the least danger of becoming involved in the labyrinthine discussions of the Conference. The delegate is a Mr. Kim, an authentic Korean if there ever was one. He does nor have a topknot or wear a rat trap hat, but he can quote pages of that wonderful idyl of his native land, the "Perfume of Spring." Indeed, he knows the author of this charming song of youth.

These credentials suffice for me, but as a matter of protocol neither Mr. Kim nor his distressful country have any standing at the Great Assizes, nor will they have a look in at the Conference. The subjugation of his people and the annexation of his land by predatory Japan was formally, indeed it seemed to me at the time cheerfully, recognized by President Theodore Roosevelt and later reaffirmed by President Taft. Indeed, the last mentioned chief magistrate of the "land of the free and the home of the brave" announced to Washington and to the world that the Tokyo government was in complete control of Korean affairs both in the foreign and the domestic field.

These eminent gentlemen, whose power in the Far East was only exceeded by their ignorance of the situation, "disremembered" a treaty of alliance, defensive and even offensive, which was negotiated with the Seoul government forty-five years ago by one of our roving sailor diplomats. It bound Washington to defend these unfortunate people against all intruders, whatever might be the purpose with which they came. Doubtless this formal instrument was placed in the "dead" files, but even before the encroachments came from benevolent China and later ruthless aggression from predatory Japan, it was regarded by the Koreans (it being among other things the first treaty they had ever negotiated with the Western World) as the charter of their liberties and the bulwark of their independence.

From this instrument, certainly lost sight of in Washington, flowed very distinct personal advantages to a group of Americans with whom I had close contacts during my stay at the Seoul Legation in the fall months of 1895.

It seems to me quite natural, and Mr. Kim assures me such is the case, that the people of Korea should regard the assembly of this Parliament of Man, and the convening of this High Court of world justice, as a heaven-sent opportunity (since Washington had always turned a deaf ear to their pleas) to make known their wrongs to the world and to seek redress. Leaving our of consideration the treaty of reassurance and of benevolent guardianship which our government has long regarded as outmoded as nor even worth denouncing there is another treaty and other engagements of quite recent date which it should not be so easy to ignore, especially at a gathering where treaty-breakers are to be pilloried and it is hoped punished.

In view of the fact that the war which has cost the world ten million of its best and bravest was fought to maintain the sanctity of treaties and to bring to a strict accounting those who failed to live up to their engagements, yet Japan, the great law- and treaty-breaker in the Far East, sits in the Council of the Great Powers and is not even to be interrogated as to her recent conduct.

Of course Korea is far away and few here know the facts of her situation. Still fewer have any comprehension of them, and yet as a matter of fact it is all very simple. In declaring war on Russia in 1904 Japan proclaimed to the world that she did so to defend and preserve the integrity and the independence of Korea whence came in a large measure her culture, now threatened by the advance of the Russian Colossus to the shores of the Pacific. And after the war she reaffirmed her noble intention. When the treaty of peace was, at the instigation of President Roosevelt, signed and sealed at Portsmouth, one of its redeeming features was that once again Japan agreed to guarantee and to defend the independence of Korea. But see what happened a scant six years later! When the treaty made on American soil with its commitments approved and many think inspired by the American President was thrown into the wastepaper basket by the men of Tokyo, nothing came from Washington, not even a word of remonstrance.

When what they regarded as their opportunity came and the Great Assizes was summoned to meet in Paris, the Koreans bestirred themselves and several delegations at least started for Europe to explain their plight and ask for a fair deal. Of course passports and visas to leave the country were refused by the Japanese overlords, and when mass meetings were held to protest in Seoul and other cities, the unfortunate "agitators" were machine-gunned by the army of occupation to the number of many thousands. It was under these circumstances that the official delegations were prevented from leaving their former kingdom. The result is that the delegation that has arrived, and two others that are on the way, have but very informal accrediting documents and international lawyers are in agreement that they are "stateless men." They, however, represent the two or three million Koreans who have escaped from their oppressed country and found safety and work in China or Eastern Siberia where they cannot be reached by the Japanese police. Mr. Kim represents the refugees in China, while my old friend General Pak, who was my guide and interpreter during my stay in Seoul, represents his countrymen living in Eastern Siberia. Mr. Kim tells me that for lack of funds poor Pak is walking along the rails of the Trans-Siberian and when last heard from was bogged down somewhere near Lake Baikal. Kim, too, is practically without funds, but he faces this unpleasant situation with great dignity.

Later. I have done what I could for Kim. Unfortunately it is very little. It is decided that the Korean case will not even be submitted to our High Court. Despite the fact, the undoubted fact, that the Imperial Japanese minister, General Miura, instigated the murder of the Min Queen (during my sojourn in Korea), and the undeniable fact that his clerks in October, 1895, led the assassins who cut her to pieces, many think that I take a too extreme view of the situation and certainly an impractical one. She was a gallant little woman who would not be bullied or even browbeaten, and so the Japanese murdered her. She may not have been the only "man" in Korea, as many disgusted foreigners at the time asserted, but she was an outstanding one and put to shame the chicken-hearted king, her husband.

Yesterday it was my unpleasant duty to tell Kim, as instructed, that the Korean problem did nor come within the purview of the Conference, that its jurisdiction was not worldwide as some had believed. My Colonel is sympathetic with my point of view, but he says we must be practical that if we attempt too much we may fail to accomplish anything. One word of comfort he offered and gave permission to pass on to Kim. If we deal our justice in Europe and punish the criminals here it may prove a leaven of righteousness in other fields. Perhaps later the League will be able to curb Japan when it has less pressing matters nearer at hand to deal with. I hope so, but it was hard to have to tell Kim that there was nor even a forlorn hope that he would have his day in court, that Japan, if not a Great Power, is certainly a strong one. He took it very well and seems confident that later, on some nor too distant day, the League will at least listen to the grievances of his unfortunate people.

In some respects I fear the New Order is very like the Old. I recall (it is not a comforting memory) what the Russian Ambassador Count Benkersdorff told me of his last talk with that good man and outstanding liberal, Sir Edward Grey, at a critical moment in the affairs of the world at which unfortunately this well-meaning man took the wrong turn. Ignoring the provisions of the Treaty of Berlin, the Austro-Hungarian monarchy formally annexed (1908) the Slav provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina of which she had accepted the trusteeship twenty-five years before.

What are we going to do about it?" inquired the Russian Ambassador. Grey hemmed and hawed and then said, "My dear Count, I agree with you wholeheartedly. It is an outrageous breach of faith. But Britain will do nothing about it. Those provinces you have just mentioned are too far away. They do not form a part of our life. Many of our people have never heard of them and few know where they are."

That was quite true, but in those provinces which nobody knew, as a result of thwarted racial aspirations, an explosion occurred, the heir to the treaty-breaking empire was murdered, and a million men of Britain and her dominions died in the terrible war that followed. Korea is far away too, many times farther than was Bosnia, but in it live some twenty million people who are being oppressed and whose enslavement, ten times more severe than anything the South Slavs suffered, may result in another explosion, another World War.

March 15, 1919

Mr. Kim, the unrecognized delegate from Korea, came in today to say good-by. He is naturally very depressed and he has not had even a word from his fellow delegate, and my old friend, General Pak, who apparently is still marooned in the waste places of Siberia.

I did my best to send him off with a word of cheer. While I have the lowest possible opinion of the Yangbans, the official and gentry class of his country, the peasants (and there are nearly twenty million of them) are fine, honest people. They hate the Japanese with what I hold to be a holy hatred, and some day they may strike a blow for liberty and come into their own again. It will not be much, as from what I saw on my last visit, in 1916, the Japanese have stripped the country of everything valuable.

Evidently Kim was comforted by the thought I gave him that unlike our present Peace Conference the field of the League Assembly when it is convened next fall will embrace all the troubled areas of the world. Then the Koreans will have their day in court.

"What a strange world it is," said Kim. "When the Japanese pilgrim, Kobo Daishi, came to us from his volcanic islands hundreds of years ago we gladly opened to him the wisdom of the ages. We taught him the Kingly Way of Life which we had followed for forty centuries. Enlightened he went home and he taught his barbarians how to read and to write. To this day they do him homage at the sanctuary of Koyasan, but it is only lip service. Today these scamps and scalawags, these pirates and landgrabbers, are here and they are accepted as representing a great power while we are excluded from the World Congress. How can anyone in his senses imagine that these swashbucklers will help to make the world safe for democracy?" I did not attempt to answer that one, but I did what I could, perhaps more than the facts of the situation warrant.

"You will have your day in court; the world does not remain static. Do you recall the old Chinese proverb, 'Fullness comes before waning?'"

"I do, I do," he said, "and also that 'waning precedes fullness,'" and with a quick step and an eager eye Mr. Kim went on his way.


1. The Inquiry, organized in 1918 at the suggestion of Colonel House, was composed of men drawn largely from the universities who were informed as to the war aims and the problems that would have to be considered in shaping the peace. Dr. Bowman of Johns Hopkins was the executive officer and Walter Lippmann, the able journalist, acted as secretary. After the Armistice twenty-five members of the organization came to Paris with President Wilson on the George Washington and were given varied duties as here described.

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