Early Korean Diplomacy in Europe: Min Yŏnghwan’s Participation in Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee (1897)

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Early Korean Diplomacy in Europe: Min Yŏnghwan’s Participation in Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee (1897)

The Background to the Mission

Min Yŏnghwan’s travel diary, Sagu sokcho (Additional notes of an envoy to Europe), provides an invaluable record of the earliest diplomatic activities of a Korean envoy in Europe. The Chosŏn administration had first attempted to send a diplomatic mission to Europe nearly a decade earlier, in August 1897, but had been thwarted by the intervention of the Chinese resident in Seoul, Yuan Shikai. Three officials, Sim Sanghak, Cho Sinhŭi, and Pak Chesun, had been appointed in succession to the post of minister plenipotentiary to the five European nations of Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and Italy. Sim had resigned because of poor health. His replacement, Cho, only managed to get as far as Hong Kong before backing down in the face of Chinese pressure. On his return to Korea in 1890, Cho was banished for his failure to depart for Europe and was replaced by Pak, who was prevented from ever even leaving Seoul by Yuan Shikai.1

Min Yŏnghwan’s appointment as envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary on 11 January 1897,2 therefore, was the fulfillment of a long-held desire of the Chosŏn administration to be represented at the major capitals of Europe. Unlike Min’s mission to Russia in the previous year 1896, recorded in this travel diary, Haechchŏn chubŏm (Sea, heaven, autumn voyage), which had been orchestrated in the main by the Russian chargé d’affaires in Seoul, Karl Waeber, the 1897 mission was a purely Korean initiative. In fact, as will be seen, it was carried out in the face of considerable opposition from the British financial adviser, John McLeavy Brown and was also actively discouraged by the British consul-general, John N. Jordan and the Foreign Office itself.

To demonstrate the importance that he placed on the mission and the respect that he felt for the British sovereign, King Kojong appointed Min to the post of “ambassador plenipotentiary” (chŏngwŏn taesa)3 rather than envoy plenipotentiary (chŏngwŏn kongsa). The Korean monarch insisted on this point despite Jordan’s muted opposition to the title, which he felt might cause problems of diplomatic precedence at the British capital.4 It should be noted, however, that Min was only to hold this higher rank while carrying out his duties as Chosŏn’s representative at Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations. His rank as Chosŏn’s representative to the six European nations was to be that of envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary (t’ŭngmyŏng chŏngwŏn kongsa).

Kojong’s determination to send Min Yŏnghwan to participate in Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee also appears to have been further strengthened by the publication of the Waeber-Komura Memorandum and the Yamagata-Lobanov Protocol on 24 February 1897. Kojong’s motivation for sending the mission and also Jordan’s discouraging response are clearly revealed in the following dispatch from Jordan to his superior in Beijing, Sir Claude MacDonald:
As you are aware from my previous dispatches, I have always when an opportunity offered discouraged the project of sending a Mission to Europe on the score of the needless expense it would entail, but since the King’s return to his Palace he seems more bent than ever in making an attempt to enter into direct relations with the Courts of Europe. This idea has gained strength since the publication of the Agreements made last year between Russia and Japan respecting Corea, which have doubtless attracted your attention. These instruments, the existence of which seems to have been unknown to the Corean Government, have given considerable umbrage to the King and his advisers and the Foreign Minister is said to be contemplating addressing a query to the Russian and Japanese Ministers on the subject. There seems to be a vague idea that the Mission to Europe may succeed in directing the attention of the other Powers to Corea and among the more sanguine spirits dreams of an international guarantee of independence are freely indulged.5
The publication of the Waeber-Komura Memorandum and the Yamagata-Lobanov Protocol was, of course, a Japanese initiative. Faced with the unilateral publication of these agreements by Japan, however, Russia was also forced to follow suit. The result of the publication of the two agreements, as the Japanese foreign minister Okuma Shigenobu no doubt intended, was to undermine the trust between the Korean court and the Russian government and its influential representative in Seoul, Karl Waeber, while at the same time demonstrating Japan’s continuing political influence on the peninsula.6

As well as attending Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in London, Min Yŏnghwan was also on a mission to thank Tsar Nicholas II on behalf of King Kojong for granting him asylum at the Russian legation. In addition, he was unofficially charged with conveying the Korean monarch’s request to the tsar that Karl Waeber be retained as the chargé d’affaires at the Russian legation in Seoul instead of being replaced by his more aggressive and less tactful colleague, Alexis de Speyer. On the completion of his duties in London, Min was then to take up his post as Korea’s minister plenipotentiary at St. Petersburg after making official visits to the five other European courts of Great Britain, Germany, Austria, France, and Italy, to which he would also be accredited. The decision that Min should make St. Petersburg his base in Europe was made on Waeber’s insistence and reveals that Russian influence still prevailed at the Korean court, but it was an influence that was already on the wane. According to Jordan, Min himself wished to travel directly to Britain. He was unable to do so, however, as he had to put King Kojong’s request for the retention of Waeber as the Russian representative in Seoul to the Tsar before Waeber left Korea. Min did, however, promise Jordan that he would maintain close relations with Sir Nicholas O’Connor, the British minister in St. Petersburg, and would consult with him on matters of importance.7

Min’s appointment as minister plenipotentiary to Chosŏn’s five European treaty partners in addition to Russia aroused some speculation among the foreign representatives in Seoul about the motives that lay behind the decision. The French minister, Collin de Plancy, surmised that Min may have requested the post to avoid further conflict with the Russian military adviser, Colonel Putiata, with whom he was at odds.8

Although Min’s previous mission to Russia in 1896 might have given the impression that Min was a member of the pro-Russian group of officials at the Chosŏn court, it is clear from his policy essay of 1894, Ch’ŏnilchaek (One policy in a thousand), that he originally viewed Russia as posing a serious threat to Korean independence. In addition, as may be seen from an examination of the negotiations that Min had conducted with Lobanov in the previous year, Min had emphasized a speedy end to the Korean sovereign’s residence at the Russian legation and his return to his own palace.9

Min Yŏnghwan was to be accompanied another member of the influential Yŏhŭng Min clan, Min Sangho, who was appointed first legation secretary on 5 February 1897.10 As Min Sangho was also appointed a plenipotentiary committee member at the Conference of the International Postal Union in Washington D.C., however, it was arranged that he would travel separately to the United States and join Min Yŏnghwan’s party in London after the conclusion of the conference. Min Sangho had been the vice-minister of agriculture, commerce, and industry, and his appointment met with the wholehearted approval of the editor of the Independent, who described him in the following glowing terms:
Mr. Min is one of the best English scholars in the Korean government, and is considered as an enlightened statesman. He received his education in the Maryland State Agricultural College which is a few minutes from the city of Washington. He is thoroughly familiar with the customs and manners of the American people, and he has many friends in and near Washington. We are confident that Mr. Min will prove himself to be one of the most intelligent and popular foreign Delegate [sic] in the coming Conference. We congratulate the Korean Government for the selection of such a competent official to the international assembly.11
Min’s entourage was completed by Kim Chohyŏn, a French language interpreter in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Kim Pyŏngok, a Russian-speaking clerk from Hamgyŏng Province in the Department of the Royal Household, and Son Pyŏnggyun.12 Probably for reasons of economy, Min was not accompanied by a personal valet on this trip as he had been in 1896.

On 1 March 1897 King Kojong issued an edict commanding Min Yŏnghwan to depart for Europe as ambassador plenipotentiary to attend the congratulatory ceremonies for “ the sixtieth anniversary of the ascension to the throne of the Sovereign of Britain and Empress of India” and to reside in Europe as envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to the six nations mentioned above.13 On 11 March Yi Ki, a clerk in the foreign ministry, was appointed legation secretary. This belated additional appointment was probably made because of the temporary absence of Min Sangho from the mission while he was in Washington. Several days later, Min received his official instructions from the foreign ministry and an itemized estimate of the mission’s expenses, which came to 17,100 yen.14 This was less than half the amount of the 40,000 yen traveling expenses that had been allocated to Min’s mission to Russia in the previous year.

The reduction was probably due to John McLeavy Brown’s opposition to the mission, which he considered to be an extravagance that the cash-strapped Korean government could ill afford. In fact, it appears that Brown, the British chief commissioner of Korean customs, was only persuaded to allocate funds for the mission when Kojong informed him that he was sending Min to St. Petersburg to persuade the tsar to retain Waeber in Seoul rather than replace him with Speyer, who was bent on pursuing a more aggressive policy of asserting Russian preeminence on the Korean peninsula. Speyer was, in fact, later to attempt to have Brown replaced by the Russian financial adviser, Kir Alekseev, and was only dissuaded from doing so by the timely arrival of nine British cruisers at Inch’ŏn. Brown, therefore, most probably felt that despite the expense, it was in both Britain’s and his own interest to release sufficient funds for the mission.15

At daybreak on 24 March Min Yŏnghwan and the other members of the mission went to Kyŏngun Palace (Tŏksu Palace) for an audience with the king before departing. At this audience Min received a personal letter and a congratulatory address for Queen Victoria, a personal letter of gratitude to Tsar Nicholas II, six credential letters in duplicate, a set of injunctions, and a letter of appointment. After they had left the audience chamber, Kojong summoned them for a second, more personal audience in his personal residence, where, wrote Min, he “spoke to us and even consoled us with kind words. My companions and I trembled with inexpressible awe.”16

After departing from Seoul for Inch’ŏn, Min’s party was joined by Min’s younger brother, Min Yŏngch’an. King Kojong had appointed him as an unofficial member of the mission so that he could gain experience abroad.17 Like Yun Ch’iho, who had been Min’s adjutant on the 1896 mission to Russia, Min Yŏngch’an had previously held the post of vice-minister of education. He was also an official who spoke English well and, like his elder brother, Min Yŏnghwan, and his cousin Min Sangho, was in receipt of the approval of the Independent:
The newly appointed Vice Minister of Education, Mr. Min Yungchan [Yŏngch’an], is well known to the foreigners in Seoul. He is a member of the Seoul Union and speaks English very well. He is brother of Mr. Min Yunghwan (Yŏnghwan), the Minister of War. We congratulate Mr. Min Yungchan upon the appointment and hope he will prove himself to be an energetic promoter of education in this country. We believe that Mr. Min fully realizes the paramount importance of educational reform.18
Min Yŏnghwan and his entourage arrived in Inch’ŏn by torchlight that evening and lodged in the Daibutsu Hotel. The following day Min met the customs intendant (kamni) Yi Chaejŏng, the Russian chargé d’affaires Waeber, and Waeber’s wife. As Waeber’s wife was returning to Russia, it was agreed that she would travel to Odessa together with Min’s party.19 Min also happened to meet Yun Ch’iho, who had accompanied him to Russia the previous year. They agreed to travel together as far as Shanghai, where Yun was going to visit his Chinese wife, Ma Xiuzhen, and her relatives.

At Inch’ŏn the former maritime customs intendant, Paul von Rauthenfelt (No Tŭngbi), joined the Korean party. Rauthenfelt, a Russian national, spoke English, German, Italian, French, and also Chinese. He was, therefore, to fill the role played by Evgenii Stein the previous year as the foreign assistant and interpreter to the mission. Rauthenfelt’s appointment also met the approval of the Independent, which described him as follows:

Mr. von Routhenfeldt is a Russian subject and an accomplished linguist. . . . He came to the Korean Customs Service last year from the Chinese Customs, and has been working under Chief Commissioner J. McLeavy Brown. He is a refined gentleman of fine appearance and has proved himself during his short sojourn here to be a gentleman in every sense of the word. We are glad to learn that the Government is sending him to Europe with the Minister, as he will be very helpful to the mission.20
According to Yun Ch’iho, on the night of Min Yŏnghwan’s arrival at Inch’ŏn, both he and his younger brother cut off their traditional Korean topknots in Yun’s room, adopting a Western hairstyle. Yun, of course, had already taken the same step many years earlier and commented disparagingly, “They took a good deal of unnecessary caution against any mention of the affair in the Chemulpo paper.”21 There is also no mention of this episode in Min’s own diary, Sagu sokcho. It would appear, therefore, that Min, although unwilling to upset the conservatives in Korean society, was determined to avoid the embarrassment he had faced in Moscow the previous year, when he and his entourage had been unable to enter the cathedral in which the tsar’s coronation took place because Korean tradition prevented them from removing their headgear, which formed an integral part of the Chosŏn court costume. Furthermore, it is likely that the experience of having been an object of derision in the streets of New York while en route to Russia also contributed to his decision not to wear traditional Korean costume but to exchange it for a military uniform in the Western style for his mission to Europe in 1897.22

From Inch’ŏn Min and his party traveled first to Shanghai and then to Nagasaki. The probable reason for this detour was in order to collect extra funds for the mission from a Korean government agent in Shanghai.23 From Nagasaki the Korean mission traveled on the Saratov, a Russian government ship from the so-called Volunteer Fleet that serviced the Russian Far East, via the Indian Ocean and the Suez Canal to Odessa on the Black Sea. From Odessa the party traveled to St. Petersburg, where Min had a brief audience with the tsar.

On 28 May while in St. Petersburg, Min received a visit from the chancellor of the British legation, who inquired about the number of members of Min’s party who would be attending the jubilee celebrations. The British Foreign Office, having mislaid the dispatches, had apparently been unprepared for the Korean mission’s arrival. The confusion that existed is shown in MacDonald’s somewhat garbled dispatch to Jordan on the subject on 3 May.
Sir, with reference to the Corean Mission to the Queen’s Jubilee, I have to inform you that I telegraphed to you today to the effect that your tel of April 26 had been communicated to the F.O. In answer to my tel I had the honour to receive a reply from H.M. Sec. of State, stating that my tel of April 27 was the first intimation that had been received on the subject of a Corean Mission, that there were great difficulties about entertainment and accommodation, and asking whether it were possible to discourage the idea without giving offence. His Lordship added that if the Envoy came full particulars as to his rank and that of his suite and mode of living must be forwarded.24
From St. Petersburg Min traveled to Berlin by train and then on to a port in Holland, where his party boarded the Dutch ship Koningin Regentes bound for England. The ship arrived at Queenborough on 5 June. After disembarking, Min and his party headed for London, where they stayed at the Cecil Hotel, situated between the Strand and Victoria Embankment overlooking the River Thames.
Mins Participation in the Diamond Jubilee

Probably because of the rainy and foggy British weather, the early diary entries in London comprise impressions of the luxurious interior of the hotel, a brief outline of British history, and a conversation with a guest about modern methods of coastal defense. On 8 June Min wrote and sent two dispatches to the British Foreign Office enclosing copies of his credentials with the first and King Kojong’s personal letter in Chinese and English with the second.25 The first dispatch announced Min’s arrival at the capital and requested an audience with Queen Victoria so that he could present his credentials; the second requested an audience so that he could present King Kojong’s personal letter. Min perhaps hoped in this way to gain the opportunity for two audiences with the British Queen, as he had done the same in Russia in the previous year on the advice of one of his Russian assistants, Planson.

At midday on the same day, an official from the Foreign Office, identified in the diary simply as Sheen (Si-in), visited and informed Min that the foreign secretary, Lord Robert G. Salisbury, was absent from London but that he would be back in a few days.26 The rest of the diary entry for 8 June is dedicated to a brief description of the United Kingdom, which Min described as being “basically three islands in the Atlantic Ocean completely cut off from all other places”—the “three islands,” of course, being England, Scotland, and Ireland with no mention of Wales.27 Tactfully, considering Kojong’s own shaky hold on power, Min omitted to mention the English Civil War and the execution of Charles I from his account of British history, jumping from Elizabeth I to William of Orange. Furthermore, he chose to conclude his account by emphasizing Queen Victoria’s role in the success of the British Empire.
She [Victoria] has now ruled for sixty years. The territory has expanded, covering each colony in Africa, Australia, India, and in the Southern Seas. Even though the territory is not connected together, it is almost equal in extent and size to that of Russia. Although all the official orders proceed from the Parliament, it cannot be denied that it is the empress’ fortunate destiny that sustains the nation.28
It was only several days after their arrival in London that Min and his entourage were finally invited by the Foreign Office to move from the Cecil Hotel to a house in Kensington, where they would be lodged at the British government’s expense for the duration of the jubilee celebrations. According to the Independent and the Times, Min and his party stayed at Kensington Mansions, De Vere Gardens, which is just south of Kensington Gardens in the centre of London.29 Inasmuch as Min and his entourage had been immediately lodged at the Russian government’s expense in the previous year, Min may well have wondered why such an invitation had not come earlier, particularly as their hotel bill came to the princely sum of 70 pounds, or 700 silver yen, which the Korean party could ill afford.

Sheen conducted the Koreans from the Foreign Office to their new lodgings. The house in De Vere Gardens had five stories and was neatly furnished. Min and his entourage were also provided with one gold-wheeled carriage with grooms in red uniforms. Coincidentally, among the neighbors of the Korean mission was the American novelist Henry James, who was also a resident in De Vere Gardens at this time. On the day following the move, Min received a dispatch granting him an audience with Queen Victoria on 21 June.

Around this time Min Sangho rejoined the party from Washington, and the Foreign Office allocated a military officer, Major Alfred Cavendish (Kabinnisi), as an assistant to Min and his party during their stay. Cavendish had been a military attaché to the Chinese army in 1894 and to the British legation in Beijing in 1895. In 1891, while stationed in Hong Kong, he had visited Korea on leave and had even published a book, Korea and the Sacred White Mountain, based on his travels there.30 During his time in China, Cavendish had been highly critical of the state of the Chinese military and had tried in vain to warn his superior, Lord Kimberley, the foreign secretary, of the threat posed to British interests in the Far East by Japan.31 Later that day, Min paid his first visit to Foreign Secretary Lord Salisbury, but makes no mention in his diary of what they may have discussed. It was also on this day that the Korean national flag was flown for the first time from the temporary Korean legation at De Vere Gardens.

On 21 June, Cavendish accompanied Min to Buckingham Palace for his first audience with Queen Victoria. At the palace they joined a banquet for about fifty envoys, who were all receiving audiences that day. After the banquet finished, Min was led to the audience chamber. As no accompanying officials were permitted to go in with the envoys, Min was without his younger brother Min Yŏngch’an, who had earlier acted as interpreter in his audience with the tsar in St. Petersburg. Nevertheless, Min appears to have managed well enough, as the following account suggests:

After the banquet finished, a ceremonial official led us forward. Only ambassadors were permitted to be presented. We were not permitted to take in subordinate officials with us. I entered the private chamber in my turn, carrying the credential letter and personal letter. The empress was already standing waiting. I saw that the empress had a round face and a rounded chin. Her spirit was vigorous with few signs of aging. I advanced in my turn and presented the credential letter. The empress also received it in turn. I then presented the personal letter. The empress then asked if his majesty the sovereign of our country was safe and well. I replied that he was and then in my turn retired.32
That evening Min and his companions returned to the palace for a dinner with all the other ambassadors and the British royal family. After the meal was concluded, Min joined “a great gathering of all nations’ costumes and hats” as the envoys waited outside the audience hall before once again being presented before the aging queen, who “simply nodded and that was all.”33

The next day, 22 June, was the day of the Diamond Jubilee celebration itself. Min and his companions put on ceremonial dress and went to the Palace together with Major Cavendish. After a twenty-one gun salute, the procession left the palace. Queen Victoria’s carriage, surrounded on all sides by the Household Cavalry, led the way, while Min rode alongside the other envoys in the procession that followed.34 The jubilee ceremonies at Westminster Abbey were followed by another procession around the flower-strewn streets of London. Min, who was well aware of the tragic crowd accident that had occurred during the tsar’s coronation the previous year, was particularly impressed by the orderliness of the crowds in London and wrote, “There were no fewer than one million spectators today. All of them had a seat, and there was not even the slightest disorder.”35

The following day Min witnessed the enthusiastic reception that the queen received from a crowd of schoolchildren who were waiting for her as she departed from Buckingham Palace for Windsor, and that evening he caught a glimpse of the queen again as he and his entourage walked around Kensington Gardens with Cavendish. “The empress came in and out of view from time to time under the leafy shade of the willows,” wrote Min and added, perhaps for King Kojong’s edification, “The intention of this gathering was for the sovereign and her people to enjoy themselves together.” 36

That same day Min visited a large greenhouse in the park and went into some detail about how such buildings made it possible to cultivate all sorts of tropical plants and trees despite the British weather. Min and his party then appear to have visited the Natural History Museum, although Min referred to it as the International Museum (manguk pangmulwŏn) and described it as being to the northeast of the park. Here he was surprised to find grass sandals, oiled hats, and bamboo pipes from Korea on display as well as more gruesome exhibits, such as “the sinews and entrails of people, all immersed in medicinal water.”37

The next few days saw Min attending banquets given by the Prince of Wales, the Lord Mayor of London, and a local millionaire, who, Min noted with some astonishment, “received twenty thousand pounds in interest payments each month.”38 On 26 June Min attended the naval review at Spithead, where he boarded a steamship along with other foreign envoys and cruised among the massive flotilla of warships, witnessing their devastating firepower. He recorded his impressions of the review in his diary entry for that day:
After lunch I took a train together with both secretaries and traveled twenty minutes to the estuary mouth. On the surface of the sea on the left and right, we saw warships packed together and stretching out over one hundred leagues. All were large iron ships. I counted more than 180 of them altogether. On board the ships sailors moved about urgently. Some wore red and some wore black. They carried weapons and stood in ranks as though they were on the verge of the outbreak of war.

The heir apparent and all the ministerial officials met together with the ambassadors of each nation. We boarded a steamship and sailed leisurely across the surface of the sea. All the soldiers fired ceremonial cannons. Their crashing sound and the shuddering of the sea billows was truly an awesome sight.39

The following day, 27 June, Min presented the Department of the Imperial Household with “one pair of finely engraved white copper braziers, five scrolls embroidered with pearls, and ten ornamental purses as congratulatory gifts.”40

As in St. Petersburg in the previous year, Min appears to have had considerable time for sightseeing, but this time without the pressure of conducting negotiations. Together with Cavendish, Min saw the sights of London, including Tower Bridge, the British Museum, and the British Library. On 29 June, he witnessed the queen returning from Windsor and noted, again perhaps for King Kojong’s benefit, that “it is a Western custom that when the monarch goes out, there is no difference between her entourage and that of ordinary citizens.”41 That afternoon, Min also attended a royal garden party at Buckingham Palace.

The next few days were rainy and foggy again, and Min appears not to have gone outside. Instead the diary entries are concerned with various statistics about Britain and London, including a very complimentary description of the British people: “Their physique is tall and big, and they have a white complexion. Their hair, beard, and eyes are either black or brown. Their mind is precise, and they work with firm endurance. They have a brave, martial spirit and are the best out of all the European nations.”42 Min then went on to list some of the salient aspects of British society which differed from those of Chosŏn—for example, the equal division of inheritance between men and women; the custom of removing one’s hat and shaking hands as a greeting; the absence of the kowtow when meeting the monarch; the fact that nobility and commoners shared the same tables at banquets; and the custom of toasting the queen before the beginning of a banquet.43

In the next few days Min attended a military parade and a military tattoo before the celebrations came to a close on 5 July. On this day Min awarded silver medals to all the servants and staff allocated to their party. These medals were engraved with the words Tae Chosŏn Kŏnyang Yi Nyŏn (Great Chosŏn: Second Year of Lustrous Inauguration). The next day Major Cavendish also departed.

The following days were given over to sightseeing and fact-finding once more as Min visited such diverse places and events as the Crystal Palace, a ball given by the Lord Mayor of London, Windsor Castle, the National Gallery, a factory that manufactured torpedoes and machine guns, and a final ball for foreign envoys given by Queen Victoria, about which Min wrote as follows:
Above and below, the building was illuminated by ten thousand lamps as though it were daylight. All the palace ladies wore long, beautiful dresses with pearls and jewels that dazzled the eyes. All had bare arms and chests. Their fine brocade filled the hall and fluttered in the candlelight. I wondered if I was in the Pearl Palace or the Shell Tower.44
In the days following the ball, Min began to make preparations for the homeward journey via the United States. Before leaving he was awarded a commemorative gold medal and his entourage silver medals, which they received from the Foreign Office. On 17 July Min and his companions departed from London, at which point Sagu sokcho comes to an abrupt end.
The Outcome of Mins Mission

According to Yun Ch’iho, Min’s departure from London was in contravention of his official instructions. On 19 July, two days after Min’s departure, Yun had an audience with King Kojong in Seoul, during which the following conversation about Min’s mission took place:

Then His Majesty said, “Is Min Yong Huan sleeping? Why doesn’t he telegraph me anything? Have you heard anything about his military uniform being objected to by the English F.O.?” To the last question I answered; “Yes Sir, I have heard that the English Governement objected to Min’s military uniform, but I can’t believe it. For if so, why should he not let Your Majesty know? Min Yong Huan is a careful man and he would have let Your Majesty know all about it if there were any difficulties concerning the uniform.”45
Yun presumed that the pro-Russian group at the court, led by Kim Hongnyuk and Chu Sŏngmyŏn, was behind the story concerning Min’s military uniform, as they were opposed to Min and his foreign dress. These two powerful officials had, Yun surmised, “invented the story to prejudice His Majesty against Min and His foreign costume.” On 26 July Yun met McLeavy Brown and asked him if there was any truth in the story and duly recorded that “Brown had denied it emphatically and assured me that Min had been well received in London.”46

Yun later discovered further details about the mission to Europe from a conversation he had with Min Yŏngch’an on the latter’s return to Korea, in which Min confided that his elder brother’s main task in St. Petersburg had been to urge the tsar not to transfer Waeber and that he had curtailed his mission to Europe for reasons that he explained as follows:

From Russia we went to London where we had a fine time. While there we received telegrams from the Seoul Court instructing my brother to work for the emperor business. We had no cheek to go around different courts begging to be allowed to call our King Emperor. So we didn’t say a word about it. Later on a telegram came through the French Legation at London telling us that we should proceed to Paris and Berlin to conclude a certain military convention with France and Germany. This scared my brother so much that, in spite of the united advice of Min Sang Ho and myself to visit the other court [sic] without mentioning the convention, we left London in July for America.47
The exact nature of the proposed military convention is not clear but, based on a report from Kir Alekseev, the Russian financial adviser in Seoul, B. A. Romanov reveals that Kojong had been so disillusioned by the failure of the Russians to fulfill their promises to provide Korea with adequate security guarantees against Japanese interference that in May 1897 “he applied simultaneously to France and to Germany for aid and it was proposed to ask France in particular to send a shore detail and permanent guard ship to Chemulpo.”48 It is likely, therefore, that Min had been ordered to enter into negotiations on such matters with these two countries while he was in Europe.

Min’s sudden departure from Europe was expressly contrary to the wishes of King Kojong as can be seen from the royal edict dismissing him from office that read as follows:

We are told that the Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Great Britain, Germany, Russia, Italy, Greece and Austria, Min Yunghwan, is returning home before completing his mission without order from the Government. We consider his action as insolent in the extreme. We hereby dismiss him from the office which he now holds.49
Min’s unexplained abandonment of his official responsibilities in Europe was also commented on directly in the Independent:
We are with many others puzzled over the movement of Mr. Min Yunghwan, the Envoy to the European Courts. There must be some reason underneath which made him take the erratic movement, as no sane person would so willfully place himself in such a ridiculous position. It is evident that his course has displeased His Majesty and the Cabinet so that he is now placed in a very embarrassing predicament.50
Yun Ch’iho, who had succeeded Sŏ Chaep’il as the editor of the Independent, feared that Min’s dismissal was the result of a conspiracy by the pro-Russian party in the court. Further light is cast on Min’s decision to cut short his mission, however, by a confidential dispatch from the British consul-general Jordan to the minister at Beijing, Sir Claude MacDonald, in which he wrote,
Both the King and his Ministers profess themselves unable to account for the strange behaviour of the Corean Representative, but some telegrams received from Mr. Min, copies of which have been furnished to me confidentially and are inclosed herewith, seem to throw some light on the matter.

As far as can be gathered from these mutilated messages, the Envoy would appear to have received instructions to procure some sort of international guarantee of Corean integrity, and he may very probably have shrunk from undertaking such a difficult task.51

The source of Jordan’s information may well have been the Japanese legation. During Min’s mission to Russia in 1896, the Japanese naval attaché, Lieutenant Yashiro, had revealed to Yun Ch’iho that he was aware of the contents of Min’s telegram to the Korean government concerning the fact that military instructors were to be sent to Korea and had even boasted, “Ah, the Corean Cabinet can’t keep any secrets. We know all about what they do.”52

It would seem from the texts of the telegrams in Jordan’s possession that Min was concerned that any secret convention that he was being asked to make with France and Germany would have been in direct contravention of the secret agreement that he had negotiated with Lobanov in St. Petersburg the previous year.53 Min may have considered breaking this treaty a matter affecting his personal honor, or he may simply have considered it politically rash. Min’s sudden abandonment of his diplomatic duties might be considered irresponsible in the extreme, particularly if his subsequent sojourn in the United States was paid for by funds allotted for his official mission in Europe. Nevertheless, it must be remembered that Min made his decision at a time when there was intense confusion in the Korean court. A traditional Confucian court official had a sacred duty to remonstrate with his sovereign even at the risk of his life or career if he felt that the ruler was acting wrongly. In the light of Min’s subsequent opposition to the 1905 protectorate treaty, it does not seem out of character that he placed his own sense of caution and integrity above the wishes of his sovereign and government. The apparent failure of his mission to London to make any impression on the British sovereign may also have led him to believe that Europe was a lost cause and that Chosŏn’s last hope lay with the United States. In fact, despite the fact that he had been disgraced at court, he even went as far as to request that he exchange places with the Korean minister at Washington.54


Although Kojong had undoubtedly sought the support of the British Government by sending Min to London, by 1897 the stage was already being set for the future Anglo-Japanese alliance of 1902. The only consolation for Min’s efforts appears to have been a speech given to Parliament by George N. Curzon, the British undersecretary for foreign affairs, on 19 July 1897, just two days after the departure of Min and his entourage from London. In this speech, which was also reported in the Times, Curzon insisted that the British Government would maintain Korean independence, neither allowing it to be absorbed by any of its neighbors nor permitting it to be used by any other power for gaining control of the eastern seas.55 The Times correspondent in China, George Morrison, however, strongly criticized this speech, which was surprisingly at odds with subsequent British policy, as being unwise in the light of the strategic and political situation in the region. That is to say, Morrison seems to have believed that by 1897 Britain was no longer in a position to enforce its will in the region and was inviting humiliation at the hands of either Russia or Japan. Unfortunately perhaps for Korea, Curzon, who had extensive knowledge of the Far East and had visited Korea itself, left the Foreign Office in the following year to become viceroy of India.

The subsequent indifference to the plight of Korea shown by the British Foreign Office, however, did not escape the criticism of the veteran travel writer, Isabella Bird Bishop, when she wrote, with a foresight far greater than that of her contemporaries inside the government, a prescient critique of British policy in Korea:
The effacement of British political influence has been effected chiefly by a policy of laissez-faire, which has produced on the Korean mind the double impression of indifference and feebleness, to which the dubious and hazy diplomatic relationship naturally contributes. If England has no contingent interest in the political future of a country rich in undeveloped resources and valuable harbours, and whose possession by a hostile Power might be a serious peril to her interests in the Far East, her policy during the last few years has been a sure method of evidencing her unconcern.56
When Min finally returned to Korea in 1898, after spending more than a year in the United States, he continued to hold important posts in the government and sought to mediate between those working for Korea’s reform and modernization and the court officialdom. In the final phase of his career from 1897 until his death in 1905, Min played an important role in Korean domestic politics as one of the main proponents of reform during the short-lived Taehan Empire (1897–1910) and is best remembered today as the highest-ranking Korean official to commit suicide in protest against the protectorate treaty forced on Korea by Japan on 17 November 1905.

1 Dalchoong Kim, “Korea’s Quest for Reform and Diplomacy in the 1880’s: With Special Reference to Chinese Intervention and Controls,” Ph.D. diss., (Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, 1972), pp. 407, 427–428.

2 See Sagu sokch’o in Min Yŏnghwan, Min Chungjŏnggong yugo [The posthumous works of Prince Min] (Seoul: Kuksa p’yŏnch’an wiwŏnhoe, 1971), p. 143, Kojong sidaesa, [History of the Kojong era] vol. v (Seoul: Kuksa p’yŏnch’an wiwŏnhoe, 1966­–1972), p. 313, and the Independent (Seoul), 12 January 1897, p. 134.

3 Willis the Chinese translator at the British legation in Seoul explained the difference between “taesa” and “kongsa” as follows: “The term used for Ambassador is not the usual Chinese expression: the phrase, however, literally “Great Envoy” is used in Corean-Chinese to signify an Envoy of higher rank than Envoy Extraordinary.” FO 228/1259, inclosure in Jordan to MacDonald, 6 March 1897.

4 Ibid.

5 FO 228/1259, Jordan to MacDonald, 6 March 1897.

6 For a detailed account of the circumstances surrounding the publication of these two agreements between the Russian and Japanese governments and the official response of the Korean government, see George A. Lensen, Balance of Intrigue: International Rivalry in Korea and Manchuria, 1884–1899, vol. 2 (Tallahassee: University of Florida Press, 1982), pp. 635–637.

7 FO 228/1259, Jordan to MacDonald, 6 March 1897.

8 Plancy to Hanotaux, DP, no. 50, Seoul, 17 January 1897, Korea, PE, 8: 2–4, quoted in Lensen, Balance of Intrigue, vol. 2, p. 890.

9 Yun Ch’iho, Yun Chiho ilgi [Diary of Yun Ch’iho] vol. 4 (Seoul: Kuksa p’yŏnch’an wiwŏnhoe, 1973­–1976), p. 213.

10 Sagu sokch’o, p. 144.

11 Independent, 25 February 1897.

12 Sagu sokch’o, p. 144. See also FO 405/73, part 10, Jordan to Salisbury, 13 February 1897.

13 Sagu sokch’o, p. 145.

14 Ibid.

15 FO 405/73, Jordan to MacDonald, no. 4, Seoul, 18 January 1897, “Very Confidential,” 23–24, quoted in Lensen, Balance of Intrigue, p. 890.

16 Sagu sokch’o, p. 146.

17 FO 228/1259, Jordan to MacDonald, 20 March 1897.

18 Independent, 26 December 1896.

19 Min Yŏngch’an later confided to Yun Ch’iho the following unflattering account of Waeber’s wife: “During our journey from Nagasaki to Odessa we found Mrs. Waeber a most perverse person, fickle, arrogant and patronizing.” See Yun, Ilgi, vol. 5, p. 36.

20 Independent, 23 March 1897.

21 Yun, Ilgi, vol. 5, p. 36.

22 Ibid., vol. 4, pp. 175–176.

23 See Michael Finch, Min Yŏng-hwan: A Political Biography (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2002), p. 129.

24 FO 228/1259, MacDonald to Jordan, 3 May 1897.

25 For the texts of Kojong’s personal letter to Queen Victoria and Min’s credential letter, see Michael Finch, Min Yŏng-hwan: A Political Biography, pp. 192–193.

26 Lord Robert Gascoyne-Cecil Salisbury was also the prime minister at this time.

27 Sagu sokch’o, p. 176.

28 Ibid.

29 Independent, 17 August 1897; and the Times (London), “Diamond Jubilee: The Jubilee Guests,” 17 June 1897, p. 12, col. b.

30 Alfred Edward J. Cavendish, Korea and the Sacred White Mountain with an Account of an Ascent of the White Mountain by H.E. Gould-Adams (London: G. Philip and Son, 1894).

31 See Cavendish’s correspondence with Lord Kimberley in MS Eng. C. 4396, fol. 16–21, 29–35, 42–56, and 77–78, held at the Department of Western Manuscripts in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, UK.

32 Sagu sokch’o, p. 179.

33 Ibid., pp. 179–180.

34 As a matter of interest, early films of this procession are held at the National Film and Television Archive, British Film Institute (BFI), London.

35 Sagu sokch’o, p. 180.

36 Sagu sokch’o, p. 181.

37 Ibid.

38 Ibid., p. 182.

39 Ibid.

40 Ibid. Unfortunately, these gifts appear to have been lost as there is no record of their existence either in the Royal Collection at Buckingham Palace or at the Victoria and Albert Museum, where many such gifts were sent.

41 Ibid., p. 183.

42 Ibid., p. 184.

43 Ibid.

44 Sagu sokch’o, p. 189. These references are probably to the fabled undersea palace of the Dragon King in Korean and Chinese legends. See for example Simch’ŏng chŏn (The tale of Simch’ŏng) and Kuun mong (The dream of nine clouds).

45 Yun, Ilgi, vol. 5, p. 77.

46 Ibid., pp. 77–78.

47 Ibid., p. 98.

48 Boris A. Romanov, Russia in Manchuria, 1892–1906, trans. Susan Wilbur Jones (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Published for the American Council of Learned Societies by J.W. Edwards, 1952), p. 113.

49 Independent, 3 August 1897. See also Kojong sidaesa, vol. 4, p. 398.

50 Independent, 3 August 1897.

51 FO 405/73, part 10, Jordan to Salisbury, 4 August 1897, p. 116.

52 Yun, Ilgi, vol. 4, pp. 268–269.

53 FO 405/73, part 10, Jordan to Salisbury, p. 116.

54 Ibid.

55 Parliamentary Debates, 4th ser., vol. 51 (1897), pp. 437­–438; Times (London), 20 July 1897, p. 6, col. f.

56 Isabella Bird Bishop, Korea and Her Neighbours: A Narrative of Travel with an Account of the Recent Vicissituds and Present Position of the Country, 2 vols. (London: John Murray, 1898. Reprint, Seoul: Yonsei University Press, 1970), p. 457.

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