The twentieth century knows no greater crime.…
— Under Secretary of State Summer Wells, speaking of the Japanese occupation of Korea, 1905-1945.
THERE HAVE BEEN three Korean Wars in modern times. Each time, foreign powers have fought in Chosun, and each time the Korean people have been the losers. It is already an old pattern, and it seems one likely to continue, so long as the empires of man collide.
Korea, or Chosun, is a peninsula, 575 miles in length, averaging 150 miles across. It resembles in outline the state of Florida, though bigger. Along its eastern coast a giant chain of mountains thrusts violently upward; the west coast is flat and muddy, marked by estuaries and indentations. Inland the country is a series of hills, broad valleys, lowlands, and terraced rice paddies. Its rivers run south and west, and they are broad and deep.
It is a country of hills and valleys, and few roads. Most of Korea is, and always has been, remote from the world.
Chosun is a poor country, exporting only a little rice. But its population density is exceeded in Asia only by parts of India. For four thousand years the Koreans have tilled their misty valleys, forming a separate culture, with distinct language, literature, and ethos, within the broader frame of Sinic Civilization. Koreans are neither Chinese, Manchu, nor Japanese. They took their basic civilization from ancient China, passed it on to the then barbarous islands of Japan, but always, shrouded by their hills and bordering seas, the people of the Hermit Kingdom wished to be left in peace.
The wish is hopeless, for Korea is a buffer state.
It juts southeastward for Chinese Manchuria, and touches the maritime eastern province of Russia. One hundred and twenty miles from its southern tip lie the islands of Japan. To Japanese eyes, looking upward, Chosun is a dagger, aimed eternally at her heart.
Neither China, nor Russia, nor whatever power is dominant in the Islands of the Rising Sun, dares ignore Korea. It is, has been, and will always be either a bridge to the Asian continent, or a stepping-stone to the islands, depending on where power is ascendant.
Throughout history the great powers surrounding Chosun have proclaimed and guaranteed its continued freedom and independence. But none of them have truly accepted such guarantees. They dare not, because they do not trust each other.
So Korea has suffered, without profit to herself. So she is suffering still. The crimes against her have been continuous, for Korea is a breeding ground for war.
From the time of the Manchus China controlled Korea, but with a lax and distant hand. But by the nineteenth century Manchu power had decayed, and the stars of Russia and Japan were rising in the East. Collision was inevitable.
The cause of collision was not the poor land of Chosun with its teeming millions, but vast and wealthy Manchuria, looming high beyond the Yalu. Manchuria is the richest area in all East Asia, with iron ores, coal, water power, food, and timber, and whoever owns Manchuria, to be secure, must also own Chosun.
The newly awakened Empire of Japan began to put fingers of economic penetration through Chosun, inching toward Manchuria. In 1894 Japan and the Empire of China went to war, in Korea.
Near P'yongyang, the Japanese met the Chinese hordes, and defeated them. By the Treaty of Shimonoseki, signed 17 April 1895, the Manchu Empire renounced all influence in Chosun, and ceded to Japan the Island of Taiwan. The weakness of China was revealed, and the Western powers, unconcerned with the Rising Sun, gathered for what loot could be had. Russia gained forts and bases in Manchuria, and pressed down across the Yalu, seeking to control North Korea.
All powers agreed to the continuing freedom of Chosun.
Russian troops, however, garrisoned the north, while Japanese corporations began to swallow up the south. It was an uneasy situation that could not last.
In 1904 Japan and czarist Russia went to war. Japanese troops debarked at Inch'on, Korea, and marched north. They attacked across the Yalu River, and defeated Russia in a brilliant campaign. Meanwhile, the Japanese signed a treaty with Chosun, guaranteeing the Hermit Kingdom's independence, in return for the use of its territory as a base of operations.
It is the nature of peoples to see the ancient foes, and to ignore those newly arising. Japan defeated Russia with the moral and material aid of Great Britain and America, who had watched the Russian advance to the Pacific with unconcealed dread. Japan, with far greater ambitions than the rotting Empire of the Bear had ever entertained, now was the dominant power in East Asia, and America and Britain applauded.
They did not sense that, in time, Japan would overthrow the old order completely.
At the Treaty of Portsmouth, signed in New Hampshire under the good offices of President Theodore Roosevelt, Russian influence in Manchuria was checked. All powers again guaranteed the freedom of Chosun, but the treaty recognized Japan's "paramount political, military, and economic interests in Korea."
The Empire of Japan was free to move.
In the crisp, smoky early fall of 1905, the Marquis Ito was called to Tokyo. The Marquis Ito—Japan had now adopted French-style titles for its aristocracy—was not only a member of the high nobility but also one of the most capable men under the Rising Sun.
In Tokyo, the Foreign Office briefed Ito on recent events. The Tenno, the Son of Heaven, he was told, had sent a personal message to the king of Chosun, asking the king to bring his small realm into the friendly arms and great prosperity of the Rising Sun. But the king and cabinet of Chosun were most shortsighted. They did not understand that Japan must control Manchuria, or see that to exploit that province, Japan must hold a land bridge to its wealth.
In short, both king and cabinet. wanted no part of the Rising Sun. This, in itself, was sacrilege—but worse, the king had dispatched a note to the President of the United States, begging help against Japanese pressure.
The Marquis Ito, a small and dapper brown-skinned man, winced. He knew a great deal about the American President, who sometimes spoke softly, but always maintained an uncomfortably large navy.
"When will the message arrive?" he asked.
The Foreign Office, whose spies reached even into the royal gardens at Seoul, had learned the name of the ship on which the note had sailed. They could calculate the days, and there was very little time. If the White House received the note, the Chrysanthemum stood to lose much face, and worse, its immediate hopes of dominating Chosun.
The Marquis Ito was ordered to go to Seoul at once, and to do whatever must be done to retrieve the situation. If agreement with the Government of Korea, the Taehan Minkuk, could be reached prior to the delivery of the note, Roosevelt could do nothing.
The victorious Japanese Army had not yet left Korean soil, and its commander, General Hasekawa, was placed at the disposal of the Marquis Ito.
Ito went at once to Seoul. There he conferred with General Hasekawa, while awaiting audience with the Hermit King. Hasekawa suggested that he had sufficient troops in the Seoul area to settle the matter handily, if the Marquis Ito so desired. Gently, Ito explained to the bluff and honest samurai the facts of international diplomacy, and why it would not do to blow down the palace walls. But he suggested that Hasekawa march his men about for exercise and that the horse artillery indulge in target practice.
The cold winds had just begun to blow out of the north, and the brown paddies were freezing by night. Across them Hasekawa's soldiers marched singing and shouting, carrying the banner of the Rising Sun, and the artillery, horses stamping and leaving smoking droppings on the dark earth, wheeled shining field guns into place near the city's walls.
The cannon barked into the wind, sending up great gouts of black smoke. The noise crashed across the peaceful gardens and still pools of the palace grounds, shaking the leaves of the ancient gingko biloba and other venerable trees in the groves beneath Royal Mountain. It rebounded from Namdai Mun, the great South Gate of the city, to Taihan Mun, the Red Gate built in the Middle Ages.
And on the walls of ancient Seoul, seven miles long, twenty-five feet high and ten feet thick, the cabinet of Chosun gathered and watched. They were scholars of the mandarin caste, not soldiers, but even they knew that no walls of dressed stone would stand against the modern power of Dai Nippon.
But the king had written to the great Roosevelt, and they pressed him to deny the Marquis Ito's audience. The king did so. He sent word to the Japanese that he was not well, and could not leave the royal apartments.
The acting prime minister of Chosun, Han Kyu Sul, a man more brave than wise, ordered the cabinet to resist the Japanese demands for a protectorate to the death, if necessary. Han Kyu Sul was loyal to his king, but he also knew that ten years earlier a party of drunken Japanese officers under the Viscount Miura had murdered the queen, and with her, his sovereign's courage.
But the Marquis Ito understood the people of Chosun. He knew they were a peaceful race, puritan in habit, whose highest caste were not samurai, as in Europe or Japan, but scholars. He knew that Chosun had no army, and he knew, moreover, that the Koreans were the Irish of the Orient, changeable, mercurial. And he knew that a mercurial race, with its moods of alternate elation and despondency, may often be manipulated. Marquis Ito waited, while Hasekawa's men marched and Hasekawa's cannon thundered.
Finally, on 17 November 1905, he demanded that the cabinet meet with him, the king in attendance, to discuss the matter of a Japanese protectorate. He gave abrupt orders to Hasekawa, who bowed. The Koreans had been frightened enough; it was time to act.
Quietly, as dark fell on 17 November 1905, a battalion of Japanese regulars entered the city. They marched through Namdai Mun and Taihan Mun, and they entered the palace grounds. They girdled the ancient courtyards and took up positions at the gates. They lighted flaming torches, and they fixed long, glittering bayonets.
Now, boldly, the Marquis Ito, the bandy-legged, taciturn Hasekawa at his side, trailing a long samurai sword, marched into the Hall of Bright Rule, the vast audience chamber. Here, the nervous cabinet awaited him, but the king was not in sight.
Ito demanded audience with the king. Messengers were sent, but the king refused to appear.
Smiling coldly, Ito brushed the retainers aside and went into the king's private apartments. He did not stop until he had burst in and was face to face with the paling monarch. Then he bowed. He begged audience. Matters, he said, were pressing.
The king had no stomach to face the smiling Japanese. "Please go away," he stammered. "My throat is very sore. Discuss your matter with my ministers."
Ito smiled, bowed, and withdrew. He marched back to the audience hall and told the cabinet ministers, "Your king has commanded you to settle this matter with me now."
Han Kyu Sul leaped angrily to his feet. "I will go myself to see the king!" he shouted.
Ito, without expression, watched the prime minister leave. He knew that Han Kyu Sul alone was holding the cabinet together and that Han was braver than his king. He had anticipated this, and imperturbably, he allowed Han to pass through the door.
Outside, the secretary of the Japanese Legation pressed a revolver barrel in Han Kyu Sul's side. "Be quiet, or I shall kill you!"
Han was forced into a small side chamber, and onto his knees.
Now the Marquis Ito appeared. He told Han Kyu Sul that the prime minister could be very useful to the Chrysanthemum and that it was time to recognize the march of history, time to bend and so profit by it rather than to fight it and die.
Han spat at him.
"Would you not yield, if your king commanded you?" Ito asked, at last.
"No. Not even then," Han said bitterly.
Ito met his stubborn black eyes, sighing almost regretfully. Han, of course, could be broken, but a broken tool is of no use. Leaving Han kneeling on the floor, he went again to the king's apartments.
"Han Kyu Sul is a traitor to you," he told the king abruptly. "He defies your order to treat with me; he will obey none of your commands."
Trembling, the king agreed that Han Kyu Sul should be removed. Ito's cold eye saw that the House of Lee was much decayed. He had also heard that the heir apparent was mentally retarded from birth. He made a mental note, that if all went well this night, the king would not live long.
Now the Marquis Ito went arrogantly from the king's presence, and spoke to the soldiers outside the Hall of Bright Rule. Then he went inside, seeing the worried faces of the Koreans turn toward him. Han Kyu Sul had been gone an hour, and courage was oozing minute by minute from these venerable, scholarly graybeards.
Ito squared his shoulders and threw back his head. He no longer smiled. He shook himself, and suddenly shrieked at them: "Han is dead! The Chinese are gone; the Russians are defeated. America is too far away to help you, in spite of your Treaty of 1882. You are all alone. Agree with us now and be rich—oppose us, and die!"
The cabinet grew frightened. They talked among themselves in low voices.
Now Hasekawa came in. Beating on the table with his sword, he raved that he would turn his soldiery loose upon the city, unless the cabinet signed a treaty of protection with Japan. Screaming and roaring at the shocked yangban, the Japanese threw off all restraint. Relentlessly, they hammered at the Koreans. None was allowed to leave; soldiers with bayoneted rifles guarded every exit.
Long past midnight, tears streaming down his face, the foreign minister used a newly installed device of the foreign devils, the telephone, to call for the Seal of State, so that a treaty might be signed.
The Keeper of the Seal, who knew what was afoot, refused to deliver it. Japanese soldiers found him and tore the Seal from him by force. The Seal was taken triumphantly to the Hall of Bright Rule by a grinning subaltern.
In this manner, the Marquis Ito negotiated a treaty of protection between Chosun and the Empire of the Rising Sun. He would become Governor-General of Chosun, because if he had not served his Tenno nobly, he had at least served him well.
Fourteen years after Chosun became a part of the Japanese Empire, the Reverend Edward W. Twing, of Boston, visited Korea as Oriental Secretary of the International Reform Bureau.
The Reverend Mr. Twing saw at once that a flush of enthusiasm for democracy and self-determination was sweeping Korea, just as in 1919 it was sweeping all the earth.
But in Chosun the movement was getting nowhere at all. The Japanese authorities, as a matter of policy, were extremely bitter about the whole thing, even about peaceful protests and demonstrations. The mere idea that the people of Chosun might desire separation from the Japanese East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere was more loss of face than they could bear.
One day Mr. Twing saw a group of Korean girls of school age shout "Manzai!"—which means merely "Hoorah!"—at passing Japanese soldiers. The Japanese immediately opened fire on them. Another group of schoolgirls walking down the road, not even shouting, were set upon by the angry troops. The Japanese beat them with rifle butts, knocked them down, tore away their clothing. Then, as Mr. Twing related back in Boston, "the soldiers treated them in a most shameful fashion."
The Koreans had to be taught that they were inseparably citizens of the empire, whatever the class rating of their citizenship might be. They were taught so well that, during three months of 1919, more than fifty thousand of them were killed or at least hospitalized by the lesson.
Above all, Mr. Twing reported back, the Japanese were out to teach Korean Christian converts that contact with the philosophies of the West was dangerous. And it was. Christian men and women were dragged into Shinto temples, tied to crosses, and beaten savagely. Young girls of Christian families were stripped, fastened to telegraph poles by their hair, flogged, and left exposed to public view.
Mr. Twing let no one mistake that he found this highly distressing. Years later, survivors of Nanking, Malaya, and the Bataan Death March—not the travelers who stopped at the Imperial Hotel and were charmed by gentle smiles and ritual deference—would have understood what Mr. Twing was talking about. In 1919 nobody much cared. After all, the Koreans were Asiatics, and someone had to keep them in hand.
Mr. Twing told also about the great reforms the Japanese had instituted in Korea, and of which they eternally boasted. But Mr. Twing's version differed slightly from the official one.
The Japanese had reformed the ancient tongue of Chosun, Mr. Twing said, by abolishing it. Korean archives and treasures of literature were purified by burning, since there was no place in the bright new twentieth century for a separate Korean culture. Not only was Japanese the language of Korean courts; it was the only one allowed in the schools.
Beyond literacy, Koreans were to receive no education. No Koreans were allowed abroad to study, except a few trusted ones who were permitted to enter Japan. Even here they might not study religion, history, economics, politics, or law. Koreans were to be hewers of wood and haulers of water; Japan had already more scholars and subversives than the samurai could stomach.
Reform of the primitive economy was accomplished by placing almost all of it into the hands of pure-born Japanese, hundreds of thousands of whom were encouraged to emigrate.
Judicial reforms included mandatory flogging for minor offenses for which Japanese drew a monetary fine. Justice was also refined by the reintroduction of an ancient tool, the rack. Japanese police took over law enforcement, slowly training a corps of loyal Koreans to handle the minor details, such as traffic duty and beating of prisoners.
The legal reform of the country brought on social reforms. Very soon, patriotic Koreans found it expedient to lie, cheat, steal, and malinger on the job. And they became brutalized with brutal treatment. Some of the habits would be hard to break.
All told, more than a million and a half Koreans fled the country. Some went to China, many to Russia, a few even to the United States. One refugee in the States, a Dr. Syngman Rhee, embarrassed the government. He had entered on an old Korean passport at the time of the takeover, and now in 1919 he requested a visa to visit the League of Nations, to make a protest over the treatment of his countrymen. Washington emphatically told him no, since he had no valid Japanese passport, and 'Washington did not want to offend its late ally, Japan. Generously, however, since Dr. Rhee had influential friends, he was allowed to remain in the United States.
In 1919, and later, the Japanese rulers of Chosun never quite dared expel the Western missionaries, probably not realizing in how little repute these emissaries were held in the Western capitals. For years the only contact the Korean people had with outside was through these missionaries. In Chosun, no anti-Western bias ever developed.
Koreans had learned the hard way that imperialism comes in many forms, and it can be black or brown or yellow, as well as white. Koreans would never afterward feel any sentimental racial cohesiveness with the rest of Asia. The Japanese occupation and policy of extirpation took care of that.
In 1919, and afterward, the Reverend Mr. Twing and many others came back from Chosun and tried to make the world know what was happening there.
But the world was not interested. In Washington, Mr. Twing was told that Korea, after all, was an internal problem of the Japanese. It could be of no more concern to the United States than how Mississippi planters paid their field hands could be of interest to Japan.
It was not until long afterward, after a rather hot time one Sunday morning at a place called Pearl Harbor, that anyone in government would listen.