&#91BOOK REVIEW&#93Man with a plan that didn't save Korea

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&#91BOOK REVIEW&#93Man with a plan that didn't save Korea

In 1899 a 25-year-old American diplomat became adviser to the Korean king -- or emperor, as Korea's last kings wistfully proclaimed themselves in hopes of being respected as peers of the sovereigns of China, Japan and Russia. For those three empires, weak and corrupt Korea was a battleground for geopolitical intrigue. The new adviser, William Franklin Sands, had a plan to save Korea. He would reform taxation and administration to stabilize Korea's government, and would secure guarantees of Korea's neutrality from the surrounding empires.

Of course, Sands failed miserably; an older and wiser man would have known better than to try. He had no backing from his own U.S. government, which explicitly refused to be involved in Korea. He could do nothing against the opposition of Korea's faction-ridden ruling class, some of whom sided with Japan or Russia. And Emperor Gojong was no help -- a well-meaning, weak-willed man whose royal whim changed as rival plotters gained his ear. Effete court customs sidelined Sands from his duties for months at a time; if he had seen a dead person, for example, he was barred from court for 100 days.

Sands saw plenty of death in five years as imperial adviser. He rode horseback to the Manchurian border to warn off raiding brigands. He sailed to Jeju to put down an insurrection. He organized the city of Seoul to fight a cholera attack. Finally, he returned from one of his 100-day quarantines to find that a parvenu palace intriguer had installed a Belgian adviser in his place. Before long came the Japanese annexation.

Looking back from about 1930, when he wrote his memoir, Sands is saddened for the Korean people, whom he had come to respect during his service. They deserved better from history, and better from their rulers.

by Hal Piper
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