Resistance members meet similar fates overseasJan. 13, 1907
The birth and death of Lee Yong-ik are shrouded in mystery, yet the vicissitudes of his daily life remain as a mirror of the turmoil in the late Joseon Dynasty.
Born as a son of a plebeian family in 1854, Lee was neither well educated nor well off, but he had luck and determination. After leaving his hometown in North Hamgyeong province in the north of the peninsula, Mr. Lee first worked as a street peddler and was able to make a small fortune. He invested his earnings in a gold mine and was lucky enough to reap huge profits. He did not stop there; in a bid to climb the social hierarchy, Mr. Lee contributed his fortune to the royal house, earning himself an official rank in the administration.
His breakthrough, however, came in 1883 during an army rebellion known as Imo Gunran, which targeted Queen Myeongseong and her supporters. The queen, also known as Queen Min or the Last Empress, then played quite a powerful role in politics, more than her rather feeble-minded husband King Gojong. After the uprising broke out, the queen went into hiding away from Seoul. Mr. Lee grabbed the chance of his lifetime by becoming a messenger between the queen and her Min family members in Seoul. After the uprising was put down, he became the right-hand man of the Min family and the queen, and received a promotion. History, however, gives him mixed reviews; as a provincial government head, Mr. Lee was involved in bribery scandals, but the Min family’s support enabled him to remain successful.
Naturally following the Min family’s stance of being anti-Japanese and pro-Russian, Mr. Lee was soon blacklisted by Japan. Nevertheless, one thing he admired about Japan was its modernization, which he himself tried to copy by opening factories dealing with textiles, firearms and printing. In 1905, he also founded Korea University, which remains one of the top three Korean schools.
His luck seemed to have met its end, however, at the turn of the 20th century. Queen Min was gone, assassinated by the Japanese, and her family naturally lost its power and influence. In 1905, Japan was close to annexing the country by forcing the signing of a treaty. Mr. Lee was one of the last to resist this move, and that year he made secret trips to France and Russia, with a plea from King Gojong, asking for help against Japan. But he never returned. Japanese forces found him carrying the message in Russia and the Joseon court chose to abandon him to placate Japan, even going so far as to dismiss him from his royal post and to pretend that he did not exist. Mr. Lee remained in Vladivostok until his death on this date, though some say he was assasinated there in 1906.
Jan. 16, 1944
Lee Yuk-sa, another anti-Japanese figure, used his pen as a weapon. Remembered as a poet with a resistant spirit among today’s Koreans, Mr. Lee, born in 1904, first started his career as an activist by joining an anti-Japanese group when he was in his early 20s. He was imprisoned 17 times during his life, the first time being when he was 21 years old. He took his pen name, Yuk-sa, from the pronunciation of his inmate number in a Daegu jail.
Before debuting as a poet in his 30s, Mr. Lee pursued a journalistic career before majoring in sociology at Beijing University, where he joined an anti-Japanese group. His poems are noted for their virile attitude as in “Gwangya” (Wilderness). They also show his fight against dehumanization and mechanization.
After decades of efforts against colonial rule, which officially began in 1910, Mr. Lee met his end in 1944 on this date, not seeing the liberation of his country the following year. After saying good-bye to his daughter before setting out for Beijing with what his family members described as “the most serious look that he’s ever had,” he said, “Daddy will be coming back soon.” But he never did. Mr. Lee died in a Beijing prison at 40.
by Chun Su-jin