[Outlook]For the foolish, history repeats itselfOur 5,000 years of national history and 500 years of Joseon Dynasty were left speechless when this country rendered its sovereignty to neighboring Japan without any war or battle. There was not even a gunshot.
When we think about it now, the history of shame reawakens the same bitterness, resentment and frustration it did a century ago.
For the sole purpose of publicizing the injustice of colonial rule to international society and reviving our declining national destiny, three men, Lee Sang-sul, Yi Jun and Lee Wee-jong, were sent to The Hague International Peace Conference of 1907. But they were powerless to fight the arrival of colonial rule looming over the Korean Peninsula.
July 14 is the centennial memorial of Yi Jun’s death at the Hague. Two years before his death, when we lost our sovereignty in 1905, Min Young-hwan, who stood at the center of the Korean government, committed suicide out of sorrow.
Lee Hang-ung, the then-ambassador to London, also put an end to his humiliation by death.
Lee Beom-jin, the ambassador to Russia and the father of one of the envoys to The Hague (Lee Wee-jong) likewise took his own life in St. Petersburg in 1911, in the face of the humiliating loss of nation.
Now a century later, our nation should observe a moment of silence in honor of the courageous struggle of those individuals during the painful history of colonization.
But in the meantime, we are once again immersed in renewed anger and bitterness.
In retrospect, we should have known a century ago the name “International Peace Conference” was a misnomer that distorted the reality of history.
The aim of the conference was clear.
Nicholas II of Russia and some others advocated the conference in order to prevent the despair of war.
But the “peace” in that conference meant ultimately the imperialist order prevailed in the 19th century based on the balance of power between powers that divided the world at their will.
Therefore, the conference did not bother to consider the rights of weak countries or the colonies sacrificed due to the territorial fights of imperial powers.
Hence from the beginning we could not have relied on the conference as a means to speak out about our tragic situation as the first victim of imperial Japan after the Meiji Restoration in 1868.
But the two world wars that erupted after the so-called peace conference have done more than enough to prove that the imperialistic world order based on competition for colonies does not ensure peace.
Our wrath boils again from being a victim without any options in an imperial world system.
In a word, the domestic situation of a century ago was that of pity and resentment.
In the late Joseon Dynasty this country was by no means ready to cope with the international politics of the imperial era and other geopolitical pressures.
Some recognized the pressing danger from outside, and there were also a few elites who understood the desperate need for radical enlightenment and reforms. Organizations like “An Order of New Citizens,” to which the honorable Yi Jun belonged, were made up of elites who aimed at domestic reform.
But those were individual attempts and not a national collective effort for reformation.
The political system of the late Joseon Dynasty was too rigid to include them as a central force of government, and even if they did become a central power, they could not afford to stand up against the military force that Japan accumulated in advance.
The humiliation of the envoys at the Hague, who were shunned as uninvited guests, revealed the limitations of the political system of the Joseon Dynasty and also gave us valuable historical lessons.
First, a country perishes if it fails to adjust to openness after ages of being closed.
Without the courage and faith to pioneer the opportunities of the open age, neither the individual nor the country can survive.
Second, a simple love of one’s country and nation does not replace the wisdom needed to steer a country through the flow of history.
One must not easily dismiss the maxim that patriotism is a coward’s exit.
We must tell our contemporary leaders who advocate patriotism and nationalism without historical knowledge to study historical trends and to build national strategies.
Suffering the national sorrow of a hundred years ago once is enough. We must be careful so that this tragedy does not repeat itself.
*The writer, a former prime minister, is an advisor to the JoongAng Ilbo. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Lee Hong-koo
More in Columns
Who’s laughing now?
Fighting Chinese patriotism
The curse of the presidency
You must talk science
[20th Anniversary] A new form of globalism is on the rise