Remembering the golden calf

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Remembering the golden calf

In the decline of the Joseon Dynasty, people said their respect for the grave keeper of Mandong-myo was so great that it could even touch the sky. The humble guardian of the shrine, dedicated to Wanli, emperor of China’s Ming Dynasty, had been especially helpful during the Japanese invasion.

When the Joseon Dynasty became the Daehan Empire children started to sing, “His excellency the golden calf is higher than the Mandong-myo grave keeper.” The line “His excellency the golden calf” in the song referred to Lee Yong-ik (1854-1907), the courtier in charge of the imperial court’s finances who supervised the flow of money in and out of the emperor’s coffers.

In 1930, the July issue of the monthly magazine Samcheolli reported the reason behind Lee’s rise to power as the following: “He dedicated many golden calves dug out at Gapsan gold mine to Emperor Gojong and Empress Myeongseong. He is widely known as a strong man, who ran the distance from Seoul to Yeoju in a day carrying the empress.”

At that time people from the Pyongan and Hamgyong provinces were not allowed to hold any government posts. But Lee won the confidence of the royal court using gold and his ability to run fast, despite his humble background. He was born to a lower-class family in Myeongcheon in Hamgyong Province. Historian Hwang Hyeon and Hayashi, a minister at the Japanese embassy, evaluated him as follows: “He was upright and talented. He wore a worn-out coat,” and “He was a thrifty person who did not covet money out of personal greed, and he was the only faithful subject of Emperor Gojong.”

In 1904, he was promoted to the highest position in the government. In addition to the duty of a courtier who supervised the financial affairs of the imperial court, he was appointed as the minister of finance and minister of defense concurrently - his power was omnipotent.

But he committed the mistake of relying on a foreign power and misjudged the intentions of other countries. Right before the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War, he was warned about his approach to foreign diplomacy by the missionary William John McKenzie: “Didn’t you know that a treaty that is not guaranteed by the great powers is nothing but a scrap of paper? If you don’t defend your own country, why should they come to defend you?”

Despite this, Lee would go on to say, “We announced today that Daehan is a neutral country and that we want other countries to respect our neutrality. We made a promise with the United States. I believe that the United States will remain an ally by all means.”

Lee’s naive attitude explains one of the reasons behind the collapse of the Daehan Empire. But his wisdom to prepare for the future of the nation by establishing the Boseong vocational school was brilliant. Before he died in 1907, he wrote a memorandum to the emperor calling on him to “restore the sovereignty by establishing modern schools and educating talented youths.”

The writer is the dean of the school of liberal arts at Kyung Hee University.

By Huh Dong-hyun
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