[Viewpoint] Giving away sovereigntyA hundred years have passed since Japan’s forced occupation of Korea began, and Jungmyeongjeon, the site where the Korea-Japan Annexation Treaty was signed, has been restored. Jungmyeongjeon had been part of the Joseon Dynasty’s Deoksu Palace but was separated from the palace grounds with a wall when it was downsized by the Japanese imperial government.
I walked behind the palace towards Jeongdong Theater and visited Jungmyeongjeon. And I toured Deoksu Palace as well. The restoration work for Seokjojeon was in progress. A plaque explained that Emperor Gojong had promulgated the founding of the Great Han Empire and built six new buildings in Deoksu Palace, including Jungmyeongjeon and Seokjojeon.
The history evoked a complicated feeling. When the country was being rattled by severe turmoil, the emperor decided to expand his palace. Maybe he thought he needed to display the dignity of his empire. However, if the emperor could use resources to expand the palace, why didn’t he try to defend the nation by using that money to buy weapons? Why didn’t he try to improve the city of Seoul, which didn’t even have a sewer system? The decision reveals the limits of the Joseon Dynasty monarchy.
What about his ministers and officials? Yun Chi-ho, an enlightenment politician, wrote in his diary about his father, who had been a minister of war: “He was so greedy to defend his court position that he had no shame.” He also wrote, “I could not find patriotism or honor from the king and the statesmen.”
On Aug. 29, the day Korea lost its sovereignty, Emperor Sunjong was busy conferring awards. Lee Wan-yong and other ministers had already been awarded medals of honor. When a country is vanishing, what’s the point of decorations? It was to receive pensions or grants from imperial Japan.
The Japanese collaborators’ priority was their own well being, which they secured by selling off the country. Some Donghak Party members and pro-Japan politician Song Byeong-jun had created Iljinhoe and competed for power in the collapsing nation against the Joseon aristocracy. When you don’t have a country, how can you get involved in politics and what is the meaning of having power? Nevertheless, the consciences of the king and the ministers were paralyzed.
Some things in history need to be remembered, while others are better left forgotten. We have to choose what to remember. On the centennial of the Korea-Japan annexation, what do we need to recall about this painful part of our history? The fall of Joseon was caused by both internal and external elements.
For the last 100 years, our perspective has been dominated by the external factors and the grudge we hold toward Japan. From the standpoint of global history, since imperialism was growing at the time, it was a likely fate that a small kingdom like Joseon would be colonized. The prime concern of Joseon was which world power it should rely on in order to secure its independence.
However, there were certainly internal reasons that led to the collapse of the struggling Joseon kingdom. The ruling class was not only incompetent but also indifferent to the success of the nation. We have spent the last century mostly blaming Japan. But were there things that Korea did wrong or could have done better? Is blaming another a way of covering up our own faults? It’s not much different from Emperor Gojong’s error of seeking help from powerful foreign countries instead of trying to bring internal forces together.
A century after that disgrace, we need to change our perspective. We have blamed Japan enough and cannot criticize others forever. So we should focus on what we have done wrong and what we need to do from now on to never bring about a repeat of such a humiliation.
The same goes for social issues. When you blame other people and the system for your failure or poverty, you won’t have any progress. When you think about what you can do in a given situation and what you have neglected to do to make things better, the nation will become healthier.
At this critical moment, Kim Jong-il has toured the anti-Japanese movement sites in Manchuria, China. The anti-Japanese armed struggle is a proud part of the history of both South and North Korea. Independence activist Ahn Jung-geun, who assassinated Resident General of Korea Ito Hirobumi, and General Kim Jwa-jin, who won a big battle against the Japanese Imperial Army, resisted Japanese rule in Manchuria to gain independence for the country.
However, Pyongyang seems to be still absorbed in the mindset of struggling against Japanese imperialism even though 100 years have passed. And it has expanded that mindset to include anti-Americanism as well. Is North Korea’s failed economy due to American imperialism? North Korea has virtually lost the meaning of existence as a nation. The functions of the state are paralyzed, and people are starving. Those in power are holding onto power compulsively.
Don’t they resemble the ministers of Joseon in 1910 as they boasted of their awards while their nation crumbled away? Why doesn’t North Korea try to look into its internal problems? The North Korean leader reportedly visited Chinese leaders to gain approval to name his son his successor. Having advocated the Juche philosophy - “independent stand” or “spirit of self-reliance” - and severe nationalism, do they have no shame?
Losing sovereignty translates into disgrace. We call the day the annexation treaty was signed “the humiliation of the nation in 1910.” The humiliation was suffered by the entire people of Joseon, not just the king and the ministers. The fates of the Koreans are one, and in order to defend the community, the citizens have to be enlightened.
We need to keep this point in mind as we remember the centennial of the disgrace. We have transformed half of the community through the last half century with our own power. Who would think of South Korea as a former colony of Japan? Let’s not cling to the humiliation of the past. Let’s shake off the skin of disgrace.
*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Moon Chang-geuk
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