[Viewpoint] Who protects Korea?

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[Viewpoint] Who protects Korea?

A two-story building in the Japanese colonial style stands in a small ally at the end of a wall of the Deoksu Palace in central Seoul near the Jeongdong Theater. The building, named the Jungmyeongjeon, was renovated two years ago and exhibits photos of Korea being occupied and declared an imperial Japanese protectorate in the 1905 Eulsa Treaty. Emperor Gojong of the Joseon Dynasty was using the place as a residential office when the Deoksu Palace caught fire in 1904. The following year, the humiliating Eulsa Treaty that led to annexation in 1910 was signed in the same place. It remains a historic vestige of a shameful past.

After it defeated Russia, Japan declared hegemony over Korea and decided to make it a Japanese protectorate. Ito Hirobumi arrived as the first resident-general of Korea in 1905 with a letter demanding Emperor Gojong agree to the arrangement. The Joseon royal court heavily protested. Japanese troops encircled the Jungmyeongjeon, firing canons to intimidate the king and the Koreans.

The Japanese met with court ministers one by one to persuade them. Gojong refused to meet the Japanese. Ito and his armed troops barged into the Jungmyeongjeon and forced the ministers to accept the agreement at gunpoint. They declared that five approvals from eight ministers were enough to make a majority and proclaimed the treaty valid with a stolen emperor’s stamp.

The Japan-Russia War that began in February 1904 with a sea skirmish between the Japanese and Russian fleets near Jemulpo, on the western coast of the Korean Peninsula, ended with Japan’s decisive win in waters southeast of Dokdo, the easternmost islets of the peninsula, in May 1905. The uninhabited volcanic rocks made an appearance in history. Japan emerged as a new imperialistic power and won the grounds to make Korea its protectorate thanks to its defeat of the Russian navy.

Its seizure of Dokdo and use of its waters helped Japan overwhelm Russia and gain control over Korea. The Joseon Dynasty already was no longer a state. The security and army forces were already in the hands of the Japanese. Upon hearing of the battle at Jepulpo, the only thing Emperor Gojong could do was hold a ritual in the courtyard to pray for a Russian victory.

Dokdo is again at the heart of diplomatic maneuvers. What can we do in order to defend our land? What do the memories in Jeonmyeongjeon teach us today? No matter how much we shout out that Dokdo is ours, the cries will be of as little use as the teary pleas from Gojong if we lack capacity and strength. No one on this land has questions about Dokdo. All this campaign and talk about the territory being ours is therefore useless. Instead, let us talk about where we should go from here. If Japan uses diplomatic forces, we should strike back with the same means. If Japan stages a campaign overseas, we should do likewise. But what if Japan resorts to military force?

The Joseon Dynasty relied entirely on diplomatic means to defend the country without building up our own physical and national power. It mostly depended on its wits and fell victim to the power game being played among Western and regional powers. If one cannot stand on one’s own two feet, talk about independence is in vain. Japan threatens to end a currency swap arrangement with Korea due to the escalating diplomatic spat over Dokdo. If we were in the kind of vulnerable liquidity state that we were in 1997, we may have had to surrender Dokdo to the Japanese in order not to lose a lifeline of financial support in troubled times.

Instead, we are able to stand tough against Japan because we have piled up enough foreign currency reserves in our coffers. But what if the Japanese dispatch their mighty naval fleet to the sea around Dokdo? We cannot entirely rule out the possibility. We must reinforce our naval force. The investment will have to come from taxpayers. Companies will have to earn more, and the country must build wealth. But are we ready to pay more taxes and encourage companies to do better?

The seas around Northeast Asia are roiling amid territorial disputes and claims over uninhabited islets and underground resources. These are the reverberations of the reshaping of the regional order due to China’s ascendency. All empires tend to turn assertive with growing power. Our neighbors - Russia, China and Japan - all come from empires. We must defend our sovereignty from them.

Prior to the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War, Syngman Rhee started on his political manifesto “The Spirit of Independence,” while serving a prison sentence for protesting against Japanese dominance. He emphasized the sovereignty and independence of a state. He defined sovereignty as the act of an individual or a state carrying out its own will.

Independence is the act of standing on one’s two feet without relying on others. The same advice should be heeded today. In reporting the 1905 Japan-Korea Treaty, the New York Times wrote that the only thing that could prevent Japan from taking over Korea was the Koreans themselves. Then and today, the only ones who can protect our country and land are ourselves.

* The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Moon Chang-keuk
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