Legation building in Washington comes home
A reddish-brown three-story Victorian building in the Logan Circle Historic District of Washington is just a 10-minute drive from the White House.
To most people, it is one of many similar-looking buildings in the neighborhood. To Koreans, it is much more than that.
The building was used as the Korean legation in the United States from 1891 until 1910 and stands as a symbol of Korea’s desperate attempts to make it crystal clear to the world that it was a viable, independent state that did not want to be ruled by its neighbors, such as China or Japan.
Those attempts, however, came to naught. Japan’s colonization began in 1910 and forever changed the history of Korea - and Northeast Asia.
The building was also a setting for the final years of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897).
When it opened as a legation, Koreans in the building exuded hope and conviction. When it had to close down, they were in unspeakable despair and sorrow.
It was reported Aug. 21 that the Korean government has signed a contract to purchase the building and officials of the Cultural Heritage Administration flew to the United States to visit the house on Aug. 29, exactly 102 years after Japan coerced Korea to sign a treaty and took away its sovereignty.
Some media called it “a house of miracle,” referring to its dramatic role in Korean history. Others described what happened as a modern-day tragedy. The Korea JoongAng Daily examined the historical meaning of the house in Logan Circle and how its purchase materialized.
Gojong (1852-1919), the last king of the Joseon Dynasty and first Emperor of the Korean Empire, viewed diplomacy with the United States as a way to check the growing territorial ambitions of Japan and China toward the Korean Peninsula.
“The U.S. does not covet the land of other countries” as do China and Japan, Hwang Jun-heon (1848-1905), a Korean envoy to China, wrote in the book “Joseon Chaeknyak” (Joseon Strategies), written in 1800. And the Korean king believed that was the case.
Gojong dispatched Park Jeong-yang (1841-1904) as Korea’s resident minister plenipotentiary in the United States in 1887. Things weren’t easy, but Japanese and Chinese pressure on Washington did little to discourage the king.
Gojong decided that Korea needed a building for its diplomatic activities, and in 1891 a contract was signed to buy the property for $25,000. Until then, Joseon diplomats had worked from rented quarters.
The Korean flag was hung on the wall, along with portraits of Gojong and his son, Sunjong. The legation consisted of 10 persons, including the minister, councilor, secretary and maid. Minister Lee Chae-yeon said: “With the purchase of the building, Korea-U.S. ties will be stronger.”
But determination wasn’t enough to overcome the world powers’ desire for the peninsula.
After Japan defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), the American legation in Korea pulled out of the country. Minister Kim Yun-jeong had no choice but to hand over the legation in Washington to Japan.
Two months before Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910, Japan purchased the building for $5. And two days after the Japanese colonization officially began on Aug. 29, 1910, Japan sold the building to an American named Horace K. Fulton for $10.
For decades, the building that was once at the center of Korean diplomacy was lost in people’s memories.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that a few Korean scholars found out about the existence of the legation through documents in Washington. Their research showed that in the 1960s the building was used as the office of a labor union. In the 1970s, the Logan Circle area was designated a historic district, which made it difficult to undertake reconstruction.
Timothy L. Jenkins, a U.S. lawyer, bought the building in 1977 and has lived there since. He sold the property to the Seoul government for $3.5 million (4 billion won).
Since the early 2000s, the Korean community in Washington and other opinion leaders had attempted to buy back the building, but their offers failed to meet the expectations of the owner. In 2007, the Korean government also got involved, but again, the government’s offer price was rejected.
In 2011, the issue was brought up at the Heritage Forum - a small gathering of various influential figures interested in Korean heritage and its preservation. Participants included Lee Bae-yong (chairwoman of the Presidential Council for Nation Branding), Cho Yoon-sun (Saenuri Party spokesman) and Choe Kwang-shik (now the minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism).
Subsequently, Hyundai Card President Chung Tae-young asked if he could join the effort, offering financial support and real estate advice.
“We were able to do it because people worked together and approached the issue strategically,” said Lee. “Now we need to make the history of the building known to the world and devise ways to utilize the facility.”
The building is the only former overseas establishment set up in the late years of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) that has retained its original shape.
Officials of the Cultural Heritage Administration and outside experts who visited recently concluded the building is in a good shape and well preserved.
“Compared with the photos from the past, the space and structure is almost perfectly preserved,” said Kim Jong-hun, an architecture professor at Pai Chai University.
By Kim Hyung-eun, Park Bo-gyoon [email@example.com]