Lessons from King Gojong

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Lessons from King Gojong

The door, atop the eight steps, opened and we hurried into the building. The reddish brown wall had a sign that read, “15 Logan Circle.” I looked at the sign quickly as it was a clue to the lost history. The door was from the Korean Empire’s legation building from a century ago.

The architectural beauty of the neighborhood is perhaps the most charming in Washington. The refined view of the area’s historic beauty is reminiscent of a watercolor painting. On Oct. 18, the building became property of the Korean government. This is the official repurchasing of the legation building 102 years after it was taken by Japan.

My entourage and I wandered around inside the building to find the remains of the Korean Empire. Timothy Jenkins, who sold the building to the Korean government, said nothing much was changed in the building’s structure since the time of the legation. The interior structures have the same refined beauty as the outside. Jenkins explained that the three-story building has nine fireplaces and every decoration of the building was left untouched.

The room on the third floor was very spacious. It must have been the place where the photos of King Gojong and King Sunjong were hung and the Korean diplomats vowed their loyalty to them. The order was very precious. They were told to use all their efforts in the diplomatic war for Korea’s independence.

I looked at the fireplace. The Korean diplomats must have gathered around it. I tried to think about what their thoughts and frustrations must have been. They must have felt the sorrows of a powerless, small country, and the thought also made me feel sad.

“You must have a special feeling,” Kim Jong-gyu, president of the National Trust of Cultural Heritage, told me. We exchanged our thoughts. “For King Gojong. Let’s remember the emperor,” I said.

It felt like the end of a long journey. I faced that building for the first time 10 years ago, and I still remember the emotion and anger. The historical significance of the building made my heart beat fast and I rediscovered King Gojong in the story behind this tragic building. He was not an incompetent king and I became an advocate. I tried to promote the cultural and historic value of the legation building and the need for Korea to repurchase it.

The highlight of King Gojong’s diplomacy with the United States was making a surprise move. His goal was to escape from China’s intervention and he decided to establish a legation in Washington. He paid $25,000 for the building in 1891, which would translate to at least $1.27 million today. It was an enormous investment for a country riddled with poverty. After the Sino-Japanese War, Japan’s greedy ambition brought about the end of his diplomacy. King Gojong’s passion for the United States ended and the diplomacy that was not backed by a rich country and a strong military failed.

And the building became forgotten in the Korean history. Korea endured the colonization era, liberation, war and political turmoil and it just disappeared in our memory.

During that time, the building was fortunate. In 1972, the city of Washington designated its neighborhood as a cultural preservation area and the owner did not remodel the house. It was a miracle. The legation building was preserved miraculously.

The next five years from 2013 will be a period of diplomatic turbulence. Northeast Asia will enter the gigantic torrents of redefining the regional order. The historical and territorial disputes among Korea, China and Japan that erupted this year are just a prelude.

China has no reservations. The new leadership of Xi Jinping is used to the idea of “Great China.” China left the Korean Peninsula after its defeat in the Sino-Japanese war, but its influence is restored now. And over North Korea, China has an undisputed influence.

Japan is known for its mighty Navy. It wants to succeed the glorious past of the Japanese Combined Fleet. One day, the fleet may show up and demonstrate near the waters off of Dokdo.

Korea is different from the Korean Empire. It is now a rich country with a strong military. And yet, it is still insensitive to changes in international affairs. While North Korea’s nuclear program is one of the topics debated in the U.S. presidential election, it was forgotten in the upcoming presidential race in Korea. It is bizarre.

It’s because Korea lacks a sense of ownership for diplomacy and national defense. It’s also because Korea relies on the Korea-U.S. alliance for national security. But that won’t be there for long because the Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command will be dismantled in 2015 during the next administration and Korea will be given wartime operational control. The time will come soon for the country to truly stand alone for its diplomacy and defense.

The next president’s leadership, therefore, will decide the future of the Korean Peninsula. What are the diplomatic abilities and visions of Park Geun-hye of the ruling Saenuri Party, Moon Jae-in of the Democratic United Party and independent Ahn Cheol-soo? What are their imaginative powers for history?

Park has tried to refine her foreign affairs and security programs, but has not presented her vision strongly. Moon is focused on defending his image in the debate over Roh Moo-hyun’s alleged disavowing of the Northern Limit Line. His own diplomatic vision has not been clearly presented. And Ahn is still studying. But it is easy to guess what his foreign affairs policy would be based on his past remarks and behavior. It would be somewhere in the middle where he would not suffer damage in a debate.

Foreign affairs and national defense must be important issues in the presidential election. They must be dealt with as importantly as the economy and that is the demand of the majority of the voters.

History repeats itself. And the basic framework of Northeast Asia is now similar to that of the King Gojong period. The next leaders must be armed with more thorough diplomatic strategies and people’s awareness on the issue must remain awakened. That is the message that King Gojong sends to his descendants. The legation building survived throughout history to give us this lesson.

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

by Park Bo-gyoon

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