Global history lessons in The Hague

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Global history lessons in The Hague

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Princess Beatrix, left, and King Willem-Alexander, right, of the Netherlands, listen as South Korean President Park Geun-hye, center, gives a speech March 24 during a lunch at the royal palace Noordeinde in The Hague ahead of the start of the two-day Nuclear Security Summit. [AP/NEWSIS]

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Seo Ji-eun

At the end of the bustling shopping district near China Town in The Hague sits the three-story Yi Jun Peace Museum dedicated to a Korean diplomat from the ancient Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). It is built on the site where Yi was mysteriously found dead only a few days after his arrival in the city in 1907.

Next to the small brown door of the nearly 400-year-old building hangs a vertical black signboard, which reads in Korean: “Yi Jun Peace Museum.”

At the doorbell right next to the sign, a senior Korean couple greeted a few of the Blue House correspondents on March 25 who were accompanying President Park Geun-hye on her trip to The Hague to participate in the Nuclear Security Summit.

Lee Gi-hang, 78, founder and operator of the museum, and his wife, Song Chang-joo, 75, are responsible for running the peace museum. A graduate of Seoul National University, Lee was dispatched to The Hague during the Park Chung Hee administration as part of the government’s project to promote ginseng and later launched his own trade business.

A 1971 article about Yi Jun in the Dutch daily NRC Handelsblad deeply inspired him to trace the life of the independence fighter. He purchased the three-story building for $200,000 all on his own tab, hoping to eventually transform it into a museum.

It finally opened in August 1995, and the couple later received government funding under the Roh Moo-hyun administration.

They have made the daily commute from their residence in Amsterdam to the tourist venue - now one of top 20 landmarks in The Hague - for the past 19 years.

Song, who graduated from Ewha Womans University, guided visitors around the rooms, which were filled with historical photographs and documents that explained the life of the Korean diplomat, who she called a “patriotic martyr.”

Yi, who originally started his career as a prosecutor, was secretly commissioned by Emperor Gojong to go to the Netherlands to attend the second Hague Peace Conference in 1907, where he was set to proclaim to the international community that Korea was an independent state and condemn Japan’s invasion as unlawful. That was two years after the Eulsa Treaty, in which Japan forcefully deprived Korea of diplomatic sovereignty.

The Japanese government, however, stepped in and tried to convince the other delegates in the conference to prohibit Korea’s participation. Just a few days later, Yi was found dead in his hotel room. His cause of death remains unknown. Over the years, rumors and speculation have swirled. One of the predominant views is that the Japanese government murdered him. His remains were transported back to be buried in Seoul 56 years after his death.

Near the end of her guided tour around the peace museum, which includes a reproduction of what Yi’s hotel room looked like, Song said she was sorry President Park couldn’t make it to the museum during her time in The Hague.

“It would have been great if President Park could have managed to accept our request to swing by the museum,” she said. “It’s a shame no incumbent Korean president has ever visited here.”

Asked about the reason why Park skipped a visit, Blue House spokesman Min Kyung-wook said that he did not know whether there had been an official request from the Yi Jun Memorial Peace Museum for the president’s visit.

However, President Park did pay a visit to the venue in April 2011, when she served as a special presidential envoy to Europe under the previous Lee Myung-bak administration.

She left her name on the visitors’ register with a comment that read: “It must have been heartbreaking not to be allowed to enter The Hague conference in 1907, when [Koreans were] already disheartened from being divested of their country. I am filled with emotion from what we are today after 100 years.”

It is understandable that the president had an incredibly tight schedule in the city. It is also understandable that she may have opted to diplomatically skip the museum this time, considering its historical sensitivities, especially ahead of her first-ever trilateral meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Barack Obama on March 25.

However, her moves contrast bold action by Japan’s Abe, who visited the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam on March 23, two days before the three-way meeting. “Looking ahead in the 21st century, I would like to ensure that we will never see the same things happening, and I share the responsibility of realizing this goal,” he said.

The coordinated move by the Japanese press to recognize its history - whether the country admits to its wrongdoings or not - was also impressive. Song said 13 Japanese reporters visited the peace museum between March 22 and March 25. Every reporter who visited the museum during the summit period left their name and attached their business card on the visitor register, commending Lee and Song’s efforts to compile all relevant historical documents.

The couple said they sent a letter on March 24 to the president proposing that the planned inter-Korean DMZ Peace Park in the demilitarized zone on the inter-Korean border accommodate another peace museum dedicated to Yi Jun.

If the proposal works out, it would be a huge reward for the couple, who have dedicated their golden years to highlighting an often forgotten yet important period in Korea’s oppression.

By Seo Ji-eun [spring@joongang.co.kr]


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