Korean Students Trespass on US Ambassador's Residence: Reflections

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    One can read or watch the short accounts of a relatively small group of South Korean college students climbing the wall of Ambassador Harris’ official residence in Seoul. Some well qualified pundits of South Korean affairs have taken the opportunity to righteously condemn what was an obviously illegal demonstration. Nineteen students involved have been arrested. The historical and political context is somewhat lost, as legality is the ultimate arbiter for others, as Americans sometimes tacitly and sometimes openly approve of illegal operations when it favors their own cause. One, can’t help but think of the “Free Choseon” group that attacked the North Korean embassy in Madrid on the eve of the Hanoi Summit. For a brief time, this was a cause celebre in certain US circles. The former Marine intelligence specialist, Christopher Ahn, was arrested in the US for his alleged participation, jailed, and then released on conditions pending a Spanish government extradition request. Whatever intelligence was gleaned from the hand phones and hard drives stolen by the group, was delivered to FBI, not surprisingly. A patina of official legality was maintained by returning the stolen items, issuing a warrant for Adrian Hong, the group’s Yale educated ring-leader, and arresting Ahn.

    But all that aside, the substance of the unlawful “sit in” demonstration at the US Ambassador’s residence is historically significant because it relates back to a time in the late 19th Century when foreign legations sought to control Korea’s fate. Early on, the Japanese and Chinese contended for dominance in late Chosun. The Chinese were defeated by the fledgling modern Japanese armed forces in the Sino-Japanese War. After that the Russian and Japanese delegations vied for control of the Chosun emperor’s court. Empress Myeongseong who attempted to resist Japanese coercion of the struggling Chosun dynasty, was assassinated by agents of the Japanese right in Gyeongbokgung palace, October 28, 1895. Periodically, Japanese troops entered the palace grounds. Gojong the “Emperor” was offered protection in Russian legation official residence. That refuge didn’t last. The Russians ultimately lost the Russo-Japanese War for dominance in Korea. For a brief period Gojong moved next to the US legation residence in Seoul to obtain the advantage of the protection of USMC guards next door. That didn’t last as the US abandoned it’s “open door” policy in Chosun for a cynical deal with the Japanese recognizing their dominance in Korea in exchange for US colonial dominance in the Philippines.

    Lee Won Yong, prime minister, and Ito Hirobumi, resident general of the Korean protectorate, circa 1907. Ito was assassinated in Harbin in 1909, and Lee was the victim of an attempted assassination by stabbing months later in Seoul. Lee was known at the leading traitor of Eulsa. As the erstwhile leader of the Korean Independence Federation, and prime minister of Chosun, Lee had lost foreign support for the independence of Korea.

    In 1905, the “Emperor” Gojong refused to sign the “Treaty of Eulsa,” which made Korea a “protectorate” of Japan. Those Korean officials who did sign it went down in infamy as the “traitors of Eulsa,” which unfortunately included the acting prime minister, who also led the Korean Independence Federation, and betrayed its principles for the proverbial forty pieces of silver (actually he was paid about 2.5 million in gold upon signing the Treaty). Although it is said that Korea didn’t become a colony until it was officially annexed in 1910, it had already lost all it’s sovereignty as a protectorate in 1905. Japanese undue influence over Korea essentially began with it’s military involvement in the suppression of the Tonghak movement in 1894 and ebbed and flowed until its victory over Russia in 1905. This was a period when the legations of the more powerful states in the region routinely interfered in the domestic and foreign affairs of Korea. The Korean crown prince was held as a hostage by the Resident General Ito Hirobumi after the Eulsa capitulation. Annexation in 1910, with its pretensions of legality in the heyday of imperialism was just a formality.

    So this period so important to the genesis of the Korean Independence Movement, is the backdrop for modern Korean events. Politically aware Koreans know very well what role foreign diplomatic delegations have played in interference in their sovereign matters, whether by coercion or providing financial inducements to heads of state, like the dictator, Park Chung Hee. Ambassador Harris has a “chin il,” pro-Japanese bias, as most Americans do, the legacy of the cold war. Perhaps he has a sensitivity to these issues as someone of Asian-American heritage, with a substantial resume in Japan, perhaps not. Clearly, Japan, is not the only power to have coerced South Korea, although it is also doing it again now. However, the admiral cum ambassador’s public demand for increasing the South Korean contribution to defense sharing by a factor of five was a blunder of high order. One cannot help but wonder how he conceives his role as ambassador to repeat such a ridiculous demand. Is he just “following orders” as the saying goes? One would expect an ambassador rather than acting merely as an advocate for the president’s unreasonable demand in these negotiations to attempt to mitigate the impact by advising the white house and the diplomatic team preparing to negotiate in Hawaii, that they are way out of line. Donald Trump needs more than a yes man in the ambassador’s residence.

    The presence of large right wing crowds, led by the Liberty Korea Party, near Gwanghwamun plaza, the Gyeongbokgung palace, and the US embassy building, many waving US flags doesn’t help any. The net effect is to undermine the current democratic South Korean administration at home while it is negotiating the five year Special Measures Agreement. The coincidence doesn’t really escape notice. The embassy’s location can’t be changed soon enough.

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