Dec 07 BAKS conference report #7: Koen De Ceuster

Dr Koen De Ceuster – Docent, Leiden University
The Korean delegation at the 1907 Peace Conference in The Hague

Abstract: Barred from attending the Hague Peace Conference, the Korean delegation at first sight miserably failed in its task of representing Korea at the Conference. Reading this episode as a continuation of Kojong’s ongoing attempts to secure Korean neutrality under international law, the dispatch of the delegation to The Hague becomes a show of great acumen by Kojong who confronted the powers with the ambiguity between the lofty ideals of sovereign equality and the reality of ‘legalized hierarchies’. Approaching the Korean deputation from perspective of the international community present in The Hague and its reactions to the sudden appearance of this unexpected deputation, I rely on conference documents, diaries, dispatches and contemporary press coverage to establish the constraints the delegation faced and how under such circumstances they proved very adequate advocates of the Korean cause in the international arena. Rather than envoys from a ‘hermit kingdom’, the Korean deputation proved to be skilled spin doctors.

Notes (the usual caveats about my amateur efforts apply)

  • KdC opened his talk with images of two recent postage stamps — one issued by each of the Koreas to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Hague Peace Conference in 1907. The DPRK stamp shows Yi Chun committing seppuku in the centre of the conference plenary session. The actual cause of death — in Yi’s hotel bed — is unknown, but likely to be more mundane, maybe from blood poisoning.
  • KdC placed the Korean delegation as the continuation of Kojong’s attempt to achieve the “international neutralisation” of Korea, commenced in 1902 with a letter to the Dutch foreign minister with a request to sign up to the Hague Peace Convention of 1899, which (1) laid out rules about war on land, (2) applied the Geneva convention to war at sea, and (3) laid a framework for peaceful settlement of international disputes in an international court of arbitration. Korea could sign up to (1) and (2) unilaterally, but (3) required the consent of the Treaty powers — which was withheld (as Korea’s foreign policy at the time was under Japanese control)
  • The Korean delegation to the Peace Conference consisted of Yi Sangsol, ex deputy prime minister, as “eyewitness”; Yi Chun, a lawyer; and Yi Wijong, as diplomat. Yi Wijong (son of Yi Pom-jin?), fluent in French, English and Russian (and married to a Russian), was a master spin-merchant and adept at handling the western press.
  • The group of three Koreans behaved as a formal delegation and was treated as such by the press, but was declined access to the conference. KdC showed some of the press coverage of the conference, reflecting the generally cynical public attitude towards it (the conference was perceived as being designed to protect the interests of the military — to be about organising war rather than preventing it)
  • Korea’s presence in the Hague failed to meet its objectives (it could hardly succeed given Korea’s status vis-a-vis Japan since 1905, and in an international environment where less developed nations were perceived as being there to be colonised, and rich nations as almost having a duty to develop the resources of the poorer nations). But it was a PR success if nothing else, succeeding for example in showing that Japan was not as civilised as it claimed to be (having reintroduced torture to Korea since the colonisation) and in communicating the Korean side of the story — that the protectorate treaty of 1905 was unlawful, and that there were international treaties guaranteeing Korea’s sovereignty which were being ignored.

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