«'The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US Air Force, Department of Defense or the US ...»
'The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US Air
Force, Department of Defense or the US Government.'"
USAFA Harmon Memorial Lecture #35
United States Policy Vis-a-vis Korea, 1850-1950
Professor John Edward Wilz, 1992
Let me begin by observing that my distinguished colleague at Indiana University, Rohert H.
Ferrell, used to rattle doctoral candidates who were defending dissertations by asking, while flashing
an impish grin, "What is the thesis of your dissertation- assuming it has a thesis?" Well, I shall announce what I suppose is the thesis, or unifying theme, of my remarks at the outset. Until June 25, 1950, Korea, the ancient "Land of the Morning Calm"- or; as "GI's" often referred to it in 1950-53, the "Land that God Forgot"- never loomed particularly large in the political or strategic calculations of the makers and shakers of United States foreign policy. Rather, those makers and shakers tended to view Korea, a ragged peninsula that traces its history as a nation to the year 2,333 B.C., as a Northeast Asian backwater, one that was populated by a largely ignorant and hapless people- a people whose development had been severely retarded over the centuries as a result of having fallen victim of conquerors and marauders from China, Mongolia, and Japan.1 At the dawn of the nineteenth century, Korea, a tributary state of the Ch'ing dynasty of China, was decrepit and demoralized. And in its tribulation, it had turned inward- had sought to isolate itself from the outer world, save for minimal contacts with its suzerain China and with Japan. By the middle of the century, indeed, Occidentals were wont to refer to Korea as the "Hermit Kingdom"-on the rare occasions when they referred to it at all. As for Americans, they knew next to nothing about Korea through the first half of the nineteenth century. In a volume entitled An Epitome of Modern Geography, published in Boston in l820, the author dismissed the Hermit Kingdom in two sentences: "Corea is a small kingdom tributary to China, but is little known. King-kitao [Seoul] is the chief town.”2 However deficient his knowledge about the Hermit Kingdom, Zadock Pratt, an obscure congressman from New York, in 1845 proposed that the executive branch of the Washington government effect commercial arrangements with Japan and Korea. His proposal generated no apparent support.3 And the historical record offers no hint that when Commodore Matthew C. Perry prevailed upon the Japanese to accept a commercial treaty with the United States in 1853, leaders in Washington gave any thought to the possibility of ordering a comparable initiative aimed at Korea.
The Washington governrnent's disinterest in Korea aside, American seamen were increasingly active in the waters off the shores of the peninsular kingdom. And in 1855, four crewmen of the whaler Two Brothers, weary of their abusive captain, jumped ship in a small boat and set a course for Japan.
But gale winds washed them ashore on the east coast of Korea near Wonsan. The four seamen, so far as anybody knows, were the first Americans to set foot on Korean soil. Korean villagers treated them hospitably until, on orders from authorities in Seoul, the men were trundled overland to China, whence they secured passage back to the United States.4 A decade later, in June of 1866, the American schooner Surprise floundered in the Yellow Sea off the northwest coast of Korea. Like the castaways of the Two Brothers, the shipwrecked crewmen of the Surprise were accorded hospitable treatment by local Koreans and dispatched, again on orders from Seoul, over the Yalu River to China.5 Alas, the outcome for the crewmen of the American schooner General Sherman was not so fortunate when their vessel moved into Korean waters at the same time the men of the Surprise were enroute to China. Chartered by a British trading company, the General Sherman sailed across the Yellow Sea from China into the rain-swollen Taedong River in August of 1866, then moved up river toward the city of P'yongyang, ostensibly for the purpose of exchanging trade goods with Koreans.
Ruling out any trading activity, authorities in Seoul issued orders that the General Sherman was to depart Korea at once. Otherwise, the ship was to be destroyed and its crewmen, most of them Chinese and Malays, put to death. Unfortunately, an immediate departure from Korea by the General Sherman was not possible. The Taedong had fallen, and the American schooner was hopelessly stuck in the mud of the river's bed. Accordingly, frenzied Koreans attacked and burned the vessel, and hacked to pieces 6 crewmen who survived the attack and sought to surrender. To an American naval commander who had sailed into Korean waters in the spring of 1868 to determine the fate of the General Sherman, authorities in Seoul explained that a local mob, under extreme provocation, had attacked the American schooner. According to the Korean authorities, the ensuing battle ended when the heavily armed schooner caught fire and exploded.7 Undaunted by the fate of the General Sherman, Secretary of State Hamilton Fish, in 1869, instructed the United States minister to China, Frederick F. Low, to proceed to Korea for the purpose of negotiating a navigation and trade treaty with the Hermit Kingdom.8 Low was ready to carry out Fish's instructions thirteen months later. Reflecting on his impending mission, he wrote the secretary of state, "I apprehend that all the cunning and sophistry which enter so largely into oriental character will be brought to bear to defeat the object of our visit...”9 Undaunted by oriental cunning and sophistry, Low boarded the U.S.S. Colorado in May of 1871 and sailed to the waters adjacent to Chemulp'o (present-day Inch'on). Korean emissaries turned aside Low's request that the royal court in Seoul negotiate a treaty with the United States. Then, on June 1, 1871, Korean cannoneers fired their batteries (without effect) at American gunboats and steam launches whose officers and crewmen were exploring the Yom-ha, the narrow passage that separates the Korean mainland from Kanghwa Island (a large island that lies to the north of Inch'on). 10 What was to be done? Low thought it would be a grievous mistake to order the squadron to weigh anchors and sail away. "In estimating the effect it may exert upon our power and prestige, which will affect the interests of our people in the East,” he wrote Fish, "the situation must be viewed from the oriental stand-point, rather than the more advanced one of Christian civilization." Should the squadron now sail away, Low reckoned, both the Koreans and Chinese would be emboldened to give vent to antiforeign impulses.11 The upshot was a punitive operation against the Koreans that has been described as America's first Korean War.
And so it came to pass, on June 10, 1871, that a flotilla of gunboats and steam launches moved up the Yom-ha. In the boats were two companies of marines and an improvised company of sailors armed with rifles. Moving from one Korean fortification to another, the punitive expedition did what Low had directed it to do, namely, administer stiff punishment to the hopelessly outgunned Koreans.
The usual procedure was for the gunboats to bombard fortifications, whereupon the marines and sailors, already ashore, would move forward, shooting and burning. Before returning to the anchorage on June 12, the expedition destroyed five forts and killed about 250 Koreans. Three Americans died in the action, three were wounded.12 The dimension of their defeat along the Yom-ha notwithstanding, the Koreans refused to enter negotiations with Low. Accordingly, on July 3, 1871, the American flotilla weighed anchors and sailed away; the so-called Low Mission to Korea ended as a failure. 13 However much Koreans wished to stay clear of the outer world, the passing of Korea's splendid isolation was at hand. And so it happened, in 1876, that the Japanese, flexing naval muscles in Korean waters after the fashion of Commodore Perry in Japanese waters in the 1850s, prevailed on the royal court in Seoul to accept a trade treaty, the Treaty of Kanghwa.14 Two years later, Senator Aaron A.
Sargent of California proposed that the United States work out an accord with Korea. Such an accord would result in more than just economic advantages for both countries. In Sargent's view, "the blessings of modern civilization could be conferred on a brave and industrious people (the Koreans), now oppressed by political ideas inseparable from semi-barbarism; and Christianity might displace Buddhism (in the Hermit Kingdom)."15 Several months after Sargent proposed an accord with Korea, officials in Washington directed Commodore Robert W. Shufeldt of the United States Navy to negotiate a trade treaty with Korea.
Which Shufeldt did - in Beijing, the capital of Korea's suzerain, with the Chinese viceroy, Li Hungchang. At length, the American commodore departed the Chinese port of Chefoo aboard the U.S.S.
Swatara and sailed across the Yellow Sea to Chemulp'o. Next, on May 22, 1882, Shufeldt and assorted aides, accompanied by a marine guard, made their way to a tent that had been pitched on a hillside not far from the Swatara’s anchorage. They implanted the Stars and Stripes in front of the tent, and with minimal ceremony Shufeldt and Korean emissaries put their hands to a treaty of peace, amity, commerce, and navigation. This was the Treaty of Chemulp'o, the first article of which provided that, "if other powers deal unjustly or oppressively with either Government, the other will exert their good offices, on being informed of the case, to bring about an amicable arrangement, thus showing their friendly feelings." Following a celebratory banquet, the commodore returned to his ship and sailed away.16 The first United States minister to Korea, Lucius M. Foote, took up residence in Seoul in 1883.
At the request of the Korean king, Foote offered advice to the Seoul government on a variety of matters. He arranged for a delegation of Koreans to undertake an embassy to the United States.
(Apparently the first Koreans to set foot in North America, the members of the delegation were received cordially, and in Washington were granted an interview with President Chester A. Arthur. 17) He prepared the way for two American trading companies to set up operations in Korea,18 and helped Thomas Alva Edison to secure an exclusive franchise to install electric light and telephone systems in the country. 19 His resident physician (who would subsequently become the United States minister to Korea), Horace N. Allen, established a hospital- and staffed it with medical missionaries. Ignoring laws that forbade Christians to proselytize Koreans, the missionaries labored with considerable success to convert Koreans to Protestant Christianity. They also sought to influence the international competition for supremacy in Korea that dominated the political life of the onetime Hermit Kingdom during the quarter-century after the signing of the Treaty of Chemulp'o.20 Question. Was United States policy vis-a-vis Korea during the years following ratification of the Treaty of Chemulp'o driven by imperial impulses? North Korean and Soviet writers have argued that it was, and respected American scholars have been inclined to agree. Donald M. Bishop has argued otherwise: "My reading of the American documents found in the Navy's Asiatic Squadron Letters, the post records for Seoul of the Department of State, the files of the Department of War, and in the personal collections of dozens of ambassadors, diplomats, and army and navy officers… convinces me that Korea provides scant evidence to support the concept of American 'imperialism' or 'gunboat diplomacy’….”21 My distinguished colleague at Indiana University, David M. Pletcher, who recently completed a book-length manuscript on the Washington government's diplomacy of trade and investment during the second half of the nineteenth century, agrees with Don Bishop.
Two countries whose imperial ambitions regarding Korea during the closing years of the nineteenth century are beyond dispute were Japan and Russia. Japan advanced its ambition when, after crushing China in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 (a war in which the United States maintained strict neutrality22), it compelled the Chinese to abandon all claims to suzerainty over Korea. The Russians accelerated their activities in Korea in 1895-96, when they befriended the Korean monarch as he maneuvered to prevent the Japanese from achieving dominance in his country. At length, in 1904, the competition between Japan and Russia for supremacy in Korea, and also Manchuria, prompted the Japanese to launch a surprise sea attack on the Russian naval base at Port Arthur on Manchuria's Liaotung Peninsula- an attack similar in conception to that which they would launch against Pearl Harbor thirty-eight years later. Thus began the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05.
As for Korea, the Japanese had moved troops to Korea in advance of their attack on Port Arthur. Three weeks after the attack on the Russian naval base, they compelled the Korean monarch, who in 1897 had proclaimed himself an emperor, to accept a protocol that made Korea a virtual vassal of Japan.23 President Theodore Roosevelt of the United States expressed no objection. Little wonder.