The Centennial of Korea - U.S.A. Relations : A Retrospect


Paper for Korea-U.S. Centennial Program, sponsored by Tong A. Ilbo, Seoul, May 1982.

The Start of Relations

              The signing of the Treaty of Chemulpo between Korea and the United States in May of 1882 began a century of friendly relations between the two nations and their peoples. This agreement was the first covenant with a Western country that Korea ever negotiated, preceded only by an agreement signed with neighboring Japan in 1876, six years earlier. It was followed quickly, however, by similar treaties with most of the principal European powers.

The years immediately preceding the Chemulpo Treaty had not been an easy or a peaceful time for Korea, or for the nations that sought contact with her. Long known as the Hermit Kingdom, Korea had followed a strict policy of isolationism for nearly 300 years, ever since the failure of a Japanese invasion-aimed ultimately at China-during the last decade of the sixteenth century. Though the Japanese armies withdrew after the death of the warlord Hideyoshi, their incursion into Korea left so many scars, physical and psychological, that the nation had scarcely recovered from them by the late nineteenth century. Korea remained poor, backward, and misgoverned-as well as isolated.

All the major Asian countries had attempted in vain to avoid close contacts with Western countries (which were traditionally considered barbaric), whether from reasons of pride or weakness, or both. China, the largest and strongest Asian empire, had been forced to admit British traders at gunpoint in the early 1800s. The so-called Middle Kingdom, which counted Korea among her client states or protectorates, soon faced further incursions, beginning nearly a century of gradual fragmentation that ended with the fall of the last Chinese dynasty in 1912.

Meanwhile, Japan had been opened with a peaceful show of force by the American Commodore Perry in 1855. So readily adaptable was the island nation at that stage of her history that only 11 years later she had modernized sufficiently to force Korea into granting trade concessions with the same sort of "gunboat diplomacy" that had been used by non-Asians to open China-and Japan herself.

At this crucial moment, with "big brother" China helpless and "little brother" Japan increasingly aggressive, the Korean monarchy mounted a last-ditch rear guard delaying action that guaranteed the peninsula's first contacts with Western powers would not be peaceful ones.

In 1866 an American merchantman, the General Sherman, sailed uninvited up the Taedong River toward Pyongyang, where she was sunk with all hands by Korean shore batteries. In both 1867 and 1868, American warships attempted to reconnoiter the area in search of the Sherman, or traces of the vessel, but were warned off. Finally-in 1871-a naval squadron based in China under Admiral John Rodgers undertook a punitive expedition on the assumption that the Koreans had indeed destroyed the missing ship. Approaching Kanghwa Island, just west of Seoul in the estuary of the Han River, the flotilla landed a contingent of troops that occupied the island, killing or wounding most of its fiercely resisting garrison after silencing the newfangled coastal artillery Korea had belatedly acquired. Surprised by the ferocity of the resistence, Rodgers retired his forces in good order before the Koreans could reinforce their soldiers. The Americans took with them their three dead and nine wounded and sailed back to China, content with having punished the unfriendly natives.

But less than 11 years later, at the urging of still-influential China, and after a partial realignment of Korean internal politics, Commodore Robert W. Shufeldt on his flagship the U.S.S. Ticonderoga arrived at Inchon to negotiate the Treaty of Chemulpo (an old name for Inchon). A formal treaty was signed between Shufeldt and Minister Sin Hon from the Korean Court on May 22, 1882. This provided for extraterritorial privileges for Americans in Korea, the purchase of land for a legation, and most-favored-nation trade relations. Lucius Foote, the first American minister, arrived in Seoul soon thereafter, while the Korean nobleman Min Yong-ik became his country's ambassador to Washington, though he never lived there.

A historical episode goes that when Commodore Shufeldt was trying to initiate treaty negotiations, the Korean king was very reluctant, fearing domination by what he called "Western barbarians." The change in the king's mind was prompted by the words of Chinese diplomat Hung-chang Lee, who advised the king that it was in the interest of Korea and China to check the growing influence of Japan in Korea-and to counter Russian expansionism-with the American presence. In addition, Commodore Shufeldt successfully resisted the Chinese request to incorporate in the treaty a provision recognizing Chinese suzerainty over Korea; instead, the United States recognized Korea as an independent nation.

After the treaty, events moved swiftly. The treaty guaranteed safety of foreign missionaries, and soon the pioneering evangelists whose names are still remembered entered the country: Underwood, Appenzeller, Moffett, Gale, Hulbert and others. Dr. Horace Allen, the first missionary physician in Korea, was appointed doctor to the royal family, a highly prestigious post, though at first he was not permitted to touch the sacrosanct person of the king, and had to take the pulse of the queen by holding one end of a taut thread fastened to her wrist while she remained out of sight in proper Confucian seclusion.

Dr. Allen was also in the right place at the right time when an abortive coup organized by zealous reformers in 1884 wounded Prince Min Yong-ik, the ambassador-designate to America and the queen's close relative, at a dinner party. Allen lived nearby and came immediately to treat, successfully, the prince's grievous injuries, thus gaining the gratitude of the royal family.

As treaties of commerce and amity were signed with more and more foreign powers, it became plain to the Koreans that only two of the signatories, Japan and Russia, had territorial ambitions against Korean sovereignty. And of all the occidental signatories, the Americans were in the best position to assist Korea in the imperative task of national modernization that had to be achieved if national independence was to survive. The Americans, mostly through the missionary movement but also via traders and government functionaries, were most effective in introducing modern education, medicine, technology, public administration, and political philosophy into the virtual vacuum of the obsolete Confucian system of values, powerless and dying, here as in China. Unfortunately for Korea, time was not on her side in achieving rapid modernization for the defense of independence.

After Japan defeated Russia in 1904 on both land and sea in and near Korea, the noose grew ever tighter. Finally-in 1910-Japan annexed Korea outright, encouraged by secret agreements with President Theodore Roosevelt, who mediated peace in 1904, and his special emissary, former president Taft, both concluding that Korea was within Japan's proper "sphere of influence."

Though the American government believed it had to acquiesce to what seemed inevitable, assuming that Korea could modernize and progress faster with Japan's assistance and example, the American missionaries did not give up their persistent efforts to train young Koreans for modern, democratic independence. And when it became clear, soon after annexation, that Japan's real intention was to exploit, enslave, and absorb Korea in a policy of calculated cultural genocide, the missionaries showed, directly or indirectly, their strong sympathy for the Korean independence movement, counseling and assisting its leaders both at home and in exile.

Korean-American Relationship under Japanese Domination

During the four decades of Japanese rule, diplomatic ties between the United States and Korea were suspended. Yet even during the Japanese domination the United States remained one of the major sources of encouragement and hope for the many Koreans who resisted tenaciously against Japanese oppression, as exemplified by the Korean independence movements based in Hawaii. The great upheaval that took place on March 1, 1919 was prompted by President Woodrow Wilson's call to uphold the principle of "self-determination."

In the early years, Americans-including General William Sherman-along with others from Europe, came to Korea mainly to explore commercial possibilities. Under the dominant influence of Chinese and Japanese economic interests, U.S. trade with Korea in the period before Japanese occupation was minimal, accounting for only a negligible fraction (2-3 percent) of the Western merchandise that passed through Korean ports. The State Department of the United States gave warning to American officials stationed in Seoul that "it is undesirable for a legation abroad to appear to advocate concessions or exclusive privilege of trade or business in favor of its countrymen." This admonition was generally ignored and several American businessmen were able to secure a number of concessions from the Korean court. On the whole, however, the economic activities of American businessmen in Korea during this period were neither extensive nor successful. Most of the investment ventures undertaken by American businessmen were taken over eventually by the Japanese. Modest in scale as they were, they were no less important in terms of the American influence in shaping the economic and cultural life of modern Korea.

Electricity was first introduced in Korea in 1887 by the firm of Thomas Edison. Street cars and a commercial electric lighting system were constructed by two American businessmen, Harry Bostwick and Henry Collbran in 1898. James R. Morse, together with Walter Davis Townsend and Collbran, began construction on the railway from Seoul to Inchon in 1897, although it was later turned over to a Japanese company to be completed. Morse was also responsible for opening up a gold mine in Unsan that enjoyed high returns for 40 years until it was turned over to a Japanese mining company in 1938. It might be of passing interest for you to know that the words "no touch" frequently uttered by Americans to native workers in the mine found their way into the Korean language in the form of "notaji," meaning bonanza.

In other areas, it is noteworthy that the first case of technical cooperation between Korea and America took place in 1884, when a model farm was set up by the Korean government with the aid of seed variants, cattle, and written materials provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Perhaps most significant of all in the early years of the Korean-American relationship is the contribution of the American missionaries and educators to the enlightenment of the Korean people. The prominent figures include: Horace G. Underwood, who founded what is today one of the major private universities in Korea, Yonsei University; H. G. Appenzeller and A. B. Hall, who founded churches as well as the first school for handicapped Koreans; and Mrs. William B. Scranton, who founded Iwha Girls School, which has grown to be one of the largest women's universities in Asia. In addition, American missionaries were also responsible for the introduction of Western medicine to Korea. In 1885, Dr. Horace N. Allen, who was perhaps the most influential representative of the U.S. government in the Korean court, opened-with the support of the Korean king-the first Western medical institution in Korea. This is now known to be the progenitor of the Yonsei University Medical School.

These schools fostered the democratic spirit and naturally became the breeding place for leaders of the resistance against Japanese oppression. The American missionaries and educators, while sharing the suffering of the Koreans during the colonial period, helped lay the groundwork for Korea's modernization.

The U.S. Role in Shaping a Free Korea

The years from 1941 to 1945 comprise the only period after 1882 when no American is known to have lived in Korea. This was a time, of course, when Americans were doing more than ever before to restore independence and territorial integrity not only to Korea, but to a dozen or more other countries subjugated by Japanese militarism. And when Japan surrendered in 1945, more Americans quickly entered Korea than ever before: not only missionaries, returning with reinforcements, but thousands of troops sent in to take over administrative functions and police duties temporarily from the ousted Japanese.

These forces formed the American Military Government, which acted as a caretaker while arrangements were underway for Korea's first elected national government to be set up. This new government was delayed three years, not only by factionalism and inexperience among Korean politicians, but also due to the fact that Korea upon occupation was partitioned between American forces in the South and a Soviet-occupied zone in the North. This division was at first intended solely as a temporary measure to facilitate the surrender of Japanese troops, but soon hardened into a political confrontation, with the Soviets establishing a communist regime in the north and refusing to agree on arrangements for nationwide elections that would unify the nation.

Koreans in both the North and South objected to national division, and attempts were made to find a way of setting up a single government by negotiations among the great powers and later through the good offices of the United Nations. Finally, with the Cold War stiffening international intransigence and no progress in sight, elections were held in the South only, under U.N. supervision, and a democratic form of government was set up replacing the American authority in 1948. Simultaneously, the North Koreans proclaimed a separate state, which was in effect a communist dictatorship manipulated by the Soviets.

In 1904, America had erred by acquiescing in Japanese encroachments on Korean sovereignty. In 1948, the United States erred again by announcing withdrawal of all troops from Korea (save for a few advisors to the tiny constabulary forces that comprised all the army South Korea had), and by publicly proclaiming a Pacific defence perimeter that excluded Korea. Meanwhile, the North was arming to the teeth with full assistance from the Soviet Union, and was encouraged in its aggressive intents by what appeared to be an American statement of nonintervention.

If the 1904 mistake and subsequent American misjudgments led eventually to the Pacific War 37 years later, the 1948 miscalculation came home to roost much sooner: in 1950, when the North Koreans attacked the South without warning, and the United States became involved in ground combat. In addition, 15 other allied nations sent forces under a U.N. resolution, battling once more for Korea's freedom, and by extension for the security of all free Asian nations.

The war in Korea was bloody and protracted, ending just about where it began in terms of borders, except that the entire territory of South Korea was decimated and demoralized in three years of combat, suffering damage far worse than the Japanese had been able to inflict in 36 years of exploitative occupation.

A case could be made for the contention that America had to fight the Pacific War of 1941-1945 because of failure to oppose Japan's seizure of Korea in 1910 (or, more immediately, her invasion of Chinese territory in 1937); and then had to fight in the Korean War of 1950-1953 due to acquiescence in Russia's seizure and later arming of North Korea in 1945-1950. Both claims depend for their validity on a considerable amount of hindsight, since the crystal balls of history are always notably cloudy. In any case, whatever their failures of foresight may have been, Americans paid a steep price in both instances-not only in terms of lost lives and human suffering, but more positively in the form of economic aid for relief and, later, technological assistance, from both the public and private sectors.

The New Era of Partnership

In the ten years following the end of the Korean War, American help came mostly as direct grants of economic aid on a government-to-government basis, including relief goods and medical supplies from private and church-related charities needed to sustain the millions of refugees and displaced persons stranded in the wake of war.

From around 1963, emphasis had shifted to public loans and private investments as the Korean economy rebuilt its infrastructure and launched a bold, successful campaign to enter the world's lucrative export markets. Korea's competitively priced consumer goods were produced by cheap skilled labor-the only method of economic advancement for a country lacking virtually all natural resources for industry.

Meanwhile, during nearly 30 years of precarious peace, guaranteed by the world's longest armistice, some millions of young Americans have experienced a year or more of military service in Korea. Add to this the growing numbers of diplomatic, business, and voluntary agency personnel, plus tourists who in recent years can be counted in the hundreds of thousands, and you come up with a figure impressive enough to indicate that Americans are no longer as ignorant of or indifferent to the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of the erstwhile Hermit Nation as may have been the case a century ago, when contacts were brand new.

It has been a century of travail for both countries; but also, all in all, a century of progress for Korea-however dearly bought-when one considers the plight of the faltering nation when the 1882 treaty was signed. And Americans can point with pride and some legitimate satisfaction to their part in making this progress possible. For above all, perhaps, it has been a time when Koreans and Americans, though separated by half a world and two cultures completely isolated from each other for millennia, have grown to know, to respect, and even to admire each other, whether on a national or individual basis.

There is some elusive, catalytic human chemistry about these contacts between Koreans and Americans that by no means always occurs in relations between people much closer in distance and background. Understanding does indeed bring friendship between those who seem able to tune in readily to the other's wavelength. This is the lesson of the first century of Korea-U.S. relations, and the hope for the second.

The road stretching behind us as we reach and celebrate this momentous centennial milestone has been rough and circuitous, with many long detours. Events of history-controlled and foreseen by no man-together with circumstances such as the cultural differences between peoples, have made this inevitable.

But the road ahead of us seems by contrast broader, smoother, and straighter, for a community of interests-economic, political, military, cultural, and interpersonal-draws our two nations steadily closer and closer, increasing mutual understanding and further cementing ties forged in blood on the battlefield.

So it is with both high hopes and reasonable expectations that we set out on the way to our second centennial, in a far and unsurmisable future. Whatever lies ahead of us on that road, we need have no fear as long as we travel it together, as companions and friends.