As printed in Korean Stamp Review, 4th, 1997;
Published by the KOREAN PHILATELIC CENTER


Korean individuals on Stamps(IV)

-Yi Chun, Emissary to the
world Peace Conference-

 


By    Lee Dong-Sung
Editing Adviser with Doosan
Encyclopedia


 

 

 

Over the past 50 years, Korea has issued over 2,000 stamps, with subject and designs as diverse and distinctive as those of any other country. Famous historical figures are often selected as subjects for postage stamps in many countries. Yet few have been granted such recognition in Korea; for the most part, the only Korean heroes to find their way on

Korean Stamp Review-4, 1997            Page 28.


 

   Korean stamps have been patriots who gave their lives for national independence. These individuals are unfamiliar to the vast majority of foreign stamp collectors, and foreign literature or encyclopedias do not provide any information on them.

In 1947, during the three-year transitional period between Japan’s surrender in World War II and the establishment of the Republic of Korea, the provisional Korean government issued a defini­tive postage stamp featuring Yi Chun, the first modern individual to grace Korean postage stamps.

Yi Chun was born on December 18, 1859 and lived through an especially difficult period of Korea’s history. The country was being penetrated on all sides by outside powers. He was a highly educated intellectual. After studying in Seoul, he returned to his hometown, Pukch’ong in Hamkyongbuk-do, and worked there as a teacher. Then he took a refuge in Japan for a short time. While he was there, he attended a university.

At that time, Japan was rapidly moving to establish a protectorate over Korea. Through its diplomatic activities toward the US and European countries including the UK, Germany, and France, Japan managed to obtain their tacit approval of its aggressive policy toward Korea after the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese war in February 1904. Japan then coerced Korean Emperor Kojong and his ministers in November 1905 into singing the now infamous Protectorate Treaty, according to which full authority over Korea’s diplomatic affairs and domestic administration was turned over to Japan.

Refusing to consent to the treaty, Emperor Kojong sent personal letters stating his opposition to the Korea-Japan treaty to foreign countries at every opportunity. At his request through a telegram, Dr. H. B. Hulbert led an opposition movement against the treaty in the US, but to no avail. Russian Tsar Nicholas II convened the Second World Peace Conference and sent in June 1906, in strict confidence, an invitation to Kojong to attend the Conference, which was to be held in Hague, Netherlan­ds. In response, Kojong planned to dis­patch a special envoy to the Conference to expose to the world the unjustifiable acts of aggression by Japan and to seek support in repudiating the Protec­torate Treaty.

The three emissaries dispatched to Hague were Yi Sang-sol, Yi Chun, and Yi Wi-jong, all government officials. They left Korea at different times in order to attract as little attention as possible to their mission. Yi Sang-sol left Korea first in April, 1906, one year before the Conference, and stayed in Lungching, Chientao. Yi Chun met with Yi

Korea Stamp Review-4, 1997            Page 29.


    Sang-sol in Vladivostok in April of the following year, and they rode the trans-Siberian Railroad to St. Petersburg, where they met Yi Wi-jong. Yi Wi-jong was a son of Yi Pom-jin, the Korean Ambassador to Russia at that time.

On June, 25, 1907, the three men arrived at The Hague. They checked in at the Jong Hotel, hoisted the national flag of Korea at the window, and set about their task. Their goal was to expose to the world the injustice of the Protectorate Treaty and Japan’s act of naked aggression and to appeal for the support of the world’s powers in restoring Korea’s sovereignty.

The delegation of emissaries first visited Count Nilidof of Ru­ssia, chairman of the Conference, and the Foreign Minister of the Netherlands to ask them for help in being permitted to attend the Conference as official delegates of Korea. However, they were flatly denied the right to attend and speak at the Conference on the grounds that Korea was no longer a sovereign country because many governments had already recognized the Protectorate Treaty. The three emissaries then turned for help to the delegates of the US, France, China, and Germany, but all of those countries turned their backs, in effect making themselves accomplices in bringing about Korea’s national tragedy.

While they were delivering an emotional and heart-rending written petition explaining the inequity of Japan’s aggressive policy and Korea’s argument to all delegates, the Korean delegates attended a formal press conference and made an impassioned speech about Korea’s plight entitled, " A Plea for Korea." The participants of the meeting immediately and unanimously adopted a resolution in favor of Korea. However, this was not enough to turn the tide of events.

Yi Chun died on July 14 due to the extreme and bitter disappointment over the failure of the mission. The national tragedy thus ultimately led to a personal tragedy. The three emissaries’ mission achieved no practical result; in fact, it only served to hasten the Japanese invasion of Korea.

When it became widely known that the three men had gone to The Hague on Korea’s behalf, Ito, who played the principal role in the Japanese invasion of Korea, forced Emperor Kojong to abdicate in favor of his young son, Emperor Sunjong, and a new Japan-Korea Convention was then signed in July, 1907. Japan proclaimed laws that took away the people’s freedoms of speech, press, assembly, and association. Furthermore, Japan forced the Korean army to disband, depriving it of the ability to defend the country. In 1910, Japan finally removed all

 

Korea Stamp Review-4, 1997            Page 30.


   remaining vestiges of Korea’s nominal sovereignty and officially proclaimed Korea to be a Japanese colony.

This year (1997) marks the 90th anniversary of the death of Yi Chun. His last dying words were “Please help our country. It is at the mercy of Japan”. His death was the last gasp of a feeble struggle against the cold reality of the international situation which prevailed at the time. Every major country made a mockery of "justice and law".

The Hague witnessed a small event in remembrance of this struggle of Koreas on July 30, 1997. About 600 Koreans including Cardinal Kim Su-hwan gathered there to recall the anger and solemnity of the day. At the event, the original list of participating countries, according to which Korea was the twelfth invited country, and the invitation card from Tsar Nicholas II to Emperor Kojong dated March 2, 1907, were released for the first time by the National Archives of the Netherlands. In addition, the French-language petition entitled ‘why Exclude Korea’?’ was shown to the public. This is the very same petition that had been distributed by the emissaries outside the building where the Conference had been held.

A Dutch sculptor and peace activist donated a sculpture named “A Golden Plant” at the event. The two-meter-high and one-meter-wide sculpture is a tribute to peace to be placed at the Military Demarcation Line, and it symbolizes the yearning for an early settlement of peace on the peninsula.

The remains of Yi Chun had lain buried for­lorn on foreign soil for a long time before they were finally brought home in 1963, 18 years after Korea was liberated from the yoke of Japanese colonial rule. Emperor Kojong had sent three emissaries to The Hague. Why, then, was only Yi Chun honored on Korean stamp?

The answer is that his personal plight reflected that of Korea’s. Yi Chun is alleged to have killed himself, gripped by indescribable bitterness and frustration due to the failure of his mission and looking helplessly on at the fading light of his home country. His death is therefore considered important though shocking. His story will be handed down from generation to generation for the rest of Korea’s existence. When the issuance of the country’s first stamp was planned after its liberation, it was only natural for Korea to recall the drama of Yi Chun’s life and death and therefore to honor Yi Chun on the first stamp.

Yi Chun’s portrait later graced a second definitive postage stamp in 1948 after the Republic of Korea was established. Afterwards, questions arose about the cause of his death, leading to an official probe into it by the academic community. The Korean Ministry of Education officially announced in 1956 that Yi Chun died from shock, denying that he had committed suicide.

Whatever the cause of his death is, Yi Chun and the other two emissaries waged a lonely and desperate battle to reverse their home country’s declining fortunes. We, their descendants, take great pride in these three brave hearts and hold them in eternal memory with stamps.

Korea Stamp Review-4, 1997            Page 31.

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