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Netflix’s Mr Sunshine: Historical Background

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As mentioned before, I’m currently watching the TvN drama Mr. Sunshine, airing simultaneously on Netflix (Sat and Sun). The drama was written by Kim Eun-Sook and Director Lee Eung-Bok of Descendants of the Sun and Goblin fame. While a love story between a Korean noble woman, fighting for Korea’s liberty from Japan’s control, and an American Navel Captain who just happens to be is an escaped child of Korean slaves, the backdrop of the story is Japan’s occupation of Korea.

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Unlike Korean films and dramas set later in Japan’s occupation – post annexation of Korea – Mr. Sunshine takes place in the early years of the 20th Century (around 1905), prior to the complete annexation of Korea and while Emperor Gojong was still on Korea’s throne. To make sense of the historical background surrounding the drama, it’s necessary to understand the geopolitical dynamics within East Asia.

First of all, Czar Nicolas of Russia sought to expand his empire across Manchuria to the warmer waters of the Pacific. Blocked by both ice throughout much of the year and other nations on Atlantic, ports on the Pacific Ocean seemed perfect ports for Russian trade and influence expansion. To make that happen, Russia annexed not only Manchuria but also a portion of China that borders what is now No. Korea.

Japan resented Russia’s land grab and feared Russia’s potential as a political rival in Asia. Japan publicly considering itself the rightful defender of East Asia. In public statements, Japan painted itself as the defender of East Asia from foreign dominance, much as they saw the Monroe Doctrine protecting Latin and South America from European incursion.

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As No. Korea is now, the Joseon Dynasty, at the end of the 19th Century, was a hermit kingdom. It wanted to be left alone and remain neutral. It sought, like Japan decades earlier, to keep foreigners out. But geopolitics and Korea’s own military and political weakness made that impossible. Furthermore, Gojong realized the might and advanced technology of these foreign nations and, to keep his Kingdom safe, sought to bring those advancements to Korea. Some amongst the nobles balked at his plans while others embraced them. Indeed several nobles sent their male children to Japan, which was among the more technologically advanced and worldly nations, to complete their educations.

In 1904-5, the Japanese military achieved a comprehensive victory in the Russo-Japanese War. Following the Protectorate Treaty of 1905 between Korea and Japan, which forcibly stripped Korea of its rights as an independent nation, Gojong sent representatives to the Hague Peace Convention of 1907 in order to try to re-assert his sovereignty over Korea. Although the Korean representatives were blocked by the Japanese delegates, they did not give up, and later held interviews with newspapers. Indeed, Korean Ministers set up a second Ministry in San Francisco where they actively lobbied Korean Americans in support of their mission to keep Korea independent.

One representative warned forebodingly of Japanese ambitions in Asia: “The United States does not realize what Japan’s policy in the Far East is and what it portends for the American people. The Japanese adopted a policy that in the end will give her complete control over commerce and industry in the Far East. Japan is bitter against the United States and against Great Britain. If the United States does not watch Japan closely she will force the Americans and the English out of the Far East.”

Nevertheless for all of Korea’s lobbying at the Hague and elsewhere in the US and Europe, Britain joined with Japan in its bid to control Korea. The US too, under President Teddy Roosevelt and the US Foreign Secretary, agreed to hand over sovereignty of Korea to Japan as long Japan gave up every right to the Philippians which the US had recently won from Spain. As a result of that agreement, the US would support a peace treaty between Japan and Russia that handed Korea over to Japan. Meanwhile, as these negotiations were under way, Japanese Ministers, government, and newspapers spread anti-Korean propaganda, saying Korea was the reason why so much turmoil existed in the Far East. In their telling, Korea was the problem that prevented peace.

Of course, the US tended to believe Japan’s narrative ever since the US-Korean conflict in 1871 during which, due to multiple misunderstandings on both sides, the US essentially invaded and killed over 200 Koreans. For almost two decades, Korea, in the mind of US officials, was seen as as hostile foreign power. But these same officials knew almost nothing about Korea, its language, culture or history.

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Moreover, it seems entirely possible that Japan’s ministers were far more believable than those of Korea as a result of Japan’s greater (or more lengthy) engagement with the West while Korea had chosen to maintain its isolation and independence, especially after centuries under the dominance of China. Nevertheless, Korea sent Ministers to the US to lobby for Korean independence as well as to set up friendly relations with the US. Korean Ministers set up a Legation in Washington DC and another in San Francisco. But aside from their positive influence on the Korean American community, they had little success in convincing the US government to support its desired stance as a neutral and independent nation.

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It’s probable that Teddy Roosevelt knew nothing of Korea’s history…or of its multiple wars against Japanese incursion; or of its’ having to submit to China’s dominance; or of its’ desire to forge its own destiny. So, while TR sought to end the Russio-Japanese War, which earned him a Nobel Peace Prize, he ultimately gave away Korea to Japan dominance.

One representative warned forebodingly of Japanese ambitions in Asia: “The United States does not realize what Japan’s policy in the Far East is and what it portends for the American people. The Japanese adopted a policy that in the end will give her complete control over commerce and industry in the Far East. Japan is bitter against the United States and against Great Britain. If the United States does not watch Japan closely she will force the Americans and the English out of the Far East.”

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Fifteen years after Japanese assassins murdered his wife, Queen Min, Japan forced Gojong to retire from the throne in favor of his son, Sunjong. After abdicating, Emperor Gojong was confined to the Deoksu Palace by the Japanese. Three years after Gojong’s forced abdication , on 22 August 1910, the Empire of Korea was annexed by Japan under the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty that Sunjong was forced to sign. This treaty allowed the Japanese government to supervise and intervene in the administration and governance of Korea, which also allowed for the appointment of Japanese ministers within the government.

Gojong died suddenly on 21 January 1919 at Deoksugung Palace at the age of 67. There is much speculation that he was killed by poison administered by Japanese officials, an idea that gained wide circulation and acceptance at the time of his death. His death and subsequent funeral proved a catalyst for the March First Movement for Korean independence from Japanese rule.

After the annexation treaty, the former Emperor Sunjong and his wife, Empress Sunjeong, lived the rest of their lives virtually imprisoned in Changdeokgung Palace in Seoul. Sunjong could not exercise any power as emperor because there were only pro-Japanese politicians in government. After the Korean Empire collapsed, Sunjong was demoted from emperor to king. Japan allowed him the title of King Yi of Changdeok Palace and allowed for the title to be inherited. Sunjong lived the rest of his live at Changdoek palace and died on April 24, 1926. Thus, after 519 years the Joseon Dynasty came to an end.

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After Japan’s total dominance over Korea, Koreans were forced to submit totally to Japan’s every demand. They were forced to give up their names in favor of Japanese names; give up their language; give up their heritage; study only Japanese history; give up their businesses and property to Japanese owners…the list is endless.

But American President Teddy Roosevelt most probably did not know any this would happen because he believed the Japanese ministers with whom he undoubtedly had far more contact than with those of the unknown Korean ministers who had recently arrived and met briefly with him. Remember that although Korea had fought off both Japanese and Chinese incursions for centuries, until China finally won suzerainty, it’s probably doubtful TR knew next to nothing of Korea’s history.

Nevertheless, the story that unfolds in Mr Sunshine takes place in the years just prior to Japan’s complete dominance of Korea and after the murder of Queen Min. The story of Mr Sunshine takes place in those few years after he 20th Century when history could have been written another way.

 

 

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Written by Valerie Curl

September 8, 2018 at 7:39 PM

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