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Spirit of Independence

A Primer for Korean Modernization and Democratic Reform

Syngman Rhee

Publication Year: 2001

Syngman Rhee (Yi Sûng-man, 1875-1965) is undoubtedly one of the most important figures in modern Korean history. He emerged as the dominant leader in Korea's nationalist struggle against Japan and served as the first president of the Republic of Korea from 1948 through 1960. Rhee's political career as founder and president, however, was not without controversy. While some hailed him as "the George Washington of Korea," others regarded Rhee as "a little Chiang Kai-shek." This first English translation of Rhee's magnum opus, The Spirit of Independence (Tongnip chôngsin), provides readers with an essential key to understanding the breadth and depth of Rhee's thought at a critical juncture in his life and his country's history.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press


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pp. vii-ix

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pp. xi-xiii

Dr. Syngman Rhee (Yi Sǔng-man, 1875–1965), the author of the present volume, was a renowned statesman who played the pivotal role in establishing the Republic of Korea in 1948. The public evaluation of his record as the founder and first president of the republic from 1948 through 1960 remains mixed. Many regard him as the “George Washington ...

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pp. xvii-xviii

The Spirit of Independence was one of the books that I had been meaning to read in its entirety but for which I never had time. In the early spring of 1997, Professor Young Ick Lew, director of the Institute for Modern Korean Studies, Yonsei University, Seoul, asked me to translate it into English and provided me a xerox copy of the first edition of the ...

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Translator’s Introduction

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pp. 1-22

The Spirit of Independence (Tongnip chǒngsin in Korean; hereafter, The Spirit) was written in 1904 by a political prisoner languishing in a jail in Seoul, Korea.1 The author, Yi Sǔng-man (better known as Syngman Rhee, the name he used in his English-language writings, which we also shall use in the present work), was a young political activist who was ...

The Spirit of Independence

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pp. 23-24

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Author’s Introduction

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pp. 25-26

It has been seven long years [sic] that I have been in prison.1 Because I hate wasting precious time, I have tried to alleviate my suffering and anxiety by burying myself in various books that my domestic and foreign friends have loaned me from time to time.2 I could not contain my anger, at times, over current developments that set the blood inside ...

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pp. 27-28

People say that a person can survive an abduction by a tiger as long as one remains alert. That being true, a defeated nation may not remain extinct forever as long as its people keep alive their spirit of independence. Consider the independence of Greece; its brilliant success was not achieved overnight. Also consider the independence of Italy; its magnificent ...

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Publisher’s Postscript

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pp. 29-31

The Spirit of Independence was written to safeguard the sovereignty of our nation. Anyone who reads this book will readily understand how sincere is the author’s patriotic dedication, which requires, therefore, no explanation. But since a reader may wish to learn how this work came about, it may be necessary that we record it briefly. ...

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1. Introduction

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pp. 32-33

How lamentable! Without a nation, there would be no home; without a home, where would I, my parents, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and future offspring live? Where would we go? Born a subject of a nation, a person, therefore, finds one’s well-being and safety to be entirely dependent on the nation regardless of whether one is from an upper- or lower-class social background. ...

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2. Everyone Should Awaken to Their Responsibility

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pp. 34-39

We call upon you, compatriots! Every person—the noble and the humble, the officials and the commoners of all ranks, the rich and the poor, the aristocrats and the servants, men and women, the old and the young—must realize, as a constituent member of this nation of 20 million people, that he or she bears a certain portion of responsibility for ...

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3. Failure in Discharging Duties Invites Disaster

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pp. 40-44

Although someone may not have discharged duties to the country and hence be guilty, one may retain control over person and home. Since the immediate imposition of any sanctions for guilt may be difficult, it may be said that this person was wise in managing his or her private interests after all. [On the other hand,] a supposedly brave individual ...

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4. Things That the People Can Do If They Try

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pp. 45-47

Assume that the common people wish to discharge their duties and that they are not unaware of the damages they must suffer if they fail. But what could they do, some of our readers may ask, if their superiors themselves fail to carry out their responsibilities and they also prevent the commoners from fulfilling the commoners’ duties? This statement ...

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5. Foundation of True Loyalty

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pp. 48-50

What we have discussed above has been shown in the behaviors of those who disregarded their obligations as subjects and only followed their selfish interests. Even those who have some degree of concern for the public and are willing to follow the path of loyalty to the nation are less willing than foreigners to risk their lives for the sake of ...

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6. A Strong Resolve for Independence

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pp. 51-53

I am writing this book in order to make a fervent appeal to our compatriots throughout the nation to join together in defending the independence and rights of the Empire of Taehan and in reviving its life, which has been almost fatally wounded, to thrive forever. As I discussed earlier, our life today is like a voyage in a vast stormy ocean. How can we ...

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7. Establishing Relations with Foreign Countries

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pp. 54-58

More than four hundred years ago, the nations of the world stayed within their borders and maintained no contact with others. They did not know that the earth was round and believed it to be flat, while the sky was round; hence, the earth’s edge was the sea, which in turn was bounded by the sky. In 1492, an Italian named Columbus crossed the Atlantic ...

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8 .Distinction between Independence and Neutrality

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pp. 59-61

In addition to these four types [independent state, federation, dependent state, and colony], there exists the permanently neutral state that is sometimes called the permanently independent state [sic], which means that it stays, under agreement with major powers, in the middle and does not lean to any side; it is surrounded by other countries ...

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9. The Nation May Not Last If the People Remain Unenlightened

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pp. 62-66

We have distinguished the rights and benefits of various nations in the world under international law. International law is not established by any one state nor was it formulated by judges selected by all the nations in the world. Nevertheless, those countries with high levels of civilization exercise restraint on their power and observe international ...

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10. Crucial Importance of the Right of Self-Rule

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pp. 67-70

Self-rule and independence are thus important and their benefits are necessarily large and deserve careful thought. In general, self-rule refers to a person or a nation managing one’s or its own affairs, while independence means standing on one’s own without relying on anyone else. Anyone worthy of the name is born with them as part of ...

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11. An Outline of the Laws of the Universe

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pp. 71-75

The foregoing discussion shows that a person’s well-being and safety depends upon the nation. A nation’s well-being and safety depend upon the conditions of the world. No one in this world can afford to remain ignorant about the conditions of the world, which, in order for us to understand, require that we have knowledge of all the laws related to ...

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12. Classification of the Six Continents

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pp. 76-79

One quarter of the earth’s surface is land and three quarters are water. A large body of water is called a sea and a larger one the ocean. There are five oceans. The Pacific Ocean surrounds the land we live in and is the largest. The Atlantic Ocean is the second [largest] and is located between the United States and Great Britain. The Indian Ocean is ...

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13. Classification of the Five Races

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pp. 80-81

On the six continents of the world, there are approximately 1.5 billion people in total. They can be classified into five groups: Mongolian, Caucasian, Ethiopian, American, and Malayan. These races differ from one another in physical shape and skin color. The Malayan race is dark colored and lives on the Australian continent. The American race ...

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14. Distinctions between the New and the Old

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pp. 82-84

The five races in the world that number 1.5 billion people are classified into three kinds: those who are civilized and enlightened, those who are semienlightened, and the barbarians. In this threefold classification, the term yaman means orangk’ae (barbarian), and it is further divided into two groups. The more backward group is barely distinguishable ...

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15. Three Types of Government

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pp. 85-88

Inasmuch as these many races have divided the vast land space and set up countries, it is easy to see that there are more than a few countries. As a rule, people live in groups. When they congregate, it is human nature that there will be conflicts. If the vast land area is left to many people without any rules, they would, like herds of beasts, run ...

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16. Rights of the American People

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pp. 89-94

To survey the political system of the United States, there are the upper and the lower houses of Congress, which represent the whole country. The government is divided into three branches, the legislative, the executive, and the judiciary, and the power is divided among them. The legislators exercise only the power to decide what the laws should be ...

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17. Events Leading to American Independence

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pp. 95-97

In the past, the Western nations did not have constitutions; although some of them had rules for parliaments, most were ruled by autocracy. At the outset everyone benefited greatly, but as people changed, schisms slowly developed. In one or two hundred years, a multitude of schisms grew and plunged the common people into severe distress ...

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18. The Declaration of American Independence

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pp. 98-103

That such a protracted war [the American War of Independence] raged on, producing a multitude of casualties, was due to the oppression of vicious autocratic rule—an unprecedented event in the annals of history. As a rule, such oppression could not but cause uprisings among the people or within the military. These uprisings were temporary ...

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19. History of the American Civil War

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pp. 104-107

The right of independence that was won at such a high cost as we have discussed above has been preserved and passed down from one generation to the next. Everyone guards their rights jealously and refrains from encroaching on others’ rights. Protection of others’ rights is considered one’s own duty. History records many instances of endeavors ...

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20. History of the French Revolution

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pp. 108-112

The nations in Europe were mostly under oppressive regimes that drove the people to the depths of misery and suffering; the people dreaded their sovereigns as they would tigers and hated them like sworn enemies. Everywhere loud voices of grievance were heard, but those up above blindly trusted their power and continued to push the heads of the ...

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21. Benefits of Constitutional Government

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pp. 113-115

From this time on [following the French Revolution], an interest in political reform became more widespread and many countries in Europe became republics. In some other countries those in power realized, by observing gradual changes in people’s behavior, how unfair their political system was. They also knew that if they became more repressive ...

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22. Damages Caused by Failure to Change Government

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pp. 116-118

To compare the regions of the six continents, Europe is the smallest but it is foremost in the world in civilization, wealth, and power. That is because all the countries in Europe have changed their governments; some adopted republicanism while some others have championed the constitutional system, thereby developing the people’s minds. ...

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23. Political System Matches the Level of the People

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pp. 119-120

We have explained above how the rise or fall of a nation is the consequence flowing from its political system. From this, we can conclude that politics must be reformed. We have to realize first, however, that the political system is dependent on the level of the people. If we fail to notice the people’s level and only see the differences between various ...

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24. The People’s Mind Must Be Free First

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pp. 121-136

It is not too difficult to write a constitution, and the need for it is most urgent. The current level of the Korean people is such, however, that one must not expect it to happen anytime soon. The Western nations have not been established for as long as the Eastern nations have; therefore, their people have not been contaminated by bad customs for ...

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25. Limits on the Right of Freedom

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pp. 137-138

The Creator was most fair and impartial when myriad things in the universe were first created; from the smallest to the largest, they were made to check one another with an equal chance for survival. A mouse is so small that it hardly attracts attention; one may, therefore, presume that it must be truly free. But there is the cat that restricts its ...

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26. History of Korean (Taehan) Independence

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pp. 139-142

Since the time of Tan’gun, for nearly five thousand years, Korea (Taehan) has been a full-fledged, strong, independent nation. At the time of Koguryǒ, Emperor Yang of Sui [in China] led 1,113,000 men to invade Korea (Chosǒn); they passed through the Liaotung region, crossed the Yalu River, and came as far as P’yǒngyang only to be defeated ...

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27. China’s Obstinacy

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pp. 143-145

Since the time of Yao and Shun, China has had a highly developed civilization, and its moral culture and politics have been developed to an admirably high level. This led to an arrogant mentality, claiming that China alone was a [civilized] nation while the adjoining countries were all barbarian, namely the eastern (tung-i), the western ...

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28. History of Japan’s Progress

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pp. 146-148

Japan was known in the past as the nation of Woe [Wa in Japanese]. It is situated to the east of Korea and consists of three small [sic] islands. The territory and the population are a little larger than those of Korea [sic]. Since ancient times, the people were known to be fierce and to value weapons. Their morality is deficient and they have many odd ...

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29. Political History of Russia

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pp. 149-151

Russia is situated to the north of China and it straddles the continents of Europe and Asia; it and Great Britain are considered to be the two largest countries in the world. Great Britain is a large country when all its territories scattered throughout the world are included. Russia is large by itself, and the width of its domain is accordingly huge. Because ...

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30. Western Influence Extends Eastward

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pp. 152-158

Russia’s power could not expand to the West only because everyone was aware of its ambition. Everywhere people were cautious and on the alert and avoided falling into Russia’s trap, and they cooperated with one another to block Russia. Had the Eastern nations realized at an early stage what was afoot and prepared for it, [Russia] would ...

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31. Japanese Endeavor to Establish Relations with Korea

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pp. 159-160

About this time, Russia also sent an envoy who arrived at Wo˘nsan and asked our government for a trade agreement, but it was denied. Under the growing pressure of the Western nations’ power, public opinion had become divided. Then Japan sent an envoy who came to Tongnae42 and asked for a trade agreement in these words: ...

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32. Trading with Japan for the First Time

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pp. 161-163

Japan, at this time, wished to send an envoy to Korea and ask for trade. Under international law, a dependent state is not to make a treaty or exchange envoys with another state. China has repeatedly explained to foreign countries that Korea was not a dependent state of China. But China was not always forthright: It would say one thing under ...

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33. The Imo Mutiny (1882)

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pp. 164-166

In 1879, Hanabusa Yoshitada arrived in Seoul as the Japanese minister to Korea. This was the first time a minister representing a foreign government came to Korea. The Japanese minister, therefore, could take the place of honor when ministers from countries that traded with our country sat at a meeting, and Japan felt most proud. Because this ...

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34. Korea, Japan, and China before the Sino-Japanese War

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pp. 167-170

In 1875, Kim Ok-kyun and Sǒ Kwang-bǒm48 secretly went to Japan and saw a new society. Japan at this time was at the beginning of its reforms and was much less impressive than it is today. All the same, this was the first instance of scions of noble families in our country taking a tour of a foreign country. Without doubt, they were excited and full of ...

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35. Events of the Kapsin Coup (1884)

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pp. 171-174

It was in 1884 [sic; 1882] that trade with the United States was opened. Since this country has had, from the beginning, specially close relations with Korea’s independence and progress, we are particularly interested in the United States. In that year, the American plenipotentiary, [Robert W.] Shufeldt, entered the capital of Korea via Japan. On a previous ...

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36. Sending Ministers to the West for the First Time

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pp. 175-177

As it turned out, although the Kapsin Coup was basically aimed at expelling China [from Korea], it only expelled Japan. An investigation after the disturbance showed that more than three hundred Japanese had been killed either in the firefight with the Chinese or by the Korean mob. Representatives from three countries, Kim Hong-jip 56 of ...

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37. Causes of the Sino-Japanese War

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pp. 178-181

The Taewǒn’gun at this time was out of power and in retirement. He had no opportunity to take part in political affairs and was discontented in his heart, according to popular rumor. All the in-laws of the royal family held the power and they were extremely extortionist and avaricious. The common people were preyed upon and became alienated ...

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38. [Foreign] Relations after the Sino-Japanese War

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pp. 182-184

The Chinese suffered a series of defeats. They were routed out of Ǔiju [in northern Korea] and crossed the Yalu River into China, but they lost Chiu-lien Cheng and Feng-huang Cheng [cities in southern Manchuria] in succession. The formidable batteries at Lushun [Port Arthur] had been considered by foreign countries as invincible, but they ...

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39. Russian Power Invades Liaotung

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pp. 185-186

At this time, other foreign powers stayed neutral and watched the war from the sidelines. When the war ended and Japan received 200 million taels of silver in reparations and acquired the Liaotung region in its entirety, they raised the question of Japan’s excessive extortion. Three countries—Russia, France, and Germany—joined in presenting ...

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40. The Boxer Incident in China

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pp. 187-191

Li Hung-chang had been the single most vocal leader of China and was the most preeminent individual, save for the emperor, among the 400 million Chinese. Foreign nations, therefore, praised his fame and included him as one of the great men of the world. Moreover, all negotiations with foreign nations had been handled and decisions ...

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41. Causes of the Russo-Japanese War

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pp. 192-197

Because the Chinese had been, from the early years, miscreant and ruthless toward foreigners, creating frequent controversies, the world resented Chinese behavior and innumerable conflicts ensued, to the point that plans for dividing China’s territory and doing away with its sovereignty were discussed. When large forces from ten nations occupied ...

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42. Korea in 1894 –1895

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pp. 198-201

Korea had long been unable to break away from the mentality of reliance on China—until the war of 1894 –1895. After the end of the war, the officials and the people alike completely discarded the old idea of only relying on someone else. The reforms (kyǒngjang) thus began. The six boards [that corresponded to cabinet ministries] were replaced ...

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43. Japan and Russia after1894 –1895

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pp. 202-208

The political objective of the Russians has always been focused on taking land that belonged to other people. They would seize an opportunity and employ a stratagem, offer a favor and win over the person who was in power, or use whatever other means necessary to place a piece of land, however small, under their influence. They would then establish ...

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44. Japan and Russia before the War

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pp. 209-215

Following the agreements between Japan and Russia that we have discussed above, there gradually developed [in Korea] two partisan factions consisting of officials and civilians of various ranks who became conscious of their group affiliation. Those who frequented the legations of these two countries were often in power and prominent. The common ...

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45. Results of the Russo-Japanese Negotiations

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pp. 216-220

As the Japanese foreign minister Komura Jutarō and the Russian minister “Urotsu” [sic; Roman Romovich Rosen ?]80 were engaged in a long negotiation, other foreign powers were anxious to find out what was going on; politicians, journalists, and officials and civilians of all ranks were constantly on the lookout for news. The Japanese people were most ...

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46. Situation in Korea Following the Outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War

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pp. 221-226

On the day the war began, Russian troops had not yet landed and the two Russian warships were in Inch’ǒn Harbor. On February 9 of this year, the Japanese warship off P’almi Island sent a message informing [the Russian ships] of an impending attack unless they departed by noon of the same day. As the Russian vessels left [the harbor], a battle ...

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47. Japanese Intentions Are Different from Before

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pp. 227-232

We are currently in the midst of a war. The newspapers continuously report stories about the warships of the two nations being destroyed at various locations on the sea with so many casualties. [The press reports also said that] at Lushun, the Japanese ground troops launched several assaults and the gains and losses were such and such, and the fall ...

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48. Damages Inflicted by China, Japan, and Russia

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pp. 233-235

To summarize what we have discussed in the preceding pages, Korea’s conditions today are a result of damages inflicted in tandem by China, Japan, and Russia. And these damages were not initiated by the foreign countries without cause; rather they developed out of our invitation to them. Let us first talk about the damage inflicted by the Chinese. After ...

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49. We Have Missed Many Good Opportunities

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pp. 236-238

As we have already mentioned, when we interacted with foreign countries we often suffered. But this was not because we did not have ample opportunities [to avoid getting hurt]. Rather, [we] failed to recognize, every time, the value of the opportunities that we had, and we missed them all. If we should fail to recognize how good the current opportunity ...

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50. Intentions of the Japanese Government

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pp. 239-242

Since the withdrawal of Russian influence from Korea, the Korean attitude toward political issues has become extremely uneasy. Everyone predicted that the Korean government would soon be changed; some of them worried, some waited, while some others expressed concern that the change would be too late. Everyone spoke on the basis of ...

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51. Intentions of the Japanese People

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pp. 243-252

In the preceding pages, [I] have tried to discuss the intentions of the Japanese government on the basis of the views expressed by a political leader of Japan [Itō?]. We have no way of knowing whether the consensus within that government was to help or harm Korea. Actually, we need not be too anxious to know, because even if Japan wishes to harm ...

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52. Epilogue: Essential Conditions for Independence

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pp. 253-284

In this book, we have recorded an outline of events that are related to the independence of Korea. Details cannot all be spelled out, but what has been presented can be sufficient, upon careful reflection, to suggest what independence is or what it involves, what circumstances our independence is in today, or what is likely to happen to it in the future ...


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pp. 285-296


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pp. 297-305

E-ISBN-13: 9780824864446
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824822644

Publication Year: 2001