Authors: Young-ha Kim
Within two days, they had abandoned their home, slung their ancestors’ spirit tablets over their backs, and left for Jemulpo.
hands groping him and opened his eyes. Right in front of his nose was a man’s face. The moment he shouted, “What are you doing?” the man grabbed him by the throat and butted his face with his forehead. Then he used his fists to hit the priest repeatedly in the face. Father Paul fell over like a sheaf of straw. The man took the priest’s belongings, ripped his money from his chest, and calmly walked away. Was that priest crazy? Sleeping laid out on the street like that when it’s only barely spring?
The thief opened the silk pouch he had stolen. It was heavy in his hand. He reached in with his other hand and took its contents out one by one. Various and sundry items emerged, but the most curious was a silver cross. It was engraved with letters he did not recognize, and the surface was covered with a delicate pattern. It was not a product of Korea. It must have been from China or one of the Western countries. Why would they have made this shape out of silver? He tilted his head. It wasn’t a ring, nor was it a woman’s trinket. A leather thong ran through a ring at the top of the cross, showing that it was used as a necklace. Still, it was silver, so he could melt it down and sell it. The thief put the cross necklace away. Also in the pouch were a few pennies, some documents written in foreign letters, and a small book. He took the money and threw the rest into the gutter. He gently shook his burning fists and continued walking. He could take care of food and lodging for a few days with this. He was humming as he turned into an alley, but ran right into someone. He sized up the other man out of habit. The other man bowed his head and apologized, though it wasn’t necessarily his fault. The two exchanged glances but the priest did not recognize the thief, and the thief set his mind at ease. He stared after the priest’s retreating figure. Dimwitted aristocrat. He trudged along with a scowl, following the priest at a distance. The priest went up the hill, asking people something and rubbing his bruised face as he went along. He passed the Chinese and Japanese neighborhoods, then stopped in front of a handsome two-story building. On the front of the building, in Chinese characters, was written “Continental Colonization Company.” Several hundred people seemed to be waiting in line there. The thief asked what the line was for. After he heard their answer he went to a nearby marketplace, where he ate hot soup and rice. Then he went back to the Continental Colonization Company. The man who had lost everything to him was sitting at the end of the line. The thief took a seat behind the man. Their eyes met a few times, but only when he saw that the priest still did not recognize him did the thief speak. The priest introduced himself as a student from Chungcheong province. When the thief pointed to the bruises on his face, the priest said that he had been robbed. “Oh!” The thief slapped his knee. Then he said that there were many light-fingered fellows in such open ports as Jemulpo, and advised him to be careful. Yet the priest did not seem too concerned about the things he had lost. He just buried his face between his knees and waited for the line to grow shorter. The employees of the Continental Colonization Company worked diligently. They had to pack everyone in tight and weigh anchor before the imperial government and the Japanese minister changed their minds again. They wrote down names, number of family members, and hometowns. “Don’t worry,” they said. “The Mexican farm owners will pay for your passage, food, and clothing.” At that time, they did not need to pay a single penny.
The thief, who would later be called Choe Seongil, robbed two people of their possessions that night. People who had come to the city for the first time or whose hearts were restless with thoughts of leaving for a distant place often failed to guard their belongings. Choe Seongil was excited, and pondered leaving for Mexico with these people. Once the thought entered his mind he could not find a reason why he shouldn’t. Even if I only hit one mark, he told himself, it will be better than here. If it doesn’t work out, I can always come back.
Choe Seongil boarded the
with the priest, without having disposed of his stolen goods. The boat was more like the warships he had heard about rather than a passenger ship. Surely this was one of the Black Ships, the Kurofune, that had appeared in Japan and put the Tokugawa shogunate in its place. Choe Seongil’s mouth dropped open. He liked the power, dignity, and authority of the West that the great steamship exuded. He got the vague feeling that these things would protect him from all ill fortune and threats. Even the strange new smell of coal tar was pleasantly fragrant. Choe Seongil walked boldly onto the ship, feeling as if he had already become a member of the West. The German, Japanese, and British crewmen were moving around the boat with purpose. It was a world unto itself and, as the minister Sir John Gordon had declared, British territory afloat on the ocean.
Choe raced ahead of the slow-moving family groups and quickly chose a good spot to lie down. Next to him lay a boy who still had pimple marks on his face, peering into every corner of the dark cabin with his deep-set eyes. The scaly rashes on his face betrayed his poverty. The thief immediately felt as snug as home in the cabin, which was like the innards of some mythical beast, and he took the blanket that had been given him by a German crewman, pulled it up to his eyebrows, and went to sleep.
ONGDO LED HIS
family onto the
and, as always, looked for someone in authority. But he met only crew members who spoke rough Western languages. Those who caught on quickly had gone below deck to find good spots early on, but Yi Jongdo stood firm on the cold deck swept by the sea winds, waiting for someone who could understand him. Before long, John Meyers and the interpreter Gwon Yongjun appeared. Gwon Yongjun asked him, “Why do you not go below?” Yi Jongdo knit his brows. He had intended to reveal that he was the descendant of such-and-such a prince, and thus blood kin to the emperor, but he saw Oba Kanichi, dispatched to Jemulpo by the Continental Colonization Company, standing next to the interpreter, and he swallowed his words. Instead, he merely asked for a cabin becoming of his status as a literati—a scholar-bureaucrat and member of the nobility. “I can’t very well stay in the same place as them, can I?” Yi Jongdo pointed at the place where people had gone below. While Gwon Yongjun passed along Yi Jongdo’s comment, several Koreans had gathered behind Yi Jongdo. They were not members of the imperial family, but judging by their clothing and the shape of their horsehair hats, they were clearly aristocrats. They were expecting similar treatment if Yi Jongdo’s request was accepted. In the meantime, Yi Jongdo’s wife and son felt an intense horror at the prospect of having to live with commoners, and even beggars. Lady Yun continuously wiped away tears with her sleeve. Yet Yeonsu, his only daughter, looked around with interest at the new people and scenery. From a little farther away, though, Yi Jongdo and his family were a sight to see. Two women wrapped in cloaks and a horsehair-hat-wearing aristocrat putting up a bold front stood in curious contrast to the Union Jack that fluttered from the mast.
Meyers finally spoke. “This boat was not originally a passenger ship but a cargo ship. Even the crew are sleeping in narrow bunk beds, so we cannot assign cabins to Koreans.” Yi Jongdo was frustrated that Meyers did not understand him. “I’m not asking for rooms for everyone. I am asking for treatment becoming of our standing and status.” Meyers made his final decision known through Gwon Yongjun. “I am sorry, but we don’t have the space for that. If you do not like it, disembark. There are many people who want to go.” Yi Jongdo’s pride was wounded that such a natural request had been denied. “What an ignorant fellow,” Yi Jongdo cursed at Meyers as the man went up to the bridge. Then he spoke to his family. “There will be people in Mexico who will understand me. I have heard that there are landowners and a powerful aristocracy there. Anyone who has ever had a man work for him knows that not all human beings are the same. We are not going as workers, we are going as representatives of the Korean Empire. We must not forget this. The eyes of the wicked Japanese are on us now, so we must persevere for the time being, but when we weigh anchor I will meet the captain and ask again.”
Yi Yeonsu spoke. “It would be best if you did not. I think it would be more reasonable to go to Mexico and there meet with someone of high standing and explain our situation.” Even as she spoke, she did not think such a thing would come to pass. Yet the other members of the family agreed with her. They knew all too well the usual results of Yi Jongdo’s stubbornness. Resigned, Yi Jongdo went down to the cargo hold that was being used as a general cabin. It was already full of people. He stood among them and cleared his throat, but no one prepared a place for his family. Everyone covered themselves with their blankets and stretched out their legs. “If I had known it would be like this, I would have brought Myeongsik.” Yi Jongdo regretted having left his servant behind. His family’s dignity did not permit them to squeeze into any of the narrow spaces; they had to stand awkwardly for some time at the edge of the cabin. Lady Yun looked as if she were about to cry and gazed downward, and Yi Jongdo stared at the ceiling. After they had stood that way for an hour, a wailing was suddenly heard from a corner of the cabin. “Oh! Oh!” A man was holding a piece of white paper that had been brought to him by an employee of the Continental Colonization Company. He held it in front of him and his family bowed as one and wailed. It seemed that one of their relatives, an elderly one at that, had died. The dry, tearless mourning continued like a ritual, and then the family began to gather their belongings. They had received the message; they had no choice. They left the ship with sorrow-stricken faces. Yi Jinu ran to claim the empty spot. Yi Jongdo cleared his throat once, disapprovingly, and slowly walked to the place. It was only a few steps away, yet in the time it took him to cover the distance the area had already shrunk, but it had been occupied by five people and so was still not too small to seat four. It was not, of course, sufficient space to observe Confucian etiquette, but they were satisfied for the time being. As long as they could get to Mexico.
continued to be delayed, it began to feel as if the ship had been a permanent part of the scenery at Jemulpo. Panicked rumors spread among those who had come to send off their friends. But the rumor that the passengers were about to be wiped out by an epidemic was quashed when John Meyers allowed them to leave the ship. Then another rumor began to spread: they were all to be sold as slaves. They had signed a document of slavery, and they were going to a cotton plantation where blacks worked. This was the reason the
was unable to leave Jemulpo harbor: the Korean Empire’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs had belatedly discovered that its citizens were being sold as chattel and had called for an investigation into John Meyers and others at the Continental Colonization Company. Unconcerned about the panicked atmosphere brewing among the spectators, some belatedly joined the ranks of the passengers, even though they had not received permission to leave for Mexico. They calmly walked onto the ship, pretending to be officials, or swam to the ship at night and climbed aboard. Many of these stowaways were discovered and sent back, but many refused to give up and lingered around the harbor.
Did the rumor of the passengers being sold into slavery ever reach the ears of the empire’s officials? Even if it did, the government had no interest in these 1,033 souls, at least at the time of their departure. On March 25, as they were traveling back and forth between Busan and Jemulpo because of the problems of passports and epidemics, Emperor Gojong was begging the Russian czar to contain Japan. No reply came. The czar’s fate was also in peril. Russia had been in the maelstrom of revolution since January 22, the so-called Bloody Sunday incident. There was insurrection in the Russian military. And there was no prospect of victory in the war with Japan. The Baltic Fleet, which had passed through the Strait of Malacca and was heading for Asia, was the only hope for turning the tide of the war. If the fleet annihilated the Japanese navy and protected Russian dominance in Yongampo and Port Arthur, the problems facing the czar and Gojong would be solved. For the czar, it was an opportunity to raise Russian pride; to Gojong it was the chance to escape the brutal grasp of Japan. Of course, Nicholas II did not show his trump card to Gojong. Gojong knew only that, a fortnight before he had sent the personal appeal, Japan had defeated the Russian army, captured Fengtian in Manchuria, and occupied the island of Dokdo by force, renaming it Takeshima.
Seeking a way to survive in this shifting balance of world powers, the emperor secretly sent Yun Byeong and Syngman Rhee to present President Theodore Roosevelt with a declaration of independence, but this went unanswered as well. There was nothing but a succession of depressing news. On May 27, the emperor received breathless reports that a large convoy had been spotted by Mokpo fishermen in the sea off Chungmu. Russia’s Baltic Fleet had indeed passed through the Korea Strait on May 26. Yet Britain, which in no way desired a Russian victory over Japan, was telegraphing the course of the Baltic Fleet moment by moment to Japan. But that was not all. The fleet had been tied up for months in places like Madagascar because British-owned ports refused to supply the ships with coal. The czar’s weary fleet had not once been sufficiently supplied with fuel. At 4:45 in the morning on May 27, the combined Japanese fleet launched a preemptive strike. The ensuing naval battle in the East Sea lasted for nearly twenty-four hours, and the Baltic Fleet was dealt a crushing blow. News of the Japanese victory dashed Gojong’s faint hopes. There were no flukes in history. The death knell was tolling in the czarist establishment as well. Nicholas’s primary enemy was no longer Japan but the young revolutionaries—Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin—who silently sought his life.