In the summer of 1907, the world declared Korea illegal. The previous autumn, Emperor Kojong of Korea sent three representatives on his behalf to the Second International Conference on Peace at The Hague. Their mission was to register the emperor’s protest against Japan’s 1905 protectorate agreement over Korea. According to the well-known account of their travels overland to Europe, Yi Sangsol, Yi Jun, and Yi Uijong reached the Netherlands in late June 1907, during the second week of the conference. They carried a letter from their emperor detailing the invalidity of the protectorate and demanding international condemnation of Japan. Although the three young men appealed to diplomats from countries that had long-standing relations with Korea, none except the Russian envoy gave them more than a passing notice. Not coincidentally, of course, Japan’s shocking military victory against Russia two years earlier made St. Petersburg eager to support any protest of Japan.
On arriving at The Hague, the Korean emissaries confronted a belief system to which even the Russians had acquiesced. According to the terms of international law—the same ones used to script the conference at The Hague and legitimate the participant states—the Koreans could not legally attend the forum. The Portsmouth Treaty of 1905 secured peace between Japan and Russia, granted Japan the privilege to “protect its interests in Korea,” and garnered a Nobel Peace Prize for President Theodore Roosevelt, who orchestrated the negotiations. Shortly thereafter, the Second Japan–Korea Agreement named Korea a Japanese protectorate and gave international legal precedent to Japan’s control over Korea’s foreign affairs. As a result, the Koreans could not conduct their own foreign relations. Instead, all of Korea’s foreign affairs would be conducted by Tokyo. According to international law, without Japan, Korea no longer existed in relation to the rest of the world.
At The Hague, the Koreans’ appeal was collectively shunned by the delegates sent from the forty-three countries discussing world peace. The Koreans’ attempt to protest—to tell their story—interfered with the world order that the delegates sought to legitimate. According to anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot, some historical moments run so deeply against prevailing ideologies that they are “unthinkable.” In these situations, Trouillot notes, “worldview wins over the facts.”
Because the Korean envoys demanded rectification in the very terms that oppressed them, they were unable to bring the international community to recognize Korea as an independent country. As a result, their story was “unthinkable” to the organizers of the conference. Conversely, recognition of the Koreans’ claims to independence would have dismantled the worldview that not only determined Korea’s dependence on Japan but also legitimated the conference’s claim to define the meaning of international peace. In practice, of course, this definition of peace meant that certain countries legally controlled and colonized others.