Korea and the Taft-Katsura Agreement

Was the 1905 Taft~Katsura Agreement America’s Betrayal of Korea ?
It seems impossible to imagine America as being even remotely responsible for the Dokdo problem given the distance and the amount of time that has passed. However as we will see, the Roosevelt Administration’s involvement or lack thereof, helped promote Japanese expansionism on the Korean peninsula. In these secret documents it is revealed how America, in exchange for pursuing her interests in the Philippines, gave Japan unchallenged control over the Korean nation.

Above left: Secretary of War William Howard Taft. Above right: Japan’s Count Katsura. In a secret telegram, William Howard Taft consented to Japan’s colonization over Korea. This agreement was contrary to America’s 1882 Treaty of Peace in which America pledged to “exert her good offices..” and “bring about an amicable agreement..” in the event another government (Japan) dealt oppressively with Korea.
On July 29, 1905, Japan’s Count Katsura met with Secretary of War (later President) William Howard Taft to resolve the grievances between the two countries. Japan agreed to accept the US presence in Hawaii and the Philippines and in exchange America agreed to give Japan a free hand in Korea,

“Count Katsura and Secretary Taft had a long and confidential conversation on the morning of July 27…
First, in speaking of some pro-Russians in America who would have the public believe that the victory of Japan would be a certain prelude to her aggression in the direction of the Philippine Islands, Secretary Taft observed that Japan’s only interest in the Philippines would be, in his opinion, to have those islands governed by a strong and friendly nation like the United States…Count Katsura confirmed in the strongest terms the correctness of his views on the point and positively stated that Japan does not harbor any aggressive designs whatever on the Philippines…

Second, Count Katsura observed that the maintenance of general peace in the extreme East forms the fundamental principle of Japan’s international policy. Such being the case,…the best and in fact the only means for accomplishing the above object would be to form good understanding between the governments of Japan, the United States and Great Britain…

Third, in regard to the Korean Question, Count Katsura observed that Korea being the direct cause of our war with Russia, “it is a matter of absolute importance to Japan that a complete solution of the peninsula question should be made as a logical consequence of the war. If left to herself after the war, Korea will certainly draw back to her habit of improvidently entering into any agreements or treaties with other powers, thus resuscitating the same international complications as existed before the war. In view of the foregoing circumstances, Japan feels absolutely constrained to take some definite step with a view to precluding the possibility of Korea falling into her former condition and of placing us again under the necessity of entering upon another foreign war…” Secretary Taft fully admitted the justness of the Count’s observations and remarked to the effect that, in his personal opinion, the establishment by Japanese troops of a suzerainty over Korea to the extent of requiring Korea to enter into no foreign treaties without the consent of Japan was a logical result of the present war and would directly contribute to permanent peace in the East. His judgment was that President Roosevelt would concur in his views in this regard, although he had no authority to give assurance of this…”

President Roosevelt concurred with Taft’s understanding in a telegram on July 31 1905.
“Your conversation with Count Katsura absolutely correct in every respect. Wish you would state to Katsura that I confirm every word you have said…”

The Taft-Katsura Agreement and the America – Korea Treaty of Peace Signed May 22, 1882
Treaty of Peace, Amity, Commerce and Navigation Between Korea (CHOSEN) and the United States of America
Territorial agreements struck between colonial powers such as the Taft-Katsura agreement were not uncommon during this era so why is it Koreans feel betrayed by Roosevelt’s deal with the Japanese? Indeed what obligation did America have in 1905 to protect or come to the aid of the ailing Chosun government?

When one reads the text of The American-Korean Treaty of Friendship it’s clear that both the Koreans and the Americans have different interpretations of what obligations the Roosevelt administration was subject to.

The area of contention in this treaty seems to be how both the Koreans and Americans interpret Article I. The introduction and the relevant text read as follows:

“Article I :
There shall be perpetual peace and friendship between the President of the United States and the King of Chosen and the citizens and subjects of their respective Governments. If other Powers deal unjustly or oppressively with either Government, the other will exert their good offices, on being informed of the case, to bring about an amicable arrangement, thus showing their friendly feelings…..”
When we read the text of Article I it’s clear the 1882 Treaty of Friendship was not a mutual defense pact. Under this agreement America was in no way obligated to defend Korea from aggression as some Koreans maintain to this day. However, America did fail to honor this agreement on two key points of Article I.

A clear violation of Article I was America’s refusal to “exert good offices” (any diplomatic relations) with Korea in 1905 when Chosun official requested aid from the Roosevelt Administration after the coerced Japan-Korea Protocol was forcefully enacted.

In the fall of 1905 King Kojong of Korea turned to the Americans for support. In October Kojong dispatched Homer J. Hulbert an American missionary teacher in Korea for nearly twenty years, to Washington with a letter asking President Roosevelt for help. When Hulbert met Secretary of State Elihu Root a week after the signing of the coerced Japan~Korea he was told there was nothing the United States could do about it. A cable from King Kojong, sent by Chefoo, claiming that the treaty had been signed under duress had little effect on the State Department which ordered the American legation in Seoul shut down.

Additionally the Americans not only failed to “exert their good offices” they refused to honor the 1882 Treaty of Peace by not offering to bring about any amicable agreement to Chosun assertions that the Japan Korea Protectorate Treaty was “signed under duress” as stated by King Kojong. Instead, America washed their hands clean of the “Korea problem” in exchange for a free hand for American interests in the Philippines.

The Secret Taft – Katsura Agreement, A Conclusion
The Taft-Katsura agreement was a top-secret document, however it carried the significance of any major international treaty. It has been said to “seal Korea’s death warrant” and was a precursor to the 1905 Japan~Korea Protectorate Treaty. Through this treaty Japan then obtained British consent to colonize Korea under the guise of “protection”. The November 17th 1905 Protectorate treaty was responsible for the dismantling of the Korean Foreign Affairs Office, through which Korea could have officially opposed Japan’s annexing of Dokdo under the Shimane Prefecture Inclusion of 1905.

The gradual manner in which Korea was slowly annexed can lead us to the wrong conclusion that this was a willful, peaceful process. However as the documents show Korea having been abandoned by her allies was left without option but to enter into unfair coerced “treaties” with Japan under duress.