Korean Films

The Untold Story – “Korean Empire”: a testament to Korean determination in reclaiming lost history

Park Jeong-woo and Park Hee-joo, “The Untold Story – ‘Korean Empire’ ” (Arirang TV, 2013)

A symbol of the Korean people’s desire for freedom and independence and their first contacts with the West of their own initiative in the late 19th century, the Korea Legation Building at Logan Circle in Washington DC was for a long time lost to Koreans as their embassy in the United States from 1910 to 2012. Built in 1877, the building was purchased by the Joseon kingdom then ruling Korea in 1891 to be used as its embassy in dealing with the United States. At the time, King Gojong had ambitions and plans for modernising Korea along Western lines, against the objections of his Qing Chinese overlords. Unfortunately, geopolitical events beyond the Joseon kingdom / later Korean empire’s control led to the building passing under Japanese control in 1905, after that nation defeated China and then Russia in two wars. Japan later sold the building in 1910 for $10, having bought it from Korea for $5: an insulting gesture to the Koreans if ever there was one. Through the efforts of the Korean-American community in raising the money to purchase the building and keeping the issue alive among their own members, the Legation Building was finally relocated with the help of the US National Archives and bought back by the Koreans in 2012, with the intention of using it as a cultural and educational centre.

Using archived photographs and animation (often in combination) and interviews with Korean-American academics and Korean diplomats, the documentary is a handsome and highly visual presentation of a little known period in Korea’s history when the Joseon kingdom declared itself independent of China in 1897, with King Gojong as its first emperor, and attempted to conduct its own diplomacy with the West free from interference from China, Japan and Russia. However – and the film does not make this very clear – the Koreans may have put too much faith in the United States as a trustworthy ally: while the documentary acknowledges that President Theodore Roosevelt in the first decade of the 20th century saw Japan as much more important and modern than Korea, it is silent on American ambitions to be a dominant power in the affairs of East Asia and how the US co-operated with Japan, looking away when that nation occupied Korea and made it a colony. The film also treats much subsequent Korean history from the early 1900s on in a superficial way. Nothing is said of what happened to King Gojong and his son Prince Sunjong after their empire is gobbled up by Japan, and some viewers may find this omission a major fault of the documentary.

By making a film about the Korea Legation Building and its complicated history, Arirang TV pays tribute to the people who tirelessly sought to locate it and try to buy it back. The film’s narrative demonstrates the determination of the Korean people to remember and reclaim a vital part of their history as an independent nation navigating its way through a treacherous and dark period in its life.