September 11, coffee and Russia in 19th century Korea (part 1) - Korea Times
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September 11, coffee and Russia in 19th century Korea (part 1)

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King (later Emperor) Gojong circa 1883-84
King (later Emperor) Gojong circa 1883-84

By Robert Neff

Coffee culture in Korea is complicated. It is a relatively new beverage to the peninsula and has been associated with sophistication on one hand and decadence on the other.

According to a recent Korea Times headline, coffee is Koreans' favorite drink which, apparently, is a problem.

On September 14, a total ban of coffee in elementary, middle and high schools throughout the country is supposed to go into effect because it is feared that it could damage young children's physical and mental health.

King (later Emperor) Gojong is often cited as the first Korean to drink coffee ― a taste he is alleged to have first acquired during his stay at the Russian legation (1896-1897). This isn't entirely true.

Prior to Korea opening to the West, foreign warships occasionally visited the coastal areas and Korean officials were invited aboard for a tour of the vessel and refreshments.

Unsurprisingly, alcohol was the primary beverage of choice but coffee was undoubtedly served as well. We do know that coffee was often served in the Korean palace to foreign guests in the mid-1880s and one can imagine that some of the kitchen staff imbibed ― at least on the sly ― of this strange drink.

By the time Gojong left the Russian legation, he had developed a fondness for coffee, which he supposedly drank with a little bit of sugar ― dairy milk (even canned) was not a part of the Korean diet at this time.

Indirectly, coffee and the Russian legation nearly took his life on September 11, 1898.

The Russian legation in Seoul circa 1899
The Russian legation in Seoul circa 1899

According to The Independent (an English-language newspaper in Seoul):

"His Majesty has been accustomed to take foreign food now and then for a change. On the night of the 11th inst., about 11 o'clock, His Majesty and the Crown Prince [Sunjong] sat at the table to a late foreign supper. The Emperor first ate a piece of bread, which he found a little stale. Then he sipped a few spoonfuls of coffee.

The Crown Prince who, without eating anything first, drank about two-thirds of his coffee, complaining of being squeamish, and turning pale, soon began to vomit.

Surprised, yet not alarmed, His Majesty, gave some coffee to two eunuchs who were in his presence. One of them, drinking about half a cup of the beverage, went out of the room with his hand on his mouth and fell senseless on the floor.

The other eunuch who sipped only a little, also felt strange and went out.

An old maid of honor drank a few mouthfuls of the coffee, saying that it was a warm drink of excellent flavor, but she soon fainted.

In the meanwhile, the Crown Prince was vomiting copiously while his bowels ran incessantly.

His extremes became icy, his cheeks ashy, and his eyes sank deep into the sockets with blue streaks on both sides of the upper part of the nose.

He lost consciousness and panted for breath."

Unconcerned about himself, Gojong devoted his attention to his son but soon was incapacitated by heavy vomiting and had to leave the care of his son to others.

It was feared that Sunjong would not survive but eventually, like the others, he recovered. It did, however, leave the Crown Prince's health compromised ― some speculate it left him impotent.

Immediately the cook and his 13 assistants were arrested and vigorously questioned as to what role they had played in the attempted assassination of the emperor.

They were found innocent but suspicion soon fell upon Kim Jong-wha, a former provision keeper at the palace who had been dismissed a month earlier for "some misbehavior."

He still retained a pass and had been spotted in the kitchen just before the poisoning. He was quickly apprehended, and under questioning implicated Kim Hong-nuik and Kong Hong-sik.

Both Kim Hong-nuik and Kong had once worked at the Russian legation and profited immensely (especially Kim) from Russia's growing influence on the peninsula.

It is popularly believed that Kim Hong-nuik was born near the Russian border in Hamgyeong Province and moved to Seoul, where he worked as a common laborer ― perhaps even as a water carrier.

Because of his ability to speak Russian, he soon found employment with the Russian legation as an interpreter.

He quickly became quite influential in Korean-Russian relations and was eventually ― in March 1898 ― made the governor of Seoul.

But in his rise he made enemies and soon found himself on the wrong side of the emperor's attention.

On August 27 he was arrested and found guilty of conspiracy and was banished to a small island far from the capital.

At the time of the assassination attempt, Kim was already on his way to his place of exile.

The police, nonetheless, went to Kim Hong-nuik's home to search for evidence and were probably mildly surprised to find Kong hiding in a secret room.

He was promptly taken prisoner, as was Kim Hong-nuik's pregnant wife, and marched off to prison.

Several policemen were also dispatched to Kim Hong-nuik's place of exile to bring him back to Seoul as quickly as possible.

The emperor's coffee had made everyone in Seoul jittery for answers.

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