|King Gojong in 1883/84 / Robert Neff Collection|
By Robert Neff
|Traveling clothes in the late 19th century / Robert Neff Collection|
Often these agents did not survive their missions ― wild animals and bandits preyed upon them on the lonelier stretches of highways, and sometimes corrupt officials (learning of the agent's identity) hired assassins to cut them down in dark places or poison their food before they could arrive.
Their purpose was "to be an aid to the sovereign in promoting good government and as a check to the rapacity of the officials," but in 1897 these secret agents were the problem through their fleecing of the general population and extortion of local governments. In a letter to The Independent ― an English-language newspaper published in Seoul ― a reader complained that "Egypt had once ten plagues, but fortunately a Royal Inspector was not one of them."
One of the worst of these inspectors was Lee Seung-euk. Apparently Lee had convinced King Gojong that the southern provinces were on the verge of open rebellion and that only he (Lee) could pacify them. The Korean monarch agreed and dispatched Lee as one of his secret agents to the Chuncheong and Jeolla Provinces. While there may have been some unrest in the provinces, it grew much worse due to Lee and his malevolent acts.
|Mapea (horse requisition tablet) used by Korean officials to obtain horses at the various stations throughout the country. National Museum, November 2020. Robert Neff Collection|
"[While] secreting himself in a Buddhist temple in Jangseong district, [Lee] discovered some young nuns in the temple. He ordered them to wait on him during his incognito sojourn. The nuns refused on the ground that as they were nuns such service would be degrading. The inspector showed them the Imperial commission which he held and told them that he was authorized by His Majesty to have absolute control over life and death wherever he went. In case they should disobey him he would use his power to compel them to have respect for the Imperial messenger. The nuns promised to wait on him the next day and they retired to their rooms. Once there they packed up their belongings and escaped from the inspector's infernal designs. The next morning the inspector, hearing of their escape, sent out a squad of runners to capture the nuns."
The nuns managed to escape but Lee discovered a young girl (only 13 years old and raised by the nuns) and had her sent to his home "for the purpose of making her his slave." When the governor heard of the incident he lodged a complaint with the Home Department requesting that Lee be prohibited from "taking innocent children for illegal purposes as the inspector's action has caused much ill feeling among the people of the province and it causes great injury to the Imperial house." His complaint was promptly misplaced for nearly five months.
The governor's complaint might not have been as noble as it initially appears; he might have also been seeking revenge. When Lee was in Gwangju he ordered the local magistrate to arrest ― "without giving any reason" ― eight petty officials. The magistrate promptly apprehended six of them but refused to arrest the remaining two as they were the governor's clerks. In a missive to the governor Lee stated that he was "the personal representative of His Majesty hence his position is higher than the governor [and] he has the right to arrest the governor himself if he so chooses." Unless the governor immediately complied, Lee would have him removed.
|It is unclear what temple Lee supposedly committed his outrage upon the Buddhist worshippers but perhaps it was Baegyang Temple. Circa 2014. Courtesy of Dale Quarrington at Koreantempleguide.com|
The governor refused Lee's demand claiming that he had been appointed by the monarch and the Council of State and answered to the Home Department and to no other. He could not and would not "purposely ignore the law for the sake of pleasing the inspector."
Lee was far from pleased and dispatched a squad of constables to the governor's office and had the clerks and a couple of police officials taken away and beat and tortured until they were unable to sit or stand.
Perhaps as a further threat, Lee summarily dismissed the magistrate of one of the larger cities for maladministration.
In response, the governor complained to the central government but his pleas for help from the tyrannical inspector who "murders innocent men and tortures the people in the most savage-like manner" went unanswered. However, Lee wasn't alone during his reign of tyranny. "After his appointment, [Lee] immediately dispatched some two hundred deputies throughout the Southern provinces ransacking the houses of all well-to-do men."
By early 1898, their acts had "succeeded in creating a genuine uprising." In April, the governor of South Jeolla Province claimed Lee was "arresting several wealthy citizens on the charge of their being connected with Tonghaks [a peasant rebellion] four years ago. In order to free themselves from the clutches of the inspector they had to sell their farms to obtain funds with which to bribe him. By such a process the inspector has rendered some hundred people in the province homeless. After having lost their property they became desperadoes and really formed themselves into bandits."
|Another view of Baegyang Temple ― named after a white sheep that is said to have come to listen to sermons at the temple and eventually became enlightened. Circa 2014. Courtesy of Dale Quarrington at Koreantempleguide.com|
This time the Home Department listened. In early April, the governors of South Chungcheong and North Jeolla provinces were ordered to immediately arrest Lee's agents for torturing people for the alleged crime of being undutiful to their parents or being connected with Tonghaks. Within a week the governors were ordered to release all the prisoners Lee and his agents had accused of being rebels or their sympathizers.
Many of Lee's deputies suffered at the hands of the enraged population and there was even a rumor that Lee had "made a hasty retreat to Seoul" in order to escape the fatal wrath of the people but this proved to be untrue.
In August, Lee was "still going about 'as a roaring lion seeking whom (rich men) he may devour.'" He had moved to Mokpo where he had established a large speculation firm but was still engaged in extortion ― "his favorite method [was] to imprison rich men for some alleged immorality, and then release them on payment of money." The Mai-il Sinmun (Daily Newspaper) noted that "many rich men [in Mokpo] have fled to Seoul in order to escape the extortions of the Imperial messenger."
|Mokpo in the early 20th century / Robert Neff Collection|
However, every story has two sides. According to Lee, he had orders from Seoul to send up $8,000 per month ― it isn't clear who issued the orders and where the money went but it is easy to imagine the money wasn't going into the treasury.
What became of Lee is unclear but he appears to have been one of the last Secret Royal Inspectors (according to Wikipedia, Yi Myeon-sang in South Jeolla Province was the last in 1892). The closing of a letter-to-the-editor in 1897 seemingly sums up this article and ― to a degree ― Gojong's reign:
"It is a pity that these Inspectors whom His Majesty has sent out for the benefit of the people should prove themselves such tyrants thus alienating the love of loyal subjects from our beloved King."
My appreciation to Dale Quarrington at Koreantempleguide.com for kindly providing the images of Baegyangsa.
Robert Neff has authored and co-authored several books including, Letters from Joseon, Korea Through Western Eyes and Brief Encounters.