By Robert Neff
An attempt to assassinate the Korean royal family by poisoning their evening coffee took place on Sept. 11, 1898.
It has been suggested that this assassination attempt was political in nature an ill-conceived plan to remove Gojong from the throne by disenchanted members of the court or even Japanese intrigue. But, in all likelihood, it was nothing more than greed and an attempt to exact revenge.
The primary assassin was Kim Hong-nuik. Kim was born in Hamgyeong province near the Russian border and, finding life there rather difficult, came to Seoul where he worked as a normal laborer some say a water coolie. It was here that he found an opportunity to use the Russian he had learned as a boy as a translator for the Russian Legation. As Russia's influence grew, Kim became more powerful. On March 11, 1898, he was appointed the governor of Seoul, but it was a short-lived reign. Kim had made many enemies most of them powerful Koreans and on Aug. 27 he was arrested, found guilty of conspiracy and banished to a small island. Kim swore to get revenge.
Prior to leaving for his place of exile, Kim met with Kong Hong-sik, another disgraced member of the Korean court, and convinced him to assist in assassinating Emperor Gojong. Kim provided Kong with one and a half ounces of opium and instructed him to put it in the emperor's food. Kim, in turn, hired Kim Jong-wha, a former member of the Imperial Cuisine staff who had been dismissed on Aug. 8 "for some misbehavior" but still possessed a pass allowing him access to the kitchens.
On the evening of Sept. 11, Kim Jong-wha went to Kong's home and was promised 1,000 won (although some accounts claim it was $1,000) if he would put the opium in Emperor Gojong's evening tea. Kim readily agreed and rushed to the palace where he slipped into the Imperial Cuisine and, finding no one present, slipped the drug into the coffee pot.
That evening, at 11 o'clock, Emperor Kojong and Crown Prince Sunjeong sat down for a dinner of foreign food. According to a newspaper account of the incident:
"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 ashy pale, soon began to vomit."
Apparently Gojong never really suspected that anyone would attempt to poison him. He commanded two eunuchs to drink some of the coffee the senior drank about a half of cup and felt immediately ill. "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…. Four [other] servants who out of mere curiosity drank the coffee also became sick and were carried to their quarters."
Suspicion quickly fell upon Kim Hong-nuik and he was brought back from exile. Subsequently, Kong and Kim Jong-wha were also arrested and interrogated (tortured) in prison and confessed to their roles in the plot. On Oct. 10, the three were hurriedly tried, found guilty and then strangled. Their bodies were then cast into the street where they were horribly mutilated by an angry mob. Kim Hong-nuik's wife was accused of being aware of the plot and given one hundred lashes and sentenced to three years' imprisonment.
Fortunately for Gojong, he never drank enough to become really ill but Sunjeong and the chief eunuch were not so lucky. Seriously sick for several days they eventually recovered but not completely. Sunjeong was apparently rendered impotent by the poison's effects. As for Gojong, his faith in his own Korean bodyguards was severely shaken and he took drastic measures to remedy the problem as we shall see in the next article.
Robert Neff is a contributing writer for The Korea Times.