"His Majesty the German Emperor, King of Prussia, on behalf of the German Empire on the one hand, and His Majesty the King of Korea on the other hand, guided by the desire to maintain friendly relations between the two empires and to facilitate trade between the two nationals have made the decision to conclude a contract to achieve these purposes ....... "
With these words the official relations between Germany and Korea were initiated on 26th November 1883 in Seoul, at that time still called Hanseong. For the German Reich, however, the newly created connection to Korea was of far less political and commercial importance than, for example, its relations with Japan or China.
Before the official relations between Germany and Korea began, there were already a few encounters between Germans and Koreans, which were historically only of minor importance in most cases, but not only seem worth mentioning, but to a certain extent constitute a part of the German-Korean relations.
In Korean history, the 16th and 17th centuries are characterized by the massive penetration of its neighboring countries. Japanese pirates were up to mischief on the eastern coast of the peninsula, and at the end of the 16th century Korea was hit by two large-scale Japanese invasions. In the course of this, the country was completely devastated and robbed. At the beginning of the 17th century, the Manchu invaded the kingdom from the north and sought to force it under their rule. Because of this bitter experience, the Korean government decided to adopt a policy of strict isolation. This seclusion of the country was only interrupted by the annual legations to the Chinese imperial court and a low trade connection to Japan, which was carried out via the Daimyo of Tsushima. From that time on, Koreans and foreigners alike were forbidden to cross the country's borders without permission, punishable by death.
The demonstrably first encounter between a German and a Korean fell into this initial isolation phase. After the Manchu finally subjugated Korea in 1637 and made it a vassal, the king had to hostage two sons as a sign of his submission and loyalty. The oldest of them, Crown Prince Sohyeon, met the German Jesuit Father Johann Adam Schall von Bell in Beijing in 1644, who presented him with some writings of a religious and scientific nature. The Crown Prince returned to Korea in the same year, but died shortly thereafter. This first encounter had no consequences for Korea. However, particularly the writings he brought with him caused an initial interest of Korean scholars in Western science.
Due to the annual legations to the Chinese court, such encounters occurred several times in the years that followed. German Jesuit fathers in Beijing, such as Ignatius Kögler, August von Hallerstein and Anton Gogeisl, had thus got into discussions with some of the Korean delegates. But even in these cases, only the instruments and books presented by the Fathers attracted some interest in Korea.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the German doctor and natural scientist Philipp Franz von Siebold in Japan had several opportunities to come into contact with Korean shipwrecked people. As part of his diverse areas of interest, Siebold devoted himself to a more intensive study of Korean culture, custom, customs, language and much more. Although his contact was limited to simple seafarers, the encounter with them was significant in that the results of his studies were made known by the German publication of his famous work "Nippon. Archive for the Description of Japan and its Ancillary and Protective Countries" (Leiden 1832-1852, written in German). Thus, a more detailed and objective description of Korea and its inhabitants in Europe have been brought to the attention.
Karl Friedrich August Gützlaff was the first German to be found on Korean soil, who was also the first German Lutheran missionary to be active in China. As a former Prussian member of the Dutch Mission Society, he became a freelance missionary in 1828 and initially worked in Bangkok as a preacher and doctor among the numerous Chinese residents. He left Siam in mid-1831 to continue his extensive missionary work in China. When the English East India Company, at his suggestion, planned an expedition to the north of the empire to open up new trade connections, Gützlaff joined the company as an interpreter and doctor. Under the direction of the British merchant H. H. Lindsay, the expedition left Macao at the end of February 1832 on the "Lord Amherst". Their final destination was Korea, the west coast of which they reached on 17th July. Together with a petition to be allowed to trade, Gützlaff sent some copies of the Bible and other Christian tracts in Chinese translation to the king. While waiting for an official response from the court, the ship anchored in various places on the west coast, Gützlaff had several opportunities to go ashore and to distribute religious writings among the population. The potato also entered the country in this way with instructions from Gützlaff for the cultivation of the unknown tuber. But the Lindsay expedition also failed due to the strict ban on contacting foreigners, so that the ship had to travel home to China unsuccessful a month later.
The next encounter with a German left anything but a positive attitude of the Koreans towards Germany or Western nations. Rather, it helped reaffirm their view of barbaric and uncultivated strangers, while at the same time prompting the government to step up its isolation policy.
Of all Asian countries, Korea has always been the most secluded and therefore most mysterious country, a fact that has led many adventurers of different origins to suspect treasures and other valuable things behind its borders. The general tendency for such assumptions was that the shielded kingdom would have large amounts of gold in its soil. The German merchant in Shanghai, Ernst Jacob Oppert, also succumbed to such an erroneous assumption and tried three times to enter into a trade relationship with Korea in a more or less predatory manner.
In March and August of 1866, Oppert made his first two attempts to get Korean officials into a trade relationship. Less than two years after these two failures, the frustrated merchant, who was certainly looking for ways to make up for his financial loss, was given an opportunity to reopen his Korean intentions. Had his efforts been limited to the first two attempts, his person would undoubtedly have been of no further importance or interest among the many Westerners who had made similar approaches to Korea. But his third expedition should give reason to be recorded as an "act of piracy" in all Korea-related historical works of posterity, that had a particularly negative impact on government attitudes and Korean Christians. Oppert had developed the plan to steal the bones of Prince Regent Daewon-gun's father, in order to have a leverage against the Korean government. However, not only in the eyes of the Koreans, but the entire Confucian world, the highest principle of which was ancestral worship, this act had to be regarded as extremely wicked. In April 1868, the planned looting of the grave failed due to the simple fact that the tools he had brought with him were not designed to open the stone burial chamber. In an attempt to penetrate further inland, clashes eventually broke out with Korean soldiers who managed to finally drive the intruders away.
In the eyes of the strictly Orthodox Confucian Daewon-gun, the German could not have committed a bigger crime. Contrary to Oppert's hopes, the Prince Regent immediately ordered an intensification of his isolation policy in order to prevent further penetration by western "barbarians". All the chances of entering into friendly trade relations with Korea in the future were finally wasted, and Oppert's approach was certainly not exactly positive for the Westerners' reputation in China.
The next German-Korean encounter, however, was harmless and had no consequences, nor was it of great importance. One of his numerous research trips inland led the geologist and Chinese explorer Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen to the northern border of Korea in June 1869. There, the Koreans were allowed to trade with the Chinese three times a year at two predetermined locations.
The most important witness before Korea began to open up to the West was the German diplomat Max August Scipio von Brandt, who had already participated in the Prussian Eulenburg mission to East Asia (1859-1862) and was the first German consul residing in Japan from 1862 on. He described his extremely long service as diplomat in Japan and China in his three-volume work "Thirty-Three Years in East Asia" (Leipzig 1900-1902, written in German). In addition, he also devoted himself to the Korean question in numerous publications.
The relationship between Korea and Japan was so unclear to the German diplomat von Brandt that in 1870 he decided to make his own judgment of the true position of Japan in Korea. If Japan had not exaggerated in its presentation, he hoped that his trip to the Japanese factories in Pusan would at the same time give him the opportunity to establish a trade relationship between Korea and Prussia through the influence and mediation of the resident Japanese merchants. Shortly after he anchored in front of Pusan with the German ship "Hertha" and went ashore, the reaction of the Koreans made it all too clear to what extent the nature of the Japanese position in Korea was. Immediately after his arrival, Korean officials approched the Japanese and threatened to ban all trade for the duration of the foreigners' stay if the western ship did not immediately leave with its crew. Von Brandt concluded from this experience that the Japanese in the trading station in Pusan "took a position that the Dutch previously had in Deshima. They were just tolerated and were treated with extreme contempt."
After the Meiji restoration in Japan in 1868, the Korean government under Prince Regent Daewon-gun had broken off all relations with his neighboring empire because the western-oriented Japanese reform movement was seen as a danger to their own country. Japan, which had become stronger in the meantime, then began to take up active diplomatic activities in order to persuade Korea to open up to international trade and to reform internally. However, efforts in Korea have been strictly rejected. Because of the unfriendly treatment of Japanese envoys, voices of armed intervention advocates were heard for the first time in Japan. A war with Korea was considered, but was not initially implemented due to domestic reasons and financial constraints.
In 1875, Japan finally provoked a military incident in which the warship "Unyo" they dispatched was shot at by Korean coastal artillery off the island of Ganghwa. This gave Tokyo a convenient pretext to intervene in Korea. A special representative was sent to Beijing to investigate the Chinese position in a conflict with Korea. China once again referred to the formal dependency of Korea, but Japan, which had broken away from the traditional state thinking of East Asia, saw Korea as an independent state under international law. After a naval demonstration the following year, the Korean government finally had to give up its resistance, and on 27th February 1876, the so-called "Treaty of Ganghwa", which was Korea's first such agreement with a foreign nation, was concluded. By signing the treaty, Japan recognized Korea's sovereignty, and Korea commited itself to establish a Japanese legation in Seoul and Japanese consulates with their own jurisdictions in three open contract ports.
The strengthening of Japan and the resulting treaty of Ganghwa triggered a struggle for the Korean peninsula, which was to determine the further course of East Asian history until the final annexation of Korea in 1910. On the one hand, these developments tackled China's traditional supremacy, and on the other, Japan had become a competitor to the European powers in their expansion efforts in East Asia. This primarily affected Russia. The general western response to the contract was positive, but was initially cautious. For its part, Japan feared competition from those powers whose example it had followed in Korea. So, when Russia’s aggressive policies towards Manchuria and Korea became clear, Japan even suggested that other major powers, including Germany, should conclude contracts with Korea so as not to stand alone in a conflict with Moscow.
Under these new conditions, America finally took the initiative and asked Commodore Robert Wilson Shufeldt to take the appropriate steps. With the participation and influence of China, an American-Korean contract was finally concluded on 22nd May 1882 in Seoul.
Max von Brandt, who had now become imperial German envoy in Beijing, had followed the events with great attention and was now trying to become active for the German Reich in Korea again. After consulting with the German squadron commander in Shanghai, Commodore Louis von Blanc, and having the necessary authorization, he first went to Tientsin to negotiate with the Chinese authorities there. They gave their consent, but imposed two conditions: firstly, the contract with Korea should not differ from that with America, and secondly, the negotiations should take place with the assistance of Chinese advisers.
With the appropriate equipment, von Brandt finally went to Korea on 18th June. After a negotiation period of only three days, the first German-Korean friendship and trade agreement to the satisfaction of both parties was signed on 30th June 1882 in the Korean capital. However, the treaty was ultimately not ratified at the request of England, since in a similar agreement with China in October 1882 the Chinese merchants had such privileges as opposed to their European counterparts that England immediately protested and also did not ratify its treaty of 6th June 1882. Germany, which was only concerned with its political prestige and considered the commercial aspect only as secondary, nevertheless accepted the British arguments that the customs conditions were all too restrictive. In addition, since only border trade, rather than sea and land transport, was taken into account in the contracts, it was concluded that negotiations with Korea had to be started again. This time, however, Germany wanted to work in cooperation with England. For this purpose, London commissioned its representative in Tokyo, Sir Harry S. Parkes, and Berlin the Consul General in Yokohama, Eduard Zappe, as a negotiator to Korea.
Parkes and Zappe then entered into lengthy negotiations, which were repeatedly burdened, in particular, by different positions in relation to trade regulations and customs issues. After four weeks of tough talks, the two trade, friendship and shipping contracts were finally concluded and signed on 26th November 1883. Both were identical and declared in Article 1 eternal peace and friendship between the Kingdom of Korea and the German Empire and Great Britain. They also agreed to lower tariffs and had a most-favored-nation clause. This text of the contract also served as a model for the subsequent agreements between other Western powers and Korea. (Italy: 26th June 1884; Russia: 7th July 1884; France: 4th July 1886; Austria-Hungary: 23rd June 1892; Belgium: 23rd March 1901; Denmark: 15th July 1902).
On 28th June 1884, the German-Korean Treaty was approved by the majority in all respects in the Berlin Reichstag. A small resolution was added, however. It said that the words "to sell" should be added to the text of the contract after the words "to buy" - these were properties that could be acquired by German citizens in Korea. The instruments of ratification were then exchanged on 18th November 1884, when the first German Consul General in Korea, Captain at Sea Otto Zembsch, took office in Seoul.
Korea, however, had inevitably set up a foreign ministry in its capital in 1882, but was still completely inexperienced and helpless in foreign policy matters due to its isolation of over two centuries. In this situation, King Gojong turned to China for advice on foreign policy, diplomacy, sea tariffs and domestic reforms. Li Hung-chang, governor and viceroy of the province of Chihli, with his seat in Tientsin, an outstanding statesman and politician, who had been commissioned by his government to take care of Korean affairs, then surprisingly sent Paul Georg von Möllendorff, a German lawyer and sinologist , who was in his service as a private secretary, to Korea. Due to his many years of experience in the diplomatic field and also in the Chinese maritime customs office, Möllendorff should primarily set up a maritime customs system in Korea based on the Chinese model. During his relatively short stay in Korea from the end of 1882 to 1885, he played a significant role, especially since he had great influence on the king, who valued him very much and had unlimited trust in him. In his capacity as Director General of Customs, he not only performed his main role, but also acted as a consultant in many areas such as finance, justice and military affairs, agriculture, craft and industry and much more. He also tried to create a modern school system, the imparting of technical knowledge and the establishment of a Korean industry that should be based on traditional handicrafts. In a short time, the German held high Korean aristocratic positions within the government, from the post of a deputy minister to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Labor and the Ministry of War, to the director of the new state mint. In his advisory role, Möllendorff was not only significantly and personally involved in the negotiations of the American-Korean contract, but also subsequently in both contracts with Germany and England and the following with Italy and Russia. In order to do a promising job in Korea and to be accepted by his Korean colleagues, to a certain extent, Möllendorff adapted Korean customs and always wore traditional Korean clothing. Aside from his knowledge of both written and spoken Chinese, he also started learning Korean shortly after his appointment in China. This certainly contributed to the fact that he came closer to the Koreans than any other Westerner at that time.
In order to be able to achieve his ambitious goals, the "German Korean" brought several experts of different nationalities into the country, although a certain preference for compatriots cannot be denied, which Möllendorff was later reproached by the rival major powers. In addition to a number of German sea customs officers, he invited the German geologist Carl Gottsche in 1883 to investigate the geological soil conditions in Korea. In 1884 and 1885, Möllendorff brought additional experts to the kingdom: The German-American Joseph Rosenbaum was to build a glass production from the sand of the Han River. However, the project had to be abandoned because the nature of the sand was unsuitable for the project. Rosenbaum then tried to start a match factory, but was also unsuccessful. August Maertens from Shanghai was hired for a silkworm breeding, the businessman Kniffler from Japan for the expansion of the Korean tobacco culture and the farmer Julius Helm for the cultivation of a larger manor according to the German model. All three projects ultimately failed due to the Korean authorities' unwillingness to invest. Möllendorff intended to get the permanent financial problem under control by building a new mint, of which he was appointed director in March 1884. This time, he not only had three engineers brought from Germany, but also ordered the necessary machinery there, which was imported by the only German trading company in Korea, H. C. Eduard Meyer & Co.
At Möllendorff's suggestion, this company had also set up a branch in Chemulpo, a district of what is now Incheon, and its Hamburg merchant and partner Carl Andreas Wolter was commissioned to set up and manage it in 1883. Its boss, Hermann Constantin Eduard Meyer, who had been successfully operating in East Asia for several years with a branch in Tientsin, was appointed Honorary Consul by the Korean government in 1886 and thus officially represented Korea's interests in Germany, in Hamburg.
Berlin initially retained a consul general and vice consul in Korea, but saw no reason to upgrade the rank of the German representative in Seoul towards his counterparts from other nations. The first consul general, Otto Zembsch, and his successor, consul general Peter Kempermann, who was replaced in 1887, remained the highest ranked German civil servants in Korea for 16 years. From 1887 to 1903, only one consul was in office in Seoul as a representative of the German Reich, at times even only a vice consul. Only after a number of Germans, namely Prince Heinrich of Prussia, reported after their visits to Korea to the Federal Foreign Office what disadvantages the German consul and the German trading house Meyer & Co. would have incurred due to a lack of influence in competition with other companies for Korean concessions, Berlin gave up its position in this regard. With the appointment of Conrad von Saldern as minister resident in Seoul on 31st March 1903, the representation was upgraded, but the German Reich was represented from December 1905 again only by a vice consul and later by a general consul.
On the part of German trading companies in East Asia, only Meyer & Co., based in Tientsin, showed interest in the Korean business. Shortly after his arrival in May 1884, Carl Wolter opened a branch in the port city of Chemulpo, which represented the first western company in Korea. The western trading houses initially dominated in the areas of coastal shipping and industry, but were also gradually replaced in these sectors by their overpowering Japanese and Chinese competitors. For example, in 1885 the German company had the small German steamer "Hever" travel the Shanghai-Nagasaki-Pusan-Chemulpo route twice a month and back, but this endeavour had to be discontinued after six months for reasons of profitability. To this already difficult situation the fact was added that the general costs of western houses were more than ten times as much as those of the Asian companies. For this reason, it is not surprising that, until 1905, only two English and two American trading houses remained alongside the German company.
In addition to Paul Georg von Möllendorff, who not only built up a modern customs system in Korea, but also laid the foundation for innovations in the economic, political, administrative and school areas, Carl Andreas Wolter must also be counted among those Germans who had positivley shaped Germany's reputation among the Koreans. Wolter returned to Hamburg after 24 years of service in 1908 with his English wife Jane Erving Hannay, and his eight children and handed over the German trading company to his partner Paul Schirbaum, who continued the business until 1950.