Isshinkai(イルチンフェ) was a biggest political association of the times which was active in the Korean Empire from 1904 to 1910. It is generally regarded as Pro-Japan.
It was an organization founded by a part of Kaika group which was tired of the struggle for power in the court and heading to the direction to accomplish the modernization of South Korea even if it needed foreign countries' supports. They especially paid attention to and approached to Empire of Japan which was increasing the influencial power in the world after the victory of Sino-Japanese War and Russo-Japanese War, and they came under the patronage of Japanese Government and Japanese Army. They actively operated in order to realize Kan-Nichi Gappo, an consolidation of Japan and South Korea on an equal basis (a different concept from the Japanese Annexation of Korea).
At that time, it was the biggest political association of The Korean Empire, and the number of its members was between 800 thousands and one million. After Isshinkai accomplished the annexation between Korea and Japan, Kankoku Tokan-fu (South Korea Protection Agency) entirely forbade making any political association in Korea in order to suppress the political confusion in Korea, so they were compelled to dismiss as the other political associations did in exchange of 150 thousand yen given as dissolution allowance, but Song Byung-joon and others who had been leading Isshinkai assumed office as adviser of Chusuin (a government office in Korea) of Chosen Sotoku-fu (Governor-General of Korea) and kept affecting on the Korean politics after the annexation.
In Korea, after Japan defeated Shin in Sino-Japanese War, Empress Myeongseong took precautions against Japan of which dominating power was further increasing in Korea. The Russian Empire enhanced its clout to East Asia after the Triple Intervention, so Korea enhanced the pro-Russia policy including feint to Japan.
After that, Empress Myeongseong was assassinated in Itsubi Incident (Sunjong who was at the crime scene said, "I witnessed Woo Beomseon) killed our mother in Itsubi Incident", and also Woo Beomseon confessed to have killed Empress.) ('A case of Woo Beomseon), a Korean refugee in Japan, murdered by GO Yeong-Geun and 魯允明.' [Japan Center for Asian Historical Records])
On February 11, 1896, pro-Russian Bum Chin Lee, Lee Wan-yong and others carried out a coup d'etat, so King Gao Zong (Korean King) transferred to a Russian government establishment to carry out his work (Rokanhasen). Kaika group's government supported by Japan fell apart while Russia's influence increased. In July 1896, the people following Kaika group called for the independence of Korea, establishment of legalism, promotion of new education, improvement of agriculture, encouragement of industry and raising of patriotism and loyalty to monarch, and Lee, Wan-yong and others founded the Independence Club.
After 1897, as Russia's aggressive policy was getting obvious, the Independence Club carried out an anti-Russia fight and demanded King Gao Zong to come back to the royal palace. Gao Zong came back to the royal palace, and the Korean Empire declared independence. Due to this, the Russian power retreated from Korea. However, the Independence Club's insistence caused a confrontation with the bureaucracy of old-guard crony, and finally they were compelled to dismiss following the decree of Gao Zong.
Russia's retreat from Korea encouraged Japan to get back the power, and it promoted the economic domination in Korea. Russia and Japan deepened their conflict for the interests of Korea and Manchuria. Due to this background, Song Byung-joon who had served as an interpreter for Japanese Army in Russo-Japanese War designed an organization for the political reform against the Japanese influence, and this plan was accepted by people who had followed the independence club before.
Foundation of Isshinkai
Song Byung-joon founded Isshinkai along with 尹始炳 and others related to the independence club on August 8, 1904, about half a year after the conclusion of Japan-Korea Protocol in the middle of Russo-Japanese War (the initial name was 'Ishinkai'). On August 20, the name was changed to 'Isshinkai'. After that, Song Byung-joon who was originally a member of Donghak reached the consensus with 李容九 (이용구), a leader of Shinpokai following a part of Donghak, and merged Shinpokai. For your information, the First Japan-Korea Treaty was concluded on August 22 of the same year.
Initially, 尹始炳 was a chairman, but 李容九 (이용구) took over the office in response to 尹始炳's request.
The goal Isshinkai aimed at was 'political reform and people's freedom' which succeeded to the thoughts of democracy and independent nationalism seen in the Independence Club.
Also, Isshinkai which was founded in the middle of Russo-Japanese War had a thought that blocking Russia's invasion under the Japan-Korea Military Alliance could weaken Russia's influence on the Korean Empire, that it further could prevent the allied western powers from advancing into Asia, and that it finally could lead to the restoration of Korea.
Cooperation with Japanese Army in Russo-Japanese War
Japan initially wasn't putting a high estimation in Isshinkai, but after it was founded, Song Byung-joon sent a letter to Yasuharu MATSUISHI, a Japanese Colonel of the times, to explain that current regime led by Gao Zong and the bureaucracy couldn't bring independence and maintenance to Korean Empire, and he also offered a cooperation for the construction of Keigi Railroad. In the Russo-Japanese War, Japanese Army planned to construct Keigi Railroad for transport of goods, but the plan was suspended due to the shortage of labors, so Isshinkai mobilized over 140 thousands members as free support for the construction of the railroad. Furthermore, Isshinkai began to support the transport of military goods for Japanese Army, and over 10 thousands members transported weapons and foods for Japanese Army at their own expense. Also, during the Russo-Japanese War, the members of Isshinkai quit their long hair and beard which was a tradition of the times, as a symbol of the independent movement. In Korea, the order of bobbed hair had been abolished at the time of Rokanhasen, so such brobbed hair was unthinkable for general public.
Government by Inspector General
In October 1905, Japanese Government made a cabinet decision on the policy to build the protection right for Korea, and in November, Hirobumi ITO was sent as a special envoy, and on November 28, the Eulsa Treaty was forced to be concluded. On November 5, 1905 before that, Isshinkai had announced their declaration that they transferred their diplomatic right to Japanese Government to go under the Japanese instruction and protection, for the purpose of maintaining Korea's independence and stability.
Hirobumi ITO, the person in charge of governing South Korea, was initially against carrying out the annexation of Korea in the early stage.
However, in October 1909, Hirobumi ITO was assassinated by An Jung-geun in Harbin of Manchuria, so after a short provisional term, Masatake TERAUCHI assumed office as the 3rd Inspector General of Korea (as of May 1910) and proceeded the preparation for the annexation of Korea, keeping oppression to Gihei War.
Request of the consolidation of Korea and Japan
In December 1909, Isshinkai sent the 'Statement to request the consolidation of Korea and Japan' to Sunjong (Korean King), Sone ARASUKE, the 2nd Inspector General of Korea, and Prime Minister Lee, Wan-yong to request the consolidation of Korea and Japan.
In this proposal, 李容九 (이용구) claimed as the statement of one million members as follows : Japan has dedicated an enormous expense and people's lives in Sino-Japanese War in order to bring independence to Korea. Besides, although Japan's loss in Russo-Japanese War was twenty times as much as that of the Donghak Peasant Revolution, they helped Korea not to be swallowed into Russia's mouth and maintained the piece of entire Asia. Nevertheless, Korea didn't appreciate it and begged different countries, so it was our fault that our diplomatic right has been taken away and the protection treaty was concluded. The Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty and Hague Secret Emissary Affair were also due to our fault. We don't know what danger is coming up next, but it is also our fault. We should beg his Imperial Majesty and Meiji Emperor of Japan in order to be able to receive the treatment as Itto Kokumin (First-class people) to develop our government and society. Thus, he called for the equal consolidation of Korea and Japan which would take a form of federation.
The Japanese Government refused their demand because Isshinkai claimed for the mutual prosperity between Korea and Japan on a basis of Korean and Japanese people's equal position, which was completely different from the merger and annexation of Korea, that Japan was expecting, and also Japan was taking its own policy that any request from Korea was unacceptable for the Japanese annexation of Korea. It was a political decision from the judgement that it would be difficult to have Japanese people's understanding, because, at the time, the Korean Empire held an enormous debt and also needed a lot of budget for the land infrastructure. On the other hand, Song Byung-joon of Isshinkai was convinced that the equal consolidation of Korea and Japan would be difficult if considering the difference of the two countries' national power, so he next rolled out the theory as to Japan's annexation of Korea which was finally concluded by Katsura Cabinet in 1910. After Japan's annexation of Korea, the Kankoku Sokan-fu forbade and dismissed all political associations of Korea in order to suppress the confusion and regain the public safety caused by the confliction between pro-Japanese and anti-Japanese political associations. Due to this, Isshinkai was ordered to dismiss by Japanese Government on September 12, 1910 just after the annexation, and with 150 thousand yen given as a dissolution allowance, it dismissed on September 25 of the same year. Song Byung-joon and others who led Isshinkai and supported the theory as to Japan's annexation of Korea assumed office as adviser of Chusuin (a government office in Korea) of Chosen Sotoku-fu and kept affecting on the Korean politics after the annexation, and later Song Byung-joon was given a title of count for his achievement.
The public estimation to Isshinkai has varied depending on the understanding of its activities or the political position. The public estimation shown in the general books published in Japan or Korea are as follows.
(in random order)
In "朝鮮を知る事典"(Encyclopedia to know Korea) published by Heibon-sya, Isshinkai is called 'pro-Japanese order-taker organization' with the mention that they cooperated as spy other than their outer activities. It also mentions that their job as pro-Japanese organizaiton provoked people's antipathy, so the negative result was much bigger than the positive effect. Besides, it mentions that the real Isshinkai was 'an organization seeking for the interests of Lee Yong-gu, Song Byung-joon or others'.
In 'History of Korea, New Edition' published by Sanseido, there is an mention that the statement issued by Isshinkai in 1909 was not representing people's voice, and that the number described as 'one million members' was unsubstantial.
In 'Explanation for the sake of pro-Japan' by Kim Wansop (2002), the author highly evaluated the Isshinkai's movement, comparing their movment with a concentration of three revolutionary powers consisted of peasants who tried to reject the oppression of Joseon Dynasty Government (Togaku-to => Shinpo-kai), the group consisted of revolutionary intellectuals from governing class aimed at modernization of Korea (Ishin-kai) and Japan which tried to secure the 'aggressive protection' by supporting the modernization of Korea.
O Seonhwa placed a mention in her book 'Road to the Japan's annexation of Korea', saying, 'it is completely unreasonable for me that, in a balance-sheet, the persons like 李容九 (이용구) who strived in the country to get back our nation's dignity aimed at Asianism are regarded as betrayers, while the persons like Ahn Chang-ho and Syngman Rhee (I Seung-man) who rolled out their anti-Japanese activities out of Korea without taking any particular actions in the country are praised as a patriot or anti-Japanese warrior'.
Many of the world researchers including Japan agreed that it was true that Isshinkai couldn't see through the intention of invasion Empire of Japan had aimed at and happened to play a role for leading Korea to the ruin. But the theory as to the equal consolidation itself was clearly different from that of Japan's annexation of Korea (Korea is supposed to depend on Japan and be colonized abandonning their sovereignty), rather, taking into account the fact that Japan cut off even Isshinkai as a worn-out after the annexation and launched the colonial domination, many of the researchers also have a sympathy that 'Isshinkai is also one of victims and what they did is not necessarily accusable'.