The Case of the Wrong Seal: Was Korea Legally Annexed by Japan?
Just in time for the 100th anniversary of the Korea-Japan Annexation treaty, a Korean scholar has new evidence that the treaty was never properly ratified by the Korean king. Hence, according to the scholar, the 1910 annexation treaty was never legal and Japan’s annexation of Korea was illegal (or at least not authorized by a treaty). (The current state seal of South Korea is shown here).
Lee Tae-jin, professor emeritus at Seoul National University, released historical documents that show the century-old annexation pact was void because Korea’s proclamation of the treaty lacked the nation’s state seal.
According to Lee, the original copy of the Korean proclamation contained only King Sunjong’s private seal, which was used solely for administrative approval. The Korean edict lacked his signature and the required state seal
In contrast, the Japanese edict of the treaty had Japan’s state seal and the signature of Emperor Meiji, who signed it with his personal name Mutsuhito.
Even assuming the Korean scholar is right about the wrong seal, it is not obvious to me that the entire treaty is invalid. It sounds like from the article that the wrong seal is on the Korean proclamation of the treaty, but not on the treaty itself. This makes it seem like the ratification of the treaty may have been separately done (and according to Wikipedia, it was done by the Korean Prime Minister under the authority of Korea’s king). Or maybe the proclamations were the ratification instruments?
And even if it the wrong seal was used on the ratification, I am not sure the treaty is invalid. Of course I don’t know what the law of treaties was in 1910, but let’s assume the law is similar to what the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties is today. Under the VCLT Art. 11, “The consent of a State to be bound by a treaty may be expressed by signature, exchange of instruments constituting a treaty, ratification, acceptance, approval or accession, or by any other means if so agreed.” A seal may or may not be required for consent, but it seems that it would depend on the treaty itself. I know that the U.S. has always used seals on treaty ratifications, but I wonder if its absence would necessarily negate the treaty ratification if, say, the President signed the treaty himself. But maybe someone who has actually seen treaties ratified (Duncan?) could enlighten me here.
In any event, it is far less obvious that the annexation of Korea by Japan was “illegal” even without the treaty. Conquest was, I believe, perfectly legal in 1910. Still, it is fascinating that even today, this rather obscure legal point remains a point of huge contention between Japan and Korea.