How my grandfather's brave and lonely stand for justice cost him his career

World View: Trying to protect a Korean journalist brought Henry Cockburn into conflict with the Japanese – and his own Whitehall masters

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I spent last week in South Korea helping make a television documentary about my grandfather, Henry Cockburn, who was British Consul General in Korea shortly before the First World War. He arrived in 1905, just as Japan was occupying the country and extinguishing Korean independence, for a posting which was to change his life and abruptly end his diplomatic career just as it was reaching its peak. He did not oppose the imperial expansion of Japan or its takeover of Korea, which he accepted as part of the great power chess game in which smaller and weaker countries were the inevitable losers. In any case, many of the dilemmas facing Japan seemed to him to be similar to those confronting the British Empire.

But by 1908 Henry, who had spent the previous 25 years in China and had survived the Boxer siege of Peking, found himself at the centre of a diplomatic crisis between Britain and Japan. The Japanese were trying to suppress anti-occupation newspapers, which they blamed for fomenting opposition to their rule, and which by this time included a vicious guerrilla war. They were particularly outraged by the way Britain's extra-territorial rights protected the operations of two British-owned anti-occupation newspapers called the Korea Daily News and the Daehan Maeil Sinbo, which were run by a combative British journalist called Ernest Bethell and his Korean counterpart named Yang Ki-taik.

Henry thought the Japanese, like so many imperial powers, exaggerated the extent to which their troubles stemmed from a hostile media. After initial skirmishing, the Japanese arrested Yang and put him in a prison where conditions were so bad that visitors thought he was dying. He whispered to one of them "I can't breathe, I can't breathe", and he was visibly terrified of his guards. Henry, at this point still backed by the Foreign Office in London and the British embassy in Tokyo, demanded that Yang be freed, or at least his conditions improved. British pressure was enough for him to be moved to hospital, but in the course of the transfer he was accidentally released and promptly took refuge in the nearby office of the Daily News, which was protected by an enormous Union flag. Under a treaty with Britain, the Japanese police could not enter the building to detain Yang without Henry's permission and this he adamantly refused to give, protesting that Yang had been mistreated and probably tortured before and, if he were now returned to Japanese custody, this would happen again.

The Foreign Office was at first sympathetic to Henry's point and did not want to be pushed around too openly by the rising power of Japan. But officials were determined that nothing should disrupt the new alliance with Japan, on which they relied to defend Britain's eastern possessions while concentrating their forces for a potential war with Germany. The fate of a single Korean journalist seemed insignificant when put in the balance with these great issues. Official correspondence on the affair used the word "rendition" in much the same sense of a prisoner being turned over to a country that might mistreat him as it is used today.

Henry was increasingly isolated within the Foreign Office, one senior diplomat remarking that "with a little goodwill and less heat on Cockburn's part" the crisis might have been avoided. He played for time, refused to meet Japanese officials, and warned how British public opinion would be shocked to learn that those who had tortured a prisoner once should be given a chance to do so again. Japanese officials and media demanded Henry's recall and accused him of being motivated by visceral hatred for Japan.

Finally, he was directly ordered by London to hand over Yang and he reluctantly did so, saying at the same time that he would resign from the Foreign Office. He left Seoul for London on the trans-Siberian railway on 15 September – too early to learn that his campaign on Yang's behalf had persuaded the Japanese that it was not in their interests to convict him and that he had been released. Henry complained in private letters that he had been let down by the Foreign Office, but said nothing publicly to explain his decision to retire suddenly, and with no job to go to.

I found it exciting to look for signs in Seoul, over a century later, of this minor confrontation between Britain and Japan. A few buildings that Henry, Yang, and Bethel would have recognised are still there, such as the handsome brick-built British consulate, now the embassy, and the gaudy royal palace where Henry presented his credentials to the Korean emperor, whose power was ebbing by the day as the Japanese took over. The prison in which Yang almost died is marked by a stone monument beside a coffee shop, and the old Daily News office is now an open square. On the ground floor of a nearby newspaper building are two busts of Yang and Bethell.

South Koreans do not stint on memorialising patriotic heroes who opposed the occupation. When Bethell died at the age of 36 he was buried with an inscription on his monument recording his achievements, which was scraped off by the Japanese and replaced with a fresh one after their defeat in 1945. The grave is in a pretty foreigners' cemetery full of trees beside a forest of skyscrapers.

A Korean friend said to me that he thought that "South Korea is the most Confucian country in the world, even more than China". Filial piety is at the centre of Korean culture and families take immense trouble to ensure that ancestors who opposed the Japanese occupation are remembered. Yang Ki-taik was finally forced to flee to China where he was briefly president of a provisional Korean Government in Shanghai, but died in an obscure town in 1938. Sixty years later his descendants, using a rough map drawn by a surviving colleague, set off to find his bones which were returned and reburied in the South Korean national cemetery set in the wooded hills rising above the capital.

Anti-Japanese sentiment still runs deep – as witness South Korea's furious territorial dispute with Japan over tiny rocky islands which the Koreans call Bokdo and the Japanese Takeshima. The day before I arrived in Seoul was "Bokdo Day", with South Korean naval manoeuvres around the islands, while in seven cities on the mainland dance groups staged "flash mob" performances, and fashion designers defiantly held a fashion show on the rocks.

I feel a certain pride in Henry's lonely and doomed attempt to defend Yang against open attacks from the Japanese and covert sniping from his colleagues. The theme of a thousand films is the dogged battle of a heroic official who puts justice above official policy and defends an individual against persecution by the state. Except it does not often happen and almost all officials greet with relief the departure of whistle blowers or people overly concerned with the moral consequences of their actions. Henry never looked for applause or even told his own family exactly what had happened in Korea, but he must have felt a certain bitterness about the premature end of his career.

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