Imperialism in Korea: Modern East Asia #7

During Heungseon Daewongun’s regency, Korea faced the imperialist ambitions of the West, fighting wars of resistance against French and American encroachment. However, it soon became clear that the biggest imperialist threat to Korea’s existence was none other than its neighbor, Japan.

End of Heungseon Daewongun’s Regency

King, later Emperor, Gojong (r.1863-1907) of Korea.

In 1868, Japanese nationalists defeated the Tokugawa Shogunate in the Boshin War and established the Empire of Japan. In January of 1869, the new imperial government sent a mission to the Korean government in order to establish diplomatic relations. However, the Daewongun rejected the proposal, offended by Japan calling themselves an Empire while calling Korea a mere kingdom. By 1873, relations between the two countries had deteriorated to the point that Japanese politicians were actively debating whether to invade Korea (seikanron)1)

In late 1873, Heungseon Daewongun stepped down from his regency, marking the beginning of King Gojong’s effective reign. Although now out of power, the Daewongun still remained a prominent figure, and a political rivalry between father and son began.

As Gojong attempted to free himself from his father’s influence, he became increasingly reliant on his queen’s family, or the Yeoheung Min clan.2) The political battle between Heungseon Daewongun and Gojong was something that would recur multiple times in this period of history.

Japanese Provocation

In May 1875, Japan sent two gunboats to Busan in order to make Korea reconsider their rejection of trade relations, to no avail. On September 20 later that year, the gunboat Un’yō returned, this time to Ganghwa Island. If you remember from the last episode, Ganghwa Island had been invaded by France and the United States just years before this happened. The Korean government was thus not thrilled to see a Japanese gunboat trespass in their waters, especially in this area.

The Ganghwa Island Incident.

After warnings for the boat to retreat were ignored, the Koreans opened fire against the ship. One Japanese soldier was killed and another injured. The Un’yō retaliated, and killed 35 Koreans, capturing 16 more. Japan demanded that Korea apologize and open up for trade. This conflict is known as the Ganghwa Island Incident.

There was much internal debate within the Korean government during the negotiation process. Eventually, a consensus was reached in favor of establishing trade relations with Japan. Unlike Heungseon Daewongun, Gojong was not as staunchly isolationist. Furthermore, this was an opportunity for Gojong to fully free himself from the Daewongun’s influence by breaking from his policies.3)

End of the Hermit Kingdom

Signing of the Treaty of Ganghwa.

On February 26, 1876, the Treaty of Ganghwa was signed between Korea and Japan. This was the first of Korea’s unequal treaties. The first article of the treaty established that Korea was an independent state, on equal terms with Japan. This article was a Japanese act of defiance against the Chinese tributary system, in which Joseon took part. By establishing Korea as an independent state, Japan could carry out their interests there without violating Qing interests. Of course, the Qing didn’t see it this way, and this would cause conflict later.

Furthermore, the treaty established a Japanese legation in Seoul. Previously, only merchants from Tsushima could trade in Korea, but the treaty expanded trade relations to the entire country. Japanese merchants could also live and lease land freely within the open ports, with the unequal treaty staple of extraterritoriality. The treaty also allowed Japanese ships to survey and map Korean waters. Finally, the ports of Busan, Wonsan and Incheon were opened up for Japanese trade.4)

The treaty pulled Korea onto the international stage, but with unfavorable conditions. Nevertheless, Gojong wanted to use this treaty as an incentive for modernization, though his abilities did not live up to his aspirations. His first major issue was the Byeolgigun fiasco of 1881.

The Imo Mutiny

Two members of the Byeolgigun.

The Byeolgigun, or the Special Skills Force, was a modernized military modeled after the Japanese army. It was trained and led by Japanese lieutenant Horimoto Reijo. As Gojong poured money into building the Byeolgigun, he underpaid members of the old Korean Army, creating widespread discontent.5) This combined with growing antagonism towards Japan, Gojong and the Min family led to the Imo Mutiny of 1882.

Backed by Heungseon Daewongun, who sought to return to power, the soldiers mutinied on July 23, 1882. The rebel army destroyed government buildings and killed Korean and Japanese officials, including members of the Min clan and Horimoto. With support from some peasants, the rebels occupied the Changdeok Palace and forced Gojong out of power. The Daewongun was returned to the throne. He pushed members of the Min clan out of office and restored the isolationists.

On August 12, a Japanese army of three hundred landed on Incheon. However, a day after, they recognized the Daewongun’s coup and the new government.

Gojong immediately appealed to the Qing dynasty for aid. Seizing this chance to reassert their influence over Korea and weaken Japan, they gladly agreed. On August 20, a Chinese army led by Wu Changqing landed on the coast of what is now Hwaseong City. Five days later, they entered Seoul, captured the Daewongun, and sent him to Tianjin. The rebels were captured, and Gojong and the Min clan were put back into power.6)

A Sino-Japanese Rivalry

On August 23, the China-Korea Treaty of 1882 was signed. The treaty established Qing dominance over Joseon as the Chinese ambassador to Korea was defined to be equals with the Korean king. This effectively made Joseon a country subordinate to the Qing dynasty.7)

On August 30, the Treaty of Jemulpo was signed between Joseon and Japan.8) The treaty demanded five things from the Korean government (paraphrased):

  1. Joseon must arrest all participants in the Rebellion within 20 days. If Joseon fails to meet the deadline, the authority to arrest the rebels will turn over to Japan.
  2. A proper funeral must be held for the Japanese officials killed as a result of the mutiny.
  3. 50 thousand won must be paid to the families of killed Japanese officials.
  4. 500 thousand won must be paid as reparations to Japan.
  5. Japan will garrison armed forces at the legation in Seoul, paid for by the Joseon government.
  6. Joseon must send a delegation to Japan and accept the Japanese diplomatic documents.

After these two treaties, China and Japan entered into a tug-of-war over their influence in Korea. Increasingly worried about Japanese influence, the Qing government encouraged Joseon to sign unequal treaties with Western powers. On top of the treaty with the United States that Joseon had signed earlier in 1882, Joseon signed treaties with Germany (1883), the United Kingdom (1883), Russia (1884), Italy (1884), France (1886), Austria-Hungary (1892), Belgium (1901), and Denmark (1902).9)

A Divided Joseon

How Joseon would act in amidst this tug-of-war came into question. The isolationists, led by Heungseon Daewongun, had been largely extinguished following the failure of the Imo mutiny. Gojong filled his government with those who wanted to modernize Korea. However, there was great disagreement between the radicals and moderates.

The radicals, who formed the Enlightenment Party, wanted to completely sever ties with the Qing dynasty. They looked to the Meiji Restoration of Japan as their model. They wanted to import not only Western technology, but their ideas as well, and completely restructure Korean government and society after those of the West.10) The Enlightenment Party was therefore relatively welcoming of Japanese influence.

On the other hand, the moderates, who formed the Conservative Party, wanted to remain under Chinese influence for protection. Rather than the Meiji Restoration, they looked to the Chinese Self-Strengthening Movement. The Conservatives, backed by Gojong, the Min clan, and the Qing, greatly overpowered and suppressed the Enlightenment Party.11) The radicals became increasingly frustrated.

The Gapsin Coup

Leaders of the Gapsin Coup.

In August 1884, China pulled their troops out of Korea to fight France over influence in Vietnam (The Sino-French War). The Enlightenment Party saw this as a chance to drive out the Chinese once and for all. The Japanese ambassador to Korea, Takezoe Shinichiro, promised the radicals their support. On December 4, the radicals launched the Gapsin Coup and successfully seized control of the government.

The leaders of the coup announced that they would sever unequal ties with the Qing dynasty and dismantle the class system. They believed that the latter promise would gain them the support of the peasants, but this assumption turned out to be incorrect. The peasants were more concerned about the fact that the coup had been supported by Japan, and refused to give support.12)

Just three days later, on December 7, a Chinese force led by Yuan Shikai ousted the coup leaders, who fled to Japan. In the battle that ensued, the Japanese legation was burned down and forty Japanese were killed. Gojong and the Min clan firmly re-established their control, with complete Chinese support.

In January 1885, Japan and Korea signed the Treaty of Hanseong, restoring diplomatic relations and making Korea pay for the reconstruction of the legation13) In April of that year, China and Japan signed the Treaty of Tianjin, establishing that neither could send their military into Korea without notifying the other.14) China and Japan thus seemingly concluded on equal grounds. However, the Chinese had won the tug-of-war over Korea, at least for now. Yuan Shikai was installed as the Imperial Resident in Seoul15), giving him direct control over many of Korea’s policies.

Stalling Reform

Queen, later Empress, Myeongseong, leader of the Min clan.

Gojong and the moderates, safely in power, could now enact their policies. They saw the military as a top priority, and also set up Western institutions like a postal service 16) into Korea. However, funding for these projects came from taxes, increasing the burden on the peasants. The Joseon government also borrowed large sums of money from China17), steadily increasing the national debt. Failed attempts to reform the currency led to serious inflation18)

Such economic disasters led to a decline in support for modernization among the Korean populace. Much of the problem stemmed from the fact that Gojong and the moderates did not wish to fundamentally change the Korean government or society.20) It was simply impossible to enact economic and technological reforms without political and social changes. As the Korean commoners suffered, aristocrats such as the Min family prospered. In fact, it is believed that approximately 260 members of the Min clan were members of the Joseon government in the 1880s.21)

As Korea struggled to modernize in the late 19th century, so did their neighbors, the Qing dynasty. After suffering a string of military defeats to the West, such as in the Opium Wars or the Sino-French War, the Chinese too saw it necessary to reform. However, unlike Japan, which started over with Western influence after a revolution, the Chinese wanted to strengthen the old order with Western technology. Thus their efforts became known as the Self-Strengthening Movement. To learn more about China’s modernization efforts, please to go this page. Thanks for reading.

References   [ + ]

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