The 19th century was an increasingly turbulent time for the Joseon dynasty of Korea. To fully understand this situation, we need to go back a few centuries. As such, I have created a video discussing the Joseon dynasty’s decline over the course of three hundred years. Click on this link, watch the video, and you may return.
King Cheoljong’s rule, during which the Andong Kims seized all of government, ended in 1864. The heir to the throne was Prince Ikseong, a descendant of one of King Jeongjo’s stepbrothers. But as he was only 12 at the time, his father Heungseon Daewongun began his term as regent.
Heungseon Daewongun came roaring into the political stage with a strong determination to fix his country. First and foremost, he fiercely fought against Sedo Politics of the Andong Kims. Sometimes through negotiation and sometimes by force, the Daewongun slowly replaced the Andong Kims with historically disadvantaged populations from the Gyeongsang and Pyongan Provinces as well as the city of Kaesong, which was the capital of the previous dynasty, Goryeo.
However, the Daewongun needed allies too. He had his son marry Min Ja-young, a woman from the Yeoheung Min clan. She became known as Queen Myeongseong. As history repeats itself, the Min clan eventually got involved in Sedo Politics and got in the way of further reform. At this point, though, they were useful allies for the Daewongun to fight against the Andong Kims.
Fighting the Nobility
The Daewongun also fought hard against the political establishment, characterized by the powerful Yangban. Just like Jeongjo, he sent royal inspectors to oust corrupt local officials. Throughout the 1860s, the Daewongun pushed to shut down a source of systemic corruption called the Seowon. A Seowon was a school that taught neo-Confucianism, but as it was exempted from land tax, rich Yangban families began to build Seowons all over the place as a means to evade taxes. By the beginning of the Daewongun’s regency, there were well over a thousand Seowons built around the country. The Daewongun shut them down by force, and by 1871 there were only 47 of them left. This action made the Daewongun a major enemy of the Yangban class as well as the neo-Confucian establishment.
The Daewongun further earned animosity from the Yangban by imposing upon them a military exemption tax. This was a system by which people could pay extra tax instead of serving in the army. However, up until the Daewongun’s rule, Yangbans could avoid service without paying the tax. The Daewongun put an end to this inequality.
Fighting for the Peasants
Something else that was desperately needed in Korea at this time was helping the peasants. During the reign of Cheoljong, the Andong Kim clan and their government allies created the infamous Hwangok system. Literally meaning “returning of grain,” Hwangok initially started as a welfare system. The government would lend grain to people in need and recollect it later with a small interest. Soon, corrupt officials were raising the interest rate to unaffordable levels, extorting the peasants to no end.
The peasants’ anger against the system had exploded in the rebellions of 1862. The rebellion began in the city of Jinju on March 14. The rebels broke into government buildings and attacked officials, even killing some of them. They burned the property of pro-government landlords and raided houses. In Jinju alone, 126 Yangban houses were destroyed, 78 were raided and four officials were killed. The rebellion broke out in about 70 locations all throughout southern Korea. The rebels only retreated after they were promised the end of Hwangok, but the Andong Kim regime didn’t keep the promise.
In 1867, the Daewongun dismantled the Hwangok system and replaced it with the Sachang Policy. Under this system, the government lent food to peasants in the summer, when supplies usually ran out. Then they would take it back with a small interest in the fall, when food was more abundant. Although this policy wasn’t perfect, it was a big improvement upon its predecessor.
The Daewongun wasn’t without his flaws. His most disastrous blunder practically undid all of his economic achievements. During Japanese invasions of the 1590s, a major Korean palace, Gyeongbok Palace, had been burned down. The Daewongun began to pursue reconstruction in 1865 as a symbol of his power. But just a year later, a fire burned it to the ground again. The Daewongun insisted on pushing the project forward. An enormous amount of stone and lumber were taken and funneled into the project, so much so that people even made songs about it. Although the palace was eventually completed, the unpopular project strained the economy.
Yet this wasn’t all the Daewongun had to worry about. The threat of New Imperialism was very real and right at Korea’s doorstep.
Throughout the mid-1800s, China was getting destroyed in the Opium Wars. China had long been considered a superpower in East Asia, and their brutal defeat in the wars was a waking call to the rise of the West. The Daewongun thus tried military reform, expanding the use of firearms and importing horses from Manchuria for a larger cavalry. He even tried to invent war planes by plucking feathers from birds and making artificial wings. That obviously didn’t work. By the end of the 1860s, the Gyeongbok Palace project had drained the national treasury and military reform had to be abandoned.
Anyway, in 1864, the Russian Empire approached the Korean government, requesting to establish formal relations. The Daewongun was highly suspicious of Russian motives — after all, this was right after the Second Opium War when Russia had taken a huge chunk of land from China.
That was when the French approached Korea too. France was an enemy of Russia and wanted to keep their influence from expanding. Thus France wanted to enter into an alliance with Korea and the United Kingdom. This proposal was welcomed by French missionaries and Catholics within Korea. The Daewongun had nothing against Catholicism himself, because most of his family was Catholic. Although he didn’t quite yet accept the French offer, the Daewongun turned down Russia.
Conflicts Against France and the United States
But the neo-Confucian establishment began to label the Daewongun and his family as “pro-Catholic,” accusing them of wanting to destroy traditional Korean values. Pressured by the accusations, the Daewongun captured and killed 8,000 Korean Catholics and 9 French missionaries in 1866. A missionary escaped to the French embassy in Tianjin and informed the authorities of this atrocity. An outraged France set out to invade Korea.
In October that year, the French arrived at Ganghwa Island with two goals: one, to avenge the deaths of those Catholics, and two, to establish formal relations with Korea. The Daewongun responded to the invasion by executing five thousand more Catholics. The French destroyed Korean villages on the coast and stole many of Korea’s artifacts, which France still holds to this day. The Koreans fired back, killing 3 Frenchmen and injuring 35. The French retreated, but not before killing 5 Koreans and wounding 7. Still, the Daewongun boasted of this victory and doubled down on his persecution of Catholics.
Yet France was not all Korea was dealing with at the time. Months before the French invasion, in July of 1866, an American ship called the USS General Sherman had showed up at Pyongyang. The ship demanded that Korea establish formal ties with the United States. When the Koreans refused, the ship wreaked havoc on Pyongyang, traveling along the Taedong River and firing their guns at random. Enraged, the Korean authorities set fire to the ship and killed all 20 of its sailors.
In July of 1871, the Americans returned for revenge. The United States arrived on Ganghwa Island and attacked Korean formations. Unlike the French invasion, this time was a one-sided massacre. Only 3 Americans had been killed and 10 injured; on the other hand, the Americans killed 243 Koreans, indirectly drowned a hundred, and captured 20. Despite this crushing defeat, the Daewongun still refused to establish formal relations with the U.S.
The Hermit Kingdom
To him, these two invasions were only solid proof that the West was not to be trusted. He didn’t want Korea to get into Unequal Treaties and wanted to strengthen it from within first. However, the progress of the West was too fast for that. Korea decision to further close the country contrasted sharply with Japan’s, which prioritized importing Western technology over avoiding Unequal Treaties.
And with this one difference in foreign policy, the diversion of Korean and Japanese progress began. By the 1870s, Japan had grown strong enough to impose its own Unequal Treaties — upon Korea.
In the late 19th century, Korea’s very existence was in jeopardy. To learn more about China and Japan’s competition over Korea and its effect on the country, please go to this page. Thanks for reading.