As printed in A HANDBOOK OF KOREA, 9th, 1993;
Published by the Korean Overseas Information Service
19th Century Reform Attempts
In the early 19th century economic developments and improvements in social conditions increased. The people in general thought that foreign ideas and European commercial enterprise in particular should be taken seriously. Some officials advocated a thoroughgoing reform of national finance. The central government examined the proposal, but its implementation was thwarted by a struggle for power. There were numerous agrarian revolts which gradually led to political upheaval.
The powerful yangban officials, through their marriage ties with the royal family, were able to ensure for themselves a firm grasp on political power; every important national policy formulated in the early 19th century was for their interests. They were divided into numerous contending cliques, and did not pay any attention to the general welfare. Such was Korea’s internal situation when, at the end of the 18th century, the British, in their quest for Asian markets, made their first problings into Korean waters. In the 1840s Russian and French vessels added their appearance, causing great excitement among the people.
The government carried out persecutions of Catholics in 1801 and 1839. This tended to disperse the converts to outlying districts, where Catholicism spread among impoverished farmers and yangban who came to depend more on religious salvation.
In 1863, Prince Yi Ha-ung, better known as the Taewon-gun or Prince Regent, put into effect a series of sweeping reforms encompassing national finance and government administration in order to strengthen the royal authority. He strongly opposed the increasing infiltration of foreign commercial interests into the country. In the spring of 1866, the government ordered rigorous persecution of Catholics. Aroused by this measure, the French fleet sailed up the Han-gang River and hostilities broke out on Kanghwado Island.
Economic and social developments drove the majority of yangban to bankruptcy, while the peasants and merchants were eager to throw off the traditional social constraints. As these trends developed, the government devised measures to suppress them. Another impetus to social dynamism was the increase in offspring of yangban and mothers of lower origin.
Although the elimination of bondsmen resulted in an increase in the number of taxable people, the exploitation of farmers by the ruling class caused the state’s tax revenues to decline.
Peasant Wars of 1812 and 1862
In this period drought and flood alternately struck the country, causing a succession of bad harvests, which in turn generated a grim cycle of famine. Excessive tax collection and forced labor ensued. These adverse natural and social conditions ignited a series of agrarian revolts. Hong Kyong-nae in 1812 rose up with the peasants at Kasan in the northern part of Korea and held power in that district for some months. Frightened government officials dispatched the army, and only after a hard campaign were they able to suppress the revolt. In the south, all the way to Chejudo Island, as well as in the north, the peasantry persevered in its struggle against oppression at the hands of the government, the local nobility and the wealthy landlords.
Half a century after Hong Kyong-nae’s well-organized fight, the situation had not improved. A group of farmers in Chinju, Kyongsang-do province, rebelled against their oppressive overlords, the provincial officials and the wealthy landowners. This uprising of 1862 is directly attributable to the exploitation of destitute farmers by Paek Nak-shin, a newly-appointed military commander who had jurisdiction over the western half of Kyongsang-do province.
Yu Kye-ch’un, an intellectual native to the district who was outraged by Paek Nak-shin’s rapacious conduct, led the farmers to riot, denouncing corrupt minor officials and wealthy landlords. The rebels killed local government functionaries, set fire to government buildings, and wrought considerable destruction. The startled Seoul government hurriedly sent an investigator to the scene. On the basis of his findings of fraudulent practices on the part of the local officials concerned, the government hastily revised the land, military and grain lending systems in an effort to eliminate such abuses. From the outset, however, it was unrealistic to expect the ruling class in the central government, which was itself deeply involved in such frauds, to make radical changes. But at least a superficial attempt at reform was made.
The agrarian revolt in Chinju served as a signal for similar uprisings elsewhere. In
Kyongsang-do, Cholla-do and Ch’ungch’ong-do provinces, on faraway Chejudo Island in central Korea and in Hamgyong-do and P’yongan-do provinces in the north, groups of farmers rose up, attacking offices in principal towns and routing officials.
Under such social conditions, Ch’oe Che-u formulated the ideology of Tonghak (Eastern Learning) in order to rescue the farmers from prevalent poverty and unrest, and to restore political and social stability. His ideas rapidly gained acceptance, and he set his doctrines to music so that farmers would understand and accept them more readily. His teachings were systematized and compiled as a message of salvation to farmers in distress. The songs he sang were a mixture of traditional elements from Confucianism, Buddhism and Son-gyo (teachings of Shilla's Hwarang, and to these he added modern humanistic ideas. Exclusionism was another characteristic of his religion, which incorporated an early form of nationalism and rejected alien thought.
Challenges of Modernization
Response to Capitalist Encroachment
During the late 19th century, insistent demands for commercial relations were made by the British, the Russians and other Europeans. The Prussian merchant Ernest I. Oppert in 1866 twice knocked on Korea’s door and requested trade, but was refused. In the same year the American ship General Sherman made its memorable sortie into Korean waters with the objective of forcing the Korean
government to enter into commercial relations. The vessel reached the Taedonggang River with a
cargo of European merchandise and proceeded to P’yongyang, where they used unseemly force in dealing with Korean soldiers and civilians. The infuriated Koreans attacked the ship and set it afire.
The Taewon-gun’s massacre of Catholics was a powerful stimulus for France, which had already established beachheads in Indochina, to move aggressively against Korea. Admiral Pierre C. Roze, commander of France’s Indochina fleet, led his squadron to waters off Kanghwado on October 13, 1866 and landed troops on the island. They were repulsed, however, by Korean forces, and the French fleet was forced to withdraw.
From 1868, Japan, as a first step in its aggressive policy toward the peninsula, began pressing Korea to start negotiations aimed at revising traditional relations. From the American standpoint, such a revision also was highly desirable. The General Sherman incident stimulated the United States to intensify its efforts to force Korea to open its ports, and in 1871 Washington directed its Asian fleet to invade Kanghwado Island. The American troops were repulsed by the Korean garrison and their fleet retreated from Korean waters.
When Japan indicated its intention to terminate traditional diplomatic relations with Korea, the Taewon-gun expressed a different view. He was for restoring the time-honored procedure in which the ruling clan of Tsushima Island served as an intermediary between the two governments.
Because the Taewon-gun was adamant on the matter, Japanese leaders seized upon the “Korea problem” as an outlet to relieve domestic discontent, and made plans for an aggressive war. Japanese officials stationed in the area were instructed to spy on Korea’s domestic situation. Japanese leaders proposed that 30 regiments should be sent to occupy the whole of the peninsula. Korea’s natural resources and abundant rice production were important factors in Japan’s aggressive designs. In pursuit of their objective, the Japanese fabricated a number of incidents. They sent their warships to raid points on Korea’s coast, Pusan and Kanghwado Island, creating an atmosphere just short of actual war. The Japanese delegation which landed at Kapkot, Kanghwado Island on January 16, 1876, was fully equipped for combat, being escorted by 400 troops.
Such was the atmosphere in which a 12-article treaty was concluded. Presented unilaterally by the Japanese, this pact provided for revision of diplomatic relations. An addendum to the treaty, consisting of a trade accord and a customs agreement, all drafted by Japan, was signed in July. These instruments provided a legal basis for Japanese aggression by granting to the Japanese such privileges as extraterritoriality, exemption from customs duties, and legal recognition of Japanese currency in the ports to be opened to foreign trade. Creating a legal basis for Japanese aggression in Korea, these were unequal treaties, forced upon Korea just as Japan had been coerced years before by European powers and America.
In 1881, the scope of Japanese encroachment was broadened by the opening of Wonsan and Inch’On ports. Another demand was that a Japanese consul be stationed in the capital. In the course of these events, there emerged among Koreans two strongly held opinions- one advocating the repulsion of “crooked” foreign powers, and the other calling for domestic reform.
Arguments for Repulsion
Korea’s learned Confucianists, on the basis of information obtained through Ch’ing China, regarded the infiltration of European capitalist power as a potentially disruptive intrusion. They wanted to strengthen their alignment with Neo-Confucian ethics, and grew intolerant of new creeds. The closing of many local schools by the Taewon-gun in 1864 increased apathy. Deprived of their spiritual, political and financial strongholds, the Confucian literati felt a need to restore
Neo-Confucian supremacy. Another factor conducive to xenophobia was the invasion of Korean waters by foreign fleets in 1866.
These factors stimulated Yi Hong-no (1792-1868) to strongly advocate repelling European capitalist encroachment. He called for political reform and stability, and reinforcement of Korea’s national defense capability. His conclusion was that Europeanization of the country could be prevented by keeping capitalism out. He proposed the boycotting of European goods. His disciples and many Confucian scholars and thinkers affiliated with his school also called for the strengthening of national defense.
In 1881, many Confucianists raised objections to the policies of China and Japan. About that time, Paek Nak-kwan proposed that Korea should open up to foreign interests only after it had prepared fully for commercial competition. Some of these Confucianists were punished on charges of opposing state policy. Those Confucianists who advocated the repulsion of foreign influence were primarily oriented toward practical reform measures and not abstract ideas.
A Korean “goodwill mission” was invited to Japan in 1876 and 1880, to inspect various new institutions Japan had installed on European models. On his return in 1880, Kim Koeng-jip (later known as Kim Hong-jip) brought to Korea a booklet titled ChosOn Ch’aengyak (Korean Stratagem) written by a Chinese official of the Ch’ing legation in Japan. It advised Korea to accept European institutions and technology for the sake of economic development, and to strengthen its defense capability in collaboration with China, Japan and the United States in order to check Russia’s southward expansion.
Once this “stratagem” became known in Korea, Confucian scholars, who in 1876 had advocated the expulsion of Japanese influence, launched a movement strongly opposed to the infiltration of foreign capitalism. The movement soon spread among Confucian students in Kyongsang-do, Kangwon-do, Kyonggi-do, Ch’ungch’ong-do and Cholla-do provinces. The government dispatched a group of young aristocrats to Japan in 1881 for a study of administrative, military, educational industrial and technological institutions. Meanwhile, at the request of Ch’ing China, another group of 60 young Koreans led by Kim Yun-shik visited China, where they studied chiefly the arts of manufacturing and handling Western weapons. This kind of reform attempt arose within the government itself, and the wave soon spread to engulf not only the yangban and middle classes but the society as a whole.
Opposition to Japan
The Japanese minister to Korea, Hanabusa Yoshimoto, forced the Korean government to introduce the Japanese army training system, and a separate training command was established for this purpose. Implementation of army reorganization and training was of itself an effective springboard for aggression. Japan monopolized the Korean market in 1876. Two years later, Japan’s Daiichi Bank established a branch office in Pusan, encouraging Japanese merchants to infiltrate Korea
en masse. The Japanese merchants could purchase rice, soy beans, cattle hides and alluvial gold at incredibly low prices, reaping exorbitant profits at home. Korea, on the other hand, was faced with the pressing need of devising some means of protecting its national economy.
Discriminatory treatment within the armed forces became an inflammatory issue. While the opposition movement was at its height, soldiers undergoing Japanese training in special units were paid and rewarded conspicuously better than the ordinary troops in traditional training. Infuriated by these injustices, the latter rose up in revolt. Giving vent to their anger at the Japanese aggressors, the Korean soldiers assaulted the Japanese legation, forcing the Japanese minister and his party to flee to Inchon at night. State administration was once again entrusted to the Taewon-gun in the hope that he might be able to save the situation.
Queen Min and her clique, having barely escaped the rioting army by fleeing the palace, asked China for a contingent of troops to help suppress the uprising. The Chinese responded by sending four warships and 3,000 troops to Korea. Moreover, they seized the Taewon-gun and took him to Peking. Minister Hanabusa, who had managed to escape to Japan, returned to Seoul on August 12, bringing 1,500 troops aboard four warships. Storming into the capital, Hanabusa pressed the Korean government to pay reparations for the damages and to agree to the stationing of Japanese troops in Korea.
In the Chemulp’o Treaty, concluded under Japanese exaction, Korea agreed to Japan’s demands, which included Korea’s promise to pay 500,000 won in reparations and gave permission for the stationing of Japanese troops in the capital for the defense of the Japanese legation. The treaty further broadened the scope of Japan’s aggressive activities centering around such ports as Pusan, Inch’ón and Wonsan.
Meanwhile, the Chinese continued their interference in Korea’s internal affairs. They reorganized the Korean government system at will, appointing to important posts members of the Min clique who had previously held high positions. China’s powerful Li Hung-chang sent his emissaries, P.G. Moellendorff and Ma Chien-chung, to Korea to carry out the task of reorganizing Korea’s diplomacy. Yuan Shih-kai of Ch’ing took command of the Korean army, providing it with Chinese-style training.
To reinstate Chinese control in Korea, China advised Korea to conclude a series of commercial treaties with European powers and America. The Korea-U.S. treaty of commerce was concluded on May 22 and signed on June 6, 1882. Korea signed revised treaties with Great Britain and Germany in Seoul on November 26, 1883. The two new treaties, together with the first international treaty concluded with Japan, were most disadvantageous to Korea. In addition, a treaty of commerce was signed with Russia on June 25, 1884, and was followed on August 8, 1888, by the conclusion of another agreement governing Korean-Russian overland commerce. A treaty of commerce with France was signed on June 4, 1886.
Japan concluded an agreement with Korea concerning commercial activities of Japanese residents in Korea. The tax rates fixed in the agreement with Japan were very disadvantageous to Korea. Moellendorff tried to introduce Russian influence into Korea with the purpose of engineering a secret treaty of protection between the two countries. His action, however, precipitated the British occupation of Komundo (Port Hamilton) in order to check the Russian advance. Korea was plunged into a whirlpool of international rivalries.
With the British occupation of Kömundo on April 10, 1885, Korea lost control over one of the best ports on the south sea. After exacting, through Li Hung-chang, a pledge from Russia that it would not attempt occupation of any part of Korea, Great Britain withdrew its fleet from the port on February 27, 1887.
Political Upheaval of 1884
The conclusion of a series of commercial treaties with foreign countries intensified the encroachment of capitalist powers. A group of reformists denounced the leading politicians for their reliance on foreign influence and tried to introduce reforms that would improve social conditions, enrich the people and strengthen national power. The main concern of Kim Ok-kyun and Hong Yong-shik was to set modern reform in motion. The Min family’s heavy reliance on China in the wake of the army revolt had resulted in the occupation of the capital by Chinese forces.
At the outbreak of war between China and France, Japanese Minister to Korea Takezoe Shinichiro talked with these reformists about plans for a coup d’etat. Although China had withdrawn part of its expeditionary forces from Korea, the Chinese maintained far superior military strength over the Japanese.
The reformists planned the assassination of prominent politicians affiliated with China at a reception to be given on December 4, 1884, but the plot was not fully carried out. The reformists first called on King Kojong (r.1863-1907) at the royal palace and pressed for his sanction of their reform plan. On December 5, they assassinated military commanders and ministers inside the palace gate on their way to a royal audience. The reformists were forced to flee, however, without proclaiming their comprehensive 14-point Reform Decree. Kim Ok-kyun and So Chae-p’il escaped to Inchon, where they boarded a Japanese ship for asylum in Japan.
Japan settled pending problems with China by concluding the Tientsin Treaty, in which the two sides agreed to: pull their expeditionary forces out of Korea simultaneously; not send military instructors for the training of the Korean army; and also notify the other side beforehand should one decide to send troops to Korea. However, Yuan Shih-kai remained in Seoul interfering in Korea’s internal affairs, while Japan, not to be outdone, was ready to pounce upon any suitable opportunity for encroachment.
Japan had already consolidated its bases for economic aggression on the peninsula. The Japanese looked to Korea’s production to meet demand for rice and soy beans, which was soaring commensurately with Japan’s population growth. Korean rice was superior in quality to Japanese rice and also much cheaper. The Japanese started by usurious means to exploit Korean peasants by making them dependent upon Japanese capital. Through branch offices of the Daiichi Bank opened in Pusan, Wonsan and Inchon, Japan also made bargain purchases of cowhide for military use, and gold as a reserve fund for the Bank of Japan.
Japanese exports to Korea consisted, in the initial period, mainly of the resale of European, especially English, and American commodities. Japan later kept these European commodities for home consumption, gradually replacing export goods with Japanese products of low quality, mostly sundry merchandise for daily use.
There developed a great outflow of grain which eventually devastated the life of the Korean peasants. In 1889 and 1891, when the farmers of Hamgyong-do and Hwanghae-do provinces suffered crop failure, the Japanes government exacted exorbitant indemnities for losses allegedly suffered by Japanese merchants. Consequently most farmers were impoverished, and their indignation was directed ai Korea’s ruling class which they held responsible for their plight. The only recourse was to uprise, and during the period from the 1884 political upheaval to 1894, farmers struggles broke out repeatedly in all provinces.
Tonghak Struggle of 1894
Tonghak, or Eastern Learning, was based on the doctrine of the salvation of farmers from their destitute life. Although its preaching had a religious aspect, the main concern was for realistic national stability and security. Seeing that his teaching was gaining popularity, the government executed Ch’oe Che-u in 1864 on charges of confusing society. His movement lived on, however, and poverty-stricken farmers flocked to his standard. Large-scale Tonghak
demonstrations took place in 1892 in Cholla-do and Ch’ung-ch’ong-do provinces. In 1893, Tonghak believers went to Seoul and staged a demonstration in front of the royal palace, but were dispersed by the army. About 20,000 Tonghak movement followers assembled at Poun, Ch’ungch’ong-do province, and proclaimed their determination to reject Japan and Europe. In 1894, Chon Pong-jun assumed leadership of the Tonghak movement in Cholla-do province, where cruel exploitation of the already hardpressed farmers was in process after the construction of a new reservoir.
Their peaceful protests having proven fruitless, the farmers resorted to violence. The
government countered with draconian measures, and an inspector sent from Seoul ordered wholesale executions. Chon led a larger uprising and defeated the government army occupying the provincial capital of Chonju. There they agreed to a cease-fire and submitted a comprehensive reform plan. Unfortunately, however, the royal court, dominated by the Min family, decided to ask for Chinese intervention. Chinese forces, 2,000 strong, landed at Asan beginning June 8 and took Kongju, while government troops recaptured Chonju on June 11, and the peasant army dispersed. Japan landed 400 marines on June 10 and a mixed brigade on June 16, and Japanese forces soon entered Seoul.
The Japanese army turned its attention to the Tonghak only after they had expelled the Chinese forces from Korean territory. The Tonghak movement, facing combined government and Japanese troops, was dealt a crushing blow at T’aein, Cholla-do province. Chon Pong-jun was captured alive and beheaded in the capital. Countless Tonghak troops and farmers were captured and massacred by the Japanese.
The unsuccessful 1884 coup d’etat brought frustration to the reform efforts, but the need for reform still was keenly felt by the populace and some leaders of the government as well. The disintegration of traditional social order was accelerated by the peasant struggle. Such
developments led Korea to implement institutional reform.
The conservative government had been compelled to accept the administrative reform proposals submitted by the Tonghak rebels at the time of the cease-fire in Chonju in 1894. This peasant struggle was utilized by the Japanese army for its aggressive purposes. Then, in the course of the Sino-Japanese War, Japan forced Korea to carry out reform by armed threat, while expelling the China-oriented conservative politicians from the government. The peace treaty ending the Sino-Japanese War was concluded on April 17, 1895, at Shimonoseki, Japan. China’s influence waned, and the Korean government was forcibly integrated into Japan’s design of imperialistic aggression.
On July 27, 1894, a Supreme Council for Military and State Administration was established to function as the nation’s highest executive and legislative organ. On July 29, it passed a
23-article reform plan, but this was not by any means autonomous, as it was accompanied by the aggressive intent of Japan. The reform movement was led mainly by politicians heavily Japan- oriented, but the Taewon-gun fought Japanese aggression by inciting Tonghak followers to engage in anti-Japanese activities.
The Supreme Council passed no less than 208 reform measures. These included: the use of the founding of the Choson Dynasty as a basis for the calendar; disciplinary action against corrupt officials; the liberalization of commercial activities; the establishment of a new currency system on the silver standard; unity in financial administration under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Finance; the standardization of weights and measures; cash payment of all taxes; the establishment of joint stock companies; the separation of judicial power in accordance with the law of court reorganization; and the unification of police power. In spite of these measures, the reform could hardly be substantial. On December 17, the Kim Hong-jip cabinet was excluded from political circles and the Supreme Council for Military and State Administration was closed.
The new cabinet attempted a reform on the basis of the 14-Article Great Plan in an abbreviated version of those reform measures. The plan aimed at the following: national autonomy and independence; the separation of the royal court and the government; the introduction of the budget system to national revenue and expenditure under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Finance; the observance of the statutory rates in collecting taxes; the education of military officers; the establishment of a military system on the basis of universal conscription; the reform of the local government system; the protection of civil life and property; the enactment of civil and criminal codes; the employment of competent persons at government offices; and the provision of opportunities for talented young men to pursue advanced studies abroad to acquire modern knowledge and techniques.
Intensified Japanese Aggression
Japanese aggression in Korea was “a matter of life or death,” as was earlier expressed by Hayashi Tadashi, one-time Japanese minister to London. As Japanese aggression intensified, the Min clique collaborated with Russian Minister Karl Waeber to force Kim Hong-jip to reorganize his cabinet, and pro-Russian figures such as Yi Pom-jin were given cabinet posts.
The government, reorganizing the military structure in April 1895, hired Japanese officers as instructors. They trained about 800 Korean officers and men who were then assigned to the royal palace as guards under training. It was under these circumstances of questionable palace security that militant Japanese Minister Miura Goro and other Japanese decided to assassinate Queen Min, the leading figure in the Min clique, as she was again making secret overtures to China and Russia. Taking advantage of the trainee-guards and those who opposed the Min family, Japanese troops, crushing resistance put up by the royal bodyguards, intruded into Kyongbokkung Palace at dawn on October 8.
Storming into the Okhoru Pavilion, the Japanese found and killed Queen Min, and burned her body with kerosene. The foreign missions were outraged by this atrocity. The Japanese government hurriedly repatriated those who had taken part in the action and detained them briefly at Hiroshima Prison as a subterfuge. Their trial, to borrow the words of a Japanese historian Yamabe Kentaro, was “a deliberate miscarriage of justice, designed to protect the culprits.”
Despite the Japanese brutality, the European powers, in their apprehension over Russia’s southward expansion, welcomed the overt Japanese aggression as a counter to the Russian
threat. Germany saw the continued presence of the Japanese army as indispensable, while other powers maintained that a demand for its withdrawal would only produce more trouble. Great Britain believed the entrustment of Korea to Japan was a proper measure to check the Russian advance. The American government instructed its minister not to make any statement unfavorable to Japan.
Informed of the assassination of Queen Min by a mob of Japanese intruders, the nation was gripped with indignation. Confucian scholars mobilized volunteers to fight against the Japanese. The Kim Hong-jip cabinet, spurred greatly by the incident, expedited reform. It adopted the solar calendar, established primary schools in Seoul, introduced smallpox vaccinations, started modern postal service, and reorganized the military system, with the Royal Army Guards stationed in Seoul and other detachments in the provinces. During this reform, the Japanese forced the cabinet to issue a decree banning topknots. Citizens wearing topknots were arrested on the streets or at their homes, and were forced to cut them off. Ch’oe Ik-hyon defying the decree, was arrested and imprisoned, but he did not yield. With these attempts, the Japanese tried to wipe out Korean heritage, only to stimulate the armed resistance of the Korean volunteer “righteous armies.”
Spontaneous “righteous troops” protesting the ban on topknots spread all over the country. The Royal Guards of Seoul were dispatched to suppress them. The resultant weakening of palace security was seen by Russia as an opportunity to extend its influence. From a Russian warship lying at anchor off Inch’ön, 100 sailors were summoned, ostensibly to protect the Russian legation. Shortly afterward, they were reinforced by an additional contingent of 120 sailors. Ex-minister Waeber, remaining in Seoul, plotted to persuade King Kojong to take refuge at the Russian legation. Home Minister Yu Kil-jun, meanwhile, conferred with Japanese Minister Komura Jutaro concerning countermeasures that might be taken against Russia. At dawn on February 11, 1896, Kojong and the Crown Prince went to the Russian legation to escape the Japanese menace, and were protected
by guards provided by other legations as well. Japanese Minister Komura called on Russian Minister Speyer at the Russian Legation and requested that the emperor return to the royal palace, but Emperor Kojong refused, knowing that he had chosen the lesser of two evils.
At the same time the Korean government, following a proposal made by the Russian minister, appointed Russians as consultants for military training and financial administration. In May, a Korean delegation led by Min Yong-hwan and Yun Ch’i-ho concluded a treaty in Russia with Foreign Minister Lobanoff, agreeing to the following: Russia would protect the Korean monarch and, if necessary, would send additional troops to Korea; the consultants in question would be subject to the guidance of the Russian minister; the two governments would enter into a loan agreement when deemed necessary in view of Korea’s economic conditions; and the Russian government would be authorized to connect its telegraph lines with the Korean telegraph network. With the Korean king in custody, Russia lost no time in implementing the aggressive provisions of the treaty.
During the king’s stay at the Russian legation, Korea’s foreign relations were aimed at protecting the royal family from the atmosphere of terror created in the royal palace by Japanese violence. This overriding concern was conducive to reliance on Russia despite its aggressive policy.
The United States, Great Britain, France, Germany and Japan competed for concessions. From its Russian refuge, the Korean government granted unconditional concessions without the usual stipulations as to the terms of lease or conditions of taxes. Korea was deprived of its properties by the world powers through such concessions.
Awakening of the People
So Chae-p’il (Philip Jaisohn) proceeded in 1884 from asylum in Japan to America and studied medicine. On his return to Korea in 1896, he resumed leadership of the nation’s modern reform program. Appointed a consultant to the Privy Council, So was able to broaden his contacts with prominent government leaders. Obtaining a donation of 5,000 won from Home Minister Yu Kil-jun, he inaugurated the newspaper Tongnip Shinmun (The Independent) on April 7, 1896. Published in pure Han-gul (the Korean script) and in English, the journal was well received by the public.
Aimed at conveying both domestic and foreign news to the Korean people, the newspaper argued both for and against government policies in an impartial manner. It called for the nation’s all-out effort to strengthen its autonomy and promote the public good. It reflected the needs of the time when the Korean government was being shaken to its foundations by the aggressive policies of Japan and Russia. SO, demanded that the government give top priority to the promotion of civil rights, and that it safeguard national sovereignty by combatting the growth of foreign influence. The publisher also did his utmost to introduce to his readers modern science and the ideology of the Western world.
The Tongnip Shinmun grew rapidly, from an initial circulation of 300 to 3,000. In his tireless efforts to enlighten the masses, So, also availed himself of every opportunity to address the people on the streets on current topics. His newspaper awakened the citizenry to the urgent needs of the day: eliminating corruption, expanding education, solidifying national sovereignty and promoting civil rights.
The Independence Club, which So helped to found, was formally activated in July 1896, with Minister of War An Kyong-su as president and Foreign Minister Yi Wan-yong as chairman. Prominent government and civic personages who had led the country in modern reform and in the struggle for independence were counted among its members, as well as a number of important government leaders. The Crown Prince, as a token of cooperation, made a donation of 1,000 won to the club, thereby arousing great interest among people throughout the country.
So Chae-p’il did his best to awaken the public to the needs of modernization. He asserted that the following steps were vital to national development: mass education, road construction, commerce promoting national wealth, women’s education, Han-gul for mass education, currency in domestic transactions, wide circulation of both domestic and foreign newspapers, exploitation of mining resources and establishment of a congress.
Voicing his strong opposition to government’s delegation of its financial and military authority to Russia since February 1897, So made a protest to the government concerning Russia’s demand for the concession of Choryong-do Island (present Yongdo) off Pusan, and for the establishment of a Korean-Russian Bank. Speaking at a mass rally in the heart of Seoul, So asked the government to dismiss the Russian military and financial consultants. Syngman Rhee (Yi Sung-man) and other speakers who took the rostrum at the same rally also drew enthusiastic applause from the audience by pointing out the absurdity of entrusting the financial and military authority of Korea to another country.
The Independence Club frequently presented to the government opinions concerning the reform of domestic administration and did not hesitate to register opposition. Its demands for the dismissal of ranking government officials guilty of irregularities and fraud were put in effect. Through “outside” sources the club also conducted an investigation of the government’s concession of rights in lumbering, mining, and railway construction, and filed a protest with the government to correct abuses. The government thereupon imprisoned leading members of the club and by imperial edict ordered its dissolution, an oppressive action that stifled the club’s movement for civil rights and national sovereignty. The club, albeit short-lived, bequeathed its spirit to subsequent national movements.
The people were united in condemning the king’s flight to a foreign legation and the continuous granting of economic concessions to foreigners and their outrage coalesced in the Independence Club’s campaign. As a result of this, Kojong moved out of the Russian legation to Kyongun-gung (today’s Toksugung Palace) in February 1897, and changed his reign name to Kwangmu (Martial Brilliance) in August. He proclaimed to the nation and the world the
establishment of an independent “Great Han Empire” in October, after which he was called by the title “Emperor.” This was a significant victory for the pressure of Korean public opinion.
On condition that Japan tacitly consent to Russia’s 25-year lease of Port Arthur as a naval base and Talien as a commercial port, Russia agreed not to hamper Japanese commercial and industrial activities in Korea. Such was the substance of the Russo-Japanese Treaty III, concluded April 25, 1899, between Japanese Foreign Minister Nishi and Russia’s Minister to Japan, Rosen. Russia thereby gave Japan a free hand for its aggressive operations in Korea.
As an anti-foreign movement erupted in Manchuria in the wake of the Boxer Rebellion, Russia threw a huge army of 180,000 troops into the area on the pretext of guarding its railways. Three-fourths of the Manchurian territory came under occupation by the Russians, where they watched for an opportunity to invade Korea.
Precisely such a proposal to invade was made to the Russian government in 1903 by the manager of a Russian lumber company operating on the Amnokkang River, a company owned by the imperial Russian foundation. Russian minister Pavloff proposed that Russia establish a sphere of influence south of the river and reject any interference by other powers in Manchuria. Accordingly, Russia assembled its fleet in Port Arthur and deployed ground forces in Fenghuang-ch’eng and along the Amnokkang River. In August 1903, Russia occupied Yongamp’o and hastily constructed military facilities, including fortresses, barracks and communication lines.
Through the Anglo-Japanese treaty of alliance in 1902, Japan, with the cooperation of Great Britain, obtained international recognition for its aggressive policy toward Korea. This treaty provided that in return for British support, Japan would assume the burden of checking the Russian southward advance in the Far East. Japan agreed to recognize the Russia occupation of Manchuria, on condition that Russia recognize its activities in Korea.
Russia and Japan stood face to face, each attempting to occupy both sides of the Amnokkang River as a preliminary step toward the occupation of both Korea and Manchuria. On February 8, 1904, Japan opened fire on the Russian fleets off Inch’on and Port Arthur, thereby touching off the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05).