As printed in A HANDBOOK OF KOREA, 3rd-1979 and 9th-1993;
Published by the Korean Overseas Information Service


Hong Yong-shik

It was Hong Yong-shik who introduced the modern postal system to Korea. In 1881, as a member of an official observation party, he went to Japan, where he first observed phone and postal service with admiration.

In 1883, he became Associate Ambassador plenipotentiary to the United States. During his stay in the US, he paid a visit to the New York post office and a telephone and telegraph office, making careful observations of the communications service, which impressed him so deeply that he decided to introduce a similar service to his home country. Owing to his strong determination and activities, and the support of many other forerunning officials, the General Bureau of posts was created in 1884 by a Royal ordinance, with him, the then Vice Minister of Military Affairs, as its first Chief. In the beginning, the service of the Bureau dealt mainly with commercial business telegraphs and letters to and from foreign countries, rather than with domestic posts.

Mr. Hong Yong-shik is called the Father of modern Korean postal system. In Korea, the modern postal system was introduced in 1884 during the reign of King Kojong, which was when postage stamps first began to be used for the collection of postal service charges. The Postal Services Bureau was created in April 1884 by a royal edict, and Hong Yong-shik was appointed as its chief. Korea's first postage stamps, called MoonWi Stamps, were issued on November 18 of the same year, according to the lunar calendar.

The Postal Services Bureau was established on April 23, 1884 and began providing postal services on November 18. Unfortunately, however, the newly-born agency was forcibly closed down on December 8 as a result of the abortive coup that we typically call "Kapsin Chongbyon," which took place on December 4. The coup was planned and carried out by reform-minded Koreans, including Hong, who chose to use the banquet in celebration of the opening of the postal administration as an occasion for disposing of conservative officials. The building in which the Postal Services Bureau commenced its operations still stands on Ujongkuk-no (Postal Services Bureau Street), Kyunji-dong, Chongno-ku in Seoul.

Under "Foreign Relations and the Failure of Reform " of the HISTORY-SECTION; of A Handbook of Korea-1979:

The Kanghwa Treaty seemed to the Western powers to be a break in Korea’s long isolation, and they began once more to take an interest in relations with the kingdom. The first initiative came from the United States, whose government now decided that good relations with Korea would be advantageous, and sent Commodore Robert W. Shufeldt, in command of the U.S.S. Ticonderoga, to obtain the mediation of Japan in negotiating a treaty of friendship.

Shufeldt sailed into Pusan harbor in May of 1880 and requested the assistance of a Japanese diplomatic official stationed there. This was refused, and Shufeldt sailed to Japan, where he obtained the good offices of the Japanese minister of foreign affairs. This time the Korean government refused to accept the U.S. letter proposing a treaty and returned it through a Korean envoy in Japan. It was clear that Japan would not willingly see her monopoly on Korean relations broken.

Shufeldt finally got the treaty signed with Korea through the mediation of China’s Chief Minister Li Hung-chang who viewed the Americans as a counterweight to Japanese influence in the peninsula.

The treaty set a precedent which other nations were not long in following. A treaty was negotiated and signed in November of 1883 with the British government.

A treaty of the same type with Germany followed quickly, but with France matters were somewhat more difficult because of the persecution of Catholics and the execution of French priests already mentioned. A treaty with the French was not signed until 1886.

The Russian Empire had now extended it­self all across north Asia to the Pacific Ocean, where its maritime provinces touched Korea’s frontier a short distance from the Manchurian border. This frontier was as yet ill-defined, and numerous Korean and Russian subjects lived on both sides of the line. For these and other reasons Russia had been demanding relations with Korea ever since the 1860s, though without success. When the American treaty was concluded, the Russians again attempted to contact the Korean government, acting without the mediation of China, with which they were on bad terms. Finally in 1884 Karl Waeber, secretary to the Russian minister in Peking, arrived in Korea, where he negotiated a treaty through the good offices of Paul Georg von Moellendorff, a German who had been sent to the Korean court as an advisor by Li Hung­chang. It was ratified in 1886, along with the French treaty. At the same time, relations with Italy were opened.

All of these treaties followed the pattern that had been set by the agreements between the Western powers and China, which historians now lump together as the “unequal treaties.” All included extraterritorial rights, the granting of leases for various purposes, and regulation of customs, so that in fact they violated Korean sovereignty. Most of them were negotiated through the mediation of China, which hoped in this way to keep Korea in her traditional vassal relationship and frustrate Japanese attempts to dominate the country.

China did for a time become the paramount power in Korea, thanks to her prompt action during the army revolt of 1882. Some officials had even favored a complete military takeover of the Korean government, but Li Hung-chang was content to support Queen Min’s faction, which in return instituted policies favorable to China.

For some time after the army rebellion Seoul was in the hands of Chinese troops, while Chinese merchants flocked to the city in a desperate attempt to replace the Japanese. Both of these groups treated the Koreans with scant respect, and there were numerous incidents and widespread resentment. Korea still disliked any hint of direct foreign rule, even by her traditional overlord, and a permanent revulsion against Chinese rule grew among the people, which was to play a part in future political developments.

The trickle of Western ideas that had been reaching Korea mainly through diplomatic missions to Peking now became a torrent as ports were opened and regular contacts with other nations began. Much of this Western in­fluence still came through China, and a large share came, naturally enough, from Japan. Many of those who served in diplomatic missions to these two countries became leaders in the efforts to modernize the country, and there were suggestions that Korea should imitate Japan. These efforts faced the opposition of those who still believed that modernization would bring subservience to the Western powers as in China and those who felt that modernization along Japanese lines would mean domination by Japan.

The gradualism of the pro-Chinese Min faction aroused increasing impatience among the group which wished to follow the Japanese example, and sweep away the whole traditional structure of the Korean government and economy at a blow, to make Korea into a modern, self-reliant power like Japan. It became increasingly clear to this group that nothing short of a coup d’etat could displace the Queen’s group, end Chinese hegemony, and open the way for genuine modernization. They began to organize and to plot. Their goals are suggested by the name by which they are generally known, the Independence Party, whose leader was Kim Ok-kyun.

Kim had become convinced that his movement could succeed only with Japanese help, but he had also imbibed the dangerous notion that Japanese support for Korea’s modernization was disinterested, which of course was not the case. The Independence Party made secret contacts with the Japanese minister in Seoul in order to secure the support of Japanese troops when the time was ripe.

The occasion chosen for the coup was a dinner party in celebration of the opening of the new post office, at which most of the important government officials would be conveniently assembled. The Japanese minister supplied the necessary funds and Japanese troops stood in readiness. At the appointed time, a building near the new post office was set afire. It was expected that the officials would leave the banquet to report to the king, as they were supposed to do when anything unusual occurred. Young military officers recently returned from study in Japan lay in wait for them, supported by troops from the Japanese-trained units. This part of the plot failed. Several of the officials were later killed, but Min Yong-ik, one of the most important of them, was able to escape, though severely wounded.

Meanwhile, Kim Ok-kyun and some of his followers went to Ch’angdök Palace and reported to the king that Chinese troops were making a disturbance and he must be moved for his own protection. The king was escorted to Kyöngu Palace under Japanese guard, and here the plotters waylaid and killed some of the Min military leaders and some other civil officials who had somehow learned of the king’s where­abouts. Kyöngu Palace was ringed with Japanese troops and the king held incommunicado.

These were the events of December 4, 1884. The next day the king was returned to Ch’ang­ dök Palace and the insurgents notified the diplomatic corps in Seoul that a new government had been established. The coup seemed to be a success. On the sixth, they announced their political program. Before anything else, the Taewön’gun was to be returned and Chinese dominance was to cease forthwith. The old class system was to be abolished and all people treated as equals. Corrupt officials were to be dismissed, taxation was to be reformed, and the national finances were to have a unified administration. The military forces were to be reorganized, a police force established, and criminal law revised. The government was to be composed mainly of members of the Independence Party.

But the plan had one fatal flaw. The Independence Party had assumed that, faced with a fait accompli which had Japanese backing, the Chinese would acquiesce. However, there were only about 200 Japanese troops in Seoul, whereas the Chinese had 1,500 soldiers. As soon as he heard the news, Yuan Shih-k’ai sent a contingent to Ch’angdök Palace, and the Japanese guards were driven off with heavy casualties.

The coup, referred to by Korean historians as the Kapsin coup, after the year-name had ended in failure after only three days

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