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Discuss political events on the Korean peninsula from the 1880’s to the formal annexation of Korea by Japan. Discern the different stages of the events which led eventually to Korea’s absorption by its neighbour. Looked at from the perspective of 1880, was it inevitable that Korea would be absorbed by Japan?

In the late 1800’s, Korea stood on the cusp of entering a new, modern era. Attempting to cast off the restraints of centuries of restrictive, embedded Confucian ideology, the progressive thinkers within Korea’s administration saw modernisation through the adaptation of western trading practices, technology and administrative systems as the most effective means of ensuring the country’s survival in the world of international politics that was revealing itself at the time (Rees, 1988, 43).

How was it then that not a quarter of a century later the nation found itself powerless in the face of foreign imperialistic ambitions? Whilst it would be easy to claim that Korea simply had no choice in the matter, a closer look at the country’s internal politics during this period reveal that perhaps this is not the case, and that it was actually partly a result of domestic political conflict and the lack of a nationally accepted cohesive plan for reform that resulted in the nation being served up on a plate for interested parties to pick at, and subsequently moulded to suit their own devices (Lee, 1984; Eckert, 1990)

              In 1873 a young King Kojung assumed power from his father, the Taewǒn’gun, who during his 10-year reign had furthered the nation’s traditional isolationist policy, a policy that had earned the country the reputation of being the “Hermit Nation” (Griffis, 1892). Kojung, aware of the changes going on outside the nation’s borders and encouraged by his widely-read chief advisors (noteably Pak Kyu-su, O Kyǒng-sǒk and Yu Hong-gi), set about on the road to reform. However, due to objections by the majority of his conservative government, in conjunction with those of the ascending Min family (Queen Min having become increasing powerful despite being initially selected for her lack of political connections), he found his attempts continuously frustrated (Deuchler, 1977, 11-17; Lee, 1984, 268).

              In the mid-1870’s, having engineered an incident Japan forced upon Korea the Treaty of Kanghwa; this was a typical example of the unfair western treaties that Japan itself had been the victim of some two decades previously. However, in Korea’s case, In addition to demanding the opening of ports and extraterritorial rights, there was a third element that was to prove key to Japan’s power over Korea in future years: the statement that Korea possessed ‘equal sovereign rights with Japan’ (Lee, 1984, 268). Whereas Korea took this as an assertion of its status vis-à-vis Japan, Japan’s intention was to prise Korea from the protective custody of China, thus leaving it exposed for future plundering without fear of reprisal from its powerful neighbour (Lee, 1984, 268-269).

Thus it was that Korea entered the 1880’s. Spurred on by Chinese alarm at Japan’s growing sphere of influence within East Asia, Kojong and his supporters pressed for further reforms that would promote the self-strengthening of the country. One key figure in this process was the experienced Chinese statesman Li Hung Chang, who encouraged Korea to follow China’s lead in terms of building up the nation’s defences. Further encouragement for Kojong’s “enlightenment” policy resulted from a trip to Tokyo by the special envoy Kim Ki-su, who returned with a document titled ‘A Policy for Korea’. Written by the counsellor of the Chinese legation in Tokyo, this called for Korea to ‘adopt Western institutions and technology, and that to secure itself against Russian aggression Korea should seek to achieve self-strengthening under the umbrella of a foreign policy of close friendship with China, treaty ties with Japan, and diplomatic relations with America’ (Lee, 1984, 270).

The Confucian literati reacted with alarm to the radical ‘pro-Western, pro-Japanese’ policies that were being proposed by Kojong’s reform movement. In a bid to return to power, the Taewǒn’gun sought to capitalise on these fears, and although his plan was discovered before it could be carried out, this escalation in infighting within the leadership brought further concerns to a populace already alarmed by the manner in which the government seemed to be selling out to western, ‘barbarian’ ideologies. One such group who were particularly aggrieved by policy changes were the old army units that were due to scrapped in favour of a new ‘Special Skills Force’ (Pyoǒlgigun). Having been denied wages and rations for months on end, in the summer of 1882 they attacked those officials who they saw as responsible for their fate, before going on to murder the Japanese training officer and drive the remainder of the Japanese legation from the city (Lee, 1984, 271-273; Eckert, 1990, 205-206).

              Faced with such uproar, Kojong had little choice but to return power to the Taewǒn’gun – it was a victory for the conservative mainstream, but a deadly blow to the first stage of Korea’s modernisation process. This was to mark the beginning of a familiar theme in the nation’s developmental struggle: the introduction of vital reforms prevented by corrupt officials who had little grasp of the reality of the world that was now taking shape around them (Eckert, 1990, 206).

              However, not to be outdone, the Japanese minister Hanbusa was soon to return demanding reparations, cutting short the Taewǒn’gun’s triumph. China meanwhile, alarmed by the news of Japan’s despatch and keen to shore up its influence in the peninsula, arrived shortly afterwards with 4,500 troops, dwarfing Japan’s attempted military show of strength: this incident demonstrated clearly the extent to which Korea was at the mercy of its power-hungry neighbours (Eckert 1990, 206-207).

              It was at this time that so-called ‘enlightenment thought’ (kaehwa sasan) began to gain in popularity. The Independence Party, founded by Kim Ok’kyun, an able statesman who had witnessed the benefits of reform in Japan, pressed hard for the rapid adoption of western ways. However, despite support from the King, there was no movement by the government due to the ascendancy of the powerful pro-China conservative Min clique (dominated by Queen Min), who had few concerns outside of building up their own power-base. Frustrated by the immobility of the government apparatus, and with Japanese support, the Independence party came to the conclusion that only a coup d’état could bring about the changes that the country so vitally needed (Han, 1970, 390-392; Deuchler, 1977, 205-207; Eckert 1990, 205-206).

              On the evening of December 4th1884 the planned coup was executed, leaving a number of the Min clique, along with several other conservative officials, dead. Victorious, the conspirators drew up a list of 14 significant reforms – only to find their revolt crushed within a few days, once their Japanese protection force had retreated from the Ch’angdǒk Palace when faced with an army of 1,500 Chinese troops (Deuchler, 1977, 207-208; Lee, 1984, 276-278; Rees, 1988, 44;).

             Japan’s limited involvement in the coup could have been a diplomatic disaster for Tokyo, but as always, they managed to salvage an agreement from the incident that eventually worked in their favour. By signing the Treaty of Tientsin in May 1885, China and Japan agreed to withdraw their troops simultaneously, and committed to informing the other party should either nation send troops to Korea in the future. The treaty, however, far from removing foreign influence over Korea’s course, served to further weaken its ability to plan its own route (Lee, 1984, 279; Eckert, 1990, 211-212).

              Even more disastrous was the resulting political changes that then served to end the nation’s second attempt at radical reform. China, in a knee-jerk reaction to the attempted coup, assigned Yϋan Shi-k’ai, a hard-line traditionalist, to the position of “Director-General of Resident in Korea of Diplomatic and Commercial Relations”, whose role was to prevent “any future political disturbance or diplomatic development harmful to Chinese interests … [and to] use his dominant influence to destroy the monopolistic position Japanese traders had come to hold in the peninsula” (Eckert, 1990, 212).

              China’s meddling in Korean politics continued for much of the rest of the decade, dealing a serious blow to those who remained in government with a desire for modernisation: systematically removed from office they soon ceased to have any major say in policy making. China favoured the Confucianist Min-clan, who, with no concern beyond their own wealth and power showed little alarm at the repression of nation-strengthening reforms (Eckert, 1990, 212). Coupled with this were the ever present threat of Japan and the gradual encroachment of Russia (by now embarking upon the construction of the Trans-Siberian railway in an attempt to increase their influence in the Far-East region) (Rees, 1991, 46). A further incident which served to demonstrate Korea’s pawn-like nature was the manner in which pro-Russian sentiment was encouraged by the Chinese-picked foreign-affairs advisor Paul von Mōllendorff. Von Mōllendorff, far from being an easily malleable representative serving Chinese interests, turned out to have ideas of his own regarding the direction in which Korean should head. His belief that Russian influence was a desirable counterweight to that of Chinese and Japanese influence aroused considerable concern in the west, resulting in England dispatching the Asiatic fleet to head off the threat posed by Russia’s leasing of the Liaotung Peninsula and Port Arthur from China. The fleet stepped down some two years later having secured agreement from Russia that it had no expansionist interest in Korea (Nahm, 1988; Eckert 2000, 213).Trapped in the midst of such major world-power struggles, the prospect of a truly independent Korea was becoming increasingly unlikely.

             In their pursuit of personal fortune, the corrupt Min-clique levied unreasonable taxes upon the peasantry, who were simultaneously suffering at the hands of ruthless Japanese trading practices and devastating land reform bills. In the Spring of 1894, unwilling to tolerate the deprivation forced upon them any longer, the anti-foreign, reformist Tonghak sect experienced a huge surge in popularity, as thousands of farmers in the south-west of the country took up arms and demanded an end to the Min Oligarchy and the ousting of the Japanese from Korea. Often armed with little more than bamboo spears, these armies of peasants claimed several great victories against government troops, seizing control of several counties in southern Cholla Province. Alarmed by the strength of the peasant army, the government called for a truce, accepted by the Tonghaks on the condition that certain reforms be carried out. These conditions were accepted and their implementation began: it seemed that Korea was on the verge of great changes for the better (Han, 1970, 403-410; Eckert, 1990, 214-220).

              Unfortunately, in the midst of the panic over the strength of the Tonghak Army, and against the advice of many government officials, King Kojung called upon the Chinese for assistance in dealing with the insurrection. The Chinese, having informed the Japanese of its plans, arrived shortly afterwards with 3000 troops. Japan, seizing upon this as an opportunity to regain some political and commercial control over Korea, responded by despatching 7000 troops to Korea, supported by seven warships. The scene was set for a major international confrontation (Han, 1970, 410-411; Lee, 1984, 288-289).

              With the Tonghak army having disbanded by the time the foreign troops arrived, Japan quickly sought some excuse to remain in Korea. However, when China dismissed its suggestion that the two countries remain there to ‘reform Korea’s internal administration’ (Lee, 1984, 289) as ‘preposterous’, Japan resorted to violence in pursuit of its interests in the region, and on the 23rd July 1894 attacked and occupied the Kyongbok Palace, thus signalling the start of the Sino-Japanese War. Having gained controlled control of the Korean government, the Japanese restored the Taewǒn’gun to power and created a new government, consisting largely of pro-Japanese reformers, many of whom had connections with the failed coup of 1884. Over the next sixteen months, this cabinet pushed through a great number of reforms (‘the so-called Kabo Reforms’), which resulted in a complete re-organisation of central and local government, fiscal procedures, social laws and the judicial system, in much the same way as had been carried out during the early years of Meiji Japan. Naturally, the Taewǒn’gun and other conservative elements within Korean society did not support this reform program; with his support the Tonghak army regrouped to drive the Japanese out, but were swiftly crushed by the superior forces from abroad (Lee, 1984, 290-292; Eckert 2000, 222-228). 

The Sino-Japanese war was to last for just over 6 months, ending with China suing for peace and subsequently signing the Shimonoseki Peace Treaty. This document served to clarify in internationally accepted terms Korea’s independence from China, thus leaving the arena clear for a showdown between Japan and Russia over control of the strategically placed peninsula (Rees, 1988, 49-50). To raise the tension further, Russia had sought the so-called Triple Intervention with Germany and France to force Japan to retrocede the Liaotung Peninsula and Port Arthur, which it had been granted upon the completion of the Treaty of Shimonoseki. Following this, Japan, alarmed by the rise in Russian sympathy for Korea felt the need to purge the government of pro-Russian elements – and in October 1895, assassinated Queen-Min in the palace grounds. This murder brought about international outrage, which Japan sought to quell by holding a mock trial in Tokyo, the defendants eventually being released due to ‘insufficient evidence” (Rees, 1988, 51-54; Eckert, 2000, 229).

This reckless act was a sure sign that Japan was slowly but surely shifting its stance on international relations. Domestic politics back in Tokyo encouraged the government to pursue imperialistic interests abroad using whatever means necessary, and as noted by Beasley (2000,146), “Japanese ambitions had grown with the tale of victories until they exceeded by far the original aim of prising Korea loose from Chinese tutelage”.

              Following the Queen’s death, Russian officials successfully managed to smuggle the King from the palace and into the Russian legation, before embarking upon a murderous campaign of eliminating pro-Japanese members of government – thus the balance of power in Korea shifted once again (Rees, 1988, 53-54).

              In the final five years of the 19th century, the Korean court handed out numerous concessions to foreign powers from the safety of the Russian legation. This wholesale disposal of Korean assets prompted the rise of the Independence Party, whose primary goals centred around the country’s integrity as an independent nation, free to pursue its own policies without foreign influence. Initially supported by the king, it soon fell from favour as its demands grew steadily stronger. (Eckert, 2000, 232-236).

              In 1900, the tension between Japan and Russia reached new heights as Russia failed to withdraw their troops from areas of Northern China following the successful suppression of the nationalistic Boxer Rebellion. With the support of the 1902 Anglo-Japanese treaty which recognised Japanese interests in Korea, Japan now had the strength and backing to take the final step towards eliminating all competition in the peninsula. Thus it was that in January 1904, following Russian incursions into Northern Korea, the Russo-Japanese war commenced (Rees, 1988, 56-59). Despite Korea’s proclamation of neutrality, Japan forced upon it an agreement which essentially gave the neighbouring country the legal right to carry out any military or political action in the peninsula (Lee, 1984, 306-309).

Japan’s victory against Russia eliminated it’s last rival in the battle for supremacy in the Far East, whilst subsequent agreements made with the United States and the United Kingdom, both of whom saw Korea as a useful balance against Russian power, acknowledged ‘Japan’s right to take appropriate measures for the ‘guidance, control and protection” of Korea’ (Lee, 1984, 309).

It was in under these circumstances that in 1905, Japan, despite intense Korean resistance, was able to impose a Protectorate Treaty, which gave the Japanese ultimate control over Korea’s foreign affairs, and subsequently, all domestic matters too. In June 1907 Kojong attempted to alert the world to his country’s plight by sending a secret envoy to the Second Hague Peace Conference, but due to the deals that had been struck between Japan and its allies in the west, their request for a hearing was denied. However, the action was not without consequences: the Japanese reacted by forcing the King to abdicate, quelling the resulting violent protests of the Korean people with brute force (Lee, 1984, 311-313).

              The increasingly violent protests of the Korean populace towards the end of the first decade of the 20th century provided Japan with good reason to implement its final solution: absolute control through the annexation of the peninsula. So it was that on August 29th 1910, the Korean Emperor was forced to give up not only his throne, but also his country, to a neighbour whose imperialist aggression had been endorsed by the most powerful nations on Earth (Lee, 1984, 313; Rees, 1988, 59-62).

              Early 1880’s Korea had a wealth of opportunity before it. A king keen on modernisation, and a great number of foreign parties interested in establishing nation-building trading agreements. It would seem that had these policies been pursued through to fruition, the Korea that we see now would be very different. Had the nation’s leadership refrained from pursuing their own selfish interests at the expense of the country’s stability, had they not feared all that that was unknown, had they presented a united front in the face of foreign demands, the result would quite probably have been a strong, self-governing country able to withstand the pressures of empire-obsessed neighbors and manipulative Western powers.


Beasley, W (2000), The Rise of Modern Japan, London: Orion Books Ltd.

Deuchler, Martina (1977), Confucian Gentlemen and Barbarian Envoys: The Opening of Korea, 1875-1885, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Eckert, Carter (1990), Korea Old and New: A History, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Griffis, William (1892), Corea, The Hermit Nation, New York: Scribner’s.

Han, Woo-keun (1970), The History of Korea, Seoul: Eul-Yoo Publishing Co.

Lee, Ki-baek (1984), A New History of Korea, Seoul: Ilchokak.

Rees, David (1988), A Short History of Modern Korea, New York: Hippocrene Books.


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© Joseph Tame 2000~2006