North Korea Table of Contents

The early nineteenth century witnessed a period of sharp decline in which most of these new developments were extinguished. Harsh persecution of Roman Catholics began in 1801, and agricultural production declined, forcing many peasants to pursue slash-and-burn agriculture in the mountains. Popular uprisings began in 1811 and continued sporadically throughout the rest of the century, culminating in the Tonghak (Eastern Learning) Movement of the 1860s, which spawned a major peasant rebellion in the 1890s.

Korean leaders were aware that China's position had been transformed by the arrival of powerful Western gunboats and traders, but they reacted to the Opium War (1839-42) between China and Britain by shutting Korea's doors even tighter. In 1853 United States Navy Commodore Matthew C. Perry and his "black ships" entered Edo Bay, beginning the process of opening Japan to foreign trade. Korea, however, continued its isolationist policy. Japan's drastic reform of its institutions--the Meiji Restoration of 1868--and subsequent industrialization was attributed by Korean literati to Japan's alleged inferior grasp of Confucian doctrine. Through its successful rebuff of French and American attempts to "open" Korea, the regime was encouraged to think it could hold out indefinitely against external pressure. (The U.S.S. General Sherman steamed up the Taedong River in 1866 almost to P'yongyang, whereupon the natives burned the ship and killed all its crew; Kim Il Sung claimed that his great-grandfather was involved in this incident.)

Reforms from 1864 to 1873 under a powerful leader named the Taewn'gun, or Grand Prince (Yi Ha-ung, 1821-98), offered further evidence of Korean resilience; Yi Ha-ung was able to reform the bureaucracy, bring in new talent, extract new taxes from both the yangban and commoners, and keep the imperialists at bay. Korea's descent into the maelstrom of imperial rivalry was quick after this, however, as Japan succeeded in imposing a Western-style unequal treaty in February 1876, giving its nationals extraterritorial rights and opening three Korean ports to Japanese commerce. China sought to reassert its traditional position in Korea by playing the imperial powers off against each other, with the result that Korea entered into unequal treaties with the United States, Britain, Russia, Italy, and other countries. These events split the Korean court into pro-Chinese, pro-Japanese, pro-United States, and pro-Russian factions, each of which influenced policy until the final annexation of Korea by Japan in 1910. Meanwhile, various Korean reform movements sought to get underway, influenced by either Japanese or American progressives.

A small group of politically frustrated Korean aristocrats in the early 1880s came under the influence of the Japanese educator and student of Western knowledge, Fukuzawa Yukichi. This group of Koreans saw themselves as the vanguard of Korea's "enlightenment," a term that referred to their nation's release from its traditional subordination to China and its intellectual views and political institutions. The group, led by Kim Ok-kyun, included Kim Hong-jip, Yun Ch'i-ho, and Yu Kil-chun. Yun became an influential modernizer in the twentieth century, and Yu became the first Korean to study in the United States--at the Governor Drummer Academy in Byfield, Massachusetts. Kim Ok-kyun, impressed by the Meiji Restoration, sought to stage a coup d'état in 1884 with a handful of progressives, including Philip Jaisohn (S Chae-p'il, 1866-1948), and about 200 Japanese legation soldiers. Resident Chinese troops quickly suppressed it, however, and Kim fled to Japan. Philip Jaisohn, a Korean who had studied in the United States, was the first Korean to become a United States citizen. He had returned to Korea in 1896 to publish one of its first newspapers.

For a decade thereafter, China reasserted a rare direct influence when Yuan Shikai momentarily made China first among the foreign powers resident in Korea. He represented the scholar- general and governor of Tianjin, Li Hongzhang, as Director- General Resident in Korea of Diplomatic and Commercial Relations in Seoul in 1885. A reformer in China, Yuan had no use for Korean reformers and instead blocked the slightest sign of Korean nationalism.

Japan put a definitive end to Chinese influence during the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, seizing on the reinvigorated Tonghak Movement, which spawned a large rebellion in 1894. Uniting peasants against Western pressure, growing Japanese economic penetration and their own corrupt and ineffectual government, the rebellion spread from the southwest into the center of the peninsula, thus threatening Seoul. The hapless court invited China to send troops to put the rebellion down, whereupon Japan had the pretext it needed to send troops to Korea. After defeating Chinese forces, Japan declared Korea independent, thus breaking its long tributary relationship with China. Thereafter, Japan pushed through epochal reforms that ended the old civil service examination system, abolished traditional class distinctions, ended slavery, and established modern fiscal and judicial mechanisms.

Korean reformers influenced by the West, such as Philip Jaisohn, launched an Independence Club (Tongnip Hyphoe) in 1896 to promote Westernization. They used the vernacular han'gl in their newspaper, the Tongnip simmun (The Independent), publishing alternate pages in English. The club included many Koreans who had studied Western learning in Protestant missionary schools, and for a while it influenced not only young reformers but also elements of the Korean court; one of the reformers was Yi Sng-man, otherwise known as Syngman Rhee (1875-1965), who later served as the first president of South Korea. The club was repressed, and it collapsed after two years.

The Korean people gradually became more hostile towards Japan. In 1897 King Kojong (r. 1864-1907), fleeing Japanese plots, ended up in the Russian legation; he conducted the nation's business from there for a year and shortly thereafter declared Korea to be the "Great Han [Korean] Empire," from which comes the name Taehan Min'guk, or Republic of Korea. It was a futile last gasp for the Chosn; the only question was which imperial power would colonize Korea.

By 1900 the Korean Peninsula was the focus of an intense rivalry between the powers then seeking to carve out spheres of influence in East Asia. Russia was expanding into Manchuria and Korea, and briefly enjoyed ascendancy on the peninsula when King Kojong sought its help in 1897. In alliance with France and Germany, Russia had forced Japan to return the Liaodong Peninsula, which it had acquired from China as a result of its victory in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95). Japan promptly leased the region from China and continued to develop it; shortly thereafter, in 1900, Japanese forces intervened with the other imperial powers to put down the Boxer Uprising, a xenophobic conflict in China against Christians and foreigners. Russia continued to develop the railroad system in Manchuria and to exploit forests and gold mines in the northern part of Korea. The United States, fearing complete exclusion from the region-- especially from China--had declared its open door policy in 1900, but lacked the means to assert its will. During this period, however, Americans also were given concessions for rail and trolley lines, waterworks, Seoul's new telephone network, and mines. Japan briefly pulled back from the peninsula, but its 1902 alliance with Britain emboldened Japan to reassert itself there.

Russia and Japan initially sought to divide their interests in Korea, suggesting at one point that the thirty-eighth parallel be the dividing line between their spheres of influence. The rivalry devolved into the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) when Japan launched a successful surprise attack on the Russian fleet at Port Arthur (Dalian; or Japanese, Dairen). Japan electrified all of Asia by becoming the first nonwhite country to subdue one of the "great powers."

Under the peace treaty brokered by Theodore Roosevelt in a conference at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and signed in 1905, Russia recognized Japan's paramount rights in Korea. Japan would not question the rights of the United States in its colony, the Philippines, and the United States would not challenge Japan's new protectorate, established in 1905 to control Korea's foreign policy. Japan installed a resident-general and, two years later, deposed King Kojong. Significant Korean resistance followed this deposition, spreading through several provinces as local yangban organized militias for guerrilla warfare against Japan. In 1909, An Chung-gn, a Korean assassin, shot It Hirobumi, the former Japanese resident-general who had concluded the protectorate agreement; two expatriate Koreans in San Francisco also gunned down Durham Stevens, a foreign affairs adviser to the Japanese who had lauded their efforts in Korea. It was too little and too late. In 1910 Japan turned Korea into its colony, thus extinguishing Korea's hard-fought independence, which had first emerged with Silla and Kogury resistance to Chinese pressures.

Under Japanese imperial pressure that began in earnest with Korea's opening in l876, the Chosn Dynasty faltered and then collapsed in a few decades. The dynasty had had an extraordinary five-century longevity, but although the traditional system could adapt to the changes necessary to forestall or accommodate domestic or internal conflict and change, it could not withstand the onslaught of technically advanced imperial powers with strong armies. The old agrarian bureaucracy had managed the interplay of different and competing interests by having a system of checks and balances that tended over time to equilibrate the interests of different parties. The king and the bureaucracy kept watch over each other, the royal clans watched both, scholars criticized or remonstrated from the moral position of Confucian doctrine, secret inspectors and censors went around the country to watch for rebellion and assure accurate reporting, landed aristocrats sent sons into the bureaucracy to protect family interests, and local potentates influenced the county magistrates sent down from the central administration. The Chosn Dynasty was not a system that modern Koreans would wish to restore, but it was a sophisticated political system, adaptable enough and persistent enough to have given unified rule to Korea for half a millennium.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress