Korean Transformations 1882-1900

Brother Anthony of Taizé

2. Korean Transformations 1882-1900

The choice facing Korea at the end of the 19th century, between the old and the new, was vividly reflected in the events that shook Seoul late in 1884, the Gapsin coup. Following the opening of Japan to western trade and modernization, the Gaehwapa (Enlightenment Party) group of reformers led by Kim Ok-gyun and Pak Yong-hyo sought to initiate rapid changes within Korea along similar lines. Thwarted by conservative factions within the court, particularly the pro-Chinese Sugupa, they launched a coup d'état with Japanese support on 4 December, 1884. On the evening of that day, a banquet was held at the new post office in Seoul to celebrate the successful inauguration of Korea’s postal system. Members of the diplomatic community and Korean government officials were in attendance. This party was part of a plot to overthrow the pro-Chinese Korean clique, dominated by the Min clan, and establish a new government that would be more progressive and pro-Japanese. Chief amongst the conspirators in attendance were Hong Yong-sik, the host of the party and leader of the conspiracy; Pak Yong-hyo, the conspiracy’s director of operations; and Kim Ok-gyun who was responsible for contact between the conspirators and the Japanese legation and planning the coup. In addition to the conspirators were their foes, three conservative Korean ministers: Min Yeong-ik, head of the pro-Chinese Min clan, Yi Ja-yeon and General Han Kyu-sik. Just before 10 p.m., a small building near the post office was set afire, luring Min Yeong-ik out into an ambush. An assassin severely wounded him but he managed to stagger back into the building, bleeding profusely. By the end of the night the conspirators had gained control of the Korean government.

Faced with this threat to royal authority, Chinese military intervened, and after three days the revolt was suppressed by 1500 troops of the Chinese garrison based in Seoul. During the ensuing battle, the Japanese legation building was burned down, and forty Japanese were killed. The surviving Gaehwapa activists escaped to the port city of Chemulpo under escort of the Japanese minister to Korea, Takejo, and there boarded a Japanese ship for exile in Japan. Under intense international pressure, the Chinese and Japanese agreed to withdraw their troops, which had been stationed in Seoul since the food riots of 1882, but the underlying tension between the two countries remained alive and ultimately led to the Sino-Japanese War in 1894. Kim Ok-gyun and his companions had already understood in 1884 that Japan held the key to the modernization which Korean society urgently needed, particularly if it was to resist the territorial ambitions that Japan was already manifesting. China was in decline and its policies toward Korea strongly favored the status quo. In particular, Japan’s army and navy were already far better equipped and trained.

From February until November 1894, the Donghak Rebellion raged through Korea; China and Japan both sent in troops, still competing for control over Korea. The First Sino-Japanese War began late in July, 1894, and led to the invasion by Japan of western Manchuria and northern China. The war ended with a virtual Chinese surrender. The Treaty of Shimonoseki was signed on April 17, 1895. It gave Japan control over the Liaodong Peninsula, ended the tributary relationship between Korea and the Qing Dynasty, and gave Japan control over Taiwan. However, Russia brought France and Germany to its side and they forced Japan to return the Liaodong Peninsula to China. This only made Japan more determined to take full control of Korea, where Russia by now too had ambitions.

On October 8, 1895, the Queen was assassinated by a band of Japanese, because of her ongoing opposition to Japan’s plans, and during the following months the terrified King, fearing for his life, insisted that a group of western missionaries should sleep close to him in the palace each night. The core members of this group were James S. Gale, Homer B. Hulbert, George Heber Jones, Horace G. Underwood, H. G. Appenzeller. All of these men were involved a few years later in the foundation of the RASKB. Mrs. Underwood had acted as the Queen’s doctor and after the assassination she prepared meals for the King, who thought people were trying to poison him. They could hardly be closer to the making of Korean history.

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