The Hermit Kingdom

Daewon'gun ruled Korea as a de facto regent from 1864.
Daewon'gun literally means the king's father - his real name was Yi Ha-eung. His father was a son of King Injo (1623~1649); and when King Choljong (1849~1864) died without an heir, the crown went to Yi Ha-eung's 11-year-old son, King Gojong.

Yi's connection to royal house served as an endangering factor rather than a protection or previlege. King Chuljong's reign was plagued with deepened competition and corruption among political factions. Nepotism hindered the effective functioning of the government as well.

Any man with a royal heritage and decent talent was considered as a threat to the factions and was at risk of his life. Yi Ha-eung was on the blacklist as well. Therefore Yi began to fake insanity; he would hang out with street bums, showing up to his rich, powerful in-laws' party half-drunk and making incomprehensible jokes. Yi had to endure open humiliations and jeers, but this had kept his head on his shoulder intact until his son became the king.

www.donga.com   Yi's sanity was magically restored, thank you very much. Along came his intellects and ambition. He was now king's father, Daewon'gun, de facto regent. Daewon'gun swiftly carried out eradication of factionalism and nepotism. He began the anti-corruption campaign as well as economic reform; new laws required yangban, the elite landlords, to pay heavy taxes. The local landlords who interfered with local administration and leeched on the peasants were purged out.

Daewon'gun reorganized and restored centralized government system, was ruthless in dealing with the elites who seemed 'unproductive', soothed economic burdens of peasants. His determination and reverence for morality gained support from the peasants.

A part of Kyungbok Palace today. http://www.visitkorea.or.krDaewon'gun's virtues - downright honesty, determination, unwillingness to trade his integrity, caring for the subjects - embodied Confucian ideals. Unfortunately, his personal vices reflected the faults of Confucianism as well. He was rigid, stubborn, and above all, did not accept the changing realities that conflicted with his ideals. His efforts to improve the living condition of peasants came to nothing when he had Kyungbok Palace, burned to the ground in 1592, rebuilt. In order to finance this gigantic project, he coined new money which eventually debased monetary values. The royal treasury went practically bankrupt; and the peasants suffered enormous economic strain.

Daewon'gun's worst political achievement was exclusion policy.

Daewon'gun did not see the only way to fight off the superpowers was to build an industrialized country, which Japan did, even though that meant great change in many aspects of the society. Instead of opening the country, he tried to shut down all the borders, minimize any contact with foreigners, and condemned Japan of 'turning into Western barbarians'.

But Daewon'gun was not a ridiculous obsolete man who simply denied what was happening around the world. He was an able politician according to the contemporary standards. We have to keep in mind that his entire upbringing was based on strict Confucian teachings, and the Korean government, before Daewon'gun's reign, had almost no contact with the Western nations. And Daewon'gun considered western influence detrimental to the society - thus according to his logic, Korea had to stay away from the west. 

To Daewon'gun, two major events validated his conclusion. At that time Catholicism was spreading in alarming rate: and Catholics' refusal to perform ancestor worship/reverence ceremony was downright denial of Confucianism, the very philosophy the Korean society had been built on. In 1866, Daewon'gun ordered mass execution of Catholics, including nine French priests. Father Ridel, who survived this persecution, escaped to China and requested retaliation to Commodore Roze, also French. Roze led his fleet to Kanghwa Island and the battle between French navy and Korean navy ensued. The Korean navy won; Roze went back to France.

http://www2.kongju.ac.kr/srcho/map/kanghwa.jpg

Kanghwa island, located in Yellow Sea. Lower Han River leads to Seoul, Korea's capital.

Then in 1868, a German merchant Oppert vandalized Daewon'gun's father's tomb in search for artifacts after Daewon'gun did not let him trade in Korea. Although Oppert could not find anything valuable in Daewon'gun's father's tomb, he retreated to his ship and then demanded Daewon'gun to stop persecuting Christians. Daewon'gun was furious. Oppert had confirmed Daewon'gun's belief that Europeans were indeed "barbarians."

The western countries had not paid much attention to Korea while they dealt with China and Japan. But few merchant ships from the US and France did try to enter Korea a number of times, only to be rebuffed by Korean officials at the port. When an American ship General Sherman sailed to Korea and never came back, the US sent the warship Wachusett to Korea in retaliation(1867). This was beginning of a series of small foreign military invasions.

Surprisingly, Korean navy fought off all the western ships which were armed with modern technology. Daewon'gun rejoiced and interpreted these small victories as a proof the western superpowers could be warded off easily by violent measures. But Korea's victories owed to the simple fact that western countries had not sent a whole fleet of warships since Korea was of little importance to them.

Exclusion policy was popular among the conservative crowds and peasants, who learned of how China suffered from the Western influence. Western technology and science, imported from China in 17th century, had been respected so far; but the example of Opium War and Christianity which opposed the core of Confucianism turned people hostile to Western powers.

Meanwhile, Japan was growing as a major Asian power, and perceived the conquest of Korea as a necessity in order to conquer China. Korea would also make a good market for their manufactured goods as well. They devised a plan strikingly similar to one Perry used to open up Japan. In 1875, Japanese government sent a battleship Unyo to Kanghwa island. The crew landed on the island "to get drinking water" without permission. The guards fired; Armed clashes followed.

Then the ships sailed to Busan, the port in the southern tip of the peninsula. Six naval vessels and Japanese envoy arrived as well. The victorious Japanese demanded a negotiation to Korean government. As a result Kanghwa Treaty was signed - which allowed Japan to conduct economic activities without any interference of Korean governments in three ports and any Japanese in Korea to have extraterritoriality. Japan now had set up a foundation to take over Korean economy. This treaty also drew attentions of the western powers, who noticed Japan's sudden emergence in Asia.

Korea could no longer pretend to be the hermit nation. 
And this is where Queen Min, Daewon'gun's daughter-in-law, enters the story.