History of the Joseon Dynasty

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This article explain about the History of Joseon Dynasty Korea.

Rise to prominence[edit]

By the late 14th century, the 400 year-old Goryeo Dynasty established by Wang Geon in 918 was tottering, its foundations collapsing from years of war and de facto occupation from the disintegrating Mongol Empire. The legitimacy of Goryeo itself was also becoming an increasingly disputed issue within the court, as the ruling house failed to not only govern the kingdom effectively, but was also supposedly tarnished by generations of forced intermarriage with the Yuan Dynasty and rivalry amongst the various family branches (even King U's mother was a known commoner, thus leading to rumors disputing his descent from King Gongmin). Within the kingdom, influential aristocrats, generals, and even prime ministers struggled for royal favor and domination of the court, resulting in deep division among various factors. With the ever-increasing number of raids conducted by Wokou and the invasions of the Red Turbans, those who came to dominate the royal court were the reformed-minded Sinjin aristocracy and the opposing Gwonmun aristocracy, as well as generals who could actually fight off the foreign threats; namely a talented general named Yi Seong-gye and his rival Choe Yeong.

Following the wake of the Ming Dynasty under the charismatic Zhu Yuanzhang (the Hongwu Emperor), the royal court in Goryeo split into two conflicting factions: the group led by General Yi (supporting the Ming Dynasty) and the camp led by General Choe (standing by the Yuan Dynasty). When a Ming messenger came to Goryeo in 1388 (the 14th year of King U) to demand the return of a significant portion of Goryeo’s northern territory, General Choe seized the chance and argued for the invasion of the Liaodong Peninsula (Goryeo claimed to be the successor of the ancient kingdom of Goguryeo; as such, restoring Manchuria as part of Korean territory was part of its foreign policy throughout its history). A staunchly opposed Yi was chosen to lead the invasion; However, at Wuihwa Island on the Yalu River, he revolted and traveled back to Gaegyeong (modern-day Gaeseong and the capital of Goryeo), proceeding to eliminate General Choe and his followers and initiating a coup d'état, overthrowing King U in favor of his son, King Chang (1388). He later killed King U and his son after a failed restoration and forcibly placed a royal named Yo on the throne (he became King Gongyang). After indirectly enforcing his grasp on the royal court through the puppet king, Yi then proceeded to ally himself with the Sinjin aristocracy such as Jeong Do-jeon and Jo Jun. One of his first acts as the de facto generalissimo of Goryeo was to pass the Gwajeon Law, which effectively confiscated land from the land-wealthy and generally conservative Gwonmun aristocrats and redistributed it among Yi's supporters in the Sinjin camp. In 1392 (the 4th year of King Gongyang), Yi's fifth son, Yi Bang-won, after failing to win over a noteworthy aristocrat named Jeong Mong-ju, a supporter of the old dynasty, to swear allegiance to the new reign, had the noble killed by the five assassins including Jo Yeong-gyu at Seonjuk Bridge near Gaegyeong, eliminating a key figure in the opposition to Yi Seonggye's rule. That same year, Yi dethroned King Gongyang, exiled him to Wonju, and ascended the throne. The Goryeo Dynasty had come to an end after almost 500 years of rule.

Elimination of the Vestiges of Goryeo[edit]

King Taejo's portrait.

In the beginning of his reign, Yi Seonggye, now King Taejo, intended to continue use of the name Goryeo for the country he ruled and simply change the royal line of descent to his own, thus maintaining the façade of continuing the 500 year-old Goryeo tradition. However, after numerous threats of mutiny from the drastically weakened but still influential Gwonmun nobles, who continued to swear allegiance to the remnants of the Goryeo Dynasty, now the demoted Wang clan, and the overall atmosphere in the reformed court that a new dynastic title was needed to signify the change, he declared a new dynasty in 1393 under the name of Joseon (meaning to revive an older dynasty also known as Joseon, founded previously) and renamed the country the "Kingdom of Great Joseon", although it came to be simply referred to, even by historians today, by the title of its ruling house.

With the declaration of the new royal house were voiced concerns of what solution to apply to the remaining descendants of the deposed Wang family. King Taejo and his officials especially felt that if the legitimacy of their rule was ever questioned by the remaining members of the Goryeo Dynasty, they might have to suppress a mass rebellion or even risk the loss of the recently gained throne. In the end, Taejo had his prime minister Jeong Do-jeon summon all of the Wang family members to the coast of the Yellow Sea and instruct them to board a ship bound for Ganghwa Island, where they were to supposedly live quietly out of the sight of the government. However, the entire ploy was a trap, and a pre-instructed crew member on board smashed a hole in the hull as soon as the ship had entered sufficiently deep waters. The ship sank, and the last of the Goryeo Dynasty were lost by drowning. According to an urban legend, after the fate of the Wang family members gullible enough to board the doomed ship reached their relatives on the mainland, most of them changed their surnames from Wang (王) to Ok (玉) by adding an extra brush stroke and thus hiding their true descent.

After the demise of the last portions of the Goryeo Dynasty came calls for a new capital. Although Gaegyeong had served well as the seat of government for over 400 years, it was already something of a tradition for new dynasties in Korea to move their capitals to a new location considered fortuitous according the Chinese feng-shui philosophy of geomancy. Gaegyeong had also long since considered to have lost its share of energy to maintain any kind of permanent capital. As a result, three sites were officially brought into consideration: the foot of Mt. Gyeryong and the cities of Muak and Hanyang. The location near Mt. Gyeryong was quickly rejected after some time due to its relatively rough terrain and lack of convenient communication, while the site at Muak was seriously considered before it was decided by King Taejo that Hanyang was the most fitting candidate for the new capital. Hanyang outranked its rivals in various aspects; not only was it was easily accessible from sea and land, and geographically the center of the Korean Peninsula, but the fertile Han River valley on which the ancient city was situated historically had been the most contested region between the Three Kingdoms of Korea. For centuries, Hanyang had also been argued to be blessed, and Korean geomancers claimed the city was occupying a sacrosanct place flowing with geomantic energy. Hanyang was also conformed to Sino-Korean tradition; it had a larger mountains in the north and a smaller mountains in the south for defense, while in between there was a large plain, and thus the city would fit the customary north-south axis. In 1394, Hanyang was declared the new capital and formally renamed "Hanseong". That year, the foot of Mt. Bugak was chosen for the foundation of the main palace. Development and construction of the entire city and its complicated system of avenues, gates, walls, civilian residences, educational facilities, government buildings, and five main palace complexes began in 1394 as well. The official royal residence Gyeongbok Palace was completed in 1395, while the less important Changdeok Palace was completed in 1405. Other royal palaces followed suit, and by the end of the first half of the 15th century all of the capital had been completed and was in working order.

Early strife[edit]

King Taejo had two wives, who sired sons. His first wife, Queen Sineui, who predeceased him, prior to the overthrowing of Goryeo, had given birth to six sons. Taejo's wife upon ascension to the throne, Queen Sindeok, had two sons as well. When the new dynasty was promulgated and officially brought into existence, Taejo brought up the issue of which son would be his successor. Although Taejo's fifth son by Queen Sineui, Yi Bang-won, had contributed most to assisting his father's rise to power, he harbored a profound hatred against two of his father's key allies in the court, the prime minister Jeong Do-jeon and Nam Eun. Both sides were fully aware of the mutual animosity that existed between each other and constantly felt threatened. When it became clear that Yi Bang-won was the most worthy successor to the throne, Jeong Do-jeon used his influence on the king to convince him that the wisest choice would be in the son that Taejo loved most, not the son that Taejo felt was best for the kingdom. In 1392, the eighth son of King Taejo (the second son of Queen Sindeok), Grand Prince Uian (Yi Bang-seok) was appointed Prince Royal, or successor to the throne. After the sudden death of the queen, and while King Taejo was still in mourning for his second wife, Jeong Do-jeon conspired to pre-emptively kill Yi Bang-won and his brothers to secure his position in court. In 1398, upon hearing of this plan, Yi Bang-won immediately revolted and raided the palace, killing Jeong Do-jeon, his followers, and the two sons of the late Queen Sindeok. This incident became known as the First Strife of Princes.

Aghast at the fact that his sons were willing to kill each other for the crown, and psychologically exhausted from the death of his second wife, King Taejo immediately crowned his second son Yi Bang-gwa, later King Jeongjong, as the new ruler. Soon after, he departed to the northern city of Hamhung.

One of King Jeongjong's first acts as monarch was to revert the capital to Kaeseong, where he is believed to have been considerably more comfortable. Meanwhile, Yi Bang-won, not in the least bit discouraged by the fact that his elder brother held the throne, began plotting to be established as Royal Prince Successor, the traditional title for brothers appointed as heir-presumptives to the throne when the incumbent had no issue. However, Yi Bang-won's plans were opposed by Taejo's fourth son Yi Bang-gan, who also yearned for power. In 1400, the tensions between Yi Bang-won's faction and Yi Bang-gan's camp escalated into an all-out conflict that came to be known as the Second Strife of Princes. In the aftermath of the struggle, the defeated Yi Bang-gan was exiled to Tosan, while those who urged him to battle against Yi Bang-won were executed. Thoroughly intimidated, King Jeongjong immediately invested Yi Bang-won as heir presumptive and voluntarily abdicated. That same year, Yi Bang-won assumed the throne of Joseon at long last as King Taejong. In 1401, Joseon Dynasty had officially been admitted to enter into a tributary relationship with Ming Dynasty of China.

In the beginning of Taejong's reign, the Grand King Former, Taejo, refused to relinquish the royal seal that signified the legitimacy of any king's rule. Uncomfortable at the fact that his father did not recognize him as a de jure ruler for the family deaths he caused, Taejong sent several messengers, among them his childhood friend Bak Sun, to recover the royal seal. However, Taejo assassinated every messenger that came into sight of his guards as a sign of his fury at Taejong, who continued to remain unaware of their fates. This episode became known as the Case of the Hamhung Envoys, and the term "Hamhung envoy" is still used in the Korean language today to refer to a person who has gone on an assignment and has not yet been heard from.

Initial Consolidation of Power[edit]

With his father unwilling to pass over the royal seal he needed for recognition, Taejong began to initiate policies he believed would prove his intelligence and right to rule. One of his first acts as king was to abolish the privilege enjoyed by the upper echelons of government and the aristocracy to maintain private armies. His revoking of such rights to field independent forces effectively severed their ability to muster large-scale revolts, and drastically increased the number of men employed in the national military.

Taejong's next act as king was to revise the existing legislation concerning the taxation of land ownership and the recording of state of subjects. Although many aristocrats who benefited from King Taejo's laws redistributing property from the Gwonmun aristocrats to the members of the Sinjin faction managed to avoid taxation by deliberately hiding land they acquired, King Taejong's re-investigation of land ownership in 1405 put an end to such practices. With the discovery of previously hidden land, national income increased twofold. In addition, King Taejong initiated the first population survey in 1413 and ordered the documentation of family names/clans, places of birth/death, and the dates of birth/death for all Korean male subjects. All males over the legal age of sixteen, whichever class in society they occupied, were also required by law to carry wooden tablets on which their name, birth date, and other information was engraved. Many historians regard this legislation as the predecessor of the Korean resident identification and social security system. Taejong's new law regarding the documentation of males was also effective in preventing men from evading the mandatory military draft service.

Geunjeongjeon (Throne Hall).

In 1399 (the 2nd year of King Jeongjong), Taejong had played an influential role in scrapping the Dopyeong Assembly, a council of the old government administration that held a monopoly in court power during the waning years of the Goryeo Dynasty, in favor of the State Council of Joseon, a new branch of central administration that revolved around the king and his edicts. After passing the subject documentation and taxation legislation, King Taejong issued a new decree in which all decisions passed by the Euijeong Department could only come into effect with the approval of the king. This ended the custom of court ministers and advisors in making decisions through debate and negotiations amongst themselves and with the king only as an onlooker, and thus, through the implication of the king in the actual administration of Korea, brought royal power to new heights. Shortly afterward, Taejong also installed a branch of the government, known as the Sinmun Office, to receive cases in which aggrieved subjects felt that they had been exploited or unfair actions had been taken against them by government officials or aristocrats.

In August 1418, following Taejong's abdication two months earlier, Sejong ascended the throne. However, Taejong still retained certain powers at court particularly regarding military matters until he died in 1422. King Sejong was an effective military planner. In May 1419, King Sejong, under the advice and guidance of his father Taejong, embarked upon the Gihae Eastern Expedition to remove the nuisance of Japanese pirates who had been operating out of Tsushima. Before Gihae expedition, Korea used to clear the island of Wokou pirates in 1389 and 1396.

In September 1419 the Daimyo of Tsushima, Sadamori, capitulated to the Joseon court. In 1443, The Treaty of Gyehae was signed, in which the Daimyo of Tsushima was granted rights to conduct trade with Korea in fifty ships per year, in exchange for sending tribute to Korea and aiding to stop any Japanese coastal pirate raid on Korean ports.[1][2][3][4]

On the northern border, Sejong established four forts and six posts (hangul: 사군육진 hanja: 四郡六鎭) to safeguard his people from the hostile Chinese and Jurchens (lwho later became the Manchus) living in Manchuria. In 1433, Sejong sent Kim Jong-seo (Korean: 김종서; Hanja: 金宗瑞), a prominent general, north to destroy the Jurchens. Kim's military campaign captured several castles, pushed north, and restored Korean territory, roughly the present-day border between North Korea and China.[5]

During the rule of Sejong, Korea saw technological advances in natural science, Agriculture, literature, traditional medicine etc. Because of his success, Sejong was credited the title "King Sejong the Great of Joseon". The most remember contribution of King Sejong is the creation of Hangeul (the Korean alphabet) in 1443. Prior to Hangeul, all of the Korean literati used the Hanja writing system, which were traditional Chinese characters with Korean pronunciation and meaning, and used a written language known as Hanmun, which was basically Classical Chinese, for official court documents. Everyday written use of Hanja and Hanmun eventually came to end slowly in the latter half of the 20th century.

Six martyred ministers[edit]

After King Sejong's death, his son Munjong continued his father's legacy but soon died of illness in 1452, two years after becoming the king. After his son Danjong became the king at the age of twelve, his uncle Sejo gained control of the government and eventually deposed his nephew to become the seventh king of Joseon himself in 1455. After six ministers loyal to Danjong attempted to assassinate Sejo to return Danjong to the throne, Sejo executed the six ministers and also killed Danjong in his place of exile. Despite having snatched the throne from his young nephew, Sejo proved himself one of the most able rulers like Taejong. He strengthened the administrative system, enabling the government to determine exact population numbers and to mobilize troops effectively. He also revised the land ordinance to improve the national economy and encouraged publication of books. Most importantly, he compiled the Grand Code for State Administration, which became the cornerstone of dynastic administration and provided the first form of constitutional law in a written form in Korea.

After Sejo, his weak son Yejong became the eighth king, but died two years later in 1469, when Yejong's nephew Seongjong ascended the throne. His reign was marked by the prosperity and growth of the national economy and the rise of neo-Confucian scholars called Sarim, who were encouraged by Seongjong to enter the court politics. He established Hongmungwan (홍문관, 弘文館), the royal library and advisory council composed of Confucian scholars, with whom he discussed philosophy and government policies. He ushered in cultural golden age that rivaled King Sejong's reign by publishing numerous books on geography, ethics, and other various fields. He also sent several military campaigns against the Jurchens to stabilize the northern border.

Literati purges[edit]

Seongjong's son Yeonsangun is often considered the worst tyrant in Joseon dynasty, whose reign was marked by a series of bloody purges of neo-Confucian scholars between 1498 and 1506. His behaviors became erratic after he learned that his biological mother was not Queen Jung-hyeon but deposed Consort Yoon, who was forced to drink poison after poisoning one of Seongjong's concubines out of jealousy and leaving a scratch mark on Seongjong's face. When he was shown a piece of clothing that was allegedly stained with his mother's blood vomited after drinking poison, he beat to death two of Seongjong's concubines who accused Consort Yoon and pushed Grand Queen Insu, who died afterward. He executed government officials who supported Consort Yoon's death along with their families. He also executed Sarim scholars for writing phrases critical of Sejo's usurpation of throne. He also seized a thousand women from the provinces to serve as palace entertainers and appropriated the Seonggyungwan, Royal University, as a personal pleasure ground. He abolished Office of Censors, whose function was to criticize inappropriate actions and policies of the king, and Hongmungwan. He banned the use of hangul when the common people criticized the king with posters written in hangul. After twelve years of misrule, he was finally deposed in a coup that placed his half-brother Jungjong on the throne in 1506.

Jungjong was a fundamentally weak king because of the circumstances that placed him on the throne, but his reign also saw a period of significant reforms led by his minister Jo Gwang-jo, the charismatic leader of Sarim scholars. He established local self-government system called Hyang'yak to strengthen local autonomy and communal spirit among people, sought to reduce gap between the rich and poor with a land reform that would distribute land to farmers more equally and limit amount of land and number of slaves that one could own, promulgated Confucian writings among the populace widely with vernacular translations, and sought to trim the size of government by reducing the number of bureaucrats. According to Annals of Joseon Dynasty, it was said that no official dared to receive a bribe or exploit the populace during this time because he applied law strictly as Inspector General. These radical reforms were very popular with the populace but were fiercely opposed by the conservative officials who helped to put Junngjong on the throne. They plotted to cause Jungjong to doubt Jo's loyalty by writing "Jo will become the king" (주초위왕, 走肖爲王) with honey on leaves so that caterpillars left behind the same phrase as if in supernatural manifestation. Jo Gwang-jo was executed, and most of his reform measures died with him in the resulting Third Literati Purge of 1519. For nearly fifty years afterward, the court politics was marred by bloody and chaotic struggles between factions backing rival consorts and princes. In-laws of the royal family wielded great power and contributed to much corruption of the era.

Factional struggle[edit]

Main article: Sarim

The Sarim faction, which suffered a series of political defeats during the reign of Yeonsangun, Jungjong, and Myeongjong gained the control of the government in Seonjo's reign, but soon was split into Western faction and Eastern faction, which in turn split into Northern and Southern factions. Western faction also eventually split into Old Learning and New Learning factions. The change in power between these factions were often accomplished with charges of treason and were accompanied with bloody purge, initiating a cycle of revenge with each change of power.

One example is Gichuk Treason Case of 1589 (기축옥사), in which Easterner Jeong Yeo-rip was accused of conspiracy to start rebellion. Jeong Yeo-rip had formed a society with group of supporters that also received military training to fight against the Japanese marauders. There is still a dispute about the nature and purpose of his group, which reflected desire for classless society and spread throughout Honam region. Jeong Cheol, head of the Western faction, was in charge of investigating the case and used this event to effect widespread purge of Easterners who had slightest connection with Jeong Yeo-rip. Eventually 1,000 Easterners were killed or exiled in the aftermath.

Early Japanese invasions[edit]

The Turtle ship. The historical existence of the ironclad roof is disputed.[6][7][8]
Admiral Yi Sunsin.

Throughout Korean history, there were Japanese pirates attacks on both the sea and land as many as 529 time in Goryeo period, and 312 time in Joseon Dynasty period. The only purpose for the Koreans running a navy was to secure the maritime trade against the Japanese pirates. The Korean navy maintained superiority over the pirates by using an advanced form of gunpowder technologies (i.e. cannons, fire arrows in form of Singijeon deployed by Hwacha, etc.).

During Japanese invasions of Korea (1592-1598), Japanese warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi, with the ambition to conquer Ming China with the Portuguese guns, invaded Korea with his daimyō and their troops in 1592 and 1597. Factional division in the Joseon court, inability to assess Japanese military capability, and failed attempts at diplomacy led to poor preparation on Joseon's part. The use of European firearms by the Japanese left most of the southern peninsula occupied within months, with both Pyongyang and Hanseong (present-day Seoul) captured. According to the Annals of Joseon Dynasty, the Japanese were joined by rebelling Korean slaves, who burned down the palace of Gyeongbokgung and its storehouse of slave records.[9]

Local resistance, however, slowed down the Japanese advance and decisive naval victories by Admiral Yi Sun-sin left control over sea routes in Korean hands, severely hampering Japanese supply lines. Furthermore, Ming China intervened on the side of the Koreans, sending a large force in 1593 which pushed back the Japanese together with the Koreans. During the war, Koreans developed powerful firearms and high-quality gunpowder and the Turtle ships.

The Joseon and Ming forces defeated the Japanese, who retreated back to their homeland, but victory came at a deep price. Farmlands were devastated, irrigation dikes were destroyed, villages and towns were burned down; the population was first plundered and then dispersed, and tens of thousands of skilled workers (celadon ware makers, craftsmen, artisans, etc.) were either killed during the war or kidnapped to Japan as captives to help Japanese develop their crafts. The Japanese also pilfered many thousands of Joseon historical and royal artifacts, many of which are preserved in Japanese museums.

In 1598, Japanese withdrawal of their troops in Korea due to the fact that death of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. As the Japanese retreated, Admiral Yi Sun-sin ordered a vigorous pursuit to the their enemy. However, Yi was killed by a single bullet in the Battle of Noryang on December 16, 1598.

In result of the wars, Japanese took the ears and noses of some 38,000 Koreans as trophies (a common samurai practice) and built the monument Mimizuka in Kyōto. The long war reduced the productive capacity of farmlands from 1,708,000 kyol (land unit) to 541,000 kyol. Following the war, relations between Korea and Japan had been completely suspended. Japan was cut off from the technology of continental Asia. After the death of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, however, negotiations between the Korean court and the Tokugawa shogunate were carried out via the Japanese lord on Tsushima.

In 1604, Tokugawa Ieyasu, needing to restore commercial relations with Korea in order to have access to the technology of the mainland again, met Korea's demands and released some 3,000 captive Koreans. As a result, in 1607, a Korean mission visited Edo, and diplomatic and trade relations were restored on a limited basis.

Manchu invasions[edit]

Following these events the Korean Kingdom became increasingly isolationist. Its rulers sought to limit contact with foreign countries. In addition, the Ming Dynasty was weakened, partly because of the war in Korea against Japan, which led to the establishment of the new Qing Dynasty. The Koreans decided to build tighter borders, exert more controls over inter-border traffic, and wait out the initial turbulence of the Manchu overthrow of the Ming.

Despite these limits, Korea had extensive trade with Mongolia, Northern Asia, China, and Japan. However, at times trade with Japan was limited to missions appointed by the king in order to prevent piracy and conduct orderly trade, which had been a problem even in the Goryeo Period.

Korea suffered from two invasions by the Manchus, in 1627 (see the First Manchu invasion of Korea) and 1637 (see the Second Manchu invasion of Korea). Korea surrendered to the Manchus and became a tributary state of Qing dynasty, which at this time involved two way trade missions with China. This decision affected Korea since China was Korea's main trading partner.

Faction politics[edit]

Throughout the Dynasty, various regional and ideological factions struggled for dominance of the political system. The factions evolved and shifted with the generations. In the earliest years of Joseon, tension between the capital faction and the Yeongnam-based Sarim faction predominated. Village Seowon, which combined the function of Confucian shrines with educational institutions, often reflected the factional alignment of the local elites. In areas where the Western faction predominated, key figures of Westerner thought such as were enshrined. In the 16th century, a nationwide split occurred between the Eastern faction (Dong-in) and Western factions (Seo-in). The Eastern faction in turn split under the reign of Seonjo between the hard-line Northern faction (Buk-in) and the moderate Southern faction (Nam-in).[10] The Western faction later split in its turn, between the Old Learning (Noron) and the Young Learning (Soron).

These factional splits were often driven by questions of royal succession or appropriate royal conduct. For example, the split between the Northerners and Southerners was driven by questions involving the proper successor to Seonjo, who had no legitimate son. The Northerners came to support the Gwanghaegun; accordingly, they flourished under his reign (1608–1623) but were swept from power by the Westerners after the succession of Injo.

Under the reigns of Yeongjo and Jeongjo in the 18th century, the kings pursued a strict politcy of equality, favoring no faction over another.[11] However, in Jeongjo's reign strife re-emerged between the Byeokpa and Sipa, two groups which cut across the earlier factions and differed in their attitudes towards Yeongjo's murder of his son, who was also Jeongjo's father. In the 19th century, the playing field shifted once more, and in-law families rather than scholarly factions came to dominate the throne. For most of the 19th century, the Jangdong branch of the Andong Kim clan was in control of the government; however, there was a brief interlude in which control shifted to the Pungyang Jo clan.

When Heungseon Daewongun's reign, Faction politics started declining and completely disappeared in the 19th century.

Late Joseon period[edit]

After invasions from Manchuria, Joseon experienced a nearly 200-year period of peace. King Yeongjo and King Jeongjo led a new renaissance of the Joseon dynasty. King Sukjong and his son King Yeongjo tried to solve the problems resulting from faction politics. Tangpyeong's policy was to effectively freeze the parties' disputes.

Yeongjo's grandson, King Jeongjo made various reforms throughout his reign, notably establishing Kyujanggak, an imperial library. However, its purpose was to improve the cultural and political position of Joseon and to recruit gifted officers to run the nation. King Jeongjo also spearheaded bold new social initiatives, opening government positions to those who would have previously been barred because of their social status. King Jeongjo had the support of the many Silhak scholars, and in addition the Silhak scholars supported Jeongjo's regal power. King Jeongjo's reign also saw the further growth and development of Joseon's popular culture.

During the 1800s, drought and floods alternately struck rice fields and farms in Korea and caused great famines. Making the matter worse, the Joseon rulers increased taxes on farm crops and forced more free labor on the starving peasants. Anti-government and anti-landlord sentiment boiled over into violent uprisings.

In 1812, Hong Gyeong-nae led the peasants of Gasan in the northern part of Korea into an armed rebellion and occupied the region for several months. An army was sent to quell the rebellion and only after a savage scorched-earth campaign, the revolt was put down. All over Korea, all the way to Jeju Island, peasants continued to defy the king and ministers in Seoul, as well as the local nobility and wealthy landlords. In 1862, A group of farmers in Jinju, Gyeongsang province, rose up against their oppressive provincial officials and the wealthy landowners. This uprising was the result of the exploitation of destitute farmers by the local landlords. The whole of Joseon was plunged in confusion, while Choe Je-u (최제우, 崔濟愚, 1824–1894) established the ideology of Donghak (Eastern Learning) in the 1860s. Roman Catholicism was introduced in this period, but Christianity in Korea, in all its forms (Catholic and non-Catholic), were brutally oppressed by the Joseon government until the late 1880s.

In 1863, King Gojong took the throne. His father, Regent Heungseon Daewongun, ruled for him until Gojong reached adulthood. Daewongun is also largely held to be responsible for the brutal suppression of Christianity in Korea during his regency.

During the mid-1860s he was the main proponent of isolationism and the instrument of the persecution of native and foreign Catholics, a policy that led directly to the French Campaign against Korea, 1866. The early years of his rule also witnessed a large effort to restore the largely dilapidated Gyeongbok Palace, the seat of royal authority. During Heungseon Daewongun's reign, faction politics and power wielded by the Andong Kim clan completely disappeared.

In 1873, King Gojong announced his direct royal rule. With the subsequent retirement of Heungseon Daewongun, the to-be Queen Min (later called Empress Myeongseong) gained complete control over her court, placing her family in high court positions.

Western intervention[edit]

The French campaign against Korea of 1866 is also known as Byeonginyangyo (Korean: 병인양요, Western Disturbance of the byeong-in year [1866]). It refers to the French occupation of Ganghwa Island in Korea in retaliation for the earlier execution by Korea of French Jesuit priests prosletyzing illicitly in that country. The encounter, which lasted nearly six weeks, was the first armed encounter between Korea and a Western power. The overall result was a French retreat and a check on its influence in the region. The violent encounter also confirmed Korea in its isolationism for another decade.

The United States expedition to Korea in 1871 also known as Sinmiyangyo (Korean: 신미양요,Western Disturbance of the Sinmi year) was the first American military action in Korea. It took place predominantly on and around the Korean island of Ganghwa. The reason for the presence of the American military expeditionary force in Korea was to support an American diplomatic delegation sent to establish trade and diplomatic relations with Korea, to ascertain the fate of the General Sherman merchant ship, and to establish a treaty assuring aid for shipwrecked sailors. The conservative nature of the Joseon Dynasty government and the assertiveness of the Americans led to a misunderstanding between the two parties that changed a diplomatic expedition into an armed conflict. The United States won a minor military victory, but as the Koreans refused to open up the country to them (and the U.S. forces in Korea did not have the authority or strength to press the issue) the United States failed to secure their diplomatic objectives.

In 1875, the Unyo, a small Japanese warship, was dispatched to survey coastal waters without Korean permission. It attacked a Korean port and withdrew back to Japan. Taking this opportunity, the Japanese demanded a treaty. The Treaty of Ganghwa became the first unequal treaty signed by Korea; it gave extraterritorial rights to Japanese citizens in Korea, forced the Korean government to open three ports to Japanese and foreign trade, specifically Busan, Incheon and Wonsan, and made Korea establish its independence in foreign relations from China.


Early versions of the Korean flag.

In the 19th century tensions mounted between Qing China and Japan, culminating in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895). Much of this war was fought on the Korean peninsula. Japan, after the Meiji Restoration, acquired Western military technology, had forced Joseon to sign the Treaty of Ganghwa in 1876. Japan encroached upon Korean territory in search of fish, iron ore, and natural resources. It also established a strong economic presence in the peninsula, heralding the beginning of Japanese imperial expansion in East Asia.

Imo Rebellion and Gapsin Coup[edit]

Main articles: Imo Incident and Gapsin Coup

As the dynasty declined, the king began to rely on newer, rifle-using armies. They were paid well and the old army who used spears and old matchlocks lost much of their pay. The old army revolted after receiving mediocre wages. Heungseon Daewongun was restored to power, But the Qing general, Yuan Shikai soon had the Daewongun abducted by Chinese troops and taken to China, thus foiling his return to power. Four years later the Daewongun returned to Korea.

On December 4, 1884, 5 revolutionaries led a small anti-old minister army to Empress Myeongseong's brother's house and initiated a coup d'etat. It failed in 3 days. Some Coup leaders, indluding Kim Okgyun, fled to Japan, and others were executed.

Donghak Peasant Revolution[edit]

The Donghak Peasant Revolution was an anti-government, anti-yangban, and anti-foreign campaign.

The peasants demanded land distribution, tax reduction, democracy, and human rights. Taxes were so high that most farmers were forced to sell their ancestral homesteads to rich landowners at bargain prices. As a result, the peasant class developed intense anti-Japanese and anti-yangban sentiments. The rebellions' immediate cause was Jo Byong-gap, a government official whose rule was viewed by some as tyrannical and corrupt. On January 11, 1894, by peasant leader Jeon Bong-jun defeated the government forces at the battle of Go-bu, after the battle Jo's properties were handed out to the peasants. Meantime, the Joseon government army attacked Jeonju and both the Joseon government and the peasant army concluded an agreement. However the urgent Joseon government asked the Chinese Qing Dynasty government for assistance in ending the revolt. After notifying the Japanese in accordance with the Convention of Tientsin Qing sent troops into Korea. It was the catalyst for the First Sino-Japanese War.

In late June 1894, the pro-Japanese forces hatched a plan to wipe out the Peasant Army in co-operation with the Japanese troops stationed in Incheon and Seoul. On October 16, the Peasant Army moved toward Gongju for the final battle, which was a trap. The Japanese and the pro-Japanese government troops were in fact waiting for them inside.

The Donghak Army was defeated in the Battle of Ugeumchi. The Japanese had cannons and other modern weapons, whereas the Korean peasants were armed only with bows and arrows, spears, swords, and some flintlock muskets. A few months later, Jeon was captured and executed.

The revolution failed, but many grievances of the peasants would later be addressed through the Gabo Reform.

Eulmi Incident[edit]

Main article: Eulmi Incident

In 1895, Empress Myeongseong (referred to as "Queen Min" by the United States,[12] Japan) was directly assassinated by Japanese agents.[13] The Japanese minister to Korea, Miura Goro orchestrated the plot against her. A group of Japanese agents along with Hullyeondae Army.[13] entered the Royal palace in Seoul, which was under Japanese and Japanese agent was directly kill an Empress Myeongseong and her body desecrated in the North wing of the palace. The empress had attempted to counter Japanese interference in Korea and was considering turning to Russia or China for support. After the assassination of his consort.

Korean Empire[edit]

Main article: Korean Empire
Independence Gate established in 1896

The Chinese defeat in the 1894 war led to the Treaty of Shimonoseki between China and Japan, which officially guaranteed Korea's independence from its tributary status with China. It was a step for Japan to hold regional hegemony in Korea. After that, Korea built the Independence Gate and stopped paying tributes to the Qing Dynasty. The Joseon court, pressured by encroachment from larger powers, felt the need to reinforce national integrity and declared the Korean Empire in 1897. Emperor Gojong assumed the title of Emperor in order to assert Korea's independence. Also Emperor Gojong tried to promote the Gwangmu Reform, but it was failure because of unenlightened popular and Japanese.

In addition, other foreign powers were sought for military technology, especially Russia, to fend off the Japanese. Technically, 1897 marks the end of the Joseon period, as the official name of the empire was changed; however the Joseon Dynasty would still reign, albeit perturbed by Japanese interventions.

Japanese occupation[edit]

In a complicated series of manoeuvres and counter-manoeuvres, Japan pushed back the Russian fleet at the Battle of Port Arthur in 1905. With the conclusion of the 1904–1905 Russo-Japanese War with the Treaty of Portsmouth, the way was open for Japan to take control of Korea.

After the signing of the Protectorate Treaty in 1905, Korea became a protectorate of Japan. Itō Hirobumi was the first Resident-General of Korea, although he was assassinated by Korean independence activist An Jung-geun in 1909 at the train station at Harbin.

Following the Protectorate Treaty of 1905, Gojong sent representatives to the Hague Peace Convention of 1907 to try to re-assert his sovereignty over Korea. Although the Korean representatives were blocked by the Japanese delegates, they did not give up, and later held interviews with newspapers. Gojong was forced to abdicate by the Japanese and Gojong's son, Sunjong succeed to the throne.

In 1910, although many Koreans opposed the annexation, the Japanese Empire annexed Korea by force.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Pratt, Keith L.; Rutt, Richard; Hoare, James (September 1999). Korea. Routledge/Curzon. p. 594. ISBN 978-0-7007-0464-4. 
  2. ^ Yamamura, Kōzō; Hall, John Whitney (April 27, 1990). The Cambridge history of Japan 3. Cambridge University Press. p. 748. ISBN 978-0-521-22354-6. 
  3. ^ (Korean) 계해약조 癸亥約條Nate / Britannica
  4. ^ (Korean)계해조약 癸亥約條 Nate / Encyclopedia of Korean Culture
  5. ^ <<책한권으로 읽는 세종대왕실록>>(Learning Sejong Silok in one book) ISBN 978-89-01-07754-3.
  6. ^ Hawley, Samuel: The Imjin War. Japan's Sixteenth-Century Invasion of Korea and Attempt to Conquer China, The Royal Asiatic Society, Korea Branch, Seoul 2005, ISBN 978-89-954424-2-5, p.195f.
  7. ^ Turnbull, Stephen: Samurai Invasion. Japan’s Korean War 1592-98 (London, 2002), Cassell & Co ISBN 978-0-304-35948-6, p.244
  8. ^ Roh, Young-koo: "Yi Sun-shin, an Admiral Who Became a Myth", The Review of Korean Studies, Vol. 7, No. 3 (2004), p.13
  9. ^ 宣祖實錄二十五年 (1592) 五月壬戌 (May 3) "危亡迫至, 君臣之間, 何可有隱? 大抵收拾人心爲上。 近來宮人作弊。 內需司人, 假稱宮物, 而積怨於民。 今日生變之由, 皆緣王子宮人作弊, 故人心怨叛, 與倭同心矣。 聞賊之來也, 言: ‘我不殺汝輩, 汝君虐民, 故如此。’ 云我民亦曰: ‘倭亦人也, 吾等何必棄家而避也?’ 請誅內需司作弊人, 且免平安道積年逋欠。" "慶尙道人皆叛云, 然耶?"-The annals of the Choson Dynasty-National Institute of Korean History
  10. ^ Lee (1984), p. 221.
  11. ^ Lee (1984), p. 223.
  12. ^ Characteristics of Queen of Corea The New York Times Nov 10, 1895
  13. ^ a b Park Jong-hyo (박종효) (2002-01-01). 일본인 폭도가 가슴을 세 번 짓밟고 일본도로 난자했다 (in Korean) (508). Dong-a Ilbo. pp. 472–485.