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. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993*]

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 Pyongyang, 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 and Reformers in Late 19th Century Korea

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.

International Interest in Korea

As China declined and Japan emerged as a modernizing regional power in the late nineteenth century, Seoul began reforms in an effort to keep the foreign powers at bay. Nevertheless, in 1876 Japan imposed an unequal treaty on the Chosun court that opened three Korean ports to Japanese commerce and gave Japanese nationals extraterritorial rights. China’s influence over Korea came to a definitive end as a result of the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95. At the same time, a large peasant rebellion — led by Tonghak (Eastern Learning) Movement advocates — broke out, and the Chosun court invited in Chinese troops. [Source: Library of Congress, May 2005]

Although the Chosun leaders had no desire to open their ports, they finally acquiesced out necessity and to get their hands on money to modernize their kingdom. In 1876 the Japanese sent a warship that forced the Koreans to sign a treaty opening trade and diplomatic relations with Japan. Additional treaties followed in the 1880s, with the United States, Great Britain, Germany, Russia, France and others. In 1882 the Korea and the United States signed the Korean-American Treaty of Peace, Amity, Commerce and Navigation at Inchon. The United States pledge its “good offices” if Korea was threatened from abroad. The Korean king was said to have danced with delight when an American diplomat was assigned to Seoul.

The Protestant missionary Horace Underwood's published the first Korean/English dictionary in 1890. McCune and Reischauer came up with their system for Romanizing Korean in 1937. During the colonial period (1910-1945, English words that entered Korea came through Japanese. Among these were "apat" for apartment, "service," (dry) "cleaning," (night) "club" and "stamp."

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “Western missionaries, Protestants and Catholics, took up residence in Korea's main cities and towns, founding churches, starting schools, and building clinics and hospitals. A handful of brave Western investors put their money into Korean gold mines and railroad concessions. By the turn of the twentieth century, several Western countries had established a small stake in Korea. Their interests, however, were small compared with those of Japan.” [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

By 1900 the Korean Peninsula had become the focus of an intense rivalry between the foreign powers then seeking to carve out spheres of influence in East Asia. Japan and Russia sought to divide their interests in Korea by dividing the kingdom in two at the thirty-eighth parallel. Following the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05, in which Japan was victorious, Russia recognized Japan’s paramount rights in Korea. Unchallenged internationally, Japan turned Korea into its colony in 1910.

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: In 1875, a Japanese naval expedition to Korean shores set into motion a series of events that resulted in the “opening” of Chosun to increased exchange and interaction with foreign nations. After 1876, Chosun signed a series of treaties first with Japan and then with the major Western and regional powers (the United States, Russia, England, France, etc.). Formally, these treaties established Chosun/Korea as a “nation” like any other (rather than a state with a special tributary relationship with China), but in substance they accorded foreign nations new privileges within the peninsula and set the stage for a struggle among imperial and would-be imperial powers for control or influence over Korean affairs. Chosun’s king and other Korean leaders were often left to try to play foreign states off against one another. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University]

Japanese Inroads into Korea

The Japanese were the first foreign power in recent history to succeed in penetrating Korea's isolation. After a warlike Japanese provocation against Korea in 1875 (when China failed to come to Korea's aid), the Japanese forced an unequal treaty on Korea in February 1876. The treaty gave Japanese nationals extraterritorial rights and opened up three Korean ports to Japanese trade. In retaliation, China sought to counter Japan by extending Korea's external relations and playing off one Western power against another. Accordingly, Korea signed treaties with the United States, Britain, Italy, Russia, and other countries were signed within the decade after the one with Japan. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990*]

Internally, the Korean court split into rival pro-Chinese, pro-Japanese, and pro-Russian factions, the latter two having more reformist and modernizing orientations. In 1895 the Japanese minister to Korea masterminded the assassination of the Korean queen, who with her clan had opposed reform-oriented, Japanese-supported leaders. The Korean king, however, rejected not only Japan but also the various reform measures and turned for support to one of Japan's adversaries — Russia. The king fled to the Russian legation in Seoul to avoid possible Japanese plots against him and conducted the nation's business from there. The Japanese blunder had served the Russians well. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990*]

In the meantime, under the leadership of So Chae-p'il, who had exiled himself to the United States after participating in an unsuccessful palace coup in 1884, a massive campaign was launched to advocate Korean independence from foreign influence and controls. As well as supporting Korean independence, So also advocated reform in Korea's politics and customs in line with Western practices. Upon his return to Korea in 1896, So published Tongnip simmun (The Independent), the first newspaper to use the hangul writing system and the vernacular language, which attracted an ever-growing audience. He also organized the Independence Club to introduce Korea's elite to Western ideas and practices. Under his impetus and the influence of education provided by Protestant mission schools, hundreds of young men held mass meetings on the streets and plazas demanding democratic reforms and an end to Russian and Japanese domination. But the conservative forces proved to be too deeply entrenched for the progressive reformers who trashed the paper's offices. The reformers, including Syngman Rhee, then a student leader, were jailed. So was compelled to return to the United States in 1898, and under one pretext or another the government suppressed both the reform movement and its newspaper.

Tonghak Uprising (1894-1895)

Dissatisfaction among the generally population in the 19th century produced several peasant revolts. An uprising of unhappy miners in northwestern Korea nearly became a civil war. The revolt of 1894-95, known as the Tonghak Rebellion, had international repercussions. Like the Taiping rebels in China thirty years earlier, the Tonghak participants were fired by religious fervor as well as by indignation about the corrupt and oppressive government. The rebellion spread from the southwest to the central region of the peninsula, menacing Seoul. The Korean court apparently felt unable to cope with the rebels and invited China to send troops to quell the rebellion. This move gave Japan a pretext to dispatch troops to Korea. Japanese forces were sent in July with the dual mission of eliminating Chinese influence on the Korean Peninsula and laying the foundation for the eventual colonization of the country. The two countries soon engaged in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), which accelerated the demise of the Qing Dynasty in China. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990] Tonghak was founded by Ch’oe Cheu (1824-1864) in 1860. Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”:“ Ch'oe Che'u, found his way to advancement blocked by the fact that he was an illegitimate son, since the sons of parents who were not properly married were not allowed to take the all-important examinations that qualified men to be members of the yangban ruling class and to hold government office. He busied himself studying religion and philosophy and in 1860 he had a vision in which God ordered him to "save mankind."[Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000] “Ch'oe Che'u's religious ideas were an interesting mix of Chinese Taoism, Confucianism, and a smattering of shamanism and Christianity. As his movement developed it became known as Tonghak, or "Eastern Learning," to distinguish it from Catholicism, or "Western Learning" {Sohak), which at the time was seen as a threatening heresy. A basic belief of Tonghak was that common people have rights and should be their own rulers, a belief expressed in the slogan "Innaech'on," which means "People are Heaven," or, more accurately, "People are their own gods." Korea's Confucian rulers were offended not only by Ch'oe Che'u's audacious claim that people should rule themselves but also by his refutation of the Confucian idea of hierarchy and the whole system of social inequality that prevailed in traditional Korea. Government authorities hunted Ch'oe down and put an end to his teaching by arresting him and having him put to death in 1864.

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators, After Ch’oe Cheu was executed (as an alleged Catholic) in 1864, Ch’oe Sihyong (1827-1898) became leader of the religion. In 1894-1895, there was an uprising that swept Korea that was associated with Tonghak believers (the leader was a local Tonghak leader named Chon Pongjun [1854-1895]) and spread along Tonghak networks, though scholars continue to debate just how central the religious doctrines were to this event. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University]

“At the time of Ch’oe Cheu’s mystical revelation in 1860, Catholic doctrine and teachings, though illegal, were becoming known in Korea. In 1860, furthermore, British and French troops sacked Beijing, sending shock waves throughout East Asia. For many intellectuals, including Ch’oe (a down-on-his-luck literatus), Western religion and technological/military power were associated. Catholicism was known in Korea as Sohak, or “Western Learning”; therefore, Ch’oe titled his new religion, which sought the revitalization of Korea beginning with the spiritual, Tonghak or “Eastern Learning.” In documents from the Tonghak uprising, meanwhile, a broad set of concerns — social, political, nationalist, etc. — are evident. The historical meaning(s) of Tonghak have been debated for over a century by scholars who have highlighted different historical moments and different aspects of its reformist goals.”

Ch'oe Cheu, Tonghak Founder, on Learning Truth

Ch'oe Cheu, founder of the Tonghak religion, wrote in Learning Truth: “In April 1860 the whole world was in turmoil, and the hearts of the people turned evil. And a strange rumor spread in the world, saying: “The Westerners cultivated high ethics, and there is nothing they cannot do. There is no one who can stand before their attacking military power, and even China is being destroyed.” May we not suffer the same fate? Their Way is called the Western Way, their religion Christianity, and their teaching the Heavenly teaching. [Source: translated by Yong Choon Kim, Ch’oe Cheu on Learning Truth, from the “Ch’ondogyo kyongjon,” pp. 6.17, “Sources of Korean Tradition”, edited by Yong-ho Ch’oe, Peter H. Lee, and Wm. Theodore de Bary, vol. 2 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 232-234]

Could it be that they know the time of Heaven and received the Mandate of Heaven? To all of my feelings there seems no end. And as I was in fear and anxiety, I felt the terrible cold in my body. I then encountered the divine spirit, and, from within, I heard the revelatory voice. I looked, yet I could not see anyone; I listened, yet I could not hear. Therefore, I felt strange and mysterious. With attentive mind I asked, “How is it so?” God said: “My mind is your mind. How could men know it? They may know Heaven and earth, but they know not the spirit. Yet I am the spirit. Now you shall attain this eternal truth, cultivate it, write it, and teach it to all people. And you shall establish the law and publish it. Then you shall be immortal and shine all over the world.” After meditating and reflecting upon this for almost a year, I came to realize the principle of the universe. Hence, I wrote the incantation and the law of communion with God and composed the song of wisdom. The heart of truth is contained in the Incantation of Twenty.

One Letters.1 In the following year, 1861, many scholars and gentlemen came from everywhere andasked me, “We heard the heavenly spirit has descended upon you. How could it happen so?” I replied, “It happened according to the principle of change in the universal history.” They asked, “Then what is the name of the Way?” I said, “It is called the Heavenly Way (ch’ondo).” They asked, “Is it any different from the Western Way, from Christianity?” I replied, “The Western religion is similar to our religion but also different. They worship a ‘God’ who is not real. The forms of the truth may be similar, but their doctrines are really different.” They asked: “How is it so?” I said: “Our Way emphasizes accomplishing things through natural action. If one cultivates his mind, balances his energy, receives the divine teaching, and follows the divine nature, things will be accomplished naturally. But the Westerners have no order in their words and no pure concern for God. They pray really for their flesh, and they have no effective God. In their doctrine there is no real teaching of God. They have form, but no substance. They seem to think, but they have no incantation. Their way is vain, and their doctrine does not really deal with God. Thus, how can one say that there is no difference between our way and their way?” They asked: “You say there is similarity. Then would you call your way ‘the Western Learning’?” I replied: “Not so. I was born in the East and received the truth in the East. [1 The “Incantation of Twenty.One Letters,” important in Ch’ondogyo belief and ritual, reads: The Ultimate Energy here and now, I pray for its great descent. Serving God, I am transformed to follow the divine will. Eternally not forgetting, I become aware of all.]

Therefore, the Way is the Heavenly Way and the doctrine is the Eastern Learning (Tonghak). Moreover, since there is division of East and West in geography, how could one say West is East and East is West? Confucius was born in the state of Lu and spread his teaching in the state of Ch’u. Thus, the intellectual traditions of Lu and Ch’u spread in this world. Our way was raised in this land and will spread in this land. So how can one call it the Western Doctrine?” They asked: “What is the meaning of the incantation?” I replied: “It is the words of the highest reverence for God, and it may be called prayer. Its spirit may be found in other present and ancient writings.” They asked: “What do the words used in this incantation mean?” I answered: “The ‘Ultimate’ means nothing beyond; the ‘Energy’ is spiritual, infinite, pervades all things, and directs all things. It is formless and, therefore, difficult to describe. It seems sometimes that one can hear it, but it is hardly visible. It is the ultimate, original, One Energy of the universe. ‘Here and now’ means being initiated into the Way and coming in contact with the Ultimate Energy.

To ‘pray’ is to entreat. ‘Great descent’ means participation in the Ultimate Energy. ‘Serving’ means having the spirit within, experiencing the Ultimate Energy externally, and keeping what one has realized. ‘God’ must be venerated as one would serve one’s parents. To ‘transform’ means change without self.conscious effort. To ‘follow the divine will’ means incorporating God’s virtue and making up one’s mind. ‘Eternal’ means one’s life span. ‘Not forgetting’ means the constant preservation of thought. ‘All’ means innumerable things. ‘Becoming aware’ indicates realizing the truth and receiving wisdom. Therefore, if you fully comprehend God’s virtue and never forget it, you shall attain union with the Ultimate Energy, and you shall attain the supreme holiness.” They asked: “If God’s mind is man’s mind, why is it that good and evil coexist?” I said: “Although it is said that one’s nobility and baseness, one’s joy and suffering, are predestined, actually the virtue of the superior person is in harmony with the virtue of the universe because of his righteous mind and conduct, but the petty individual is in conflict with the will of the universe because of his unrighteous mind and conduct. Isn’t this really the principle of rise and fall?” …

Ah, how wonderful and how brilliant you are to ask such questions about the truth. My writings convey the right and true principle, and there is no other way by which one can become righteous in bodily, intellectual, and spiritual cultivation. All the precepts of the universe and the eternal truth are contained in my writing. Thus, my dear friends, receive my words reverently and uphold the holy virtue. Then you shall be to me like a delicious spice to food and beautiful color to mere whiteness. Now my joy in the truth is so exceedingly great that I have explained this and taught it to you. Therefore, consider this carefully and do not forget this profound truth.

Twelve Reforms Proclaimed by the Tonghak Overseer's Office

Twelve Reforms Proclaimed by the Tonghak Overseer's Office: [Source: Translated by Han.Kyo Kim, from the Tonghak sa, pp. 126.127, “Sources of Korean Tradition”, edited by Yong-ho Ch’oe, Peter H. Lee, and Wm. Theodore de Bary, vol. 2 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 232-234, 256-266]

1) The ill will that has long persisted between Tonghak believers and the government shall be eradicated. There should be cooperation in all aspects of governance. 2) Crimes committed by greedy and corrupt officials shall be investigated and severely punished. 3) The wrongdoers among the rich and powerful shall be severely punished.. 4) The wicked among the Confucian literati and the yangban class shall be ordered to mend their ways.

5) Slave registry documents shall be burned. 6) There shall be improvements in the treatment of the seven classes of lowborn (ch’ilban ch’onin), and butchers shall no longer be required to wear the “Pyongyang hat.” 7) A young widow shall be allowed to remarry. 8) Improper levies of sundry taxes shall be completely terminated.

9) In recruiting officials, regionalism shall be eliminated, and talented persons shall be appointed irrespective of their birthplace. 10) Persons who are in league with foreign enemies shall be severely punished. 11) All past debts, private or public, shall be declared null and void. 12) Farmland shall be equitably redistributed for cultivation.

Tonghak Uprising Gives Japan a Pretext to Enter Korea

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 Chosun; the only question was which imperial power would colonize Korea.

Sino-Japanese War

In the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), Japan easily defeated China in a war that would decide who would control the Korean peninsula. Known as the Jiawu War in China, the Sino-Japanese War lasted only a year. The decisive moment was the surprising defeat of the Chinese navy at the Battle of the Yalu River in 1894.Weakened by decades of foreign occupation, China was forced to sign a series of unequal treaties with Japan. The Treaty of Shimonoseki forced China to cede Taiwan and the Penghu Islands, pay a large indemnity, allow Japanese industry into four treaty ports and recognize Japan's hegemony over Korea (even though the Korean peninsula was officially granted the independence). China also ceded Port Arthur and the Liaotung peninsula in southern Manchuria to Japan.

Background of the war: Japan was the dominant power of Asia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Meiji reforms and the rise in Japanese military strength helped allow Japan to abolish foreign treaty rights and bypass China to become the leader in Asia. The origins of the war lay in the Korean question. In the Tientsin Convention of 1885 Japan and China had averted a war that had seemed probable by agreeing to withdraw their troops from Korea , where both parties had been building up sizeable contingents in Seoul , and by agreeing that if either country's future interests required intervention in Korea then the other country was to be forewarned and permitted to dispatch a comparable number of troops. [Source: Navy & Marine Living History Association, (NMLHA),]

A crisis was precipitated in 1894 when a leading pro-Japanese Korean political figure was assassinated in Shanghai with Chinese complicity. Prowar elements in Japan called for a punitive expedition, which the cabinet resisted. With assistance from several Japanese nationalistic societies, the illegal Tonghak (Eastern Learning) nationalistic religious movement in Korea staged a rebellion that was crushed by Chinese troops. Japan responded with force.

The Sino-Japanese War erupted in August 1894. In 1895, the Japanese virtually annihilated the Chinese navy in a single day, aided by their Chinese adversaries, whose first cannon shot of the war landed firmly on their own commanding admiral. After nine months of fighting, a cease-fire was called and peace talks were held.

Views of Independence and Development in Late 19th-Century Korea

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators, “Korean intellectuals took a variety of positions with respect to these developments, from rejection of foreign intercourse to enthusiasm for alliance with and emulation of outside forces, embrace of a pan-Asian alliance to counter Western imperialism, or a nationalist emphasis on Korean identity and unity. One important group, led by So Chaep’il (1866-1951; who had studied medicine in the United States under the name Philip Jaisohn), Yun Ch’iho (1865-1945), and others, launched an important bilingual (Korean/English) newspaper in 1896, The “Independent” (Tongnip sinmun), that provided patriotic editorial commentary on Korean affairs while emphasizing the nation and the development of Korea along a (new) civilizational scale. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University] Editorial on "Nation and Civilization" and Seoul’s Water Supply in the Independent (Tongnip Sinmun) from 1896 reads: One thing that should take a prominent place in the minds of those who wish well for Korea and are interested in her physical as well as moral well.being is the matter of a water supply for the city of Seoul. It is of more value than railroads for instead of saving money it saves life. A full supply of clean fresh waters is a sine qua non of health. You can estimate the grade of civilization of any people by the amount of water they use. Paris heads the list with seven gallons a day for each individual. It is probable that a quart a day would suffice for the average Korean while a pint would be oceans for the ordinary Chinese. [Source: The Independent (Tongnip sinmun), April 30, 1896]

The Japanese are said to be great lovers of water and so they are, but this is somewhat modified by the fact that so many of them are contented to take it second hand. That a good water supply for Seoul is a prime necessity the cholera report will show. The public wells here in vogue are centers of contamination and are responsible for very much of the mortality in times of pestilence.

In approaching the subject of a water supply for Seoul two or three things must be kept in mind or we get beyond the realm of the practical; first, that it must be on such a scale that the people can pay for it and will be willing to pay for it. We can roughly estimate the size of Seoul at 40,000 houses. It is said that on an average five hundred cash a month is paid, per house, for the bringing of water. Supposing we add a half on account of the superior advantages to be enjoyed and reckon that each house will pay 750 cash or thirty cents a month. It will then amount to US$3.60 a year, per house. The whole would then yield a revenue of US$144,000 a year. If the work should cost a million dollars we would here have enough to pay interest on the investment at 7 per cent and have US$74,010 left for running expenses and repairs.

There are two ways by which Seoul could be supplied with water; one by bringing it a long distance through pipes from some point up the Han river, and the other by building a reservoir in some such place as the valley outside the north.west gate where the powder mill was. Either of these methods would require expert surveys to prove their feasibility. The former would probably secure a steadier supply but at a very high cost while the other probably could be accomplished for half the money but at a risk of occasional shortage of water in specially dryseasons, because fed by a comparatively small stream. However, it will be necessary to consult the paying capabilities of the people and choice must be made of that method which while promising to be fairly successful, will come within the means of the metropolis.

Last Empress of the Chosun Dynasty

In 1895, Japan under the Meiji emperor was able to gain control over Korea when Japanese assassins murdered Queen Ja-Young Min, wife of the last Chosun monarch King Kojong. Queen Min was a both a fervent nationalist and major force behind the early modernization of Korea and the opening up Korea to the West. She urged her husband to oppose Japanese efforts to introduce political "reforms" and bring in large numbers of Japanese troops to "train" Korean troops.

The Japanese lost patience with Queen Min when she began courting Russia in attempt to wrestle Korea away from Japanese control. Guided by a traitorous servant, Japanese troops broke into the palace and murdered the queen in her here private chambers and burnt her body on a nearby hill. Ordinary Koreans were shocked: after centuries of isolation, their kingdom opened up to the outside world and this is what happens.

Queen Min inspired the 1997 Broadway musical The Last Empress, which the New York Times said was "magnificent...reminds theatergoers how satisfying real splendor can be. It was based on a novel by one of Korea’s most prominent novelists, Yi Moon-yol.

End Of Chosun Dynasty

King Kojong abdicated in 1907 and died in 1919. Members of the Yi royal family lived at Changbok Palace in Seoul until 1974. In 1966, Queen Yun died at Nakasonje, a walled compound within Changbok. Four years later, Yi Un, the last Crown Prince of Korea returned from Japan and died at Naksonje in 1974, marking the end of the Chosun Dynasty.

Under Japanese imperial pressure that began in earnest with Korea's opening in l876, the Chosun 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. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

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 Chosun 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.

Yi Ku, the Last Prince of the Chosun Dynasty

The last pure blood descendant of the Korean royal family, Prince Yi Kyu, received a degree in architecture from the M.I.T., worked for a while with I.M Pei in New York and married a girl from Pennsylvania named Julia Mullock. According to the Boston University School of Theology: “Yi Ku, the son of Crown Prince Yi Un and grandson of the Korean Emperor Kojong, studied architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1953 to 1957. If Korea had not fallen to the colonial rule of Japan in 1910, or if Korea had restored its monarchy after independence in 1945, Yi Ku would have ascended to the Korean throne. [Source: Boston University School of Theology]

“Yi Ku’s entire life reflected the distorted modern history of Korea. He was born in Tokyo, Japan, in 1931, when Korea was ruled by that country. His father, the Crown Prince Yi Un, was brought to Japan in 1907 and forced to marry a Japanese princess, Masako Nashimoto (also known by the Korean name, Yi Pangja), in 1920. Officially, this marriage was arranged by the Japanese Imperial Household Ministry to strengthen the ties between Korea and Japan by a royal marriage. There were widespread rumors, however, that she had been diagnosed to be barren and this marriage was arranged by the Japanese colonial government to end the Korean royal line. Nevertheless, Pangja gave birth to two sons, Chin and Ku. The first son, Yi Chin, born in 1921, died suddenly during a visit to Korea when he was only eight months old. The cause of death was ruled to be acute dyspepsia caused by milk, but there were widespread rumors that he had been poisoned. In her autobiography, Pangja raised these suspicions about the cause of her son’s death. She wrote, “The milk we gave the baby, to supplement breast feeding, might well be suspect, but could that milk be so poisonous as to cause a fatal condition in so short a time? If the milk was really bad, my baby should have been ill from the beginning of his stay in Korea.” Ten years later, the royal couple gave birth to their second son, Yi Ku, who would become the last official crown prince of the Korean royal family. Afraid of losing another child, Yi Ku’s parents never took him to Korea during their annual trips to pay homage to their ancestral tombs and to visit relatives.

“Growing up in Japan as a hostage, Prince Ku dreamed of studying abroad, but until the defeat of Japan in 1945, he was not allowed to leave that country. Even then, Yi Ku had a hard time obtaining a passport from the newly founded Republic of Korea. Syngman Rhee, the first president of the Republic of Korea, was reluctant to issue passports to Korean royalty living in Japan out of fear that they might spark a restoration movement. With the aid of Kim Yongjung, the Ambassador of the Republic of Korea to Japan, however, Yi Ku finally obtained a passport. According to some reports, it was issued on the condition that he would not act as a prince in the US. Whatever the case, Yi Ku departed for the U.S. on August 3, 1950, shortly after the start of the Korean War.

“It is not clear what high school he attended in the U.S, but Yi Ku enrolled at M.I.T. in 1953. While a student, he worked in a laundry to earn money. Raised in Japan as royalty, but not accorded royal status by his fellow Koreans, he found himself in an unusual position while in the U.S. According to Dr. Hesung Koh, students from Japan, where a constitutional monarchy was retained even after the defeat of World War II, would not bring clothes to Yi Ku out of respect for his royal status. Koreans, however, did not show him that same respect. While a student in the Boston area, he faced another difficulty when his passport expired and the Korean Embassy in the U.S. refused to renew it. This time with the help of Japanese and American friends in Boston, he became a permanent resident in the United States in November 1956. The unfavorable attitude of the Korean government to the fallen dynasty was also demonstrated when Yi Ku graduated from M.I.T. in 1957. At that time, the Korean government refused to issue a passport to Yi Ku’s father. In order for his parents to travel to the U.S. to celebrate, Yi Un renounced his Korean citizenship to obtain a Japanese passport. Recollecting these events, Pangja wrote, “[Yi Ku] was neither Korean nor Japanese, as neither country had supported him. He has overcome his difficulties alone and become a man of the world.” Dr. Koh discusses her memories of Yi Ku, the last heir of the Korean Chosun dynasty, during his time in Boston.

“Like other Koreans pursuing higher education in Boston at the time, Yi Ku was preparing to take on a leadership role in a newly independent Korean nation or in his adopted home, the United States. After his graduation, Yi Ku went to New York and worked as an architect with I. M. Pei until 1963. While in New York, he married Julia Mullock, a Ukrainian-American woman eight years his senior, on 23 October in 1959. Yi Ku finally visited Korea in 1963, with the help of the new President Park Chung-hee. President Park had obtained power through a military coup and wanted to take advantage of the Yi family to secure his legitimacy. While in Korea, Yi Ku lectured on architecture at Seoul National University and Yonsei University and also ran his own architecture company, Shinhan.

“Several obstacles prevented Yi Ku from adjusting well to life in Korea. First, although Korea was no longer a monarchy, he was pressured by his family to take on the role of “crown prince.” His marriage to a white woman and their inability to have children intensified the pressure. As a result, their marital life suffered. Second, he was not fluent in Korean and did not understand Korean culture well. In 1977, Yi Ku and his wife separated. When his company went bankrupt in 1979, he returned to Japan. In 1982, the couple divorced, and Yi Ku started living with a Japanese astrologer, or mudang, named Mrs. Arita.

“The former prince visited Korea from time to time until his death in 2005, at the age of seventy-four. He died alone at the Akasaka Prince Hotel, the former residence of his parents in Tokyo. Yi Ku was buried in royal garb, and over 1,000 people, including the Prime Minister of Korea, attended his funeral. After his death, he was granted the posthumous title “Prince Imperial Hoeun of Korea” by the Yi Family Council.”

Homer Hulbert – Korea’s Favorite American

Homer B. Hulbert (1863-1949) is an American well known to Koreans. On his tombstone is written: “I would rather be buried in Korea than in Westminster Abbey.” According to the Seoul Tribune: Hulbert first came to Korea in 1886 at age 23 to spend five years an educator for the “Royal College” at Seoul. Upon his arrival, he (Homer B. Hulbert) became quickly fluent in Korean. After finishing his five-year term in Korea as a teacher he returned back to the United States, and then came back once again to Korea in 1893 at age 30 as a Methodist Church missionary. During this period, Homer B. Hulbert would publish many of his landmark books written in English such as the History of Korea (1905) and the Passing of Korea (1906). [Source: Seoul Tribune. January 11, 2015

Hulbert helped start the YMCA in Seoul, which among other things introduced the sports of baseball, basketball and ice-skating to Koreans for the first time. After having become a witness to the injustice brought upon to the people of Korea, Hulbert later in his life became an active in bringing to light the hardships of Japanese rule on Koreans.“Calumny has done its worst, and justice has suffered an eclipse” he wrote in his book, The Passing of Korea (1906),“when the spirit of the nation, quickened by the touch of fire, shall have proved that though sleep is the image of death, it is not death itself”.

Hulbert was critical of Theodore Roosevelt’s approval Japan’s takeover in Korea in return for Japan’s acquiescence to the United States take over of the Philippines, which it had won from Spain in the Spanish-American War. Hulbert served as a special envoy for Korea’s King Gojong to represent Korea at meeting in the United States in 1905 and the Second Hague Convention (1907) with the goal of publicizing the injustices in Korea at the hands of the Japanese and arguing the invalidity of the Japan-Korea Treaty of 1905 which was never approved by King Gojong. For his effort Hulbert was not allowed to return to Japanese-controlled Korea. It wasn’t until Hulbert was 86 years old when he returned back to see an independent Korea in 1949, as a honorary high-level state guest, invitated by South Korea’s first President Syngman Rhee. During the this to Seoul, he become ill and died. He is buried in Yanghwajin Foreigner Missionary Cemetery in northwestern Seoul.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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