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Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Kings of Joseon Dynasty, Part XXVI: Emperor Gojong-Gwangmu (Yi Myeong-bok) - Founder of the Korean Empire


Emperor Gojong-Gwangmu, previously known as Prince Seongnim (Hanja: 高宗王, 光武皇帝 [聖臨君]; Born: 8 September 1852 – Died: 21 January 1919; Reigned: 1863-1897 [as Joseon State] and 1897-1907 [as Korean Empire]), born Yi Myeong-bok (이명복/李命福) was 26th King of Joseon Dynasty as well as the founder of Korean Empire. Gojong took the throne in 1863 when still a child. As a minor, his father, Regent Heungseon Daewongun (Grand Court Prince Heungseon), ruled for him until Gojong reached adulthood.

During the mid-1860s, Heungseon Daewongun 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 invasion and the United States expedition to Korea in 1871. The early years of Daewongun's rule also witnessed a concerted effort to restore the largely dilapidated Gyeongbok Palace, the seat of royal authority. During Daewongun's reign, factional politics, the Seowon (learned academies that often doubled as epicenters of factional power), and the power wielded by the Andong Kim clan, completely disappeared as political forces within Korean state life.

In 1873, Gojong announced his assumption of direct royal rule. With the retirement of Heungseon Daewongun, Gojong's consort, Queen Min (later Empress Myeongseong), gained complete control over the court, placing her family members in high court positions. 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, had acquired Western military technology and 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.

The French campaign against Korea of 1866, United States expedition to Korea in 1871 and the Incident of Japanese gunboat Unyo put pressure on many of Joseon's officials, including King Gojong. The Treaty of Ganghwa became the first unequal treaty signed between Korea and foreign country; it gave extraterritorial rights to Japanese citizens in Korea and forced the Korean government to open three ports, Busan, Incheon and Wonsan, to Japanese and foreign trade. With the signing of its first unequal treaty, Korea became easy prey for many imperialistic powers, and later the treaty led to Korea being annexed by Japan.

King Gojong began to rely on newer, rifle-equipped armies, who were paid. The old army, which used spears and old matchlocks, eventually revolted as a result of their mediocre wages and loss of prestige, and Heungseon Daewongun was restored to power. However Chinese troops led by the Qing Chinese general Yuan Shikai soon abducted Daewongun and took him to China, thus foiling his return to power. Four years later Daewongun returned to Korea.

On 4 December 1884, five revolutionaries initiated a coup d'etat by leading a small anti-old minister army to Empress Myeongseong's brother's house. The coup failed in 3 days. Some of its leaders, including Kim Okgyun, fled to Japan, and others were executed.

Widespread poverty presented significant challenges to the 19th century Joseon Dynasty. One indication of this poverty was the average life expectancy of Koreans around the close of the Joseon period: 24 years for males and 26 for females. A number of factors, including famine, poverty, high taxes and corruption among the ruling class, led to several notable peasant revolts in the 19th century. King Gojong's predecessors had suppressed an 1811–1812 revolt in the Pyeongan Province, led by Hong Gyeong-nae.

In 1894, another major revolt, the Donghak Peasant Revolution took hold as an anti-government, anti-yangban and anti-foreign campaign. To suppress the rebellion, the Joseon government requested military aid from Japan, thus deepening Japanese claims to Korea as a protectorate. In the end the revolution failed, but many of the peasants' grievances were later dealt with by the Gabo Reformation.

In 1895, Empress Myeongseong (referred to as "Queen Min" by the Japanese) was assassinated by Japanese agents. The Japanese minister to Korea, Miura Goro orchestrated the plot against her. A group of Japanese agents entered the Imperial palace in Seoul, which was under Japanese guard, and Empress Myeongseong was killed in the palace. The empress had attempted to counter Japanese interference in Korea and was considering turning to Russia or China for support.

Meanwhile, Japan won the Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895), gaining much more influence over the Korean government. The Gabo reforms and the assassination of Empress Myeongseong also stirred controversy in Korea, along with anti-Japanese sentiments.Some Confucian scholars, as well as farmers, formed over 60 successive righteous armies to fight for Korean freedom. These armies were preceded by the Donghak movement and succeeded by various Korean independence movements.

On 11 February 1896, King Gojong and his crown prince fled from the Gyeongbokgung palace to the Russian legation in Seoul, from which they governed for about one year, an event known as Korea royal refuge at the Russian legation. In 1897, King Gojong, yielding to rising pressure from overseas and the demands of the Independence Association-led public opinion, returned to Gyeongungung (modern-day Deoksugung). There he proclaimed the founding of the Empire of Korea, officially redesignated the national title as such, and declared the new era name Gwangmu which means shining warrior. This effectively ended Korea's historic subordination to the Qing Chinese empire which Korea had acknowledged since the fall of the Ming Dynasty, and turned King Gojong into the Gwangmu Emperor, the first imperial head of state and hereditary sovereign of the Empire of Korea.

This marked the end of the traditional Chinese tributary system in the Far East. Adopting the status of empire meant that Korea was declaring independence from Qing China and, at least nominally, it implemented the "full and complete" independence of Korea as recognized in 1895. Gojong proclaimed the Korean Empire in 1897 to justify the country's ending of its traditional tributary subordination to China. He tried to promote the ultimately unsuccessful Gwangmu Reform.

In 1904-5, the Japanese military achieved a comprehensive victory in the Russo-Japanese War. Following the Protectorate Treaty of 1905 between Korea and Japan, which stripped Korea of its rights as an independent nation, Gojong sent representatives to the Hague Peace Convention of 1907 in order 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.

One representative warned forebodingly of Japanese ambitions in Asia: "The United States does not realize what Japan's policy in the Far East is and what it portends for the American people. The Japanese adopted a policy that in the end will give her complete control over commerce and industry in the Far East. Japan is bitter against the United States and against Great Britain. If the United States does not watch Japan closely she will force the Americans and the English out of the Far East."

As a result, Gojong was forced to abdicate by the Japanese and Gojong's son Sunjong succeeded to the throne. After abdicating, Emperor Gojong was confined to the Deoksu Palace by the Japanese. On 22 August 1910, the Empire of Korea was annexed by Japan under the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty.

Gojong died suddenly on 21 January 1919 at Deoksugung Palace. There is much speculation that he was killed by poison administered by Japanese officials, an idea that gained wide circulation and acceptance at the time of his death. His death and subsequent funeral proved a catalyst for the March First Movement for Korean independence from Japanese rule. He is buried with his wife, Empress Myeongseong of Yeoheung Min Clan at the Imperial Tomb of Hongneung, a part of Imperial Tomb of Hongyureung in Geumgok-dong 141-3 beonji, Namyangju City, Gyeonggi Province.

He was posthumously known as Emperor Gojong Tongcheon Yung-woon Jogeuk Dollyun Jeongseong Gwang-ui Myeonggong Daedeok Yojun Sunhwi Umo Tanggyeong Eungmyeong Ipgi Jihwa Shin-yeol Oehun Hong-eop Gyegi Seollyeok Geonhaeng Gonjeong Yeong-ui Honghyu Sugang Munheon Mujang Inik Jeonghyo, Emperor Tae of Korean Empire (고종통천융운조극돈륜정성광의명공대덕요준순휘우모탕경응명입기지화신열외훈홍업계기선력건행곤정영의홍휴수강문헌무장인익정효태황제/高宗統天隆運肇極敦倫正聖光義明功大德堯峻舜徽禹謨湯敬應命立紀至化神烈巍勳洪業啓基宣曆乾行坤定英毅弘休壽康文憲武章仁翼貞孝太皇帝).