The Kanghwa Treaty of 1876

The Kanghwa Treaty of 1876

In 1875 an incursion from the West Sea was to change Korea forever. Korea was opened not by a Western nation but its neighbor to the east, Japan. On the morning of September 20, 1875, Japan sailed an armed naval vessel, the Unyo, near Kanghwa Island; the Unyo was supposedly on a peaceful surveying mission.

No surviving records prove that it was not, but in the judgment of most historians, the mission was meant to provoke an incident that would lead to a changed Japan-Korea relation-ship. As described by Peter Duus:

When Korean shore batteries fired on the Un’yo, the Japanese response was swift and severe. After bombarding the Korean fortifications, the Un’yo landed a shore party that torched several houses on the island and exchanged fire with Korean troops.

The Japanese, armed with rifles, made quick work of the Koreans, who carried matchlock muskets, and thirty-five Korean soldiers were left dead. News of the incident did not reach Tokyo until September 28, but the next day [the Japanese government] decided to dispatch gunboats to Pusan to protect the Japanese residents there . . . (Duus 1995, 43–44)

As an outcome of this provocation, the Japanese were able to force court officials to meet and sign a treaty of “amity and trade.” The treaty declared that Korea was an “independent state,” meaning that it was no longer even in theory subordinate to China.

Later supplements to the treaty contained provisions that privileged Japanese commercial inter-ests, much as Japan’s treaties after its opening had privileged Western commercial interests. Japan had its foot in the door.

Other powers soon signed similar treaties: the Americans in 1882, the British and Germans in 1882 (ratified in 1884), the Russians and Italians in 1884, and the French in 1886.

The Chinese, too, moved to establish closer ties with Korea. As other powers, especially Russia and China (enfeebled but still a concern for Japan), began to take a greater interest in Korea, the Japanese became nervous. Korea, with its back-ward military technology, would be a pushover for invasion and take-over.

Then, instead of having a hermit kingdom for its nearest neighbor, Japan would look across the sea or Korea Strait at the outpost of some hostile, battleship-possessing modern power. In the words of a German military adviser to the Meiji government, Korea was “a dagger pointed at the heart of Japan” (Duus 1995, 49).

Thus, when Japan’s leaders and representatives spoke of the need for a strong, modern, independent Korea, this was not mere rhetoric to dress up aggressive plans. At least at times, the Japanese were genuinely interested in modernizing Korea, including its armed forces.

If Korea could take the path that Japan had taken and do it quickly, then Japan need not worry about the dagger aimed at its heart. Korea would be a younger partner in Asian modernization, dependant on its teacher, Japan. But if Korea were too slow to modernize or if Korea were to show signs of collapsing, then Japan’s best move might be to take over Korea before some other nation did it (Deuchler 1977).

A small group of forward-thinking Korean officials agreed that their country needed to modernize and looked to Japan as an example and guide. Encouraged by the existence of this group, in the 1880s the Japanese invited several of them to Japan, where they went on a tour of Japanese military facilities, schools, government ministries, facto-ries, libraries, post offices, museums, arsenals, hospitals, and ship-yards—much as Japanese officials had done in their tour of Europe 10 years earlier.

While they were in Japan they were given a study writ-ten by Huang Tsun-hsein, a Tokyo-stationed Chinese diplomat, who believed that both China and Korea could best strengthen themselves by adopting Western technology and also the political institutions that underlay Western success.

The study was later passed on to King Kojong, who seems to have been persuaded by it. Meanwhile, Japan sent a military mission to Korea headed by Lieutenant Horimoto Reizo to train an elite new Korean military unit, which, it was hoped, would lead to the strengthening of Korea’s armed forces along Japanese lines.

The Military Uprising of 1882

Resentment of Horimoto’s mission led directly to the Military Uprising of 1882, which strengthened the antiforeign, antimodern forces of reaction within Korea. Those excluded from the new uniforms and status eventually attacked the new military and its Japanese advisers.

Horimoto Reizo was killed. To settle the issue and help restore order, King Kojong recalled his father, the Hungson Taewongun, out of exile and returned him to power. This was too much for Queen Min. To counter her father-in-law’s renewed influence, she sent an envoy to China seeking military aid.

China responded by sending more than 1,000 soldiers under the command of Yuan Shikai (1859–1916), who later became the first president of the Republic of China. The Chinese soldiers arrested the Taewongun and deported him to Tientsin, China.

With the Min faction making policy in Seoul, the advantage in the great power game that was being played over Korea passed temporarily to China. Historian Young Ick Lew describes the immediate effect on Korean policy:

With a strong military force firmly entrenched in Seoul, the Ch’ing [Qing] government began to interfere boldly in Korea’s internal affairs, claiming the authority to do so on the basis of the traditional suzerain relationship. . . . The Chinese recom-mended the appointment of two special advisors on foreign affairs, a Prussian diplomat, Paul G. von Mollendorff . . . and the Chinese diplomat Ma Chien-Ch’ang. . . . creating two offices to plan and coordinate Korea’s self-strengthening measures. . . .

The Ch’ing government also sought to expand Chinese eco-nomic interests in Korea with a view to offsetting the growing influence of Japanese merchants. On the heels of its armed intervention China imposed on Korea a set of Regulations for Private Maritime and Overland Trade, whereby Chinese mer-chants obtained the right to reside, conduct business and to travel freely within Korea. (Eckert 1990, 207–208)

The Chinese show of force prompted the Japanese to increase their military strength in Korea. In the settlement of the 1882 affair, the Japanese sought reparations and an agreement that in the future the Chinese and Japanese would not intervene in Korean military affairs.

China and Japan agreed that neither side would send additional troops to Korea without informing the other, so that the military balance could be maintained. (This latter provision was to have disastrous con-sequences for Korea 12 years later when Japan invoked the clause to justify a large-scale dispatch of Japanese soldiers.)

Now Japan and China each had their clients within Korea, each identified with a different path to modernization with the help of a different Asian partner. China encouraged a faction within the Korean government led by Kim Hongjip, Kim Yunsik, O Yunjung, and the royal in-law family led by Min Yongik in what was called “enlightenment thought,” a conservative approach to modernization. On the other side was the Progressive Party, a pro-Japanese group of reformers led by Pak Younghyo, Kim Okkyun, and So Kwangbom.

Kim Okkyun and So Kwangbom were among the group invited by the Japanese to visit Japan in 1884. Pak Younghyo was King Kojong’s brother-in-law; he had close ties to Kim Okkyun and So Kwangbom. These two factions, one pro-China and one pro-Japan, were each to have its ups and downs in the next few years until Japan defeated China decisively in 1894.

The Attempted Coup of 1884

In 1884 Kim Okkyun and the others in the group returned from Japan full of ideas about how Korea needed to modernize. Having seen the rapid industrialization in Japan, they were eager to see Korea follow suit.

Frustrated by the Min faction, Kim Okkyun decided to assassinate the key members of the faction, blame the assassination on the Chinese, and tip the court to a pro-Japanese stance.

He selected December 4, 1884, when the new post office, built to incorporate the existing domestic mail service with international mail service, was to be dedicated.

In attendance were two of the Min brothers and most of the diplo-mats in Korea at the time. Those present included Paul Mollendorf, a Prussian working for the Chinese government; Lucius Foote, the head of the American legation; and William Aston, the head of the British legation.

There were also three Japanese delegates and three Chinese delegates at the table. During the dinner party celebrating the post office opening, Kim’s allies were to set a nearby thatched-roof house on fire.

In the ensuing chaos other conspirators hiding outside the post office would then stab the Min brothers. The plot did not go according to plan.

Kim’s men could not get the fire going, and in the delay Kim stood up twice to look outside, perhaps tipping off the Min brothers that something was afoot. When the fire alarm was finally sounded, there was not as much chaos as the conspirators anticipated. They were able to wound only one of the Min brothers, Min Yongik.

Unaware of the assassins’ failures, Kim Okkyun ran to the king to tell him that the Min brothers had been killed. When the king learned three days later that they were alive, Kim fled. He boarded a ship for Japan, where he lived in exile for 10 years. In 1894 he moved to China for another 10 years, until he was assassinated there (Cook 1972).

Protestant Christianity

The wounded Min brother became the central figure in the drama that opened the door for Christian missionaries in Korea. Min Yongik was treated by Korean herbal doctors but failed to recover. The Korean court knew that the American delegation in Seoul included a physician, a surgeon named Horace N. Allen (1850–1927). Allen, a Methodist minister, was also the chaplain to the delegation.

Dr. Allen was able to treat Min Yongik successfully, and in gratitude King Kojong granted his request for permission to establish hospitals, schools, and churches in Korea. The following year Protestant mission-aries arrived in Korea, including Horace G. Underwood (1839–1916), who established Yonsei University, and Dorothy Scranton, who estab-lished Ewha University.

Catholic Christianity had entered a century earlier but suffered persecution and martyrdom. Now Protestant Christianity entered with the blessing of the king and began to prosper.

Oddly, in Korean the word Christian connotes the Protestant church and its members, to the exclusion of Catholics; in Korea today, one is asked whether one is “Christian” or “Catholic,” as if they were mutually exclusive terms.

Their separate paths of entry, the Catholics with a heritage of persecution and the Protestants with a heritage of official patronage, have marked them as distinctly different variet-ies of Christianity. Ultimately, the Protestant practice, particularly Presbyterianism, has become widespread in Korea, but Catholics make up a significant percentage of the populace as well.