The Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895

The Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895

The government in Seoul sent a large army to the southeastern province to retake the county-level government offices and granaries, but the Korean army was not successful, no more successful than China had been in quelling the Taiping Rebellion in the 1850s, and like China then, Korea was forced to rely on foreign assistance. In desperation, it sent word to China asking for troops. The move played into Japanese hands.

The Japanese invoked the article in the 1882 military treaty between China and Japan that stated that military deployments by one side would be met by corresponding deployments by the other side; Japan sent troops.

The Chinese troops barely had time to quell the Tonghak rebellion before they had to defend themselves against the Japanese, who swept in with a better-trained and better-armed force and quickly pushed China out of Korea. This conflict became known as the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95.

Much of the fighting was naval. Japan had spent a great deal of modernization effort building a large navy of small vessels designed to move quickly and efficiently around the narrow passages and jagged coastline of Japan’s islands. China had done the same, but its modernization efforts were not as successful as Japan’s.

In 1895 the dowager empress Cixi (1835–1908) diverted China’s entire navy budget to the building of a stone boat—a picnic pavilion—to decorate the pond of the summer palace, arguing that it was a part of the navy.

When the naval budget was not diverted, the Chinese approach to modernization was to build a few large ships to patrol its long and even coastline. When the battle in Korea was over, all the large Chinese vessels sat on the bottom of the Yellow Sea, and Korea was firmly under Japanese control. Japan even laid claim to China’s largest island, Taiwan.

In Korea, without China, her longtime ally, and “big brother,” the Japanese began to expand their interests. Under Japanese pressure the Korean government began to reform. In 1897 Korea declared itself an empire, and the hapless King Kojong declared himself an emperor. Symbolically, Korea was no longer under the protection of China but on equal footing with China and Japan. In reality, it was just one step closer to being subsumed by Japan.

The Murder of Queen Min

One of the more remarkable events of this turbulent period was the Japanese murder of the Korean queen by Japanese soldiers. Queen Min was King Kojong’s only queen, a powerful personality who in many ways influenced the king and the court.

Her pro-China/anti-Japan posi-tion kept Korea firmly loyal to China, its longtime ally, and deflected any progressive influences by the rapidly modernizing Japan. Japan’s leaders knew of her influence and thought it best to eliminate her. There was an attempt on her life in 1882, but she survived by fleeing the palace and allowing one of her ladies-in-waiting to dress in the queen’s robes and be killed.

In the second, successful, attempt the Japanese assassins killed not only the queen but all her ladies-in-waiting to be sure that they were not fooled again. Then they dragged her body to a nearby wooded area, where they burned it. This needless act of savagery was perhaps retaliation by the soldiers whom she had tricked before, a sym-bolic act to make sure that she was truly dead.

Independence Movements

Despite the continued erosion of Korean sovereignty associated with the Japanese victory, Korea’s most promodern, prodemocratic, and even proindependence forces still looked to Japan to lead Korea into the modern world. One leader in such efforts was Philip Jaisohn, born So Chaepil. So Chaepil had been part of the student delegation sent to study in Japan along with Kim Okkyun.

Tainted by being part of the pro-Japanese faction, So left Korea and ended up in the United States, where he studied medicine and became a medical doctor, practicing in Philadelphia (and adopting the Western name Philip Jaisohn). A naturalized American citizen, he is often referred to as the first Korean American. When he received word of the Chinese defeat in Korea, he returned in 1895, hoping he could help Korea modernize by fol-lowing examples he had seen in Japan and the United States.

His first effort was to help organize the Independence Club, which built the Independence Arch. Modeled after the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, it was built on the spot where arriving Chinese ambassadors used to rest their final night in a hall called “Welcoming Pavilion” before putting on ceremonial robes to make the final half-day’s trip to the palace and present themselves at the Korean court.

Etched into the stone on the side of the Independence Arch that Chinese ambassadors first saw was “Independence Arch” in Chinese characters; on the opposite side, where commoner Koreans would pass, were the same words in the Korean alphabet. Philip Jaisohn also edited the Independent News, a new daily newspaper published in hangul and English. It was the first widely circulated use of the Korean alphabet since the year after its invention in 1446 (Chandra 1988).

Though Jaisohn and his fellow Independence Club members were sincere proponents of modernization, democracy, and Korean sover-eignty, their efforts in the 1890s tended to promote the interests of Japan. At the time the Japanese were fostering governmental reforms the Independence Club favored.

In 1896 the Korean government accused Jaisohn of wishing to make Korea a republic. He was once more forced into exile and returned to the United States. Jaisohn remained a lifelong activist for Korean independence and later, in the United States, founded the League of Friends of Korea in support of the March First Movement (1919), which protested Japanese rule in Korea.

In 1945, after Japan’s defeat, Jaisohn returned to Korea, where some 3,000 Koreans, including the young prodemocracy activist Kim Dae Jung (b. 1924, South Korean president, 1998–2003), requested that he run for the presidency. Jaisohn ultimately decided in the interest of unity to stand aside, leaving Syngman Rhee to become South Korea’s first president.