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Birth of Chosun Dynasty After Lee (Yi) Song-gye overthrew the Koryo King-dom, he enthroned himself as King Taejo and renamed his kingdom as Chosun in 1392 A.D. Upon seizure of power, Lee swiftly moved to effect sweeping reforms. The reforms were mainly aimed at ridding the country of Buddhist influence which had permeated all walks of life in the preceding dynasty, by driving monks and temples out of cities into the mountains. Thus, he effectively barred religious leaders from interfering with state affairs. He then adopted the Confucian doctrine making it the moral foundation of society for the ensuing 500 years.
Of all the kings of the 500-year Yi Dynasty, the greatest and the most enlightened was King Sejong. His personal interest and initiative led to many scientific inventions and discoveries. He was also responsible for many of the cultural and educational innovations effected during his rule. Most of all, he was instrumental in inventing Hangul, the Korean alphabet consisting of 11 vowels and 28 (later reduced to 24) consonants. The Korean alphabet, noted for its phonetic adaptability and scientific accuracy, can be learned by any Korean in a few days.
Under the rule of King Sejong, the first metal movable printing type was invented, anteceding Gutenberg by 50 years. During his rule scholars were accorded high esteem as a matter of government policy aimed to encourage scientific learning and literary works. Invention of highly refined astronomical instruments was also credited to King Sejong. In fact, Sejong's interest in astronomical science was legendary. Sun dials, water clocks, orreries of the solar system, celestial globes and astronomical maps were all invented during his rule.
As the Chosun Dynasty was solidifying the foundation of its kingdom, there de-veloped frictions in its ruling class. It be-came intensified during the reign of child King Songjong, when the dynasty reached the height of its prosperity. The partisan strife started when the patriotic scholars of Confucian Chuja School launched a cam-paign aimed at eliminating the corruptions rampant in the government. The sanguine partisan war between the two opposing factions of scholars raged for about 50 years. In that turbulent period, those close to the throne who had inevitably won resorted to extreme measures of sending many eminent scholars on exile.
The notorious factional struggle had in effect beneficial to the nation, however. Many scholars, who had thus found unintended leisure, devoted their time to studying and teaching Confucianism. The nation turned out such outstanding scholars as Lee Toe-gye, Lee Yul-gok and So Gyongdok during this period. It was in fact a golden age for Confucianism in Korea.
Japanese Invasion Japanese army of Hideyoshi Toyotomi launched an allout invasion of Korea in 1592. The Japanese captured Seoul within three weeks after they landed at the Pusan port. The speed with which the Japanese were sweeping the Korean Peninsula caught the Korean court by surprise. The King and his government moved northward abandoning the capital city of Seoul-Despite the humiliating defeat on land, however, there emerged a great figure, Admiral Lee Sun-shin, who invented the-turtle ship, the first ironclad warship ever built.
Lee, with the fleet of his turtle ships, smashed the huge fleet of Japanese vessels. It was this decisive victory at sea that turned the tide of war against the invading forces. Finally, with the aid of Chinese army, Korea succeeded in driving the invaders out of the country. The seven-year war was touched off when Japan invaded Korea in retaliation against Korea's refusal to grant a free passage of its army on its way to conquer the Chinese mainland. It was the first of successive Japanese invasions to which the nation had since been subjected due to its proximity to Japan.
Manchurian Invasion The Manchu which replaced Ming Dynasty in mainland China in 1627 invaded Korea when Korea barely recovered from the Toyotomi invasion in the 16th century-The Manchu invasion was a demonstration by the newly installed dynasty in China to show off its might in an attempt to make Korea its vassal state. The army of the Chinese Ching Dynasty left soon without inflicting lasting damage on the Korean Peninsula. But the Korean court whose fortune sagged immensely from the series of invasions was shocked and distressed.
In the wake of these external aggressions, the court adopted a closed-door policy in its foreign stance. Korea shut herself completely from the outside world. It thereby acquired the nickname of hermit kingdom and unconsciously adopted a negative mentality of rejecting everything alien as barbarous. This policy of self-imposed isolation was to last until the turn of the 20th century. Interested in opening Korea as one of their trading partners, the Western nations had started to knock on the closed doors of Korea in the 19th century.
Western Power in Korea In 1866, Prince Taewon, the apostle of Korea's closed-door policy, ruled the country as regent for his 12-year-old son. At that time, French Jesuits were residing in Korea for missionary work. The regent determined that their preachings, totally alien to the teachings of Confucianism, represented an evil which would contaminate the Korean soul. He declared that the Jesuit teachings were a menace to the traditional values of Koreans and ordered the Jesuit missionaries to leave the country. But nine of them refused to leave.
Thereupon, Prince Taewon moved to persecute them. Following the persecution, the French government sent a punitive fleet to Korea under Admiral Pierre G. Roze. The French fleet, however, soon had to withdraw from waters off Kanghwa island under a fierce artillery bombardment. In 1870, American Rear Admiral Rodgers led a flotilla to repeat Commodore Perry's exploit in Japan earlier. When the American ships approached Korean shore, however, a Korean fort fired upon the American fleet through mis-understanding. In the ensuing exchange of fire, over 300 Korean soldiers were killed. When Rodgers disengaged himself and left simply, the court was left to believe Korea was invulnerable against the-barbarian aliens.
In 1876, Japan finally succeeded in making a crack at the closed doors of Korea. While the Korean court was engulfed in a power struggle between the regent and his daughter-in-law, Queen Min, the Japanese adroitly played the regent and the Queen off one against the other. The power struggle at the court was settled in favor of Queen Min, who, with the support of her powerful consort, wrested power from the regent and gained control of the government. But the change of power was closely followed by a vendetta which culminated in the assassination of the Queen by the Jaspanese in 1895.Following Queen Min's assassination, Korea was finally brought around to sign a treaty with Japan promising to open Korea. Soon other Western powers made similar demand, and a Treaty of Peace, Amity, Commerce and Navigation was signed with the United States on May 22, 1882. Under the Korea-Japan treaty, Korea opened the Pusan port in 1876 and Inchon in 1883. Subsequently, the Korean kingdom was to become the scene of bitter rivalry between Russia, China, Japan and other foreign powers.
In 1884, a company of enlightened and progressive Koreans such as Kim Ok-kyun and Pak Yong-hyo, in the belief that Korea was ready to make the same volteface that Japan had made in 1868, seized momentary control of the government with the help of the Japanese. Their coup, however, proved to be abortive when the Chinese army intervened. The failure of the coup compelled Japan to make a temporary retreat from the Korean scene.
However, the frequent contacts with foreign powers, though involuntary in nature, were not without their benefits. Some advances were made in the field of administration during those turbulent periods. Customs service was installed at the Pusan and Inchon ports. The government employed foreign experts in agricultural, educational and military sectors in an attempt to improve administrative management.
Sino-Japanese Rivalry in Korea In 1894, Japan came to be determined to eliminate Chinese influence from Korea, by military means if necessary. The Japanese decision to embark on a Korean adventure was made on the assumption that the British and American governments would condone it. Just as Japan was waiting for an opportune moment to strike, there broke out what was later known as Tonghak Revolution in Korea.
Bands of farmers took up arms in the south of Korea in protest against the unbearable conditions for which the central government was unable to provide relief. The farmers riot soon threatened to spread nationwide. The central government which, racked by prolonged power struggle, found itself helpless, finally asked China for military intervention. Fearing that this might lead to China gaining a permanent and dominant influence in Korea, Japan swiftly declared war on China accusing China of aggression in Korea.
In the ensuing war, Japan won a decisive victory over China, gaining a momentum for progressively consolidating its foothold in Korea. The Sino-Japanese war provided the occasion for Japan to establish itself as the unchallenged power in Korea receiving international recognition for its daring military exploit against the Chinese giant. Taking advantage of its superior position, Japan began to demand political and economic concessions to which Korea could not comply without seriously compromising its national integrity.
The Japanese demands were met with stiff opposition by Koreans who rallied around Queen Min. Thereupon, the Japanese legation in Seoul mobilized Japanese hoodlums to break into the palace and kill Queen Min, who had been the arch frustrator of their dark scheme. The Japanese then forced King Kojong to organize a pro-Japanese cabinet. The King, who had been placed under virtual house arrest, could not stand any longer. The King and crown prince escaped from the palace and found refuge in the Russian legation. Caught by this unexpected turn of events, the Japanese were at a loss for the time being.
At last, however, they realized that they would have to have another showdown, with Russians this time, in order to bring Korea under their complete control. Meanwhile, King Kojong returned to his palace in February 1897. Under a new protective umbrella of Russians, in August of that year he renamed the country Taehan and crowned himself Emperor to make a fresh start as an independent and sovereign state. He proclaimed a new education law that established elementary schools, high schools and normal schools. He also effected some changes in the administrative structure of his government.
At about the same time, a group of U.S.-educated young men, alarmed by the ominous Russo-Japanese rivalry over the fate of Korea and the consequent erosion of national integrity, launched a movement calling for reassertion of Korea˘®&hibar;s independence. The movement was led by So Chae-pil and Syngman Rhee. They published the first modern newspaper of the country, the Independence News. Printed in both English and Korean, the paper ran stories and commentaries drumming up the spirit of freedom, civil liberties and national independence, criticizing the gov-ernment for failing to safeguard the nation˘®&hibar;s independence.
The government became alarmed by their-radical activities-and broke up the movement. Its leaders were either impris-oned or sent on exile to foreign countries. On the other hand, fuming under a setback they suffered in Korea, the Japanese were waiting for a chance to strike back.
Russo-Japanese War Russia was the only country which challenged Japan in Korea then. The expansionist policies of Japan and Russia were at last heading for an inevitable head-on clash. Determined to eliminate Russian presence in Korea and encouraged by her alliance with Britain in 1903, Japan broke off diplo-matic relations with Russia the next year. Shortly afterward, Japan, without a formal declaration of war, attacked Port Arthur and sank a Russian warship off Inchon.
The Korean government immediately declared itself neutral in the war. Japan ignored it, however, and landed her troops on Korea. Russia, under the corrupt gov-ernment of Tsardom, could not wage an effective war and finally conceded defeat before a small but rising power in the Far East. Through the good offices of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, a peace treaty was signed in September 1905 at Portsmouth. Under the treaty, Japan's dominant political, military and economic prerogatives in Korea were recognized.
Russia also ceded the southern half of Sakhalin to Japan and transferred her extraterritorial rights in Port Arthur and Dalny to Japan. While pledging to respect the interests of the two countries in Manchuria, the two countries agreed to withdraw their military forces from Manchuria, promising to respect their mutual interests there.Protectorate Treaty On Nov. 17, 1905, Hirobumi Ito broke into the palace with a large retinue to confront Emperor Kojong with demands that virtually amounted to surrendering of Korea's national identity. Prime Minister Han Gyu-sol refused to comply. Thereupon, Ito saw to it that he was separated from the rest of his cabinet who were threatened with physical violence. Then a few cabinet members were brought around to sign it under duress.
Under the treaty, all Korean diplomatic relations would be handled through the Japanese government; Japanese diplomatic and consular missions would look after overseas Koreans and their interests; Japan would assume full responsibility for carrying out all the provisions of treaties and agreements existing between Korea and foreign countries at the time of the treaty; Japan would ins tall a Resident-General under the Korean Emperor to act as the supreme authority in Korean foreign affairs.
The Taehan Empire had virtually ceased to exist. All Korean overseas missions were closed as of March 1906. At the same time, the ministers of Britain, the U.S., China, Germany, France and Belgium also closed their legations in Seoul and returned home.