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The Greater Korean Empire ( ) was a former empire of Koreamarker that succeeded the Joseon Dynastymarker that had ruled the nation for 500 years.

In 1897, Emperor Gojong proclaimed the new entity at Gyeongungungmarker Palace and oversaw the partially successful modernization of the military, economy, real property laws, education system, and various industries.

Background

The Sino-Japanese War marked the rapid decline of any power the Joseon Dynastymarker of Korea had managed to hold against foreign interference, as the battles of the conflict itself had been fought on Korean soil and the surrounding seas. With its newfound preeminence over waning China, Japan had Japanese delegates negotiate the Treaty of Shimonoseki with the Qing emissaries, through which Japan wrested control over the Liaodong Peninsulamarker from China (a move designed to prevent the southern expansion of Japan's new rival, Russia), and, more importantly to Korea, scrapped the centuries-old tributary relationship between Joseon and the Qing Dynasty. However, Russia realized this agreement as an act against its interests in northeastern China and eventually brought Francemarker and Germanymarker to its side in saying that the Liaodong Peninsula should be repatriated to China.

At the time, Japan had no power to resist such foreign pressure, especially by nations that it considered far more advanced and which it sought to emulate, and as such relinquished its claim to the Liaodong Peninsula. With the success of the three-country intervention, Russia emerged as another major power in East Asia, replacing the Qing Dynasty as the country that the many government officials in the Joseon court advocated close ties with to prevent more Japanese meddling in Korean politics. Queen Min (the later Empress Myeongseong), the consort of King Gojong, also realized this change and recognized it by formally establishing closer diplomatic relations with Russia to counter Japan.

Queen Min began to emerge as a key figure in higher-level Korean resistance to Japanese influence. Japan, seeing its designs endangered by the queen, quickly replaced its ambassador to Korea, Inoue Kaoru, with Miura Goro, a diplomat with a background in the Japanese military. It is widely believed that he orchestrated the assassination of Queen Min on October 8, 1895, at her residence at Gyeongbokgungmarker, nearby the Geoncheong Palace, the official sleeping quarters of the king within Gyeongbok Palace.

Proclamation of Empire

Emperor Gojong.
With the death of his wife Empress Myeongseong, the King Gojong and Crown Prince (Later Emperor Sunjong) fled for refuge to the Russian legation in 1896. During the time from Queen Min's death to the king's return from Russian protection, Korea underwent another major upheaval both at home and abroad. By 1894, new laws passed by pro-Japanese progressives in the royal cabinet forced through long-desired reforms aimed at revamping Korea's antiquated society. These laws were called the Gabo Reforms referring to the year of 1894 in which the reforms began. Although the lines were in-line with Korea's self strengthening movement history, retrospection shows that the Gabo Reforms were designed mainly for the Japanese, and especially Minister Inoue Kaoru, to seek more and more control of Korean society .

Meanwhile, the new reforms aimed at modernizing Korean society soon attracted controversy within Korea. Anti-Japanese sentiment, which had already become entrenched in the minds of commoners and aristocrats alike during the 16th century Japanese invasion of Korea, became pervasive in the royal court and upper echelons of society following the Ganghwa Treaty of 1876 and soon extended explosively to most Koreans following perceived Japanese meddling in court politics and the assassination of Empress Myeongseong. However, the new and modern reforms pushed forward by the pro-Japanese progressives, the most controversial of which was the mandatory cutting of male hair buns (it was a tradition in Korea and formerly Japan to not cut one's hair for life, mostly out of respect for Confucian ideals), ignited further resentment and discontent. This led to the uprising of the Eulmi temporary armies aimed at avenging the assassination of Empress Myeongseong.

In 1896, Seo Jae-pil, a naturalized citizen of the United States and the man behind the Tongnip Sinmun (독립 신문), or the "Independent Newspaper", formed the so-called Independence Club (독립 협회) in cooperation with progressives who desired autonomy from Japan. The Independence Association, once limited as an organized movement that was led by and included only government officials, soon expanded to include civilians from all classes. The Independence Association stressed the need for a reform-oriented government policy that would eventually lead to full independence. The association also regularly held conferences to strengthen national morale and collected money to continue the issuance of regular editions of the Independent Newspaper, and, more significantly, demolish the Yeongeunmun Gate that had received Chinese envoys from the west of the Yellow Sea to construct the Independence Gatemarker, or Independence Gate, at that very site.

In 1897, King Gojong, yielding to rising pressure from both overseas and the demands of the Independence Association-led public opinion, returned to Gyeongungung (modern-day Deoksugungmarker). There, he proclaimed the founding of the Empire of Korea, officially redesignated the national title as such, and declared the new era name Gwangmu (Hangul: 광무, Hanja: 光武) (meaning warrior of light), effectively severing Korea's historic ties to the Qing Dynastymarker Chinamarker tradition which Korea had adhered to since the prior invasion, and turning King Gojong into the Gwangmu Emperor, the first imperial head of state and hereditary sovereign of the Empire of Korea. This marked the complete end of the old world order and traditional Chinese tributary system in the Far East, where the status of empire meant independence from Qing dynasty China as with all of its predecessors, and also, at least nominally, implemented the "full and complete" independence of Korea as recognized in 1895.

The name, meaning "Great Han Empire," was chosen to indicate the revival of the Samhan confederacies of the Proto-Three Kingdoms of Korea, in the tradition of naming new states after historic states (Gubon Sincham, 舊本新參, 구본신참).

Westernization policy during the Korean Empire

Background

A group of Korean officials and intellectuals felt great necessity of the comprehensive reform of the country, after the observation tour of other modernized countries. More and more intellectuals were informed of the Western civilization and became conscious of the modernized powerful nations of Europe and Western Asia. Later, the progressives within the group initiated The Gabo Reform in 1894 and the moderate reformists carried out the Gwangmu Reform during the Great Korean Empire.

American missionaries, who had close relationship with the Korean royal court, also helped the spread of western culture. Under royal finance and support, American missionary doctor Horace N. Allen introduced western medicine by establishing Gwanghyewon, what would become Severance Hospital and the oldest western-style hospital in Korea. Additionally, the missionaries provided western education for Korean girls, who had previously been excluded from the educational system.

Gwangmu Reform

Yi Yong-ik, Chief of the Bureau of Currency during the Korean Empire.
The office building of the Seoul Electric Company.
During Gwangmu period, western-style official uniforms were introduced in Korea. At the start, the Korean Emperor had begun to wear Prussian-style royal attire along with Korean diplomats, who wore Western suits. In 1900, Western attire became the official uniform for the Korean civil officials. Several years later, all Korean soldiers and policemen were assigned to wear Western uniform.

In 1897, the cadastral survey project was launched by the Gwangmu government, aiming at modernizing the landownership system. In order to apply Western surveying methods, American surveyors were hired. After the survey, a property title “Jigye”, showing the exact dimension of the land, were supposed to be issued by the authorities concerned. That reform was closely involved to the reform of land tax system, which was conducted under the leadership of Yi Yong-ik, who also carried out the monetary reforms in Korea. The project was interrupted owing to the Russo-Japanese war in 1904~1905, after having finished about two-thirds of the whole land.

In that time, modern urban infrastructures were built by the Gwangmu government. In 1898, Gwangmu Emperor authorized the creation of a joint venture with American businessmen. In consequence, Seoul Electric Company, operating a public electrical lightning network and an electric streetcar system was founded. And Seoul Fresh Spring Water Company had an American connection as well. In 1902, six years after the first introduction of telephone in Korea, the first long-distance public phone was installed.

During Gwangmu period, the industrial promotion policy was also conducted by the Korean government. It gave support to found technical and industrial schools. In that time, along with modernized weaving factories which were established to meet demand for textiles on domestic market, technological innovations in the field of weaving industry were occurred in Korea. For instance, spinning and weaving machines were made for producing silk, so as to be substituted for high-cost machines from abroad.

Subsequent developments

In 1904, Japan and Korea signed the first agreement between Japan and Korea on August 22 known as the Treaty of Protection. The Taft-Katsura Agreement (also known as the Taft-Katsura Memorandum) was issued on July 17 1905 and was not a secret pact or agreement between the US and Japan. The Japanese Prime Minister Katsura Taro used the opportunity of Secretary of War William Howard Taft's stopover in Tokyo to extract a statement from Taft of the Roosevelt Administration's feeling toward the Korea question. Taft expressed in the Memorandum how a suzerain relationship with Japan guiding Korea would "contribute to permanent peace in the Far East".

In September 1905 Russia and Japan signed the Treaty of Portsmouth ending the Russo-Japanese War and firmly establishing Japan's consolidation of influence on Korea. Secret diplomatic contacts were sent by the Gwangmu Emperor in the fall of 1905 to outside of Korea because presenting Korea's desperate case to preserve their sovereignty through normal diplomatic channels was no longer an option due to the constant surveillance by the Japanese.An emissary Dr. Phillip Jaisohn (Seo Jae-pil), ex- US envoy to Korea Horace Newton Allen, and an American educator who taught in the Imperial schools Dr. Serge Nadeau departed from Korea for America to present Korea's case to the State Department and President Theodore Roosevelt. Unfortunately, the State Department was warned previous of Dr. Nadeau's mission arrival and thus the mission's goal of seeking support from Washington against Japan's bullying into a damaging protectorate treaty was stonewalled from the start. On November 17 1905 the Eulsa Treaty (known also as "1905 Agreement", "The Five Article Treaty" or "The Second Japanese-Korean Agreement") was signed in Korea even before Dr. Hubert's mission entered Washington. Reportedly, the seal of the Korean Foreign Minister (then Yun Suk Chang) was snatched and pressed on the document which had been prepared by the Japanese. One week after the forced "treaty" the State Department withdrew its US legation from Korea even before Korea notified the US of their new "protectorate" status.
Gwangmu Emperor sent three secret emissaries, Yi Jun, Yi Sang-Seol and Yi Wi-Jong to the Hague, Netherlands in 1907.
The empire began with the law and perception of the international system at the time stacked against the slowly modernizing country. In the end, a weak and unmodernized military, the lack of a clear concept of sovereignty, and remaining legacy of Korea's suzerain relationship with China held Korea back from fending off foreign encroachment. Eventually the Gwangmu Emperor was forced to abdicate in 1907 in favor of his son, Emperor Sunjong, who became the Yunghui Emperor (the second and last emperor of the Empire of Korea), due his attempt to send delegates to the Hague Peace Conference (Hague Convention of 1907) in violation of the arbitrarily implemented Eulsa Treaty. The delegation at The Hague was led by Yi Sang-seol and his deputy Yi Jun, Yi Wi-jong presented a diplomatic attempt to reclaim the Empire's sovereignty. Although Korea pleaded its case to the powerful members of colonial elite nations at The Hague, the view of protectorate status of Japan over Korea seemed natural and beneficial at the height of colonialism in the first decade of the twentieth century.

On August 22, 1910, the Korean Empire was annexed by Japan with the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty, beginning a 35-year period of Japanese rule.

Prior to the Korean Empire, several dynastic rulers of Goguryeo, Silla, Baekje, Balhae and Goryeomarker claimed the right to imperial status and used imperial titles at one time or another.

References

  1. Nahm, Andrew. “The impact of the Taft-Katsura Memorandum on Korea: A reassessment” Korea Journal October 1985, 9.
  2. Nahm, Andrew. “The impact of the Taft-Katsura Memorandum on Korea: A reassessment” Korea Journal October 1985, 10.
  3. Kim, Ki-Seok, “Emperor Gwangmu’s Diplomatic Struggles to Protect His Sovereignty before and after 1905” Korea Journal summer (2006) 239.
  4. Kim, Ki-Seok, “Emperor Gwangmu’s Diplomatic Struggles to Protect His Sovereignty before and after 1905” Korea Journal summer (2006) 240.
  5. Kim, Ki-Seok, “Emperor Gwangmu’s Diplomatic Struggles to Protect His Sovereignty before and after 1905” Korea Journal summer (2006) 245.


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