During the reign of Chongjo from 1776 until 1800, there were major changes in Korea, the first involving the rapid spread of Christianity. When Chongjo died, his 10-year-old son Sunjo became king. The boy’s great-grandmother harbored a passionate hatred for Christianity, which was gaining many converts. She arrested many Christians, with the first ordained
Roman Catholic priest in Korea, Chou Wen-mu, giving himself up to the government to try to prevent further persecutions. He was executed, but the repression continued. In 1801 all male government slaves were freed, although slavery in Korea was not abolished until 1897.
King Hongjong (r. 1834– 49) was only seven when he became king, and the regency council continued the anti-Christian persecution, executing, in 1839, the first Western resident missionary, who had lived in Seoul for several years unharmed.
When Honjong died, there was a succession crisis, and he was initially succeeded by Choljong, who was his father’s second cousin. Choljong reigned until his death in 1864. As he had no male heir, there was another succession crisis. A compromise was reached, and Choljong’s second cousin once removed became King Kojong, reigning from 1864 until 1907.
By this time trouble began again from traders who wanted to open up commerce with Korea. Occasionally the traders brought missionaries with them. In 1866 massive local hostility against foreign priests saw the French Catholic missionaries go into hiding or try to flee the country. Subsequently, the French sent a naval expedition to seek redress for the murder of some French priests.
However, the French admiral who arrived off the coast of Korea was worried about landing his soldiers. Coinciding with the French taking control of southern Vietnam—also after attacks on missionaries —the French were not eager to spread themselves too thinly in Asia.
However, 1866 was important for Korean history for two additional reasons. The American vessel Surprise was wrecked off the Korean coast in that year. The American sailors on board were well treated and allowed to leave the country through Manchuria. However, in August 1866 the General Sherman, an American trading ship with a missionary on board, traveled down the Taedong River toward Pyongyang.
Just before it reached the city, at Mongyongdae, it ran aground and some of the crew were quickly involved in a dispute with local farmers. The rest of the crew managed to rescue them, but the farmers then attacked the ship and killed everyone on board.
One of the men involved in this attack was a local resident, Kim Eung Woo, who was the great-grandfather of the Korean communist leader Kim Il Sung. There is a monument on the site commemorating the role of the Koreans in this event.
In 1871 an American expedition was sent to Pyongyang to try to determine the fate of the General Sherman and also to rescue any prisoners who might have survived. The Korean government refused to enter into negotiations with the Americans, who, after destroying forts at Kianghwa, withdrew.
Soon after this the prospect of war between Korea and Japan was raised. The Japanese had sent an expeditionary force to Formosa (Taiwan) in 1872. Three years later, Japan demanded a trade treaty with Korea and also sent another delegation to China with a similar request.
On February 26, 1876, to avoid a conflict, the Koreans signed a treaty of amity and trade with Japan, granting Japan some extraterritorial rights in Korea. However, a phrase in the treaty affirmed that “Korea being an independent state enjoys the same sovereign rights as Japan.” Japan sent a copy of the document to the new Chinese foreign ministry, which did not raise any objection to the phraseology.
Although the Koreans were initially happy with the wording of the phrase, it would come back to haunt them. As Korea was essentially declared totally independent of China, it would allow Japan to interfere in Korean affairs without China being able to raise any objections.
By this time many Japanese politicians and the military were eager to take over Korea. When the British managed to get a concession at Port Hamilton, small islands off the southern coast of Korea, the Japanese prepared their plans for war with China. This broke out in 1894–95 when a rebellion led by the Tonghaks broke out in Korea.
To safeguard their property and civilians in Korea, both the Chinese and the Japanese sent in troops. The Korean government quickly put down the rebellion, but neither the Chinese nor the Japanese would withdraw their soldiers. On July 20, 1894, the Japanese, in control of Seoul, seized control of the government.
They used their navy to prevent Chinese troopships from bringing in reinforcements. Both sides declared war on August 1, 1894, with the Chinese quickly building up their defenses in northern towns and cities.
The Japanese acted quickly, sending their soldiers north, and on November 15, at the Battle of Pyongyang, 20,000 Japanese soldiers drove 14,000 Chinese soldiers out of the city. The Chinese then withdrew back across the Yalu River, the northern boundary of Korea.
At the same time the Japanese drove the Chinese fleet out of Korean waters, and in October, Japanese soldiers crossed the Yalu River with the result that much of the rest of the fighting took place in China, especially in Manchuria and around Weihaiwei.
Hostilities continued until the Treaty of Shimonoseki on April 17, 1895, when China was forced to concede territory and also to fully recognized Korean independence, leaving Korea open to Japanese invasion.
In October 1895, Queen Min, who was believed to have led the anti-Japanese faction at the Korean court, was assassinated, and the Japanese were immediately blamed. King Kojong, fearing that he also might be in danger, fled to the Russian legation in Seoul.
He made an alliance with the Russians, offering them mining and timber concessions. By this time there was agitation among many Koreans who wanted an end to Japanese interference. A political group called the Tongnip Hyophoe (Independence Club) was formed by a nationalist called So Chae-p’il. King Kojong returned to the palace and declared himself the emperor of the Tae Han empire.
During the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05, the Koreans tried to prevent the warring parties from using Korean territory but eventually had to allow the Japanese to use bases in Korea to attack the Russians. With the end of that war at the Treaty of Portsmouth, on September 6, 1905, the Western powers accepted Japan’s rights over Korea and, in November 1905, Korea was declared a Japanese protectorate.
Emperor Kojong tried to get the European powers involved by sending a secret mission to an international peace conference being held in the Netherlands. The Japanese found out and forced Kojong to abdicate in favor of his son, Sunjong, who assumed the throne in 1907.
However, this was not enough for the Japanese, who faced guerrilla attacks from Korean nationalists. Japan eventually forced Sunjong to abdicate in 1910. The Korean army was then disbanded, and Korea was annexed by Japan. The Japanese then ruthlessly crushed any resistance against them, controlling Korea until 1945, when the country was partitioned.
The former emperor Kojong died on January 21, 1919, and the former king Sunjong died on April 25, 1926, both in Korea. As Sunjong had no children, his half brother, Yi Un, was made heir to the throne. From 1908, when it was clear that the Japanese would take over the whole of the Korean Peninsula, many Koreans went into exile in Manchuria, Siberia, and Hawaii.
One of these was a distant member of the Korean royal family, Syngman Rhee, the direct lineal descendant of the third king of the Yi dynasty. In exile, he was president of the provisional Korean Republic from 1919 to 1945. He would become president of South Korea from 1948 until 1960.