Thursday, October 27, 2011

Consort Profile: Empress Myeongseong of Korea

In this age of efforts to enforce to gender equality, it is easy to forget that, even in patriarchal monarchies of the past, women have often played crucial roles. One example of this is the Empress Myeongseong of Korea. She was a consort in a strictly Confucian monarch of the Far East and yet she was a formidable force and is still remembered by Koreans today as one of the champions of independence against the encroaching power of Imperial Japan. The future empress was born into the aristocratic Min family (hence her often being known as Queen Min) on October 19, 1851. She was orphaned by the time she was 8-years old, which was actually something of a benefit to her in terms of marriage as when the future Emperor Gojong went looking for a wife (when he was 15-years old) the preference was for a girl without many relatives who would be seeking favor at court and be inclined toward corruption. The little princess had an average education, nothing outstanding but sufficient and she was lovely, from a respected family and in good health so as to be expected to provide many children. So, after a lengthy process of selection, she was finally chosen to marry the young King of Korea when she was 16-years old on March 20, 1866.

Queen Min, from the very start, showed herself to be decisive, intelligent and assertive, not content to simply sit back and be a beautiful wall flower. She was very modest, very frugal and had no time for frivolity, extravagance or the usual social gatherings with their gossiping elites and trivial chatter. She was concerned with bigger, political issues, the fate of the monarchy and the Korean nation. It was a time of great tension as the traditional power of Imperial China was on the decline, the power of Imperial Japan was growing and the Russian Empire was showing increased interest in the region, partly for economic reasons and as part of their on-going quest to find an ice-free port on the Pacific. Queen Min caused a great many tongues to wag as she studied political affairs, international relations, economics, military matters and every other subject of importance that was not considered normal for ladies. She became her own teacher and greatly expanded her knowledge, not only on political affairs but also science, philosophy and religion.

The former regent and “great prince of the court”, the Daewongun, was particularly annoyed with her ambition and interest in affairs of state. Undeterred, Queen Min worked with courtiers and officials to establish her own circle of power, supportive of her and opposed to the Daewongun. When her first child by King Gojong died, the Daewongun saw an opportunity to be rid of Queen Min and declared her incapable of having male children. He then ordered the King to give one of his concubines a try who, to the delight of the Daewongun, later gave birth to a healthy baby boy. This was to be the means of pushing Queen Min aside, but she would not give up and roll over. She rallied the officials loyal to her and, in council, proposed that, as the King was then 22-years old, the regent should retire. Caught off guard the Daewongun had no choice but to accept their decision and retire. The Queen also had the newly delivered concubine shipped off to the country and her child died not long after. Not surprisingly, some accused Queen Min of having the child done in but, of course, there is no evidence for that at all. From that time on Queen Min was the dominant lady at court and her position only further strengthened. Far from remaining in the background, she was more of a partner, with her husband, in ruling Korea. In fact, it seemed to many she was more interested in state and world affairs than he was.

During this time the Kingdom of Korea was still maintaining a policy of isolation and had already greatly offended the Japanese by turning away their envoys sent to establish formal diplomatic relations. In fact, had Japan been prepared, there may have been war much sooner. In any event, Japan later sent a powerful naval force to compel Korea to open her ports to them, in much the same way Commodore Perry of the United States had done to Japan. Rather than risk war the Korean government agreed to trade with Japan and allow Japanese persons to buy land in Korea, though many were still nervous about having anything, whatever, to do with the outside world. Tensions, however, only increased as Japan was already more advanced than Korea and the local merchants were unable to compete with the Japanese which hurt the Korean economy.

Like many, Queen Min was shocked to learn how far Japan had raced ahead of them. Koreans were quite proud of past victories in which they repelled Japanese attacks but now there was no denying that Japan had completely surpassed them. Queen Min knew Korea would have to tread carefully and she favored a plan by which Korea would continue to deal with Japan in order to modernize and, once that was sufficiently completed, would then ally with the United States or some other or more western powers to drive the Japanese influence out of Korea. Conservatives at court rejected this idea and regarded the Japanese and the western powers alike as being too dangerous to deal with at all. However, the Queen was determined to see Korea modernized and, after another fact-finding mission to Japan in 1881, she began to reorganize the Korean government herself. Special attention was given to dealing with Japan, China and Russia, studying western technology, modernizing the military and studying western economic models. Of course, the establishment opposed these efforts in every area and there was even an attempt to overthrow Queen Min, but she found out about it and was able to suppress it quickly.

In 1882 there was a more serious mutiny by elements of the army resentful of the special status of the new, modern military units and they attacked areas associated with the Queen’s family and killed many of her friends and allies. The old regent even came out to take charge of the rebellion which was aimed almost solely at the Queen. The rebels grew in strength and finally King Gojong and Queen Min were forced to flee the palace and go into hiding with the Daewongun taking control of the government and quickly issuing orders ending all of the modernization programs and reasserting the policy of isolationism. This prompted the Qing Empire to dispatch Chinese troops to Korea (which they still viewed as within their traditional sphere of influence). They arrested the former regent, bringing him back to Peking for trial and restored the King and Queen who promptly retracted the retractions enacted in their absence. In the aftermath, King Gojong signed a new agreement with Japan and when Queen Min learned of this she quickly tried to strengthen ties with China as a way of off-setting Japanese influence in an effort to ensure that no one power gained dominance over Korea. She also sought relations with the United States in an effort to advance Korean industry, hoping to surpass Japan.

As this balancing act was maintained, the King and Queen grew closer together. Korea began to industrialize and modernize but the international situation remained tense. In 1894-95 the First Sino-Japanese was fought, largely in Korea, in which the Japanese ejected the Chinese from the Korean peninsula. With the Japanese ascendancy came a plot against the Queen who, on October 8, 1895, was assassinated at Gyeongbokgung Palace by Japanese agents after overcoming the palace guard. In the aftermath the King, and their son Crown Prince Sunjong, had to take shelter in the Russian legation. Later, Gojong tried to assert independence by proclaiming himself Emperor of the Korean Empire (hence the Queen being known as Empress Myeongseong). The court drew closer to Russia to offset the influence of Japan but this came to an end with the shocking defeat of Russia in the Russo-Japanese War after which Korea became fully integrated into the Empire of Japan in 1910. However, to the very last, the example and the tragic death of Empress Myeongseong inspired her people to resistance and to fight for their independence. She remains an honored, if somewhat controversial figure, in Korea to this day.


  1. Haven't signed on for a long time since I'm awfully busy, but I was surprised to find this article when I did. Great article! The queen did play a lot more of an active role than the king did while she was alive. It was rather sad when the Japanese brutally murdered her though :/

  2. Sad indeed, but that is all too often the fate of weaker powers in the game of geopolitics. It ain't for sissies, that's for sure. Korea was badly treated -no doubt about it, but it is hard to see how they could have avoided being badly treated by someone. All that can be said of Japan is that their motivation was to avoid having anyone do to them what they did to Korea.

  3. I like your articles a lot! Nice to read abt the lesser known royals, like the Asians & those from Monaco!

  4. I heard Japan was rather too harsh on her colonies. They would try to make every one of them "Japan", not like how others like the British were with their colonies. It was forced assimilation and they would try destroying cultures, particularly Korean's as they would ban any sort of national identification and looted a lot of valuable Korean artifacts and whatnot. Ironically the Korean national anthem composed by the German Franz Eckert would be banned in favour of the Japanese one he made earlier. This is why Korea has quite a lot of animosity towards Japan, even in present (such as the Dokdo dispute... I believe the West calls it Liancourt Rocks).

    But then again, Japan does not seem like many other nations; they have a lot of national pride and even had kamikaze pilots during WWII: people who would intentionally crash into enemy pilots for their nation. I suppose that somewhat explains why they would attempt coerced assimilation, but I still don't know why they were very cruel...

  5. It varied from place to place. Formosa, for example, did quite well under Japanese rule and the native inhabitants actually thought things were better under Japan than China. As harsh as they could be, the Japanese, for reasons of effeciency, set up first level industry in their colonies to refine raw materials somewhat so as to make them easier to ship to Japan for finishing up the final product. This gave the Japanese colonies a big leg up when it came to industrialization compared to European colonies.

  6. That's very interesting and I will take note of that. Going back to what you said, there is that factor regarding resources. From what I have learned, Japan coveted the abundant resources that were in Josun (Korea) and thought the people there were not using them efficiently. But then again Japan-Korea conflicts were around for a long time, as one of our national heroes, Admiral Yi Sun Shin, successfully defended Korea against Japanese invaders with turtle ships.

    Too bad Korea is at a state of ruin now; the north was actually where a lot of the good stuff were in... and I hope one day the Korean monarchy is restored, because a divided Korea is weak. Speaking of which, I found it funny that Japan is against the union of Korea.

  7. True, and as I recall not long ago was the anniversary of Admiral Yi Sun Shin's great victory. That was what was so shocking when the first Korean envoys went to Japan after the Meiji Restoration and saw how rapidly and drastically things had changed. Korea had been the more advanced country, the country that had defeated Japanese raids in the past, but they learned they had been surpassed. The Queen tried to change that but there just wasn't time.

    As for reunification, I've never heard anything about it one way or the other from Japan. It would be funny though as there are now even elements in the PRC that are tired of playing sugar-daddy to the embarassing DPRK and are readly to ditch them. Sooner or later there will have to be one Korea again and restoring the monarchy would be the ideal way (the only real way I think) to truly unite north and south based on their common history and traditions before the war, division etc.

  8. Actually, South Korea's economic transformation would be one of the great success stories of the post-war period. That they did that from the ruins of the Korean War and a constant Communist armed threat was an achievement to say the least.

    There's a lot to like about Japan and South Korea as countries. They still hold onto traditional values, don't give in to Political Correctness, multiculturalism or the rest of the left agenda, and have much stronger culture and industry than a lot of the West has now, sadly.

  9. De Maria numquam satis.

    The Japanese were indeed very abusive of the Koreans during colonial times. Do bear in mind though that I am Korean myself. They were known to have undertaken human biological experiments and also the problem with the Wartime prostitutes remains very sticky. What I would confess though is that I was constantly fed this idea that the Japanese were not penitent unlike the Germans who have done so much in penance for their war crimes, not much exposure was given to the fact they gave out reparation funds and loans.

    Generally I think the article is well written except for one small objection; as a Korean monarchist myself (who would gladly put down his life for the Republic should it be invaded by North Koreans or anyone at all), I personally do not like it when people refer to Her Highness Empress Myoungseong as Queen Min. Whilst everyone knew Chosun was a kingdom of Lees, nobody dared to utter their real names which were considered politically sacred. It was only when Emperor Go Jong (the penultimate emperor of Great Empire of Korea) appeared in world stage (I think it was in Hague, I might be mistaken) that he had to reveal His name. Queen Min was introduced as a way of banalising Her role as am Empress, introduced by the Japanese.

    Do not get me wrong that I am somewhat hysterical towards the Japanese. But their history cannot possibly be depicted in bright colours when it comes to the colonial times and whilst I would imagine many would have been appalled by the atrocities they committed against Koreans, I still remain unconvinced that there were enough voices of repentance. Like Blessed Cardinal Von Galen during Nazi Germany for example; he remains one of the few compatriots the Germans can present as a vocal conscience against Nazi regime.

    All aside, it was an enjoyable article and I should thank you.

  10. Had you checked Japanese historical records before you wrote this article? I am Japanese, and I checked Japanese Wikipedia and English Wikipedia. Also, I read some books about Korea because I study history in my university. The story that the queen was killed by Jpapan brutally is from novels. And, there is no clear evidence to suggest that. Japanese Wikipedia says this, but, English Wikipedia has no idea about this so it sounds real. Of course, I am not sure the trues because I cannot see the scene. However, there is no evidence about it so far.

    Moreover, I checked the reference of both Wikipedia pages, then I realized that there are Korean, Japanese and English records in Japanese one, meanwhile there are only Korean and English records in English one.

    If you like history, you should check such points. Some historical article could cause problems.

    1. You have hit on a major problem for Japan which is a lack of Japanese research available in English. Because of this, views hostile to Japan are often the only ones people in the US, UK, Canada, Australia etc ever hear.

      According to the information I have, which comes from Donald Keene who has written extensively on Japanese literature and history, Miura Goro planned the elimination of Queen Min because of her anti-Japanese attitude and opposition to all efforts toward progress in Korea. Okamoto Ryunosuke, one of his advisors, is also named as being deeply involved and is often named as the one most likely to have killed the queen in the attack on the palace.

      One thing stated categorically is that no one in the Japanese government knew of this or ordered it and everyone, including HM the Emperor and the Prime Minister were horrified by what happened and the backlash it caused. Miura and Okamoto were brought back to Japan and put on trial but, according to the text of Ryojun gyakusatsu jiken by Inoue Haruki, the government pressed the court to acquit to avoid worsening the international situation.

      If there are accounts by Japanese research to dispute this, such as concerning the story of the coup attempt by the Korean premier, I would be happy to hear about it and make it known. Again, however, the problem is that most readers do not understand Japanese and will not be able to verify sources not in English, so this will probably not convince them. If, however, those are available, I would be happy to publicize the Japanese side of the story. So far, it remains mostly unavailable outside Japan.

    2. Thank you for your reply. The lack of English records is big problem of Japan, I think so too. I searched Miura Goro, and accept that there is a possibility. However, Miura Goro was released because there was not enough evidence. Even though, if it was true, we do not know how to kill her.

      And also, In some Japanese records about the colonization suggest that Japan wanted Korea to have progress. Do you know the fact of Ito Hirobumi and Hukuzawa Yukichi?
      They are very famous people who mentioned about Asian relationships. And, Both people wished that Korea would be bigger to compete with Europe. For it, the queen was very annoying. Because she was into political conflicts against HeungSun-DaeWonGoon and weird religious ceremony while Korean people and economy hit rock bottom.

      For example, at first, the queen had pro-Japanese position to defeat HeungSun-DaeWonGoon. But, since she escaped from the fist assassin (by HeungSun-DaeWonGoon ) with Chinese connection, she started to support Chine instead of Japan. Then, she cleaned up his supporters and grabbed the politics. Also, she started to support Russia. Such things drove Korean reform group into Donghak Peasant Revolution and caused the Sino-Japanese War.
      As you can see from this, many people had motives to kill her.
      Surely there is one possibility Japan related to it, but Japan may not have all blames.

      May be, my answer is off the point. Sorry.
      Anyway, it is very shameful that there are few Japanese records in English. If you want to know more, Please ask me.

    3. Japan would likely be blamed in any event simply because of "circumstantial evidence", meaning that it benefited the pro-Japanese faction and hurt the pro-Russian faction to see Queen Min gone. And, yes, I am familiar with Ito Hirobumi and Hukuzawa Yukichi as well as the faction in Korea at that time that admired Japan and wanted to emulate Japanese progress in Korea. It is unfortunate that this is no longer the case today but Japan is the only country in northeast Asia that has not completely betrayed its own culture and traditions. It is surrounded by republics that were all founded by traitors and who hate Japan, mostly because Japan tried to maintain legitimate, traditional authority in the last century.

      Japan really does need to make more of a case abroad, especially the English-speaking countries which are the most widespread. Others are working in these places to denigrate Japan and turn people against Japan and, unfortunately, this is often the only side of the story people here. I try to do what I can here and early next month will be posting an important article on the misinformation most American believe regarding Japan in World War II but, particularly on the disagreements between Korea and Japan, most English-speaking people only ever hear and so only know the Korean point of view and never hear Japan's side of the story.

    4. I really respect you for your knowledge. However, I cannot agree this part "mostly because Japan tried to maintain legitimate, traditional authority in the last century." Because, if this is the reason, it is strange that other Asian countries are friendly to Japan. For instant, Taiwan was also colonized by Japan, but they are very friendly to Japan because things Japan brought into Taiwan during the colonization were not bad always (improving infrastructure, university, and so on). So, Taiwanese government tried to improve anti-Japanese emotion to integrate at once, yet it failed. This suggests Japanese colonization was much better than European one. And other Asian counties have forgiven Japan for our compensation (a lot of money). I think the reason China and Korea hate Japan is not historical one, it is political one. Because they need to criticize Japan to integrate their own people. Their governments are not good for their people at least.

      Absolutely that's right. I have to contribute to make this situation better. Thank you for chatting and inspiring me truly.
      I'm glad to see you!

    5. Taiwan is a rather unique case. They are eager to be somewhat friendly with anyone because they know that every country in the world has chosen to deal with Red China rather than them because of economic reasons. If everyone shunned South Korea in preference of North Korea, they would probably have a different attitude as well. Nonetheless, while relations are certainly better with Taiwan, and some there are supportive of Japan, I would not consider them officially "friendly" until they renounced their claim to the Senkaku Islands at least.

      I was speaking primarily of the republics that are immediate neighbors of Japan (two Koreas, two Chinas and Russia) and not the whole of Asia. Although, when Japan tried to gain a permanent seat on the Security Council, Singapore was the only Asian power to support Japan and that was not whole-hearted support. Much depends on circumstances. Vietnam and America, for example, are ideological enemies which circumstances have forced to become more friendly. It does not change the fact that both have principles and values that are totally opposed to one another. I think some of the opposition to Japan is deeper than politics. It is in the nature of the liar to hate the honest man and every republic, founded upon a betrayal of a people's culture and traditions, must always try to justify this by making a villain of the idea of monarchy and to belittle those who have not betrayed but who have always been loyal and faithful to their heritage.

  11. One of the better and more balanced accounts I've read about Queen Min--thank you for writing it!

    Regarding the comments above, the book _Under the Black Umbrella_ suggests that the Japanese occupation was fairly mild in its first two years until it hit resistance from the Koreans (who had reasons). And yes, I'd say they became an empire because they were tired of being an American de facto colony.

    I've often thought that Daewongun or some other court member was involved in the Queen's assassination. It seems incredible to me that a couple dozen guys with swords could get from the from of Gyeongbokgung Palace, all the way to the Queen's chambers in the back, without suffering or inflicting any (recorded) casualties. It smells like an inside job to me.

    1. True. Originally, Korean-Japanese relations were fairly peaceful but after the much major resistance movement many in Japan felt the Koreans could no longer be trusted to manage their own affairs and, of course, that led to increased tensions.

      Nobody in that area was an American colony though, defacto or otherwise. Despite what some like to think, the U.S. just wasn't that important at that stage.

      As for Korean involvement in the murder, it is pretty well established. Aside from the accounts of those directly involved, there had been previous Korean attempts on her life in the past and she had plenty of domestic enemies. Queen Min is one of those figures who became more famous and beloved as an icon after and because of her death. When she was alive she was far from universally popular.

  12. There was a secret document which is called 'Ezo Report' by Ezo Ishizuka who was 20s Japanese guy. He was a witness who watched a scene that Queen Min was murdered by Japanese samurais. In that report, he wrote about purpose, plan to kill the queen, people who joined murdering, and counterplan after murdering in that report.
    He starts with his report with ' All Japanese were thinking of murdering Queen Min'. The report says 'Miura also has been early thinking of a necessity of murdering the queen'.

    Especially, in his report, he says " The party went to deeply inside, dragged the queen out, inflicted 2 or 3 injuries on her by a sword(處刃傷). Furthermore, after taking her clothes off (裸體), they did examination of private part (局部檢査). [Funny(笑). Also Indignation (怒) happening]. And eventually, put oil on, and destroyed(燒失) and did things that are too hard to write. Murdered(殺害) the rest of palace officers in a cruel way."

    I did not add any of my opinions about it. It was what a Japanese witness wrote. I used to know that Queen Min was killed by Japanese and rapped after, but according to this document , which is pretty close to the truth, There is a high possibility that Japanese did not kill her right away, instead they did things that are against humanity and she died when she was burning on fire.

    It was interesting article.


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