King Gojong/Emperor Gwangmu (Korea)

King Gojong/Emperor Gwangmu (Korea)

Note: "Korea" is a name used by outsiders.  Since 1948, the (South) Koreans have called their country Daehan Minguk (the Republic of Korea), and themselves the Han people.  Between 1392 and 1897, the country was known as Joseon.  Here at L&P we call it Old Korea.  In 1897, King Gojong of Joseon declared himself Emperor Gwangmu of the Daehan (Great Han) Empire, a move meant to signal Korea's rejection of its centuries' long tutelage to China and its assumption of full sovereignty.  North Korea is formally the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, which its people still informally call Joseon. 


This monarch had the misfortune to reign over his impoverished, corruption-ridden country at a time when, after long centuries of self-chosen isolation, it was ill-prepared for its encounter with the rapidly encroaching modern world.  

Gojong late in life. 

Born in 1852, he was selected to succeed to the throne at the age of 11 in 1863.  For the first decade of his reign, his father, the reactionary Heungson Daewongun, ruled as regent.  Assuming power in 1873, the young king found himself in the position of trying to modernize the country while simultaneously fending off the aggression of the Chinese, the Japanese, and the Russians, all of whom wanted to control the Korean peninsula.  He did the only thing he could, which was to try to play them against each other.  For 20 years, the strategy seemed to work.

This 1858 map of Korea, then spelled with a C, is from Morse's School Geography.

Eventually, however, the Japanese knocked the other players out of the game one by one.  First, Japan trounced China in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), at the end of which Japanese agents assassinated Gojong's pro-Russian wife, Queen Min.  Fearing for his own life, Gojong fled to the Russian legation in Seoul.  

The main gate of Gyeongbok Palace, where Queen Min was assassinated and from which Gojong fled to the Russian Legation, several streets to the south.  Photographed in 2015.

He remained in the legation for some time, moving to Deoksu Palace next door only in 1897.  In the same year, he declared himself Emperor Gwangmu of the Daehan Empire.  

 The grounds of Deoksu-gung (Deoksu Palace) in late autumn.  Photographed in 2015.

Japan annihilated the Russian navy in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), which ended 112 years ago yesterday, 5 September.  With no more cards to play, Gojong opted to abdicate in 1907 rather than sign a treaty of "protection" with Japan.  His son and successor, Emperor Sunjeong, signed it and was powerless to prevent the outright annexation of his country by Japan in 1910.  It would remain under Japanese rule until 1945.  

Gojong lived on at Deoksu-gung until 1919, when he suddenly died aged 67.  Many Koreans today believe he was poisoned by a Japanese agent.  However that may be, independence activists staged a demonstration on the day of Gojong's funeral, 1 March 1919.  It was violently quelled by the Japanese authorities.  

March 1st is now a national holiday in the Republic of Korea, but the royal connection isn't often mentioned.  

For many decades, Korean historians took a dim view of Gojong.  In recent years, however, a re-evaluation of his legacy has been underway.  I myself think he played a bad hand as best he could.  

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Posted on 06/09/2017 by David Gemeinhardt Korea 0

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