Great Korean Empire
(English: Let the land be enlightened)
Protectorate of Japan
|Capital||Hanseong (present-day Seoul)|
Cheondoism (recognized in 1907)
• 1896–1898 (first)
|Yun Yong Seon|
• 1907–1910 (last)
|Historical era||New Imperialism|
• Empire proclaimed
|13 October 1897|
|17 August 1899|
|17 November 1905|
|29 August 1910|
|Today part of||North Korea|
|History of Korea|
|Proto–Three Kingdoms period|
|Three Kingdoms period|
|Northern and Southern States period|
|Later Three Kingdoms period|
The Korean Empire (transcribed as Daehan Jeguk, Korean: 대한제국; Hanja: 大韓帝國, lit. 'Great Korean Empire') was a Korean kingdom proclaimed in October 1897 by Emperor Gojong of the Joseon Dynasty. The empire stood until Japan's annexation of Korea in August 1910.
During the Korean Empire, Emperor Gojong oversaw the Gwangmu Reform, a partial modernization and westernization of Korea's military, economy, land system, and education system, and of various industries. In 1905, the Korean Empire became a protectorate of Japan and in 1910, Japan annexed Korea outright.
Korea during the Joseon dynasty (1392–1897) was a perfunctory client kingdom of the Qing dynasty (1636–1912) in China, even though Joseon was managed independently from China by the King. Towards the end of the 19th century, influence over Korea was increasingly an area of conflict between the Qing and Japan. The First Sino-Japanese War marked the rapid decline of any power the Joseon state had managed to hold against foreign interference, as the battles of the conflict were fought in Korea and surrounding waters. With its newfound preeminence over the waning and weak Qing dynasty, Japan had delegates negotiate the Treaty of Shimonoseki with the Qing. By signing the treaty, a move designed to prevent the southern expansion of Russia, Japan competed for control over the Liaodong Peninsula and Korea with the Qing. Russia viewed this agreement as an act against its interests in northeastern China and eventually brought France and Germany to its side, pushing for the Liaodong Peninsula to be repatriated by the Qing.
At the time, Japan was powerless 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 Liaodong Peninsula. With the success of the three-country intervention (Russia, France, Germany), Russia emerged as another major power in East Asia, replacing the Qing dynasty as the entity that the Joseon court's many government officials advocated close ties with to prevent more Japanese meddling in Korean politics. Queen Min (posthumously titled Empress Myeongseong), the consort of King Gojong, also recognized this change and formally established closer diplomatic relations with Russia to counter Japanese influence.
Queen Min began to emerge as a key figure in higher-level Korean counteraction against Japanese influence. Japan, seeing its designs endangered by the queen, quickly replaced its ambassador to Korea, Count Inoue, with Lieutenant-General Viscount Miura, a diplomat with a background in the Imperial Japanese Army. He subsequently orchestrated the assassination of Queen Min on October 8, 1895, at her residence at the Geoncheong Palace, the official sleeping quarters of the king within Gyeongbok Palace.
With the assassination of his wife Queen Min, King Gojong and the Crown Prince (who later became Emperor Sunjong) fled to the Russian legation in 1896. From 1894 until the king's return from Russian protection, Korea underwent another major upheaval under the progressive leaders Inoue Kaoru installed after Japan's victory in the Sino-Japanese War. The new laws passed by progressives and reformers in the royal cabinet forced through long-desired reforms aimed at revamping Korea's antiquated society. These laws were called the Gabo Reform, referring to the year (1894) in which they began.
Meanwhile, the new reforms aimed at modernizing Korean society soon attracted controversy from within. Anti-Japanese sentiment, which had already become entrenched in the minds of commoners and aristocrats alike during the Japanese invasions of Korea (1592–98), 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 Queen Min. However, the new and modern reforms pushed forward by the pro-Japanese progressives, the most controversial of which was the mandatory cutting of the traditional top knot, ignited further resentment and discontent. This led to the uprising of the year of Eulmi, as temporary armies aimed at avenging the assassination of Queen Min formed.
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 Deoksugung). There, he proclaimed the founding of the "Great Korean Empire", officially re-designated 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 superficial historic ties as a tributary of Qing China, which Korea had adhered to since the prior Manchurian invasion in 1636. Gojong became the Gwangmu Emperor, the first imperial head of state and hereditary sovereign of the Korean Empire. This marked the complete end of the old world order and traditional tributary system in the Far East. Korea's new status as an empire meant "Complete independence from Qing's sphere of influence" which means Korea was not influenced from Qing externally according to the Treaty of Shimonoseki of 1895 and also implemented the "full and complete" independence according to the treaty. Many symbolic items that marked Korea's political subordination to China were modified or destroyed. For example, the Yeongeunmun gate and Mohwagwan were demolished, representing an end of tributary relations with China. The Independence Gate was erected at the site of the former Yeongeunmun.
The name of the Empire, Daehan Jeguk, literally meaning "Great Han Empire", was derived from Samhan, specifically the Three Kingdoms of Korea (not the ancient confederacies in the southern Korean Peninsula), in the tradition of naming new states after historic states (Gubon Sincham, Hanja: 舊本新參, Hangul: 구본신참). The significance of the declaration of an Empire, in the Korean understanding of the situation was to declare Korea's end of tributary relationship with the Qing dynasty. Usually, the usage of Emperor was reserved only for the emperor of China, the Son of Heaven. Korean dynasties had given tribute to Chinese dynasties. When Japan experienced the Meiji Restoration, the Emperor of Japan was declared the source of sovereignty in the Japanese government. Upon receiving news of the Meiji restoration from Japan, the Korean government refused to acknowledge the change. Not only did it challenge the primacy of the Qing Chinese emperor as the symbolic suzerains of Korea but Japan's address also addressed Korea as an empire, rather than as a tributary of the Qing dynasty. The change in title for Korea to empire only became possible after the Sino-Japanese war.
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 America. 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 relationships with the Korean royal court, also helped the propagation 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.
The Gwangmu reform was aimed at modernizing and westernizing Korea as a late starter in the industrial revolution. The first legislation enacted by the new state was the 1897 Law on Weights and Measures standardizing Korea's various local systems of traditional weights and measures. The same year, 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 infrastructure was built by the Gwangmu government. In 1898, the emperor authorized the creation of a joint venture with American businessmen. In consequence, Hanseong Electric Company, operating a public electrical lighting network and an electric streetcar system was founded. 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 the 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 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.
During the Gwangmu period, Western-style official uniforms were introduced in Korea. Initially, Koreans were quite hostile to Western dress, and mocked Japanese who had adopted Western style-dress after the Meiji Restoration. 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 uniforms.
In the military sphere, the Korean army as it existed in the early 1890s consisted of about 5,000 soldiers and it was increased to an immense amount of 28,000 right before the Russo-Japanese War. Training by Russian officers beginning in 1896 led to the organization of a 1,000-strong royal bodyguard armed with Berdan rifles that served as the core of an improved army. From this core unit, soldiers were sometimes transferred to other units, which included five regiments of about 900 men each.
However, the Gwangmu reform was not radical because of foreign liabilities, suppression of democracy, and a slow pace. Instead, Korea became an object of contention between Japan and Russia.
Main article: Military of the Korean Empire
 The Imperial Armed Forces (대한제국군) was the military of the Korean Empire.
It was composed of the Imperial Korean Army, the Imperial Korean Navy, and the Imperial Guards.
Succeeding the former Joseon royal Army, the Gwangmu Reform reorganized the military to a modern Western-style military. Unlike in the Joseon Dynasty, service was voluntary.
The Army was disbanded on August 1, 1907, as a consequence of the Japan-Korea Treaty of 1907. Colonel Park Seung-hwan protested by committing suicide. This sparked a revolt led by former imperial soldiers leading to the battle at Namdaemun Gate. The remaining soldiers were later incorporated as Emperor Sunjong's Royal Guards, which continued even after the annexation in 1910.
On August 22, 1904, the first treaty between Japan and Korea, known as First Japan–Korea Convention, was signed. The Taft–Katsura Agreement (also known as the Taft–Katsura Memorandum) was issued on July 17, 1905, and was not actually a secret pact or agreement between the United States and Japan, but rather a set of notes regarding discussions on U.S.-Japanese relations between members of the governments of the United States and Japan. The Japanese Prime Minister Taro Katsura used the opportunity presented by Secretary of War William Howard Taft's stopover in Tokyo to extract a statement from (representative of the Roosevelt Administration) Taft'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 entities outside of Korea presenting Korea's desperate case to preserve their sovereignty because normal diplomatic channels were no longer an option due to the constant surveillance by the Japanese.
On November 17, 1905 the Eulsa Treaty (known also as "1905 Agreement", "The Five Article Treaty" or "Second Japan-Korean Convention") was signed in Korea even before Dr. Homer Hulbert's mission entered Washington. Reportedly, the seal of the Korean Foreign Ministry 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 U.S. legation from Korea even before Korea notified the U.S. of their new "protectorate" status.
The empire began with the law and perception of the international system at the time stacked against what was a slowly modernizing country. In the end, a weak military, and the remaining legacy of Korea's tributary relationship with Qing 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 second and last emperor of Korea, due to 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 Tjoune, 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 from the growing Japanese influences over Korea seemed natural and beneficial at the height of colonialism in the first decade of the twentieth century to the Westerners.
On August 22, 1910, the Korean Empire was annexed by Japan with the forced Japan–Korea Annexation Treaty, beginning a 35-year period of Japanese colonial rule which stripped Korea's sovereignty.