Korean Empire

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Korean Empire
Great Korean Empire
Daehan Jeguk
(Hanja: 光明天地)
(English: Let the land be enlightened )

대한제국 애국가
(English: "Patriotic Song of the Korean Empire")
Territory of the Korean Empire
Capital Hanseong (Seoul)
Languages Korean
Religion Neo-Confucianism
Korean Buddhism
Government Absolute monarchy
 •  1897–1907 Gojong
 •  1907–1910 Sunjong
 •  1894–1896 Kim Hong jip
 •  1897–1898 Yun Yong sun
 •  1905 Han Kyu sul
 •  1905–1907 Pak Che soon
 •  1907–1910 Ye Wan yong
Legislature Jungchuwon (중추원,中樞院)
Historical era New Imperialism
 •  Empire proclaimed October 13, 1897
 •  Constitution August 17, 1899
 •  Eulsa Treaty November 17, 1905
 •  Hague Secret Emissary Affair 1907
 •  Annexed by Japan August 29, 1910
 •  Independence declared March 1, 1919
 •  1907 est. 13,000,000 
Currency Yang (1897–1902)
Won (1902–10)
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Flag of the king of Joseon.svg Joseon
Korea under Japanese rule
Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea
Today part of  North Korea
 South Korea
 China (before 1909)
a 총리대신 (總理大臣) later changed name to 의정대신 (議政大臣) in 1905, and renamed 총리대신 in 1907.
Emperor Gojong.

The Korean Empire (Korean: 대한제국; Hanja: 大韓帝國; Daehan Jeguk; literally "Great Korean Empire") was proclaimed in October 1897, after the Joseon dynasty officially exited the Imperial Chinese tributary system. It lasted until the annexation of Korea by Japan in August 1910.

Emperor Gojong oversaw the partial modernization of the military, economy, land system, education system, and various industries. Japan became wary of Korea's modernization attempt under Russian influence, and after the assassination of the Resident-General Itō Hirobumi, decided to directly annex Korea.



The First Sino-Japanese War marked the rapid decline of any power the Joseon dynasty 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 the waning and weak Qing dynasty, Japan had delegates negotiate the Treaty of Shimonoseki with the Qing emissaries, through which Japan wrested control over the Liaodong Peninsula from the Qing (a move designed to prevent the southern expansion of Japan's new rival, Russia), and, more importantly over Korea. However, Russia recognized this agreement as an act against its interests in northeastern China and eventually brought France and Germany to its side in saying that the Liaodong Peninsula should be repatriated to the Qing China.

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 the 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 (later became 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. It is widely known that he 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.[citation needed]

Proclamation of Empire

With the assassination of his wife Queen Min, King Gojong and the Crown Prince (later became Emperor Sunjong) fled 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 Reform, referring to the year (1894) in which they began.[1]

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 male hair buns (it was a tradition in Korea), ignited further resentment and discontent. This led to the uprising of the Eulmi temporary armies aimed at avenging the assassination of Queen Min.

In 1897, King Gojong, yielding to rising pressure from both overseas and the demands of the Independence Association-led public opinion, returned to Gyŏngungung (modern-day Deoksugung). There, he proclaimed the founding of the "Greater Korean Empire" (Hangul: 대한제국), 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 Korea. This marked the complete end of the old world order and traditional amicable dependency system in the Far East. Korea's new status as an empire meant "Completely 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.

The name, literally 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). The significance of the declaration of an Empire, in the Korean understanding of the situation was to declare Korea's independence and equality with China. Historically, the usage of Emperor was reserved only for the Chinese Emperor, the Son of Heaven. Korean dynasties had acknowledged themselves as vassals of the Chinese, and had refrained from ever declaring their equality with China. 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 Chinese emperor as the suzerains of Korea but Japan's address also addressed Korea as an equal, rather than as a Chinese subservient. The change in title for Korea to empire only became possible after the Sino-Japanese war.[2]

Westernization policy during the Korean Empire


In 1900, Western attire became the official uniform for the Korean civil officials. Several years later, all Korean policemen were assigned to wear modern uniforms.

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. 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.

Gwangmu Reform

Yi Yong-ik, Chief of the Bureau of Currency during the Korean Empire

The Gwangmu reform was aimed at modernizing and westernizing Korea as a late starter in the industrial revolution. 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.[3]

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.

The headquarters office building of the Hanseong Electric Company.

In that time, modern urban infrastructures were 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 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.[4]

However, the Gwangmu reform was not a radical because of foreign liabilities, suppression of democracy, and slow pace of that. As a result, Korea was sandwiched between struggle of Japan and Russia.

Subsequent developments

The Russo-Japanese War, 1904. Japanese infantry marching through a street of Seoul.

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 US and Japan, but rather a set of notes regarding discussions on US-Japanese relations between members of the governments of the United States and Japan.[5] 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.[6] Taft expressed in the Memorandum how a suzerain relationship with Japan guiding Korea would "contribute to permanent peace in the Far East".[6]

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.[7]

Yi Bŏm-jin, imperial official, later independence fighter against the Japanese. He supported secret emissaries sent by Gojong to The Hague in 1907.

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 US legation from Korea even before Korea notified the U.S. of their new "protectorate" status.[8]

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 what was a slowly modernizing country. In the end, a weak military, and the remaining legacy of Korea's suzerain 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 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 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.

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

Titles and styles during the Korean Empire

  • Hwangje (皇帝 황제), the emperor, with the style of Imperial Majesty (陛下 폐하 pyeha)
  • Hwanghu (皇后 황후), the empress (consort), with the style of Imperial Majesty
  • Hwangtaehu (皇太后 황태후), the empress dowager, with the style of Imperial Majesty
  • Taehwangtaehu (太皇太后 태황태후), the empress dowager, current Emperor's living grandmother, with the style of Imperial Majesty
  • Hwangtaeja (皇太子 황태자), the crown prince of the Empire, the eldest son of the emperor, with the style of Imperial Highness (殿下 전하 jeonha)
  • Hwangtaeja-bi (皇太子妃 황태자비), the crown princess (consort) of Empire, with the style of Imperial Highness
  • Chinwang (親王 친왕), the prince (imperial), son of Emperor, with the style of Imperial Highness
  • Chinwangbi (親王妃 친왕비), the princess (imperial) (consort), with the style of Imperial Highness
  • Gongju (公主 공주), the princess of the Empire, the daughter of the emperor and his empress consort, with the style of Imperial Highness
  • Ongju (翁主 옹주), the princess of the Empire, the daughter of emperor and one of his concubines, with the style of Imperial Highness

Diplomatic relationships

See also



  1. Pratt, Keith (1999). Korea: A Historical and Cultural Dictionary. p. 194.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Seth, Michael J (2010). A History of Korea: From Antiquity to the Present. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. p. 225. ISBN 978-0742567160.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Keltie 1900, p. 791.
  4. Jae-gon Cho. The Industrial Promotion Policy and Commercial Structure of the Taehan Empire. Seoul: Jimoondang Publishing Company (2006)
  5. Nahm, Andrew. "The impact of the Taft-Katsura Memorandum on Korea: A reassessment," Korea Journal. October 1985, p. 9.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Nahm, p. 10.
  7. Kim, Ki-Seok, "Emperor Gwangmu's Diplomatic Struggles to Protect His Sovereignty before and after 1905," Korea Journal, (Summer 2006). p. 239.
  8. Kim, p. 245.


  • Dong-no Kim, John B. Duncan, Do-hyung Kim (2006), Reform and Modernity in the Taehan Empire (Yonsei Korean Studies Series No. 2), Seoul: Jimoondang Publishing Company
    • Jae-gon Cho, The Industrial Promotion Policy and Commercial Structure of the Taehan Empire.
  • Pratt, Keith L., Richard Rutt, and James Hoare. (1999). Korea: a historical and cultural dictionary, Richmond: Curzon Press. ISBN 9780700704637; ISBN 9780700704644; OCLC 245844259
  • The Special Committee for the Virtual Museum of Korean History (2009), Living in Joseon Part 3: The Virtual Museum of Korean History-11, Paju: Sakyejul Publishing Ltd.

External links