The Assassination of Empress Myeongseong of Korea

Empress Myeongseong of Korea (source)

Empress Myeongseong of Korea (source)

On October 8, 1895, Empress Myeongseong of Korea, known as Queen Min during her lifetime, was assassinated for political reasons. She was the first official wife of King Gojong, the King of Joseon and the first emperor of Korea. After the first Sino-Japanese War, Queen Min advocated ties between Korea and Russia in an attempt to reduce Japanese influence. Yi Ha-eung, the Heungseon Daewongun (King Gojong’s father and regent during his minority), orchestrated several failed rebellions in an attempt to remove her from influence before eventually achieving success.

In 1863 when King Cheoljong of Joseon died, the Grand Royal Dowager Queen Sinjeong with Yi Ha-eung a member of an obscure branch of the Yi clan managed to have Yi Myeongbok, his son, crowned King Gojong of Joseon. Yi Myeongbok was only 11 years old so Yi-Ha-eung was given the title Heungseon Daewongun and power to act as regent. He proved to be a wise ruler, eliminating corruption in the government, revising laws, and reforming military techniques.

When Gojong turned 15, the search for a wife began. She had to be beautiful, healthy, and of only an ordinary level of education. It was also essential that she have no close relatives who could make a claim on the throne. The daughter of Min Chirok of the Yeoheung Min clan met these qualifications. Born on October 19, 1851, by the age of eight both of Min’s parents had died and she was living in the House of Gamgodang. She was also of sufficiently noble birth, both Daewongun’s wife and mother were from the same clan and it was also the source of two previous Queen consorts.

The selection process was exacting, but after a final interview with the Daewongun, Min married Gojong on March 20, 1866. At 16, she was so slight that a court lady was assigned to hold up the traditional wig worn by brides at royal weddings. But if they thought Min was weak because of her small stature, they were wrong. Officials soon found out that the new queen was an ambitious woman. Rather than participating in lavish parties and afternoon teas, she spent her time reading and furthering her education in areas such as history, science, and politics.

Eventually, Min began to take an active role in politics. She also gave birth to a son who sadly died four days after his birth. Seeing the danger that the Queen posed, Daewongun took this opportunity to accuse her of being unable to bear a healthy male heir and declared the son of a concubine, Lee Gwi-in, as the official crown prince. But Min had also been forming a secret faction against the Daewongun. With their help, she presented a formal impeachment to the Royal Council of Administration. By this time, Gojong was old enough to rule in his own right and the Council forced Heungseon Daewongun into retirement. Min also took this opportunity to banish Lee Gwi-in and her son, stripping them of royal titles.

During the 1870s, through various envoys and a show of Japanese naval force, Korean officials signed the Ganghwa Treaty in 1876 opening Korea to Japaneses trade. The balance of power was shifting in Asia with changes occuring in China, Russia, and Japan. Gojong and Min sent fact finding missions to Japan to determine its degree of westernization and plans for Korea. Min hoped to open Korea to western technology, but limit the control of Japan in the country. The majority of the Royal Council, however, was strictly isolationist.

Gyeongbokgung Palace where Queen Min died (source)

Gyeongbokgung Palace where Queen Min died (source)

In 1881, Min and Gojong sent another fact finding mission to Japan. As a result, the Queen reorganized the government, creating various bureaus to deal with foreign relations, commerce, and the military. One goal was to import western technology, specifically to modernize military weapons and techniques. This was met with opposition and in September of that year a plot was uncovered to overthrow the Queen’s faction and put one of Daewongun’s sons on the throne.

Over the next few years, there were several attempts to overthrow the Queen’s influence. She was pro-China and pro-gradual westernization. Others were in favor of immediate westernization and willing to use Japanese influence to achieve it. Twice Gojong signed treaties with the Japanese reimbursing them for losses during coup attempts. In both cases, Min countered by making agreements with the Chinese.

With peace established in 1885, Min began to achieve some of her goals. A palace school was established for children of the elite with courses taught in English. The first all-girl’s school was founded, giving Korean girls a right to an education for the first time. Both of these institutions were headed by Protestant missionaries as Min was much more tolerant of other religions than her father-in-law had been. Their success brought other missionaries, both Protestant and Catholic, which introduced changes in the areas of medicine and music as well. Although Min never converted, she like many of the ideas that came with the western influence.

Military modernization continued with the help of the Americans, Trade became firmly established not only with the Japanese, but with China and other western nations, and the currency was stabilized. Modern agriculture methods and machines were imported and telegraph lines were installed between Korea, China, and Japan.

But there were external influences outside of Min and Gojong’s control. After the defeat of the Chinese in the Sino-Japanese war, Min sought help from Russia to block Japanese influence. Once again the Japanese reached out to Daewongun to attempt to remove her from power. This time they were successful.

Early on the morning of the 8th, troops loyal to the Daewongun attacked the Gyeongbokgung Palace, overpowered the royal guard, and admitted a group of Japanese assassins allegedly recruited by Miura Gorō, the Japanese Minister to Korea at the time. Three women were killed. When it was determined which one was Queen Min, her body was burned and her ashes scattered. The incident prompted international criticism, anti-Japanese sentiment in Korea, and the recall of Miura to Japan. Miura and the military personal involved were tried in Japan, but found not-guilty on the grounds of insufficient evidence.

King Gojong and the crown prince took refuge in the Russian legation. After Daewongun’s return to power, with the encouragement of Japanese officials, he presented a proposal to lower Min’s status posthumously from Queen consort to commoner. Although it appears that Gojong was always swayed by others, in this case he took a strong stand and refused to sign. He supposedly said, “I would rather slit my wrists and let them bleed than disgrace the woman who saved this kingdom.”

Over the next two years, Japanese influence was reduced and in October 1897 King Gojong returned to the palace and proclaimed the founding of the Korean Empire. He had Min’s remains recovered and properly entombed in in Namyangju, Gyeonggi, South Korea. Instead of having her status reduced, Queen Min was declared Empress Myeongseong of Korea posthumously.

Funeral of Empress Myeongseong in 1897 (source)

Funeral of Empress Myeongseong in 1897 (source)

Further Reading
Empress Myeongseong at Wikipedia
Queen Min of Joseon Korea at About Education
Empress Myeongseong Assassinated at the Sword of Japanese Killers, Body then Burned: Will This Established Theory Be Overturned?“, The Kyunghyang Shinmum
Consort Profile: Empress Myeongseong of Korea, at The Mad Monarchist
The Sobering Truth of Empress Myeongseong’s Killing, The Chosunilbo