South Korea Table of Contents
Statue of King Sejong (1418-50), Toksu Palace, Seoul
Courtesy Oren Hadar
The Koryo Dynasty had suffered from a number of internal problems; Yi and his followers implemented drastic reforms to place the new dynasty on firmer ground. One of these problems revolved around the deterioration of land administration, a basic issue in a predominantly agrarian society. Contrary to the law specifying public (governmental) ownership of land, powerful clans and Buddhist temples had acquired a sizable proportion of farmland. By exacting a disproportionate share of crops in the form of rents, the "landlords" were causing economic destitution and social discontent among the peasants. By illicitly removing the farms from tax rolls, these clans and temples reduced the government's income, thus straining the treasury. Yi had sided with reformists even before he took power, hence it was natural for him to rectify past inequities after ascending to the throne.
The reform of the land system, however, had direct repercussions on the practice of Buddhism, because Buddhist temples and monks had been among those exacerbating the land problem. The economic influence of the temples was eliminated when they lost vast lands. The rectification went beyond economic reform, however, because the dominant forces in the new dynasty were devout Confucianists who regarded Buddhism as a false creed. The fact that Buddhist monks had wielded a strong influence in politics, the economy, and society during the latter part of the Koryo Dynasty--and that many of them had been corrupted by power and money--strengthened the opposition to Buddhism. Accordingly, the new dynasty launched a sweeping attack on Buddhism and its institutions, an attack that had profound and enduring effects on the character of civilization on the peninsula.
Many of the outstanding temples were permitted to remain intact; indeed, a few Choson monarchs were devout Buddhists. Nevertheless, Buddhism exerted little influence over the religious life of Korea under the Choson Dynasty; nor did any organized religion replace it. Although many people adhered to shamanism, geomancy, fortunetelling, and superstitions, Korea effectively became a secular society.
The Choson Dynasty had an auspicious beginning. During the reign of the fourth monarch, King Sejong (1418-50), a Buddhist, enormous strides were made in the arts, science, and technology. The Korean script, known as han'gul (see Glossary), which eventually came into common usage in the twentieth century, was developed by scholars at that time.
After Sejong, however, the dynasty fell into the hands of lesser men, and in the late fifteenth century the country began a long decline. Succession to the throne often caused long and bitter struggles, particularly when a ruler did not leave behind an heir who had reached the age of majority. Members of the Confucian-educated, scholar-official elite yangban (see Glossary) class quarreled over minor points of Confucian ritual and etiquette, especially the proper period of mourning upon the death of a royal personage. Factional groups began vying for power, frequently going to the extreme of exterminating the members of defeated factions. The civil service examination became a sham, and corruption ran rampant. Royal relatives and members of powerful factions increased their landholdings, which became exempt from taxes and thereby reduced the dynasty's sources of revenue. The farmers suffered more and more from tax burdens and other extractions imposed by greedy officials and landlords. In short, the country was not being effectively governed. To make matters worse, Japanese attacks in 1592 and 1597 and Manchu assaults in 1627 and 1636 ravaged the country's economy and turned much of the farmland to waste for a long period thereafter.
The resulting social and economic depression of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries fostered the rise of a new intellectual movement advocating the practical use of human knowledge. Pioneered by a Confucian scholar named Yi Su-kwang, the new thought--soon to be called Sirhak (practical learning)--was partly inspired by the firsthand knowledge of occidental sciences that Yi Su-kwang had acquired while on official visits to Beijing. As historian Ki-baik Lee has noted, Sirhak thought encompassed a variety of intellectual activities and several diverse viewpoints. These included proposals for refinement of the traditional administrative and land systems, advocacy of commercial and manufacturing activity, and a renewed interest in Korean history and language. Brought to maturity in the late eighteenth century by Chong Yag-yong, the Sirhak Movement was supported by a group of discontented scholars, petty officials, former bureaucrats, and commoners.
The Sirhak Movement found itself in direct confrontation with the dominant trend in neo-Confucian thought, which stressed the metaphysical and abstract teachings of the renowned Chinese philosopher Zhu Xi (see Traditional Social Structure , ch. 2). Neither the efforts of such wise and able kings as Yongjo (1725-75) and Chongjo (1776-1800), nor those of the Sirhak scholars, were able to reverse the trend against empirical studies and good government.
Western ideas, including Christianity, reached Korea through China in the seventeenth century. By 1785, however, the government had become incensed over the rejection of ancestor worship by Roman Catholic missionaries, and it banned all forms of Western learning. Western ships began to approach Korean shores after 1801, seeking trade and other contacts, but the government rejected all overtures from abroad. When news of the Opium War in China (1839-42) reached Korea, the dynasty had all the more reason to shut the doors tightly against Western "barbarians." In the meantime, the Choson Dynasty suffered from a series of natural calamities including floods, famines, and epidemics, as well as large-scale revolts of the masses in the northwest (1811-12) and southwest (1862 and 1894-95).
The expansion of Western powers in East Asia in the nineteenth century significantly altered the established order, in which Korea had been dominated by China. China under the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) was in decline; its power waned rapidly under the concerted attacks of such Western nations as France, Britain, and Russia. Stimulated by these events, Japan proceeded to modernize after having been forced to open its ports by Commodore Matthew C. Perry of the United States Navy in 1853-54. Korea, however, remained dormant, having closed itself to all outside contacts in the early eighteenth century.
The Japanese were the first foreign power in recent history to succeed in penetrating Korea's isolation. After a warlike Japanese provocation against Korea in 1875 (when China failed to come to Korea's aid), the Japanese forced an unequal treaty on Korea in February 1876. The treaty gave Japanese nationals extraterritorial rights and opened up three Korean ports to Japanese trade. In retaliation, China sought to counter Japan by extending Korea's external relations and playing off one Western power against another. Accordingly, Korea signed treaties with the United States, Britain, Italy, Russia, and other countries were signed within the decade after the one with Japan.
Internally, the Korean court split into rival pro-Chinese, pro-Japanese, and pro-Russian factions, the latter two having more reformist and modernizing orientations. In 1895 the Japanese minister to Korea masterminded the assassination of the Korean queen, who with her clan had opposed reform-oriented, Japanese-supported leaders. The Korean king, however, rejected not only Japan but also the various reform measures and turned for support to one of Japan's adversaries--Russia. The king fled to the Russian legation in Seoul to avoid possible Japanese plots against him and conducted the nation's business from there. The Japanese blunder had served the Russians well.
In the meantime, under the leadership of So Chae-p'il, who had exiled himself to the United States after participating in an unsuccessful palace coup in 1884, a massive campaign was launched to advocate Korean independence from foreign influence and controls. As well as supporting Korean independence, So also advocated reform in Korea's politics and customs in line with Western practices. Upon his return to Korea in 1896, So published Tongnip simmun (The Independent), the first newspaper to use the han'gul writing system and the vernacular language, which attracted an ever-growing audience (see The Korean Language , ch. 2). He also organized the Independence Club to introduce Korea's elite to Western ideas and practices. Under his impetus and the influence of education provided by Protestant mission schools, hundreds of young men held mass meetings on the streets and plazas demanding democratic reforms and an end to Russian and Japanese domination. But the conservative forces proved to be too deeply entrenched for the progressive reformers who trashed the paper's offices. The reformers, including Syngman Rhee, then a student leader, were jailed. So was compelled to return to the United States in 1898, and under one pretext or another the government suppressed both the reform movement and its newspaper.
The revolt of 1894-95, known as the Tonghak Rebellion, had international repercussions. Like the Taiping rebels in China thirty years earlier, the Tonghak (see Glossary) participants were fired by religious fervor as well as by indignation about the corrupt and oppressive government. The rebellion spread from the southwest to the central region of the peninsula, menacing Seoul. The Korean court apparently felt unable to cope with the rebels and invited China to send troops to quell the rebellion. This move gave Japan a pretext to dispatch troops to Korea. The two countries soon engaged in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), which accelerated the demise of the Qing Dynasty in China.
The victorious Japanese established their hegemony over Korea via the Treaty of Shimonoseki (1895) and dictated to the Korean government a wide-ranging series of measures to prevent further domestic disturbances. In response, the government promulgated various reforms, including the abolition of class distinctions, the liberation of slaves, the abolition of the ritualistic civil service examination system, and the adoption of a new tax system.
Russian influence had been on the rise in East Asia, in direct conflict with the Japanese desire for expansion. In alliance with France and Germany, Russia had just forced Japan to return the Liaodong Peninsula to China (which Japan had seized during the First Sino-Japanese War) and then promptly leased the territory from China. The secret Sino-Russian treaty signed in 1896 also gave the Russians the right to build and operate the Chinese Eastern Railway across northern Manchuria, which served as a link in the Russian Trans-Siberian Railway to Vladivostok. Russia proceeded to acquire numerous concessions over Korea's forests and mines.
The strategic rivalry between Russia and Japan exploded in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5, won by Japan. Under the peace treaty signed in September 1905, Russia acknowledged Japan's "paramount political, military, and economic interest" in Korea. A separate agreement signed in secret between the United States and Japan at this time subsequently aroused anti-American sentiment among Koreans. The Taft-Katsura Agreement was cynical by modern standards, exchanging what amounted to a lack of interest and military capability in Korea on the part of the United States (Japan was given a free hand in Korea) for a lack of interest or capability in the Philippines on the part of Japan (Japanese imperialism was diverted from the Philippines). Given the diplomatic conventions of the times, however, the agreement was a much weaker endorsement of the Japanese presence in Korea than either the Russo-Japanese peace treaty or a separate Anglo- Japanese accord. Two months later, Korea was obliged to become a Japanese protectorate. Thereafter, a large number of Koreans organized themselves in education and reform movements, but by then Japanese dominance in Korea was a reality. Japan annexed Korea as a colony on August 22, 1910.
Data as of June 1990
South Korea Table of Contents