In a malefactor’s hands, Korea is sacrificed on the altar of ambitionThe Taewongun was a scoundrel.
He has his admirers. He tried, they say, to make Korea strong. He ruled, they say, at a difficult time.
But his shortcomings were well-known from the start. He was a womanizer, a drunkard. Insane, even, some said. He had influence, for reasons we can but imagine, with Queen Cho. When King Ch’oljong died suddenly, she chose as heir Taewongun’s son, Kojong. He was only twelve; Taewongun ruled in his name.
It is fascinating to see what a scoundrel in power can do. He invested millions of dollars and the labor of 35,881 men to rebuild Gyeongbuk Palace. Surely Korea’s strength would have been better served by investing that wealth in armaments and infrastructure. Over centuries of isolation, Korea had fallen behind, just as Europe was reaching for world domination. Korea’s door was about to be kicked in.
In 1865, Russian ships appeared off Wonsan, firing cannon and demanding treaties. The Korean government was caught by surprise. Advisers suggested Korea form alliances, balancing rivals, as Shilla had done. England and France, fearing Russia’s expansion, were allies against the czar in the Crimean War. Why, advisors asked, shouldn’t Korea approach those Western powers?
A plan was formed. Catholicism had spread among the aristocracy over the previous century, illegal and often suppressed. A French bishop was secretly in Korea. He could contact his embassy in Beijing and mediate an agreement.
Bishop Berneux was found and brought to Seoul. But in the meantime, the Russians withdrew. The crisis had passed.
Taewongun then turned on his helpers. The bishop and priests were executed. Advisers who had suggested a treaty were executed. Taewongun reacted as a cunning scoundrel: first seeking any help available, then executing those who witnessed his weakness.
Soon the French fleet arrived, sailing down the Han River, seeking vengeance for the killing of its citizens.
The Koreans beat them back. Taewongun justly declared a great victory. He then demanded the execution of every Catholic in Korea, 10,000 by some estimates, on the spot where the French retreated, in one of the greatest religious persecutions in history. This was to punish the French. But of course, those killed were Koreans, often the best, brightest and most knowledgeable.
Now Kojong was growing up. Taewongun forced the young boy into a marriage with his cousin. This kept the throne in the family, through incest, by Korean marriage laws. But Queen Min proved too powerful. She displaced Taewongun’s influence with the compliant Kojong.
So Taewongun had her murdered. On the night of August 20, 1895, he let a Japanese force into Gyeongbuk Palace. They killed Queen Min and put Kojong under house arrest.
Taewongun also tortured and killed the founder of Tonghak (now called Chondogyo), a movement to reform and strengthen Korean culture. Suppressing it probably further crippled Korea’s development. It also produced the Tonghak rebellion. In 1894, they rose and marched on Seoul. Hundreds of thousands died. The Japanese landed troops, supposedly to restore order. Korean independence was nearing its close for several bloody generations.
But he remains something of a folk hero, for being so brazen, for doing what many dare not to do, to flex unlimited power without responsibility.
Among other monuments at his summer residence is now a restaurant. Take the No. 8 bus from Hongje subway station. Get off just inside the old city walls, before Segomjong. The villa is southwest, past the corner of Segomjong-gil and Chahamun-gil.
by Stephen K. Roney
Stephen Roney teaches at University College of the Cariboo, Kamloops, Canada.