Progressive Movement in Korea (1873-1895)

From New World Encyclopedia

The Progressive Movement in Korea began in 1873, just prior to the Treaty of Ganghwa in 1874 between Japan and Korea, and ended with the assassination of Empress Myeongseong in 1895. The Progressives stood for the modernization Korea as well as accepting Western ideas including Christianity. They clashed with the Conservative party in Korea, which favored rejecting modernization and western ideas. In that clash, both failed when Japan stepped in to seize control of Korea.

Korea has sometimes been described as a shrimp between two whales, Japan and China representing the whales. Indeed, the history of Korea is replete with invasions by Japan to reach China, and by China to reach Japan. Domination of East Asia required that Korea cooperate or suffer attack. Once again in the 1870s through 1895, Korea tried to avoid an invasion, devastation, and loss of freedom. Japan, modernizing during the Meiji Restoration, became both the savior and the executor. The Progressive Party in Korea sought to inherit Japan's modernization program without falling prey to its imperial ambitions. When the Progressives failed in that balancing act, Japan's colonization of Korea in 1905 resulted.


Japan had been following developments in Korea, known as the Hermit Kingdom, for the past 200 years. Some Japanese aristocrats favored an immediate invasion of Korea, but the risk of drawing Qing China into war discouraged the attack. Japan renewed efforts to establish ties with Korea with the Daewongun ouster from politics, but the royal court turned away their Imperial envoy at Tongrae in 1873. Japan responded in September of 1874 by sending the battleship Unyo towards Busan and another battleship to the Bay of Yonghung. The battleships approached Ganghwa Island and attacked the Korean guard posts. Meanwhile, Unyo arrived in Busan and attacked a small division of the Korean Royal Army.

Japan notified Korea that negotiations must begin. A majority of the royal court favored absolute isolationism, but Japan's willingness to use force persuaded them. In 1876, Japan sent six naval vessels and an Imperial Japanese Envoy to Ganghwa IslandLink title to enforce foothold. After numerous meetings, Korean and Japanese officials signed the Ganghwa Treaty on February 15, 1876, opening Korea to Japan.

Japan secured the use of Incheon and Wonsan ports, protection of the Japanese living in the ports, and the right to purchase land in the port area. Japan modeled the Ganghwa Treaty on the European treaty with Qing China that left China vulnerable to colonization. Queen Min realized that relations must be developed with other powerful nations to counter the Japanese. For the first few years, Japan enjoyed a near total monopoly of trade with Korean merchants suffering enormous losses.

Social revolution

In 1877, Gojong and Min commissioned a mission headed by Kim Gwang-jip to study Japanese technology and society. They hope the mission would learn Japan's intentions for Korea as well. Kim and his team expressed shocked at the modernization of Japan's cities. Kim Gisu noted that Seoul and Busan had been the metropolitan centers of East Asia only 50 years ago, far advanced over the underdeveloped Japanese cities. Now, Seoul and Busan looked like vestiges of the ancient past in contrast to the modern cities of Tokyo and Osaka.

Korea Strategy

While in Japan, Kim Gwangjip met the Chinese Ambassador to Tokyo, Ho Ju-chang and the councilor Huang Tsun-hsien. They discussed the international situation of Qing China and Joseon's place in the rapidly changing world. Huang Tsu-hsien presented to Kim a book he had written called Korean Strategy. Japan had gained military superiority over Korea and China, and China's hegemonic power of East Asia had been challenged. In addition, the Russian Empire had begun expansion into Asia.

Huang advised that Korea should adopt a pro-Chinese policy, while retaining close ties with Japan for the time being. He also advised an alliance with the United States for protection against Russia. He advised opening trade relations with Western nations and adopting Western technology. He noted that China had tried but failed due to its size. Korea, smaller than Japan, had a better chance to succeed. He viewed Korea as a barrier to Japanese expansion into mainland Asia.

He suggested sending Korean youths to China and Japan to study, and inviting Western teachers of technical and scientific subjects to Korea. When Kim Gwang-jip returned to Seoul, Queen Min took special interest in Huang's book and commissioned sending copies to all the ministers. Min hoped to win yangban approval to invite Western nations into Korea. She planned to allow Japan to help modernize Korea but, towards completion of critical projects, to encourage Western powers to drive them out. She intended to allow Western powers to begin trade and investment in Korea as a check on Japan.

Queen Min's Modernization Program

The yangbans' entrenched opposition to opening Korea to the West thwarted her plan. Choi Ik-hyeon, who had helped with the impeachment of Daewon-gun, sided with the isolationists. He contended that the Japanese had become just like the “Western barbarians,” intent upon spreading subversive Western ideas like Catholicism. The Daewon-gun had instigated a massive persecution that led to thousands of martyred Christians in 1866 and 1871. To the yangban, Min's plan meant the destruction of the Confucian social order. Scholars in every province of the kingdom responded with a joint memorandum to the throne. They deemed the ideas in the book mere abstract theories, impossible to realize practically. They contended that other ways to enrich the country than the adoption of Western technology existed. The yangban demanded a strict limit on the number of envoys exchanged, ships engaged in trade, and articles traded. They called for a ban on the import of all Western books and the destruction of those already in the country

Despite those objections, in 1881, the throne sent a large fact-finding mission to Japan for seventy days to observe Japanese government offices, factories, military and police organizations, and business practices. They also obtained information about innovations in the Japanese government copied from the West, especially the proposed constitution.

On the basis of their reports, Min inaugurated the reorganization of the government. She approved the establishment of twelve new bureaus to deal with the West, China, and Japan. She commissioned the establishment a bureau to promote commerce, a bureau to modernize military weapons and techniques, and a bureau to import Western technology. In the same year, Min signed a royal to decree to send top military students Qing China for education. The Japanese quickly volunteered to supply military students with rifles and train a unit of the Korean army to use them. Queen Min agreed, reminding the Japanese that she planned to send the students to China for further education in Western military technologies.

The modernization of the military met with opposition. The special treatment of the new training unit caused resentment among the other troops. In September 1881, the government uncovered a plot by the Daewon-gun to overthrow Min’s faction, depose Gojong, and place Daewon-gun’s illegitimate son, Yi Chae-son on the throne. After the foiling of the plot, Daewon-gun escaped trial, prison, or execution by virtue of his status as King Gojong's father.

Despite constant opposition, Min ignored the pleas of the conservative yangban by sending 12 liberal yangbans to Tianjin in China to study the making of ammunition, electricity, chemistry, smelting, mechanical engineering, cartography, and other basic subjects related to military affairs. When they returned, the capital Hanseong (modern-day Seoul) began to acquire street lamps and street cars. The throne had a telephone system installed between the palaces. Gyeongbokgung became the first palace in Korea completely powered by electricity. Seoul started a transformation into westernized city and the military rapidly modernized with queen Min's full support.

The Insurrection of 1882

In 1882, members of the old military became so resentful of the special treatment of the new units that they attacked and destroyed the house of a relative of the Queen, Min Kyeom-ho, the administrative head of the training units. Those soldiers then fled to the Daewon-gun, who publicly rebuked but privately encouraged them. Daewongun then took control of the old units. He ordered an attack on the administrative district of Seoul that housed the Gyeongbokgung, the diplomatic quarter, military centers, and science institutions. The soldiers attacked police stations to free comrades who had been arrested and then began the ransacking of private estates and mansions of the relatives of the Queen. Those units then stole rifles and began to kill many Japanese training officers and narrowly missed killing the Japanese ambassador to Seoul, who quickly escaped to Incheon.

The military rebellion then headed towards the palace but Queen Min and the King escaped in disguise and fled to her relative’s villa in Cheongju, where they remained in hiding. Daewongun put to death numerous supporters of Queen Min as soon as he arrived and took administrative control of Gyeongbokgung. He immediately dismantled the reform measures implemented by Min and relieved the new units of their duty.

Daewon-gun quickly turned Korea's foreign policy isolationist, forcing the Chinese and Japanese envoys out of the capital. Li Hung-chang, with the consent of Korean envoys in Beijing, sent 4,500 Chinese troops to restore order, as well as to secure China's place in Korean politics. The troops arrested Daewon-gun, taking him to China on treason charges. Queen Min and her husband, Gojong, returned and overturned all of Daewon-gun's changes.

The Japanese forced King Gojong privately, without Queen Min's knowledge, to sign a treaty on August 10, 1882 to pay 550,000 yen for lives and property that the Japanese had lost during the insurrection, and permit Japanese troops to guard the Japanese embassy in Seoul. When Min learned of the treaty, she proposed to China a new trade agreement granting the Chinese special privileges and rights to ports inaccessible to the Japanese. Min also requested that a Chinese commander take control of the new military units and a German advisor named Paul George von Moellendorf head the Maritime Customs Service.

The American Journey

In September 1883, Queen Min established English language schools with American instructors. She sent a special mission to the United States headed by Min Young-ik, a relative of the Queen, in July 1883. The mission arrived at San Francisco carrying the newly created Korean national flag, visited many American historical sites, heard lectures on American history, and attended a gala event in their honor given by the mayor of San Francisco and other U.S. officials. The mission dined with President Chester A. Arthur and discussed the growing threat of Japan and American investment in Korea.

At the end of September, Min Young-ik returned to Seoul and reported to the Queen, "I was born in the dark. I went out into the light, and your Majesty, it is my displeasure to inform you that I have returned to the dark. I envision a Seoul of towering buildings filled with Western establishments that will place herself back above the Japanese barbarians. Great things lay ahead for the Kingdom, great things. We must take action, your Majesty, without hesitation, to further modernize this still ancient kingdom."

The Progressives vs. The Sadaedan

A group of yangban who fully supported Westernization of Joseon founded the Progressive Movement in Korea during the late 1870s. They worked for an immediate Westernization of Korea, as well as a complete cut off of ties with Qing China. Unaware of their anti-Chinese sentiments, the Queen granted frequent audiences and meetings with them to discuss progressivism and nationalism. They advocated for educational and social reforms, including the equality of the sexes by granting women full rights, reforms far ahead of their rapidly Westernizing neighbor of Japan.

Min fully supported the Progressives in the beginning but when she learned that they harbored a profound anti-Chinese feeling, Min quickly turned her back on them. Min's gradual plan of Westernization called for cutting ties with China later. She saw consequences Joseon would have to face unless she succeeded in using China and Japan to help thwart the West initially, then gradually cutting ties with China and Japan. In addition, she strongly advocated the pro-China, pro-gradual Westernization Sadae faction.

The conflict between the Progressives and the Sadaes intensified in 1884. When American legation officials, particularly Naval Attaché George C. Foulk, heard about the growing problem, they expressed outraged and reported directly to the Queen. The Americans attempted to reconcile the two parties to aid the Queen in a peaceful transformation of Joseon into a modern nation. After all, she liked both party's ideas and plans.

Actually, she supported all the Progressive's ideas, except severing relations with China. The Progressives, frustrated by the Sadaes obstruction and the growing influence of the Chinese, staged a bloody palace coup on December 4, 1884 with the aid of the Japanese legation guards. The Progressives killed numerous high Sadaes and secured key government positions vacated by the Sadaes who had fled the capital or had been killed.

The refreshed administration began to issue various edicts in the King and Queen's names, eagerly moving to implement political, economic, social, and cultural reforms. Queen Min, horrified by the bellicosity of the Progressives, refused to support their actions and declared any documents signed in her name null and void. After only two days of new influence over the administration, Chinese troops under Yuan Shih-kai's command ended the Progressives coup, killing a handful of Progressive leaders.

Once again, the Japanese government saw the opportunity to extort money out of the Joseon government by forcing King Gojong, without the knowledge of the Queen, to sign the Hanseong Treaty. The treaty forced Joseon to pay a large sum of indemnity for damages inflicted on Japanese lives and property during the coup.

On April 18, 1885, China and Japan signed the Li-Ito Agreement in Tianjin. Both nations agreed to both pull troops out of Joseon, agreeing to inform each other of the need to reintroduce troops to Korea only to protect their property or citizens. Both nations also agreed to pull out their military instructors to allow the newly arrived Americans to take full control of that duty. The Japanese withdrew troops from Korea, leaving a small number of legation guards, but Queen Min anticipated the Japanese next move. She summoned Chinese envoys and, through persuasion, convinced them to keep 2,000 soldiers disguised as Joseon police or merchants to guard the borders from any suspicious Japanese actions and to continue to train Korean troops.



Peace finally settled once again upon the "Land of the Morning Calm." With the majority of Japanese troops out of Joseon and Chinese protection readily available, the plans for further, drastic modernization continued. In May 1885, Queen Min approved the establishment of a palace school to educate children of the elite, in the making since 1880. American missionary, Dr. Homer B. Hulbert, and three other missionaries developed the curriculum of Yugyoung Kung-won, the palace school. The school had two departments: liberal education and military education. American missionaries taught courses exclusively in English using English-language textbooks. In May 1885, Queen Min also gave her patronage to the first all girls' academy, Ewha Academy, now known under the name of one of Asia's finest elite universities for women, Ewha University.

Ewha Academy marked the first time in history that all Korean girls, commoner or aristocratic, had the right to an education, highlighting a significant social change. In 1887, Annie Ellers establish another school for girls, Yeondong Academy, with Queen Min's support. Rigorous and exclusively taught in English, the schools provided girls with an education comparable with American schools in the 1880s. She hired French, German, and Spanish teachers to teach the girls a second Western language.

The schools traditional Korean, classical Chinese (Hanja) characters part of the compulsory education through high school. The Protestant missionaries contributed much to the development of Western education in Joseon. Queen Min, unlike Daewon-gun who had oppressed Christians, invited different missionaries to enter Joseon. She knew and valued their knowledge of Western history, science, and mathematics and understood the advantage of having them within the nation. Unlike the Isolationists, she saw no threat to the Confucian morals of Korean society from Christianity.

Queen Min promoted religious tolerance in June of 1885, she gave pioneer Methodist missionary, Henry G. Appenzeller, approval to establish Baeje Academy, an all boys school. In the same year, under the patronage of King Gojong, Dr. Horace G. Underwood of the Northern Presbyterian Church of the U.S. founded a school for boys called Kyeongshin Academy. Knowing that schools also had to be established outside of Seoul, Queen Min extended her patronage to a secondary school for boys named Kwangseon in Pyongyang and a secondary school for girls called Sungdok in Yongbyon. Those two became the first modern schools in northern Korea.

The Press

The first newspaper to be published in Joseon was the Hanseong Sunbo, an all-Hanja newspaper that was approved by the King and Queen. It was published as a thrice monthly official government gazette by the Pangmun-guk, an agency of the Foreign Ministry. It included contemporary news of the day, essays and articles about Westernization, and news of further modernization of Joseon.

In January 1886, under the commission of Queen Min, the Pangmun-guk published a new newspaper named the Hanseong Jubo (The Seoul Weekly). She ordered it to be strictly written in Hangul with a mixture of Hanja, a format that has become the standard for many modern Korean newspapers. The publication of a Korean-language newspaper was a significant development, and the paper itself played an important role as a communication media to the masses until it was abolished in 1888 under pressure from the Chinese government. Queen Min and King Gojong had ensured the freedom of the press, an idea transported from the West that even Japan and Qing China did not adopt, and the Chinese grew uncomfortable with the constant criticism of their presence.

A newspaper in entirely Hangul, disregarding the Korean Hanja script, was not published until in 1894, Ganjo Shimpo (The Seoul News) was published as a weekly newspaper under the patronage of Queen Min and King Gojong. It was written half in Korean and half in Japanese.

Medicine, Christianity, and Music

The arrival of Dr. Horace N. Allen under invitation of Queen Min in September 1884 marked the official beginning of Christianity rapidly spreading in Joseon. He was able, with the Queen's permission and official sanction, to arrange for the appointment of other missionaries as government employees. He also introduced modern medicine in Korea by establishing the first western Royal Medical Clinic of Gwanghyewon in February 1885.

In April 1885, a horde of Christian missionaries began to flood into Joseon. The Isolationists were horrified and realized they had been finally defeated by Queen Min. The doors to Joseon were not only open to ideas, technology, and culture, but even to other religions. Having lost immense power with Daewongun still in China as captive, the Isolationists could do nothing but simply watch. Dr. and Mrs. Horace G. Underwood, Dr. and Mrs. William B. Scranton, and Dr. Scranton's mother, Mary Scranton, made Joseon their new home in May 1885. They established churches within Seoul and began to establish centers in the countryside. Catholic missionaries arrived soon afterwards, reviving Catholicism which had witnessed massive persecution in 1866 under Daewongun's rule.

While winning many converts, Christianity made significant contributions towards the modernization of the country. Concepts of equality, human rights and freedom, and the participation of both men and women in religious activities, were all new to Joseon. Queen Min was ecstatic at the prospect of integrating these values within the government. After all, they were not just Christian values but Western values in general. The Protestant missions introduced Christian hymns and other Western songs, which created a strong impetus to modernize Korean ideas about music. Queen Min had wanted the literacy rate to rise, and with the aid of Christian educational programs, it did so significantly within a matter of a few years.

Drastic changes were made to music as well. Western music theory partly displaced the traditional Eastern concepts. The organ and other Western musical instruments were introduced in 1890, and a Christian hymnal, Changsongga, was published in Korean in 1893 under the commission of Queen Min. She herself, however, never became a Christian, but remained a devout Buddhist with influences from Shamanism and Confucianism; her religious beliefs would become the model, indirectly, for those of many modern Koreans, who share her belief in pluralism and religious tolerance.


Modern weapons were imported from Japan and the United States in 1883. The first military related factories were established and new military uniforms were created in 1884. Under joint patronage of Queen Min and King Gojong, a request was made to the U.S.A. for more American military instructors to speed up the military modernization. Out of all the projects that were going on simultaneously, the military project took the longest. To manage these simultaneous projects was in itself was a major accomplishment for any nation. Not even Japan had modernized at the rate of Joseon, and not with as many projects going on at once, a precursor to modern Korea as one of East Asia's Tigers in rapid development into a first class nation during the 1960s-1980s. In October 1883, American minister Lucius Foote arrived to take command of the modernization of Joseon's older army units that had not started Westernizing. In April 1888, General William McEntyre Dye and two other military instructors arrived from the U.S.A., followed in May by a fourth instructor. They brought about rapid military development.

A new military school was created called Yeonmu Gongweon, and an officers training program began. However, despite land armies becoming more and more on par with the Chinese and the Japanese, the idea of a navy was neglected. As a result, it became one of the few failures of the modernization project. Because a navy was neglected, Joseon's sea borders were open to invasion. It was an ironic mistake since only a hundred years earlier Joseon's navy was the strongest in all of East Asia, having been the first nation in the world to develop massive iron-clad warships equipped with cannons. Now, Joseon's navy was nothing but ancient ships that could barely fend themselves off from the advanced ships of modern navies.

However, for a short while, hope for the military of Joseon could be seen. With rapidly growing armies, Japan herself was becoming fearful of the impact of Joseon troops if her government did not interfere soon to stall the process.


Following the opening of all Korean ports to the Japanese and Western merchants in 1888, contact and involvement with outsiders and increased foreign trade rapidly. In 1883, the Maritime Customs Service was established under the patronage of Queen Min and under the supervision of Sir Robert Hart, 1st Baronet of the United Kingdom. The Maritime Customs Service administered the business of foreign trade and the collection of tariff.

By 1883, the economy was now no longer in a state of monopoly conducted by the Japanese as it had been only a few years ago. The majority was in control by the Koreans while portions were distributed between Western nations, Japan, and China. In 1884, the first Korean commercial firms such as the Daedong and the Changdong companies emerged. The Bureau of Mint also produced a new coin called tangojeon in 1884, securing a stable Korean currency at the time. Western investment began to take hold as well in 1886.

A German, A. H. Maeterns, with the aid of the Department of Agriculture of the U.S.A., created a new project called "American Farm" on a large plot of land donated by Queen Min to promote modern agriculture. Farm implements, seeds, and milk cows were imported from the United States. In June 1883, the Bureau of Machines was established and steam engines were imported. However, despite the fact that Queen Min and King Gojong brought the Korean economy to an acceptable level to the West, modern manufacturing facilities did not emerge due to a political interruption: the assassination of Queen Min. Be that as it may, telegraph lines between Joseon, China, and Japan were laid between 1883 and 1885, facilitating communication.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

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