Queen Min

Late 19th Century was a turbulent time for many nations, however the Korean peninsula was perhaps more turbulent than most. A time of political factions and uprisings that led to the tale of Queen Min and her struggle to forge the Korean empire. 

King Gojong and Queen Min

King Gojong and Queen Min

When she was just a young orphan, Min was selected as the future wife of Korea's child-king Gojong, by Gojong's father, the Taewongun. In 1866, the sixteen year old bride married the King, who was fifteen at the time, which made Min, the Queen Consort of Korea.

From an early age Min was not content with the ideals of noble women at the time, and instead became heavily invested in men's activities such as politics, science, philosophy and religion. It wasn’t long before Min and her father-in-law were at odds, with the Taewongun growing increasingly concerned with Min's activities.

The Taewongun gave his son a royal consort in an effort to weaken Min's influence at the time, who bore Gojong's first son, as Min couldn’t provide a child at the time. Several years later Queen Min finally gave birth to Gojong's son, however the baby died after three months. The Queen was furious as she blamed her father-in-law with being involved in murdering her child and vowed revenge.

The king was intimidated by his father and never asserted his right to declare himself ruler of Korea taking the right away from his father, so over the next few years Queen Min inserted a number of allegiances into the court including a Confucian scholar called Cho Ik-hyon, she also convinced the king and his brother to side with her over the king's father at this time.

The Taewongun reacted to this and attempted to assassinate Cho, but he fled into exile. His actions solidified the king however, and in 1873 he announced his outright rule of Korea. Soon after the Queen's cousin and his mother were killed by an exploding parcel, an explosion also occurred in the Queen's chamber but no one was harmed.

In his first year of rule the Japanese came to request that Korea pay tribute (as they were paying tribute to Qing China at the time), however King Gojong flatly rejected this, and deported the Japanese emissaries. The Japanese returned soon after however the King decided to sign a trade accord with them to avoid conflict, despite Queen Min's protests to deport them again. Under the trade pact, the Japanese sent a gunship to region to survey, however it didn’t have the permission of the Koreans, and the Korean coastal garrison opened fire on the gunship. The Japanese ship had superior firepower which returned fire, and the Japanese also sent a landing force which briefly fought the Koreans, but the quickly Japanese withdrew back to Japan.

The funeral march of Empress Myeongseong, 1895

The funeral march of Empress Myeongseong, 1895

In response the Japanese sent six warships back to the region, but Gojong capitulated to the Japanese once again, drawing the ire of Queen Min, this pact gave the Japanese rights to access Korean ports, and that Japanese citizens gained immunity from Korean law. Over the next few years Japan asserted its influence over Korea, despite Queen Min's attempts to block it.

Soon after Queen Min branched out to foreign powers (Russia and China) for assistance against the Japanese, and will they offered trade assistance, none were willing to engage. At this time she also undertook a campaign of sweeping reforms and reorganisation of the Korean military.

A section of the military who were not comfortable with Min's reforms took action soon after, and led an uprising which led to the King and Queen being removed and the Taewongun returned to power. During this incident foreign representatives were removed from the capital, as well as many members of Min's supporter base were executed.

The expelled King pleaded for Chinese assistance in response to the incident, which came of the form of over 4,000 troops which marched on the capital and swiftly removed the Taewongun from power and took him back to China for trial. The King and Queen were quickly reinstated to power.

The weak king signed a new accord with Japan which ordered Korea to pay restitution for Japanese lives lost in the incident, as well as allowing Japanese soldiers to stay in Korea and defend their embassy, although the Queen had no knowledge of the is treaty.

In response to her husbands actions she asked for Chinese assistance, which she granted to Chinese access to all other ports the Japanese couldn’t access, as well as military training assistance for the Korean army. This is when things started getting messy.

By 1894, many villagers had begun an uprising due to the heavy taxation imposed, and started marching towards the capital. As the rebellion neared Seoul, the King and Queen once again asked for Chinese aid, and China dispatched over 2,00 troops to solidify Seoul. Japan was not at all pleased that China had landed troops, so they sent over 4,000 of their own troops to Seoul.

Although the rebellion was quickly quashed, Chinese and Japanese troops remained, despite the Korean requests for both sides to leave. After a short period of intense negotiation, Japanese troops captured the King and Queen, and China and Japan went to war for control of Korea.

Warfare between the nations raged for some time, and despite the Chinese sending over 600,000 troops, the Japanese had crushed the Chinese with their superior artillery the following year, leaving Korea at the mercy of the Japanese, Queen Min was furious with this.

Japan had brought in a new constitution for Korea and changed the face of its parliament, with nowhere else to turn, Queen Min sought the aide of the Russians. The Japanese became aware of Min's plotting with Russia, and sided itself with Taewongun, even though he hated the Japanese, he was happy to help depose Queen Min.

The Japanese ambassador in Korea then instigated the plan to assassinate Queen Min.

He arranged for a group of 50 Japanese and Korean assassins to enter the palace. They captured the King, and dragged the Queen and her servants across the floor before savagely beating and slashing them to death. The Japanese soon after put the Queen's dead body on public display before taking her out into the woods and burning her.

Although the Japanese denied involvement, they appealed to the King to demote the Queen's power after death, and for once the King did not bow to Japanese pressure. The Japanese bowed to tremendous international pressure for the killing of a foreign leader, and staged trials of 56 men in Japan, however most were acquitted due to lack of evidence, including the Japanese ambassador. At this time the King fled to the Russian embassy and stayed in exile for several years while the Taewongun ruled.

Several years later the King took back Korea with Russian aide, a rule which would last until 1910 when the Japanese defeated the Russians and established Japanese colonial rule of the Korean peninsula. A rule that would last until the end of World War II.

Queen Min was given the posthumous title of Empress Myeongseong once her husband was restored to power.