There are many different accounts of the end of the Joseon Dynasty, the beginning of the Korean Empire and of Korea becoming a protectorate of Japan. In some accounts, King Gojong – who was made king by the Queen Dowager when King Cheoljong died without an heir – lacked the intellect to make decisions for himself. In others, Heungseon Heonui Daewonwang - father of Gojong and regent for some time – was an isolationist and is portrayed as a villain, who orchestrated a failed coup against his son. In others, Queen Myeongseong is the meddling villain that controlled the country and the King.
While any one of them, King, Queen and Regent, could be perceived as the good or the bad guys, I am more inclined to go with more moderate versions and think that it was just a matter of having different agendas. In the end though, what I personally think bears little weight.
While he was considered a fair ruler during is regency, the regent ultimately contributed to the fate of the country with his isolationist policies. As for the queen, who had become empress by that time, she surely posed a certain threat to Japan and proved to be an obstacle to Japan’s annexation plans, as made clear by the 1895 Eulmi incident during which Empress Myeongseong was assassinated by Japanese agents (I mentioned the assassination in my previous post The palaces of Seoul: Deoksugung).
The empress, a Korean heroine, was a supporter of Christianity and of the education of women – she founded Ewha University for women. More important to the subject at hand, she tried to counter Japanese interference in Korea by advocating for stronger ties with Russia and China.
This bit of context brings us to 1905, the date of the signature of the Eulsa Treaty, which made Korea a protectorate of Japan. This meant that Korea could no longer conduct diplomatic exchanges. Emperor Gojong did send secret emissaries to the Second International Peace Conference in Hague in an attempt to invalidate the treaty; these emissaries were never heard. In retaliation, on July 18, 1907, Japan made the emperor abdicate in favor of his son.