The Two Koreas: The Japanese Annexation

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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.

Emperor Gojong

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.

Regent Daewongun

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).

Empress Myeongseong

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.

Six days later, a new treaty came into force that deprived Korea of the administration of its internal affaires: it gave the Japanese Resident-General the right to appoint and dismiss high-ranking officials, stated that these officials had to be Japanese, placed the Korean army under Japanese leadership, and handed over judicial and policing powers.
However, it is only in 1910 with the Korea Japan Annexation Treaty that Korea officially became a colony of Japan. With this, Japan was recognized as having the right to speak on behalf of Korea. This is not surprising, as it was a different context in which imperialism was not considered under the same negative light as today. The treaty of 1910 might seem like the turning point, but really the majority of the foundations had been laid out in the previous treaties.
Now, some say Japan was really just helping Korea. That those saying otherwise are conspiracy theorist or just plain ungrateful. My aim is not to come to a conclusion on this, but to highlight the significance of these events toward the creation of the two Koreas. The point is, when all was said and done, this forced occupation of Korea left the country with no leader of its own.
To conclude for this post, let’s jump forward in time to the surrender of the Empire of Japan on September 2, 1945, which brought the end of the Second World War hostilities. I would like to bring your attention to the fact that, in the terms of the surrender, there was a provision that gave their sovereignty back to Taiwan and Korea.
However, with the previous dismantlement of the Korean Empire, there really was no one left to lead the country. To solve this, the United Nations Council temporarily split Korea at the 38th parallel. One half was to be overseen by the USSR and the other half by the United-States. It should be noted that these two countries were allies at the time and that Korea was meant to be reunited in time.

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