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Opening of Port, Communicating with the World

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1. Prologue

Outside the door was a new world.
Whether to open the door or remain shut.
In the late 19th century, the small East Asian kingdom of Joseon faced this decision.
It was a moment of truth that could be a crisis or an opportunity.
And Joseon decided to open its door.
The opening of ports.
Referred to opening up specific ports to allow the entry of foreign vessels and initiate trade relations with a foreign country.
Then how did Joseon's port opening come about?
And how did the kingdom respond to the sudden changes that followed?
Here's a look into this particular era of the Joseon kingdom over a period of 30 years since the Treaty of Ganghwa was signed in 1876.



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2. International Order in East Asia and Opening of Port of the Joseon

In the mid-19th century, Asia was amidst a turmoil of change,
resulting from European powers fighting over trade rights in the region.
Since the 16th century,
European nations mapped out sea ways to Asia in search of new trade routes.
They expanded inroads into Asia especially past the mid-18th century during the industrial revolution period in order to secure raw material supply and markets to sell their products.

Countries like India which actively traded with the West from the early days as well as Myanmar and nations on the Malay Peninsula were all colonized by Britain.
Vietnam and Cambodia were occupied by France, and Indonesia by the Netherlands.
European powers ruled over Asian nations and monopolized their trade,
using brute force and without signing any kind of trade treaty.

Then what was the situation like in East Asia where Korea, Japan and China were situated?
The 3 countries basically maintained a closed door policy of seclusion but this began to change in the early 19th century as Europe aggressively demanded trade relations.
China which lost in the Opium War was the first to open its door.
It signed the Treaty of Nanking with Britain.
Japan changed its policy from closed-door to open-door in 1853 as requested by a U.S. expedition team led by Matthew Perry.

Joseon also faced this inevitable trend of opening up to foreign trade.
Since the late 18th century, Western vessels began to frequently appear on Korea's coastline.
It was British merchant ship Lord Amherst which belonged to the East India Company that was the first to request trade ties with Joseon.
The Korean kingdom flat out denied the request and continuously kept its ports closed.
But it had to seek a new path as the China-led East Asian order began to witness cracks with the emergence of Western powers.
The Joseon government was split within.
One side called for continuing the seclusion and Joseon's traditional order while striving for national prosperity and military strength.


“..to fight is for the state and to make peace is siding with the enemy. The former way ensures the preservation of Joseon's traditions and institutions while the latter is akin to pushing humans into a zone of animals...”


The other side said the country needed to acknowledge and accept the advanced Western civilization to build a stronger nation.


“Western nations only value trade and commercial activities. They record all merchant ships on their ledger and measure the cargo to impose taxes for state finances. This is the way of increasing national wealth they boast about.”


In fact, calls for opening up to the outside world existed from the late 18th century.
Scholars of Silhak or the realist school of Confucianism recognized the need for an open door policy from early on, and insisted on introducing Western technology and holding exchanges with China.
Their argument gained political clout by the late 19th century.
During Daewongun's reign, those rejecting open door policy had far stronger influence.
After experiencing French and U.S. sea invasions, rejection of foreign powers grew even stronger. Stone plaques were raised nationwide in protest.
But things began to change from 1873 when Daewongun stepped down and King Gojong assumed power.
Around this time, East Asia was going through a major upheaval.
China wanted to continue its dominance while Japan was becoming an imperial power. Japan successfully established a modern state through the 1868 Meiji Restoration.
It was none other than Japan that eventually made Joseon also open its door.
In fact, Western powers had little interest in Joseon.
They focused more on China which had greater market value.
But Japan was different.
To the Japanese, Joseon was a source of profit.
Japan was the most aggressive in trying to open up its neighboring kingdom.
Japan asked for diplomatic relations with Joseon when it established the Meiji government in 1868. Joseon turned down the proposal.
Then Japan staged an armed protest using a warship in 1875. The following year, Japan dispatched a delegation to Joseon and pressed the kingdom to open its ports.
Pro-seclusionist Joseon officials opposed negotiations saying Japan is the same as the West.


“The Japanese wear Western attire, fire Western cannons and ride on Western ships. This is clear evidence they are the same as the Westerners.”


However, the Treaty of Ganghwa was signed in February 1876 after less than a month of negotiations.


Kim Jong-hak / Researcher, Northeast Asian History Foundation
At the time, Japan wanted to sign the treaty as quickly as possible and return home. It was less about the agreement itself but more about demonstrating that Japan also inked an unequal treaty through gunboat diplomacy as Western powers did with East Asian nations at the time.


The rapid conclusion of the treaty was not only because of Japan's intentions but also because of the growing enlightenment movement within Joseon's leadership.
Joseon opened its ports in Busan, Wonsan and Jemulpo and allowed Japan to conduct measurements along the Korean coast.
It even granted Japan extraterritoriality, or the right to exercise jurisdiction on any case involving Japanese citizens.
A subsequent treaty signed in August allowed the circulation of Japanese currency, tariff exemption and unlimited export of Korean rice.
The Ganghwa Treaty was an unequal agreement as it restricted Korea's sovereignty.
However worthy to note is Article One of the treaty which read "Joseon is a sovereign state having equal rights as Japan.“


Kim Jong-hak / Researcher, Northeast Asian History Foundation
Joseon did not raise any issue about that provision because it was an obvious historical fact. Then what was Japan's intention to indicate Joseon as a sovereign state? Japan intended to use that rationale some day against Qing's interference.


Regardless of Japan's ulterior motive, Article One of the Ganghwa Treaty implied that Joseon was now part of the international regime governed by the public law of all nations.
Joseon thereafter exercised its sovereignty by signing trade treaties with the U.S. and other Western powers but this provided a foothold for foreign invasion.



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3. The Policy of Enlightenment: The introduction and conflict of new cultures

As time passed, the need to open up the nation became increasingly obvious.
After stabilizing his power base, King Gojong began to finally unfold this policy initiative.
The Joseon government sent its second diplomatic delegation to Japan in efforts to catch a glimpse of the changing global dynamics, modern institutions and technology trends.
Such government efforts however provoked those who opposed foreign trade.
Their protest was further fueled by a book called "Strategy for Korea" brought into Joseon by Kim Hong-jib.
Written by a Chinese official stationed in Japan, the diplomatic book called for learning the institutions and skills of the West to make Joseon stronger. It urged Korea to share closes ties with China, Japan and the U.S. to prepare against Russia's southward advance.
The publication triggered a slew of written protests from all across Joseon.


We already generously serve China. What more is there to do? … Russia, the U.S. and Japan are all the same. It's difficult to treat one better and the other less.


Scholar Hong Jae-hak even criticized the king himself.


Since Your Highness came to power, have you even once ordered an ordinance to expel wickedness and defend justice? Have you ever punished those following a perverse religion? If this was recorded in history books, what would the posterity think of Your Highness?


But King Gojong clearly acknowledged the need to modernize the nation and rejected the opposition and stayed on his course.
To better facilitate open door policies, the government installed a new administrative bureau called the Tongni Gimu Amun.
The agency dispatched another survey team to Japan on a information gathering mission, and also a delegation to China to learn weapon manufacturing skills.
Domestically, Joseon beefed up its military power by establishing a modern army in 1881.
Also as the country could now impose tariffs under a trade treaty signed with the U.S., it began customs affairs and opened tax offices in 1883.
A newspaper publishing bureau was also introduced.

However not all was smooth sailing.
The former old school army, sidelined by the new army, staged a coup.
China's Qing Dynasty sent troops to suppress the military insurrection in Korea which led to China's interference in Joseon's domestic affairs.
Qing declared its suzerainty over Joseon, aimed at de facto control.
China's interference restricted Joseon's push to open its ports and also brewed confrontation among the open door policy makers.
The moderates wanted to maintain Korean tradition while bringing in Western civilization under the concept of "Eastern ways, Western frames."
The progressives sought for a more fundamental open-door policy of ending subordinate ties with China.
The Gapsin Coup in December 1884 was staged by the progressives who were supported by Japan in their political uprising.


Park Eun-suk / PhD, Korea University
Active participants in the coup were for the most part the lay people. The coup in this sense was a reform movement reflecting the ideals of the prime movers but also ordinary people who dreamed of a new society.


The progressives took power following the coup and announced reform measures of equality and abolishing the caste system. But their grip of power only lasted three days due to China's military intervention.

Following the coup, China's interference turned for the worse.
Qing first set out to remove Joseon state agencies that served as a basis for anti-Chinese forces.
Chinese general Yuan Shikai was appointed as a permanent negotiator to Joseon in 1885. Stationed in Korea, he supported pro-Chinese forces within the Joseon government and restrained King Gojong's open-door initiative.
Gojong's policy measures therefore could not be properly implemented.

Joseon people also suffered. For reasons of funding for port openings, heavier tax was collected and state officials engaged in more corruption.
Foreign powers were also increasingly pillaging the Korean economy.
Chinese and Japanese merchants arrived in Korea's inland markets bringing in cheap industrial goods which crippled Korean farmers.
Japanese merchants also used their profit earned in Joseon to purchase large amounts of grain which they took back home. This left the Joseon public with little food.
In some regions, exporting grains was completely banned.
The public began to voice complaints. A local farmers uprising in 1894 turned into a national movement. The farmers defeated state troops and occupied the Jeonju Fortress. Joseon then asked for China's help which also brought in Japanese troops, under the Treaty of Tianjin.
Eventually, the Donghak peasants signed a treaty with the government on conditions that the government will punish corrupt officials, reform the tax code and caste system and chase out foreign troops.
The government then demanded that Chinese and Japanese troops leave Korea but Japan rejected the call and rather launched an attack on the Chinese troops.
Qing wanted to continue its dominance over Joseon while emerging power Japan sought to expand its imperialist policies, viewing Joseon as a source of profit.
And Japan opted for war.
The Sino-Japanese War broke out in June 1894 and Japan had the upper edge. The two sides signed the Treaty of Shimonoseki in April 1895.
Under the treaty, China formally gave up its rule over Joseon which gave way to Japan's influence on Korea.

The Gabo Cabinet was subsequently formed in Joseon in July 1894.
The pro-open door moderates who led the Cabinet accepted a number of the Donghak peasants' demands and pushed for social reform.
Yoo Gil-jun in particular worked to justify the need for Gabo Reform by handing out his book Seoyoo Gyeonmun or Observations on Travels in the West to government officials and influential figures. He wrote the book following his studies in the United States.
The Gabo Cabinet pushed for fundamental reform including restricting royal power. It sought to advance capitalist economy and abolished the caste system for the first time in Korean history to build an equal society.

However the reform did not last long.
Japan's rule of Joseon weakened as Russia, Germany and France began to meddle in Korea.
Japan then went on to assassinate Korean Empress Myeongseong to showcase its prowess.
King Gojong then took refuge at the Russian legation in 1896 which led to the collapse of the Gabo Cabinet.
Gojong and his aids then regained power and founded the Korean Empire in October 1897.
The Korean Empire pursued modernization policies based on the motto of "refer to the new, based upon the old." It also carried out a nationwide land survey and introduced Western technologies to promote commerce and trade.


Kim Jae-ho / Professor, Chonnam Nat'l University
The problem with the Korean Empire was that the emperor was in full control of all areas of state affairs. There was no institutional mechanism to check the expansion of the court and royal finances. This was a big problem.


Since it opened its ports, the Joseon government introduced modernization policies but the results were negligent due to insufficient budget and foreign pressure.
Joseon's push for modernization was frustrated by Japanese oppression and Korea also faced the crisis of losing its sovereignty.



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4. Opening of Port, appearance of new subject

However since the opening of ports, Joseon's politics, economy and society began to gradually change with the emergence of social players with a modern mindset.

Changes occurred starting at the ports.
Since the Ganghwa Treaty was signed, trade with Japan rapidly grew. As more ports opened and Japanese merchants reached deep into Joseon's inland, foreign trade had a direct impact on the Joseon economy.
Agriculture became centered on rice production as rice exports to Japan increased. Rich rice merchants turned into land owners.
Commercial capitalists also emerged. Merchants operating at the ports branched out into diverse areas of brokerage, warehousing, accommodation business and finances, as they increasingly accumulated money.
As Chinese and Japanese merchants expanded their business even in Seoul under bilateral trade treaties, Korean landlords and capitalists also gathered partners and set up companies to defend their commercial territory.
Meanwhile, foreign powers increasingly plundered Korea.
They seized natural resources such as mines and forests and took over industrial and infrastructure rights for rail, electricity, fisheries and so on.
Japan especially worked to take control of Korea's financial sector. It interfered in Korea's domestic affairs by way of offering large loans.
It opened Japanese banks in major Korean cities and circulated its currency and bank notes.
Korean leaders and businessmen responded by opening up domestic banks and companies. Modern Korean banks opened up including those that served as predecessors to the current Woori and previous Chohung Bank. Companies also sprung up in response to the government's push for commerce and trade.
But the banks went belly up or were taken over by Japanese banks while Korean firms were also short-lived due to a small domestic market, capital shortage and restricted managerial skills.
Nonetheless, trade quickly expanded and new economic players began to emerge and grow in Joseon society.


Since ports opened, increasing personnel and logistics exchanges with other countries also changed Joseon's outer appearance.
More Koreans wore Western attire instead of the traditional hanbok while modern buildings, telephone and mail services, theaters and cafes were introduced.
Witnessing the conveniences in daily life, Koreans realized the need to actively embrace Western civilization.
But most important of all, more and more Koreans came to understand and accept the values of liberty, equality, civil rights and democracy.
Newspaper was the biggest contributor to raising the public's social consciousness.
The nation's very first newspaper, Hanseongsunbo, introduced modern ideas such as sovereign rights and constitutionalism.
The nation's first newspaper in the Korean alphabet hangeul was Dongnip Sinmun and this paper had a wider appeal to the general public. Seo Jae-pil who published the paper in 1896 had a taste of democracy during his exile in the U.S. and after returning to Joseon, he thought of ways to enlighten the public.
Dongnip Sinmun served as a channel to spread ideas on civil rights and democracy.
Meanwhile, modern schools served to foster modern day citizens.
The first school opened in Joseon in 1883.
This private school named Wonsan Haksa adopted universal education with no restrictions on student admissions.
Two years later, American missionary Henry Appenzeller founded a higher learning institute called Baejae Hakdang.
Korea's first modern public school was Yukyeong Gongwon established the following year in 1886. American teachers were invited to teach here but the school was not open to all students.
It was in 1894 when the government institutionalized universal education. King Gojong proclaimed a "Royal Doctrine for Building Nation through Education" and also established many state-run schools.


Gang Myeong-suk / Professor, Pai Chai University
When ports opened, new types of schools sprang up nationwide. Confucian texts were taught in traditional education but the new schools taught subjects to prepare students better embrace Western technology, culture.


Schools of this day included math, physics, agriculture, natural science, history as well as politics in their curricula, aimed at fostering new talents befitting a modern world.
The spread of newspapers and modern education helped raise awareness on civil rights.
Citizens formed organizations, fostered public opinions and called for reform.
The very first of such organizations was the Independence Club.
In 1898, the association created a joint consultation body of government officials and citizens. This body went on to endorse a set of six principles aimed at reforming state governance.
What was most surprising was the person who spoke at the opening of the joint consultation meeting. He was Park Seong-chun who belonged to the lowest of social classes.


I am of the nation's lowest class and have no educational background. But I do know a little about patriotism. I hope the government and people can join hands to repay the emperor's grace and continue national prosperity.


Social awareness on civic rights and national sovereignty quickly spread.
This also affected culture and the arts.
Novels and poems promoted the spirit of nationalism and autonomy.
Korean lyrics were added to Western music creating the genre of "chang-ga." Lyrics of Changga songs touched on patriotism and national independence.
A patriotic movement also sprung up amid intensifying Japanese imperialism.
When Korea partially lost its sovereignty to Japan in 1905, the patriotic enlightenment movement further heated up. Activists who believed enlightening the public and modern education was critical to defending the nation's sovereignty organized numerous organizations for this purpose. They also established schools, instilling nationalist awareness.
Though Korea lost its sovereignty to Japan, these societal changes paved the way for Joseon to usher in a new era.



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5. Epilogue

During a tumultuous time of global politics, Joseon strove to advance into a modern nation, overcoming its own internal conflicts.
The opening of ports in Joseon was both a crisis and opportunity.
Joseon lost its sovereignty under foreign pressure and its cultural traditions were ruptured.
Nonetheless, this port opening period of the Joseon era was a critical time when new economic players and modern individuals contemplated ways to defend and advance their nation for themselves.
This era was a turning point for Korea to achieve independence and transform into a modern nation.