Preview Mode Links will not work in preview mode

Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Mar 20, 2023

Last time we spoke about the imo uprising. Empress Min royally messed up when she allowed her nephew Min Gyeom-ho to be in charge of handing out the grain to the retired soldiers. His tossing of the job to a subordinate led to embezzlement and the soldiers were greatly slighted. The pissed off soldiers began a major riot threatening to kill Empress Min, her clan and those they thought had cheated them. The Japanese military advisor and other staff were attacked, some Japanese were even killed, thus bringing Japan into the mix. King Gojong panicked and allowed his father to return, only to be ousted by his own father. The Daewongun was back and immediately went to work trying to rid Korea of the Min clan. Now the Chinese and Japanese were bringing forces to bear in Korea, was war on the menu?


#40 This episode is the Gapsin Coup


Welcome to the Fall and Rise of China Podcast, I am your dutiful host Craig Watson. But, before we start I want to also remind you this podcast is only made possible through the efforts of Kings and Generals over at Youtube. Perhaps you want to learn more about the history of Asia? Kings and Generals have an assortment of episodes on history of asia and much more  so go give them a look over on Youtube. So please subscribe to Kings and Generals over at Youtube and to continue helping us produce this content please check out If you are still hungry for some more history related content, over on my channel, the Pacific War Channel where I cover the history of China and Japan from the 19th century until the end of the Pacific War.

Now the Chinese had a sticky situation on their hands, the attempted coup d’etat had disposed of many officials who they had been working with and worse they had attacked Japanese nationals prompting Japan to perform military intervention. Ma Jianzhong ordered the Daewongun to meet with him and read him the riot act. Ma accused him of acting against the Qing emperor by unseating the approved King of Korea “your sin is unpardonable. Considering the fact that you are the father of the king, we will not press hard on you. Please go to Tianjin to receive whatever punishment is bestowed upon you”. The Daewongun was then forced into a palanquin, whisked aboard the warship Weiyuan and sent to Tianjin. He was then interrogated by Li Hongzhang and sent into house arrest at Baoding until October of 1885. Li Hongzhang had this to say of it all “: "Our country regarded [Korea] as part of the empire and dispatched...troops. We arrested the evil ringleader, the Taewongun [Grand Prince Hungson], and detained him at Paoting. The [Korean] masses were awed. Now the entire world knows that Korea is our dependency."” Basically Li Hongzhang was playing a grand game of power politics, he was trying to show face to the western world that China was in charge of Korea. However this major show of face was also a large loss of face particularly to Korea and Japan who saw this as quite the lenient strategy. 

And thus China reasserted her suzerainty over Korea, her troops secured Seoul and the Qing officials began to aid the Korean-Japanese negotiations. The treaty of Chemuplo was signed on August 30th of 1882 to which Korea agreed to pay Japan in indemnities, sent an envoy to officially apologize and permitted a Japanese legation guardforce in Seoul. The Qing began training the Korean army and provided them with 1000 rifles, two cannons and 10,000 rounds of ammunition. The Korean military was to be trained by a Qing figure, one of the most important figures in modern Chinese history called Yuan Shikai, oh boy this guy. On my personal channel I think I have made at least 8 episodes related to him, but he will come a bit further in the story as a lead player. Korea was reduced to an official tributary state of the Qing with King Gojong unable to make many decisions without official Qing approval prior. China basically began to treat korea more like a colony.

The Min clan came right back into their seats of power, albeit under Qing approval and Li Hongzhang began to perform puppetry work on the nation to make sure she served Qing interests. The Korean government then received two major advisers, Ma Jianzhong and a close confidant of Li Hongzhang, Paul von Molldendorff, formerly of the German foreign office, but now under Li Hongzhangs employment. The new Capital guard commander was Yuan Shikai. By 1883 Li Hongzhang was so pleased with his work he said this to an American minister in Beijing "I am the king of Korea, whenever I think the interests of China require me to assert the prerogative."

The 1880s was a political maelstrom for Korea. As a result of the actions of the Qing and Japanese, Korea was literally being torn apart. Two major factions emerged within the Korean political scene, the first being the Gaehwa Party, known as the “enlightenment party”. They can be seen as a leftist party, progressive liberal types. Their leadership came mostly from the Yangban class, those being the traditional gentry-ruling class of the Joseon dynasty. These were the highly educated types who joined the bureaucracy and military, the quote en quote “landed guys” the aristocrats. They were much akin to the Qing officials, those who took examinations to earn their place within the government, living by the principles of confucianism. The members of this faction included Kim Ok-gyun, who spent considerable time in Japan and was mentored by Fukuzawa Yukichi. Kim Ok-gyun would emerge the leader of this faction and he alongside his colleagues pushed for a more independent Korea that took steps to perform their own version of the Meiji restoration. They also wanted to end what they saw as Qing interference with their nation. They were greatly frustrated by the limited scale and scope of Korea’s modernization efforts and reforms. Most of their leadership like Kim Ok-kyun were quite young, in their late 20’s and early 30’s and they were headstrong to be progressive, and progress at this time, to them looked like Japan. They basically saw the Qing as an arrogant imperialist power interfering with their nation rather than a protector.

The other faction was known as the Sadaedang, the right side conservatives. This included the Min clan and many high government officials who were very pro-Qing. Its not to say they were against progress, in fact they championed many causes put forward by the Enlightenment party, but they favored gradual changes based on the Qing models. After the Imo uprising, the Pro-Chinese faction was greatly bolstered, obviously because of the interventions by the Qing within their nation. The Min clan advocated going about the modernization process via dongdo seogi “adoping western technology while keeping eastern values”, it was not so different from the Meiji restoration, but they wanted to keep inline with the Chinese. 

In 1882 after getting rid of the Daewongun and his rioters, the Min clan pursued a pro-chinese policy. Instead of adopting major institutional reforms akin to the Meiji restoration such as legal equality, modern education and significant industrialization, they chose to direct the pathway of the nations reforms in piecemeal. This basically meant revamping the underlying social structure of Korea rather than replacing or changing. They began to block all appointments of the progressive to any important positions, particularly that of their greatest rival Kim Ok-kyun. They signed trade agreements with China that enabled the Qing to dominate the trade with Korea at the expense of other nations, specifically that of Japan. King Gojong basically looked like he was abandoning all the progressive policies that had begun before the Imo uprising. The Japanese were livid over all of this as they had planned to dominate Korea with their influence to soon import Korean grain and export products back, but now China dominated her. Then a major event occurred that drew conflict between Japan and China over Korea yet again.

In 1880, Kim Ok-kyun had managed to secure a position in the high government office serving as a councilor in the foreign office and even became acquainted with King Gojong. He was the bulwark trying to get Korea to take the Meiji restoration path and in December of 1881 he went off to Japan and would be in Japan when the Imo uprising occurred. Since he was there, he was made the official Korean representative in 1882 to apologize for the ordeal and he would remain in Japan until 1884. While in Japan he was influenced heavily by Fukuzawa Yukichi. Through this Kim Ok-kyun became convinced Korea needed to severe its Qing domination by overthrowing the Min clan so they could commence a Meiji restoration program with Japan's help. "Korea is a country in which misgovemment and extortion have flourished luxuriantly for centuries, but under the recent MING [Min] administration a serious change for the worse has taken place."

Now in 1884 hostilities broke out between the Qing and French over a conflict in Annam, this became the Sino-French War of 1884-1885, which will be its own episode. Needless to say, the Qing forces within Korea were moved to deal with the French and this represented a major opportunity for the progressives in Korea. Despite the name progressive, the pro-Japanese faction decided to fall back on quote “the old Korean method of political transformation by murder”. Yes they were going to attempt a coup d’etat, with help from the Japanese. The Gaehwapa leadership, on December 4th staged their coup under the guise of a grand banquette being hosted by Hong Yeong-sik, the director of the Ujeong Chongguk, the postal administration. It was an inaugural banquet to celebrate the opening of a new national post office. The guests were to be King Gojong, commanders of the Seoul garrison, several foreign diplomats and high ranking officials, obviously many of which were members of the Sadaedang faction. They had help from the Japanese minister Takezoe Shinichiro who promised he would mobilize the Japanese legation guards to provide assistance. The plan was quite simple, get everyone to come and kill the commanders and officials; then hijack King Gojong to use him like a puppet to legitimize their pro-japanese reform program. They had a 14-point proposal which held conditions such as these; to end Korea’s tributary relationship to the Qing dynasty; to abolish the Yangbang privileges and establish equal rights for all; to reorganize the governmental structure as a constitutional monarchy; to change the land tax laws; cancel the grain loan system; unify the internal fiscal administrations; promote free commerce and trade; create a modern police system, who would in turn severely punish corrupt officials in government, ie the Min clan.

Now Kim Ok-kyun was obviously encouraged by Fukuzawa Yukichi, alongside other Japanese intellectuals and officials to seek a Meiji style reform in Korea. But the Japanese leaders did not support his plans for a coup. Count Iwakura, the same who led the Iwakura Mission and the foreign minister Inoue Kaoru both refused to support the coup as they still wanted to retain goodwill with China. Shibusawa Eiichi, the most prominent Japanese business leader in promoting Japanese business in other parts of Asia also refused to support the coup. Kim Ok-kyun had presented many in Japan his plans, but with 3000 Chinese troops in Korea he knew the coup had no chance, that was until the Sino-French war broke. So despite not having any real support from Japan, he went ahead with the coup thinking it was an opportunity too great to pass up.

They began the banquet and Kim Ok-kyun sent some of his supporters to set fire to a nearby building causing some noise and confusion. While that occurred they seized King Gojong and brought him to his palace. Then they began to summon various Korean garrison commanders they believed might mobilize the military against them to the palace. Each commander came one-by-one only to be murdered by the Gaehwapa. So basically the coup amounted to the decapitation of 6 Korean ministers, the murder of military officials and other administrators, while occupying the royal police backed up by the Japanese legation force of around 170 men. The father of the murdered postmaster general, who had been duped into hosting the event was so applied by it and the stain upon his families honor, he invited all 18 members of his family to a dinner and killed them along with himself via poisoning, whoa. 

Now things did not go according to plan for the Gaehwapa. The Japanese minister, Takezoe, went back on his promise to provide military assistance as soon as word came that the Qing were sending forces into the city. Kim Ok-kyun seemed to believe with just under 200 Japanese troops he was going to somehow maintain power keeping the king hostage, but 1500 Qing troops was not going to let that happen. When the coup was found out, Queen Min secretly sent word to the Qing asking for help and they sent General Yuan Shikai. It took Yuan Shikai and his men all but 3 days to retake the palace, rout the Japanese troops and rescue King Gojong. During the fighting around 180 people were killed, including 38 Japanese troops and 10 Chinese. The officials who had been appointed by Kim Ok-kyun were all dismissed. Japanese citizens living in Seoul were viewed by the locals as exploiters, thus they became targets of attack, many of their homes were looted and burned. Kim ok-kyun and 8 of his followers managed to escape to Japan using a Japanese ship.

Just  prior to the failed coup, Kim Ok-kyun had met with King Gojong about some reform ideas and the king was in support of many of them. After the coup the king made a full 180 and publicly label Kim ok-kyun as a villain. King Gojong voided all the reform measures done by the coup leaders and sent an envoy to Japan to protest their involvement in the coup demanding repatriation of the conspirators. On December 6th, King Gojong telegraphed Li Hongzhang asking for reinforcements. Meanwhile Yuan Shikai who wanted to dethrone the king because he deemed King Gojong to be “ a dim-witted monarch” who he believed was actually complicit in the coup but was overruled by the conspirators.

A sticky political situation thus emerged between the 3 nations. As I mentioned, King Gojong demanded Japan repatriate the conspirators. The Japanese responded by demanding Korea pay them indemnity for the loss of life and property, to make formal apology and promise to punish the guilty. In a show of force the Japanese sent 7 warships and 2 battalions to Korea. On January the 9th of 1885, within the presence of 600 IJA and under threat of war if they did not cooperate Korea signed the “Seoul Protocol” also known as the Treaty of Hanseong. The Koreans officially apologized and paid Japan reparations in the sum of 100,000 yen for damages done to the Japanese legation, go figure that. This treaty however was really gimmicky, because the real trouble going on was not between Japan and Korea, but instead Japan and China. 

Ito Hirobumi and Li Hongzhang met in Tianjin in April of 1885 to discuss the matter. Tensions were very high between the nations and both men tried to defuse that tension. They called for bilateral troop withdrawal from Korea, a proscription against sending further military instructors and prior notification to another of any future troop deployments in Korea. King Gojong would be advised to hire military instructors from a third nation to train up the Joseon army, America the most likely candidate. Japan and China signed off on this and it became known as the Tianjin convention or “Li-Ito convention”. It was a diplomatic victory for Japan in the end . Japanese minister Takezoe Shinichiro avoided punishment for his complicity in the coup which essentially was done to subvert Korea’s tributary status with the Qing. China lost her exclusive claim to armed intervention in Korea, since Japan and her now we're even on that front. The treaty represented yet again another curtailment of Qing suzerainty over Korea. Now despite all of that, Japan also lost significant influence over Korea while China’s influence only increased. Japan looked like the bad guy to the Korean populace. Also Li Hongzhang appointed Yuan Shikai as the “director General Resident in Korea of diplomatic and commercial relations”. Basically Yuan Shikai was to look after Qing interests in Korea, but in a civilian capacity. Officially this was in line with the Tianjin convention, as Yuan Shikai was no longer a military leader, but both China and Japan knew at a hares notice he could called upon Qing forces whenever he wanted. Li Hongzhang instructed Yuan Shikai to prevent Japanese commercial dominance over Korea and promote Chinese commercial dominance which he did very well. 

After both the Chinese and Japanese withdrew their forces from Korea as per the Tianjin convention, China chose to garrison most of its forces along the Korean border. Likewise the the vast majority of telegraph lines in Korea were Chinese controlled while Japan had one going to Pusan, but when they requested it extend to Seoul this was rejected. Thus the Japanese could only communicate with Seoul using a Chinese controlled telegraph system. Yuan Shikai, despite being in his early 20s, exercised strong leadership and for all intensive purposes Japanese influence was simply drained. Now while many Koreans were happy to be rid of Kim Ok-kyun and his Japanese friends, many also complained about Yuan Shikai who was seen to be very overbearing and quite arrogant towards the Korean government. In June of 1885 China signed the final peace protocol with France and thus for the first time since the Russian conflict in Xinjiang, China was free of threat from war from Russia and France. This gave the Qing government the opportunity to be more aggressive in Korea. Yuan Shikai operated as if he was above the law. He replaced progressive officials with pro-chinese members of the Min Clan. He also began interposing in foreign matters, taking the place of Korean diplomats or envoys. He stopped all attempts at military reform and the development of modern industry. As for his personal reputation that was quite bad as well, he acquired a reputation for as one source puts it “kidnapping young korean women and making them his concubines, something akin to 19th century comfort women”. The Qing and Min clan were using the two failed coup d’etats to virtually wipe out any and all political opposition.

Yuan Shikai’s tenure over Korea which lasted for a decade has been considered by some historians as “a dark age” for Korea’s development. Japan had learnt its lesson after 1884 bitterly and they would not eschew in Korea for some time, but this did not mean forever. No, the lesson they learnt was not to leave korea alone, it was to make sure next time they would have a stronger position than China. King Gojong also learnt a lesson, that Korea was vulnerable and needed a protector, but who? Well King Gojong secretly began gravitating towards Russia.

You know the Russian Empire was a coy player when it came to Asia and China in particular. The Qing had greatly miscalculated when it came to Russia in the 19th century. The Qing intelligence indicated to them that the Russians had crushed Britain and France during the Crimean War so when the Second opium war was raging on, China was wary of Russia. This had a large effect on the Qing as they basically gave up parts of Siberia to Russia assuming they had large forces at the ready when in fact their far eastern forces were scattered horribly. Had the QIng showed a stronger arm against Russia they could have retained more territory which would have helped them pay their large indemnities to the west after the Opium wars. From the Russian point of view they took full advantage of a golden situation. Honestly, imagine Britain and France fight a war against this grand Qing empire in the late 1850’s and Russia just barges in making demands alongside them. With the treaty of Aigun, setting a new boundary on the AMur River, Russia gained 185,000 square miles of territory, that is the size of California and was the only livable part of eastern siberia. Russia followed this up with the treaty of Peking grabbing 130,00 square miles of territory, then again on October 7th of 1864 where she signed the treaty of Tarbagati grabbing another 350,000 square miles. That was like adding two Italies. The Qing at the time did not have proper knowledge of the territory they were handing away and when they figured it out later it was a national humiliation. Russia acquired all of this through a bluff, with some bravado and a brilliant stroke of diplomacy. As I will talk more about in the “great game” episode, Russia and China were in conflict for a long time because of Xinjiang. They remained on the verge of full scale war until 1881 when they signed a treaty, but until that point China had felt hamstrung when it came to Korea and the Russians. As the Korean situation went further and further to shit, the Russians eagerly watched, salivating as you can imagine.

Russia’s strategy for quite a long time at this point was to surround its empire with weak neighbors, to destabilize those who threatened to become strong. This was a very logical strategy for a large continental power, thus Russia wanted to do everything possible from a third power swallowing up and revitalizing Korea. They sent Karl Ivanovich Weber as consul to Korea and he carefully cultivated ties to King Gojong. Weber made it clear to the Korean officials Russia intended to support them in the event Korean territorial integrity or independence became threatened. A secret deal was made between Korea and Russia, to obtain military instructors in return for a lease at Yonghunghang, a port in Wonsan. When the British found out about this they were quite livid and they immediately occupied Komundo island near the southern tip of the Korean peninsula. Its not important just yet, but Britain and Russia being aggressive towards another with holdings in east asia would reek its ugly head in 1904. 

When Yuan Shikai found out about King Gojong’s plans to secure Russian military assistance he was not too happy and tried to intimidate him. Yuan Shikai ended up quashing the Russian military adviser plan by leaking it to the diplomatic community which caused a large uproar. Yuan Shikai’s influence over Korea was beginning to boomerang, as now the Korean sought out Russia aid even more so seeing Qing suzerainty even more overbearing. King Gojong approached Weber again in 1886 requesting to establish a Russian protectorship. This was leaked to Yuan Shikai, who began plans to depose the King, but Li Hongzhang overruled him.

Russia would make two fateful decisions, the first in 1888 when they would try to facilitate Japan’s attempts to undermine the Qing influence over Korea. Russia did this in order to weaken the Anglo-Chinese relations, but Russia had also greatly underestimated Japanese power and overestimated Chinese power. The second decision I have spoken about multiple times, the building of the trans-siberian railway. This decision altered the balance of power in the far east as Russia would be able to deploy troops at basically a whims notice to the CHinese and Korean borders. But Russia also needed something else vitally important, a warm water port. Russia had acquired vladivostok, a cold water port that freezes up for a few months of they and back then without icebreakers one could not keep their fleet at port year round. Russia eyed Korea or a Chinese warm water port in the Yellow sea as a future prize they must claim. Now I don’t want to side track too much about Russia as that will come about much later in 1904. 

I would like to take this time to remind you all that this podcast is only made possible through the efforts of Kings and Generals over at Youtube. Please go subscribe to Kings and Generals over at Youtube and to continue helping us produce this content please check out If you are still hungry after that, give my personal channel a look over at The Pacific War Channel at Youtube, it would mean a lot to me.

The Gapsin coup was yet again another mess that almost led China and Japan to war over their proxy fight over Korea. Things were heating up more and more, how long could the diplomats and politicians hold it all off?