In the stillness of the early morning hours of October 8, 1895, a band of fifty Japanese men armed with swords approached the Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul, Korea. They fought with and dispatched a unit of the Korean Royal Guards, and twenty of the invaders entered the palace. According to a Russian eyewitness, they then "burst into the queen's wing and threw themselves upon the women they found there. They pulled them out from inside their windows by the hair and dragged them across the mud, questioning them."
The Japanese assassins wanted to know which of these women was Queen Min of Korea's Joseon Dynasty. This tiny but determined woman was considered a grave threat to Japanese domination of the Korean Peninsula.
On October 19, 1851, Min Chi-rok and an unnamed wife had a baby girl. The child's given name has not been recorded.
Members of the noble Yeoheung Min clan, the family was well-connected with Korea's royal family. Although the little girl was an orphan by the age of eight, she went on to become the first wife of the young King Gojong of the Joseon Dynasty.
Korea's child-king, Gojong, actually served as a figure-head for his father and regent, the Taewongun. It was the Taewongun who selected the Min orphan as the future queen, presumably because she did not have strong family support that could threaten the accendancy of his own political allies.
However, the Taewongun did not know that this girl would never be content to be a pawn. Decades later, the British traveler Isabella Bird Bishop met with Queen Min, and noted that "her eyes were cold and keen, and the general impression one of brilliant intelligence."
The bride was sixteen years old and King Gojong fifteen when they married in March of 1866. A slight and slender girl, the bride could not support the weight of the heavy wig she had to wear at the ceremony, so a special attendant helped to hold it in place from the back during the wedding. With that the girl, small but clever and independent-minded, became Queen Consort of Korea.
Typically, queen consorts concerned themselves with setting fashions for the noble women of the realm, hosting tea parties, and gossiping. Queen Min, however, had no interest in these pastimes. Instead, she read widely on history, science, politics, philosophy, and religion, giving herself the kind of education ordinarily reserved for men.
Politics and Family:
Soon, the Taewongun realized that he had chosen his daughter-in-law unwisely. Her serious program of study concerned him, prompting him to quip, "She evidently aspires to be a doctor of letters; look out for her." Before long, the Queen Min and her father-in-law would be sworn enemies.
The Taewongun moved to weaken the queen's power at court by giving his son a royal consort, who soon bore King Gojong a son of his own. Queen Min proved unable to have a child until she was 20 years old, five years after the marriage.
On November 9, 1871, Queen Min also gave birth to a son; however, the child died after just three days. The queen and the shamans (mudang) she called in to consult blamed the Taewongun for the baby's death. They claimed that he had poisoned the boy with a ginseng emetic treatment. From that moment on, Queen Min vowed to avenge her child's death.
She began by appointing members of the Min clan to a number of high court offices. The queen also enlisted the support of her weak-willed husband, who was legally an adult by this time but still allowed his father to rule the country. She also won over the king's younger brother (whom the Taewongun called "the dolt").
Most significantly, she had King Gojong appoint a Confucian scholar named Cho Ik-hyon to the court; the highly influential Cho declared that the king should rule in his own name, even going so far as to declare that the Taewongun was "without virtue." In response, the Taewongun sent assassins to kill Cho, who fled into exile. However, Cho's words bolstered the 22-year-old king's position sufficiently so that on November 5, 1873, King Gojong announced that he would rule in his own right henceforth. That same afternoon, somebody - likely Queen Min - had the Taewongun's entrance to the palace bricked shut.
The following week, a mysterious explosion and fire rocked the queen's sleeping chamber, but the queen and her attendants were not hurt. A few days later, an anonymous parcel delivered to the queen's cousin exploded, killing him and his mother. Queen Min was certain that the Taewongun was behind this attack, but she could not prove it.
Trouble with Japan:
Within a year of King Gojong's accession to the throne, representatives of Meiji Japan appeared in Seoul to demand that the Koreans pay tribute. Korea had long been a tributary of Qing China (as had Japan, off and on), but considered itself of equal rank with Japan, so the king contemptuously rejected their demand. The Koreans mocked the Japanese emissaries for wearing western-style clothing, saying that they were no longer even true Japanese, and then deported them.
Japan would not be so lightly put off, however. In 1874, they returned once more. Although Queen Min urged her husband to reject them again, the king decided to sign a trade treaty with the Meiji Emperor's representatives in order to avoid trouble. With this foothold in place, Japan then sailed a gunship called Unyo into the restricted area around the southern island of Ganghwa, prompting the Korean shore defenses to open fire.
Using the Unyo incident as a pretext, Japan sent a fleet of six naval vessels into Korean waters. Under the threat of force, Gojong once again folded rather than fighting back; Queen Min was unable to prevent this capitulation. The king's representatives signed the Ganghwa Treaty, which was modeled on the Kanagawa Treaty that the United States had imposed on Japan following Commodore Matthew Perry's arrival in Tokyo Bay in 1854. (Meiji Japan was an astonishingly quick study on the subject of imperial domination.)
Under the terms of the Ganghwa Treaty, Japan got access to five Korean ports and all Korean waters, special trading status, and extraterritorial rights for Japanese citizens in Korea. This meant that Japanese accused of crimes in Korea could only be tried under Japanese law - they were immune to local laws. The Koreans gained absolutely nothing from this treaty, which signaled the beginning of the end of Korean independence. Despite Queen Min's best efforts, the Japanese would dominate Korea until 1945.
In the period after the Ganghwa incident, Queen Min spearheaded a reorganization and modernization of Korea's military. She also reached out to China, Russia and the other western powers in hopes of playing them off against the Japanese in order to protect Korean sovereignty. Although the other major powers were happy to sign unequal trade treaties with Korea, none would commit to defending the "Hermit Kingdom" from Japanese expansionism.
In 1882, Queen Min faced a rebellion by old-guard military officers who felt threatened by her reforms and by the opening of Korea to foreign powers. Known as the "Imo Incident," the uprising temporarily ousted Gojong and Min from the palace, returning the Taewongun to power. Dozens of Queen Min's relatives and supporters were executed, and foreign representatives were expelled from the capital.
King Gojong's ambassadors to China appealed for assistance, and 4,500 Chinese troops marched in to Seoul and arrested the Taewongun. They transported him to Beijing to be tried for treason; Queen Min and King Gojong returned to the Gyeongbukgung Palace and reversed all of the Taewongun's orders.
Unbeknownst to Queen Min, the Japanese ambassadors in Seoul strong-armed Gojong into signing the Japan-Korea Treaty of 1882. Korea agreed to pay restitution for the Japanese lives and property lost in the Imo Incident, and also to allow Japanese troops into Seoul so that they could guard the Japanese Embassy.
Alarmed by this new imposition, Queen Min once again reached out to Qin China, granting them trading access to ports still closed to Japan, and requesting Chinese and German officers to head her modernizing army. She also sent a fact-finding mission to the United States, headed by Min Yeong-ik of her Yeoheung Min clan. The mission even dined with American President Chester A. Arthur.
Upon his return, Min Yeong-ik reported to his cousin: "I was born in the dark. I went out into the light, and, your Majesty, it is my displeasure to inform you that I have returned to the dark. I envision a Seoul of towering buildings filled with Western establishments that will place herself back above the Japanese barbarians... We must take action, your Majesty, without hesitation, to further modernize this still ancient kingdom."
In 1894, Korean peasants and village officials rose up against the Joseon government because of the crushing tax burdens imposed upon them. Like the Boxer Rebellion, which was beginning to brew in Qing China, the Tonghak or "Eastern Learning" movement in Korea was seriously anti-foreigner. One popular slogan was "Drive out the Japanese dwarfs and the Western barbarians."
As the rebels took provincial towns and capitals, and marched towards Seoul, Queen Min urged her husband to ask Beijing for aid. China responded on June 6, 1894, by sending in almost 2,500 soldiers to reinforce Seoul's defenses. Japan expressed its outrage (real or feigned) at this "land-grab" by China, and sent 4,500 troops to Incheon over the protests of Queen Min and King Gojong.
Although the Tonghak Rebellion was over within a week, Japan and China did not withdraw their forces. As the two Asian powers' troops stared one another down, and the Korean royals called for both sides to withdraw, British-sponsored negotiations failed. On July 23, Japanese troops marched in to Seoul and captured King Gojong and Queen Min. On August 1, China and Japan declared war on one another, fighting for control of Korea.
Sino-Japanese War for Korea:
Although Qing China deployed a maximum of 630,000 troops to Korea in the Sino-Japanese War, as opposed to just 240,000 Japanese, the modern Meiji army and navy quickly crushed the Chinese forces. On April 17, 1895, China signed the humiliating Treaty of Shimonoseki, which recognized that Korea was no longer a tributary state of the Qing empire. It also granted the Liaodong Peninsula, Taiwan and the Penghu Islands to Japan, and agreed to pay a war indemnity of 200 million silver taels to the Meiji government.
As many as 100,000 of Korea's peasants had risen up late in 1894 to attack the Japanese as well, but they were slaughtered. Internationally, Korea was no longer a vassal state of the failing Qing; its ancient enemy, Japan, was now fully in charge. Queen Min was devastated.
Appeal to Russia:
Japan quickly wrote a new constitution for Korea, and stocked its parliament with pro-Japanese Koreans. A large number of Japanese troops remained stationed indefinitely in Korea.
Desperate for any ally to help unlock Japan's strangle-hold on her country, Queen Min turned to the other emerging power in the Far East - Russia. She met with Russian emissaries, invited Russian students and engineers to Seoul, and did her best to stoke Russian concerns about the rising Japanese power.
Japan's agents and officials in Seoul, well aware of Queen Min's appeals to Russia, countered by approaching her old nemesis and father-in-law, the Taewongun. Although he hated the Japanese, the Taewongun detested Queen Min even more, and agreed to help them get rid of her once and for all.
Operation Fox Hunt:
In the fall of 1895, Japanese ambassador to Korea Miura Goro formulated a plan to assassinate Queen Min, a plan that he named "Operation Fox Hunt." Early in the morning of October 8, 1895, a group of fifty Japanese and Korean assassins launched their assault on Gyeongbokgung Palace. They seized King Gojong, but did not harm him. Then, they attacked the queen consort's sleeping quarters, dragging out the queen and three or four of her attendants.
The assassins questioned the women to make sure that they had Queen Min, then slashed them with swords, stripped, and raped them. The Japanese displayed the queen's dead body to several other foreigners in the area, particularly the Russians, so that they knew their ally was dead, and then carried her body to the forest outside the palace walls. There, the assassins doused Queen Min's body with kerosene and burned it, scattering her ashes.
Aftermath of Queen Min's Assassination:
In the aftermath of Queen Min's murder, Japan denied involvement while also pushing King Gojong to posthumously strip her of her royal rank. For once, he refused to bow to their pressure. An international outcry about Japan's killing of a foreign sovereign forced the Meiji government to stage show-trials, but only minor participants were convicted. Ambassador Miura Goro was acquitted for "lack of evidence."
By February of 1896, Gojong and the crown prince were cooped up in the Russian Embassy in Seoul. The Taewongun ruled as Japan's figurehead for less than two years before he was ousted, apparently because he lacked commitment to the Japanese plan for modernizing Korea.
In 1897, with Russian backing, Gojong emerged from internal exile, retook the throne, and declared himself emperor of Korea. He also ordered a careful search of the woods where his queen's body had been burned, which turned up a single finger bone. Emperor Gojong organized an elaborate funeral for this relic of his wife, featuring 5,000 soldiers, thousands of lanterns and scrolls enumerating Queen Min's virtues, and giant wooden horses to transport her in the afterlife. The queen consort also received the posthumous title of Empress Myeongseong.
In the following years, Japan would defeat Russia in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) and formally annex the Korean Peninsula in 1910, ending the Joseon dynasty's rule. Korea would remain under Japan's control until the Japanese defeat in World War II.
Bong Lee. The Unfinished War: Korea, New York: Algora Publishing, 2003.
Kim Chun-Gil. The History of Korea, ABC-CLIO, 2005
Palais, James B. Politics and Policy in Traditional Korea, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975.
Seth, Michael J. A History of Korea: From Antiquity to the Present, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010.