Hŭngsŏn Taewŏn'gun (1820-1898) was a Korean imperial regent and the father of king Kojong. Even after the personal rule by Kojong was inaugurated, Taewŏn'gun was one of the most powerful figures in the last decades of the Yi dynasty.
Hŭngsŏn Taewŏn'gun was born Yi Ha-ŭng and became Prince Hŭngsŏn at the age of 20. Although he was a member of the royal family, he had not become king and had spent his early years in the gay quarters of the capital's lower-class people. When King Ch'ŏljong died without an heir apparent, Hŭngsŏn Taewŏn'gun managed to place his 12-year-old son on the throne, and he became the imperial regent, or the de facto ruler under the circumstances.
Taewŏn'gun built up his own political power by balancing one faction against another in the swirling party politics of the decaying dynasty and took advantage of his position to establish a strong party of his own. He promoted the reestablishment of a strong bureaucratic state and the reconstruction of the magnificent Kyŏngbok Palace in Seoul. He suppressed his critics and opponents and abolished the sŏwŏn, or study centers, which had turned into focal points of factional groupings. He relentlessly persecuted foreign missionaries and native Christians (Catholics), who were said to threaten the traditional religious-moral order of the nation that was once called the Hermit Kingdom.
It was Taewŏn'gun who had turned down the requests of foreign powers to open Korea for diplomatic and commercial relations. In his antiforeignism and in his struggle with foreign nations, he emphasized the need to expel the "Western barbarians" who were then rapidly expanding into various parts of Asia—often spearheaded by their gunboats. The forcible but brief entries of the French and the Americans into Kanghwa Island and elsewhere occurred during the regency of Taewŏn'gun.
Taewŏn'gun's forceful and often eccentric handling of domestic and foreign affairs of the nation aroused strong opposition from various directions. The large expenditures needed for armaments for the outmoded Korean army to "expel the barbarians, " and the heavy expenses and enormous requisitions of labor and materials needed for the renovation of the capital, increased the burdens of the peasantry. Numerous officials ousted by Taewŏn'gun, and the literati of the sŏwŏn whose lands had been confiscated, resisted the government of Taewŏn'gun. Faced with such opposition, Taewŏn'gun availed himself of the coming of age of his son, King Kojong, to retire from the chores of regency in 1873.
Retirement from Regency
Soon after Taewŏn'gun's retirement, political leadership passed from his party to that of the strong-willed Queen Min. Persons appointed during the Taewŏn'gun regency were gradually replaced, and members of the Min family filled most important government position. The former policies of the government were also changed. At the insistence of the literati, some sŏwŏn were restored, and antiforeignism was modified to a policy of conciliation. During this period of change the Japanese efforts to open Korea were finally successful.
The influx of Japanese and Japanese goods after the Treaty of Kanghwa (1876) and the introduction of Japanese-style reforms created many new problems and dislocations in Korea, leading to some bloody disturbances. During the so-called emeute of 1882, for instance, soldier-rioters attacked the residences of the privileged Min family, set fire to the Japanese legation, killed the Japanese military instructors, and entered the royal palace. Queen Min herself fled to a remote province, and most leaders of the Min party were eliminated. Taewŏn'gun, with the support of the Korean military, took over the royal palace and attempted to reinstate his old policies, including antiforeignism.
At the invitation of the remnants of the Min party, Ch'ing China, anxious to maintain its influence over Korea, sent an army of 4, 500 men. While suppressing the uprising in Seoul, they also managed to capture Taewŏn'gun, who was sent to China at the order of the Ch'ing emperor. Taewŏn'gun was well cared for in China, however, until his return to Korea 3 years later. Alarmed at these developments, Japan also sent troops to Korea, but the Chinese army already had the Korean political situation under control, and Japan did not have the strength at that time to dislodge the Chinese from Korea.
When Tonghak (Eastern Learning) rebellions broke out in Korea, and when China again sent 1, 500 troops to Korea in 1894 at the request of the pro-Chinese Korean court, Japan sent a larger number of troops to Korea, ostensibly to protect Japanese nationals in Korea. Japan, which had been rapidly modernizing, had been eagerly looking for an opportunity to reenter the Korean peninsula. The Japanese army entered Seoul with great strength and by its armed presence began to dominate the political scene in Korea. Even after the Tonghak rebellions subsided, Japan showed no intention of leaving Korea. This Japanese stand brought about the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in August 1894.
Japan then swiftly moved to eliminate the Min family— dominated government, and pro-Japanese "progressives" were quickly placed in office. Taewŏn'gun then reemerged briefly as a leader of the progressives because both Taewŏn'gun and the progressives had been strongly opposed to the Mins and also because the progressives at this time were still politically weak and needed influential allies. As the pro-Japanese political forces became stronger and better entrenched with the support of the victorious Japanese army, there was no longer any reason to keep Taewŏn'gun in a powerful position, and he was soon removed. He died a few years later in February 1898.
Several sections on Taewŏn'gun and his times are in Takashi Hatada, A History of Korea, translated and edited by Warren W. Smith, Jr., and Benjamin Hazard (1969). A rather detailed description of his activities appears in Homer B. Hulbert, History of Korea, edited by Clarence N. Weems, vol. 2 (1969). Fred Harvey Harrington, God, Mammon and the Japanese (1944), contains brief discussions of Taewŏn'gun which depict him as a "savage foe of all outsiders." □