Queen of the Yi Dynasty in Korea. Name variations: Bin; Empress Min; Empress Myongsong; Empress Myungsong. Born Ja-young Min in 1851 (some sources cite c. 1840); ruled from 1882 to 1895; assassinated by the Japanese on August 20, 1895; married Yi T'ae Wang also known as Kojong (1852–1919), king of Korea (r. 1863–1907), in March 1866; children: son Sunjong (b. 1874), the last king of Korea (r. 1907–1910).
During the mid-19th century, the Choson (Yi) Dynasty of Korea, which had ruled the country since 1392, was in jeopardy. Traditional customs were losing their significance, while Japan, Russia, and the West were pressuring for an "open-door policy." China wanted to recapture its traditional position of dominance over the Choson dynasty; Russia was casting its eyes southward; and Japan had serious designs on annexing Korea. The possibilities of invasion from all corners added to Korea's tension.
Chuljong, the 25th king of the dynasty, passed away in 1864 without an heir. As was customary in these circumstances, the queen mother took possession of the king's seal, the symbol of enthronement; after consulting statesmen, she adopted 13-year-old Kojong and gave him the king's seal. Kojong's father thus became the taewongun (grand prince) and ruled in place of his underage son. In 1866 the taewongun arranged for his son to marry a young orphaned woman from a poor family, the second cousin of his own wife; the grand prince hoped that by marrying Kojong to a woman with no parents or wealth he would prevent her family from influencing Kojong, and thus solidify his own power over both his son and the kingdom.
Min, also called Ja-young Min or Myung-song, was 15 years old at the time of her marriage. Initially the taewongun was pleased with his daughter-in-law, who was beautiful, intelligent, and apparently devoted to him and to Kojong. However, she was also strong and ambitious, and soon was exerting enormous power behind the scenes, vying with her father-in-law to dominate her weak-minded and dissolute young husband. When Min, who as yet was childless, found her position as queen made precarious by the birth of a son to Kojong's mistress, with whom he was apparently in love, the struggle intensified. By negotiating with the taewongun's enemies at court, she succeeded in driving him from court in 1873, the year Kojong came of age, and reconciled with her husband. The following year she gave birth to a son, which assured her place as queen-consort. Kojong's weak character and lack of interest in the day-to-day administration of his kingdom allowed Min to become in many ways the de facto ruler of Korea. She showed considerable political skill, placing her relatives in top government offices and maneuvering among the competing noble factions to consolidate her power.
Like her father-in-law, Min opposed the "opening" of Korea and those who wanted to Westernize the country, but she soon had to succumb to mounting pressures from abroad. When the Japanese chose Kanghwa Island, located near Korea's capital of Seoul, for their military base, Min spurned urgings to mobilize an army and tried to avoid war by signing a diplomatic treaty on February 27, 1876. In the treaty, which opened Korea to Japanese trading, Japan recognized Korea as an "autonomous" state, but shortly thereafter a pro-Japanese faction began to emerge in the Korean government. Min and Kojong pursued their policy of slow modernization until 1882. In that year, Min was forced to escape from the capital and take refuge with her sister after a revolt by some soldiers targeted the queen and the Japanese soldiers stationed in Seoul. Kojong then recalled his father, who had secretly supported the rebellion. The restored taewongun announced that Queen Min was dead and even ordered a funeral to be held for her. Within a few weeks, however, the taewongun had been taken prisoner by the Chinese army, and Min returned to Seoul in triumph.
Fearing the growing imperialism of the Japanese, she shifted her policies to favor the Chinese instead. Russia and various Western countries, wanting to avoid Japanese hegemony in the region, also began to pressure for treaties of their own. Thus, in the 1880s, Min had little choice but to sign trade treaties with the United States, England, Germany, Italy, and Russia, gradually bringing Korea into the industrial and modern trade era. She was nonetheless determined that the court would fight the pernicious influence of the West as ardently as possible, which brought her into conflict with the many progressives at court who believed Westernization of Korea would be beneficial. The resulting factionalism made it almost impossible for Min to strengthen her country. The economy degenerated and the military was kept underpaid, while the government appeared to be at the mercy of foreigners.
When in 1889 the farmers rebelled against a corrupted feudal society and tried to overthrow the monarchy (the Tonghak rebellion), Min turned to her giant neighbor for help and China agreed to send troops. But China had an agreement with Japan not to send troops into Korea without notifying them, and the Japanese soon turned the situation to their advantage. Unbidden and unwanted, Japan also sent troops to the aid of Korea. Though the farmers' insurrection was soon quelled with promises to abolish slavery and provide relief for farmers, and the Koreans began a series of reforms with the intent of importing Western culture and technology, both China and Japan refused to withdraw. The queen's next political crisis came in 1894, when she faced a coup d'etat by radicals who, supported by Japan, wanted Korea to undergo rapid industrial and social modernization such as Japan had implemented. Royalist Korean soldiers and their Chinese allies soon retook the government and restored Min, but the rebellion served as a pretext for both Japan and China to send new troops to Korea, launching the Sino-Japanese War (1894–95). Fought primarily in Korea, the war ended with a decisive victory by Japan and the Treaty of Shimonoseki, signed in 1895, in which China was forced to grant Korean independence. In reality, this amounted to Japan gaining control over Korea.
Min vehemently opposed Japan's informal annexation of Korea. To the leaders of Japan who looked forward to ruling as they had planned, the decisive and wise Min, considered the one bright spark in a corrupt Korean court, was nothing but trouble. Following the war, she made overtures to Russia, a powerful enemy of Japan and thus an important potential ally for Korea against Japanese aggression. In reaction to this threatened alliance, the Japanese administration decided that Queen Min had to be removed from power. At dawn on August 20, 1895, in a plot code-named "Fox Hunt" and engineered by Viscount Miura Goro, the Japanese minister to Korea, Japanese troops entered Kyongbokkung palace (today's Toksugung Palace) by force. Crushing resistance by royal bodyguards and demanding to know the whereabouts of the queen, they made a thorough search of the palace, killing some who refused to cooperate while threatening others. No one gave the queen away. Convinced that Min was disguised as one of the court women, the Japanese then murdered two of them; it is said that the queen, seeing this, then came forward. Her enemies threw her to the ground and trampled on her. She was stabbed over and over by Takahashi Genji, and her corpse was burned with kerosene in a nearby wood. Kojong was not harmed.
Koreans and foreign missions were outraged. The Japanese government quickly recalled those involved, detaining them briefly at Hiroshima Prison as a subterfuge. Their trial, writes Japanese historian Yamabe Kentaro, was "a deliberate miscarriage of justice, designed to protect the culprits." None were convicted. After he recovered from shock, Kojong tried and executed traitorous Koreans involved with the assassination. Then, on October 11, he granted a new title, Myongsong, to his deceased wife; a state funeral followed one month later. This incident is known in Korean history as the Ulmi sabyon.
King Kojong continued to rule as a puppet king under the competing Japanese and Russian military forces. Korea became a Japanese protectorate under Hirobumi Ito in 1904, and in 1907 Kojong was forced to abdicate. Min's son then succeeded as King Sunjong, although he, too, was only a figurehead. In 1910, Korea was formally annexed by Japan, forcing Sunjong from power and ending five centuries of rule by the Yi (Choson) dynasty.
Queen Min is one of the most controversial figures in Korean history. Some view her as a charismatic politician and diplomat who tried to lead the country into a new era; others deem her a manipulative, power-seeking woman. The 1997 Korean opera, The Last Empress, sets out to re-examine Queen Min's life in the context of her time, especially within the male-dominated Confucian culture which refused to accept a strong female leader. The opera opened to rave reviews at New York's Lincoln Center in August 1997.
Kim, C. Eugene, and Han-kyo Kim. Korea and the Politics of Imperialism, 1876–1910. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1967.
Kim, Yung-Chung. Women of Korea: A History from Ancient Times to 1945. Seoul, Korea: Ewha Woman's University Press, 1976.
The Last Empress, a Korean opera, directed by Yun Ho-Jin, based on a book by Yi Mun-Yol, music by Kim Hee-Gab, title role alternately played by Lee Tae-Won and Kim Won-Jung, was first staged in Korea in 1995 in commemoration of the centennial of Queen Min's death.
Laura York , Riverside, California