Korean reform movements

Korea had long been China’s most important client state, but its strategic location opposite the Japanese islands and its natural resources of coal and iron attracted Japan’s interest. In 1875 Japan, which had begun to adopt Western technology, forced Korea to open itself to foreign, especially Japanese, trade and to declare itself independent from China in its foreign relations. In December of 1884, a faction of young Korean aristocrats, called Progressives, attempted a coup d’état, Kapsin Jeongbyeon, with the support of the Japanese in an attempt to gain true national independence and put their government on the way to modernization.
Japan soon became identified with the more radical modernizing forces within the Korean government, while China continued to support the conservative officials gathered around the royal family. This political coup detat was provoked by China’s interference in Korea’s internal affairs. Chinese conservatives in collaboration with their Korean associates stemmed the tide of modernization policy proposed by reformists and aimed at strengthening of Korean independence. As a consequence there was a threat of war between Japan and China but it was avoided by the signing of the Li-Ito Convention, “the agreement in compliance with which each nation would withdraw its troops from Korea and give advance notice to the other before sending troops back in” (Stone MacDonald, 1996, p. 38).
The reformists’ bid for power failed and traditional Korean government supported by China, retained control. There are several weaknesses in Kapsin Jeongbyeon that made it fail. First of all this revolt was planned to be implemented during the celebration of the grand opening of new Postal Administration. So the armed forces illegally burst into the palace where celebration was held and made an attack. They counted on the Japanese legation guards in terms of military support but did not get any assistance on Japan’s part. On the contrary they met Japan’s treason when the military forces retreated, leaving reformists’ activists on their own.

This was the second major cause of Kapsin Jeongbyeon defeat. Besides the lack of military power the reform movement suffered from the lack of public support. The Korean society turned out to be politically immature and unable to give appropriate assessment to the situation and necessary support. The pledge of any reformative ideas offered by politicians, public figures or revolutionists depends on that whether this idea can receive powerful backing from ordinary citizens. In the case with Kapsin movement this prerequisite was not fulfilled and this fact consequently added to the movement failure.
Despite its failure, Kapsin movement left a significant trace in the history of Korea as national event. In its essence it was the movement the aim of which was the implementation of a nationally important program of modernization and achievement of independent status for Korean nation. Virtually, it was the first active movement in the Korean modern history. The Kapsin participants strived to do away with feudal system in the country and lay the foundation for development of the financially independent, modern state. The idea of the movement concerned two facets of the Koreans life – independence and modernization.
Thus it provided a stimulus for further struggle against foreign domination over Korea and first of all for resistance movement against China’s incursion and assertion of national independence. On the other hand Kapsin stimulated modern reforms that ameliorated social and financial situation in the country, founded national defence system that consolidated national power of Korea and last but not least introduced the market economy.
Being a national movement, Kapsin provided sound basis for modern nationalism in Korea, its national concepts were repeatedly exploited by later nationalism movements. It also affected religious situation in the country. Though the coup d’état failed, many reformers with religious leanings turned to Christianity, even reformist Confucianism lost prestige and institutional support. 1884 coup detat, Kapsin Jeongbyeon, signified a period of the rise of competing nationalism, the self-strengthening and enlightenment campaigns in Korea.
Stone MacDonald, Donald (1996) The Koreans: Contemporary Politics and Society. Boulder: Westview Press.

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