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The Kapsin Coup of 1884: A Reassessment Yong-ho Ch Oe On the night of December 4, 1884, a small group of reform-minded Koreans staged a bloody coup to seize political power in hopes of instituting drastic reforms that would transform Korea into a modern state. But unfortunately for Korea, these reformers only remained in power for three days, and their attempted coup ended in disastrous failure. This incident is known in Korea as the kapsin chöngbyön, the political disturbance of the year kapsin (1884). This article attempts to reassess the historical significances and implications of this incident by analyzing and evaluating the possible consequences this abortive coup may have had upon the history of modern Korea. The political group that participated in the coup is variously known as the Independence Party (Tongnipdang), the Enlightenment Party (Kaehwadang), or the Progressive Party (Chinbodang). Its leaders, Kim Okkyun (1851-1894), Pak Yönghyo (1861-1939), Hong Yöngsik (18551884 ), So Kwangböm (1859-?), and So Chaep'il (1864-1951), had all been abroad and had come to the realization that Korea needed urgently to transform herself by adopting Western ideas and technology in order to survive the challenges posed by the Western powers. Inspired by the transformation taking place in Meiji Japan, these Korean reformers hoped to emulate the Meiji restoration and subsequent reforms in Japan.' But, unfortunately for the reformers, they found the political climate in Korea unfavorable to them. For one thing, China still exercised the dominant influence in Korea on the eve of the coup. Traditionally, Korea had maintained a special tributary relationship with China under which the Korean king was placed hierarchically one rank below the Chinese emperor and yet was free to exercise complete autonomy on all 106ch'oe affairs of his country, a system that was unique to the East Asian world order.2 However, China was alarmed by increased Japanese influence in Korea after the signing of the Kanghwa treaty between Korea and Japan in 1876. China therefore took advantage of the Soldiers' Mutiny of 1882, which brought the Taewöngun to power once again, to assert her dominance over Korea by sending her troops there for the first time in the latter nation's peacetime history. China then took command of the political situation in Korea by forcibly removing the Taewöngun to China, an unprecedented event in the long history of the two countries. Thereafter, China continued to keep her troops in Seoul and meddled openly with Korea's domestic affairs. Such a situation was intolerable for the reformminded Independence Party. As modern nationalism rapidly gained influence among members of the reform group, the assertion of Korea's complete independence, especially from Chinese influence, became the group's foremost goal. Thus, Kim Okkyun later placed the following at the top of the reform program: "The Taewöngun should be brought back home as soon as possible. All empty rituals and formalities connected with tributary relations [with China] should be abolished."3 In addition to asserting Korea's complete independence, the Enlightenment Party championed the drastic reforms outlined by Kim Okkyun in his fourteen-point program. These included the abolition of class distinctions and the recognition of the equality of all men; a land-tax reform aimed at alleviating the plight of the poor and at establishing economic stability; the punishment of avaricious and evil officials; the permanent cancellation of ail outstanding grain-loan debts; the restoration of law and order through the establishment of a modern police system; the establishment of a unified military command through a merger of the four existing army units; placing all financial affairs under the sole control of the Ministry of Finance by eliminating all other agencies that had collected and dispersed revenues; full responsibility of the State Council in formulating all laws and regulations; and the restoration of power to the State Council and the Six Ministries through abolishment of all other offices.4 These were all admirable goals, and had these programs been adopted in the 1880s, the history of modern Korea would have taken a totally different course than it has in fact. Although King Kojong (r. 1864-1907) was sympathetic to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-1529
Print ISSN
0145-840X
Pages
pp. 105-124
Launched on MUSE
2011-03-30
Open Access
No
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