How did The Empire of Japan annex Korea? | How Did Japan Annex Korea?
The history of South Korea and North Korea was, for a period, deeply intertwined with that of the Japanese Empire. Korea, at this point a single state, had long had ties to its neighboring countries, but by the start of the 20th century, its bond with Japan was becoming more and more one-sided – and not in the favor of Korea… The Japan-Korea Treaty was a significant point in relations between the two nations and was signed back in 1876 as Korea began its pull away from China.
The goal was to grant Japan new trade rights with Korea, opening three ports and also giving Japanese nationals in Korea extraterritorial rights. And while this agreement was signed by both sides, it was largely more beneficial for Japan and had come about via gunboat diplomacy following the Battle of Ganghwa Nevertheless, this was a huge step for the relationship between Korea and Japan. As Japanese citizens and merchants began to reach their new ally, the influence of the Japanese Empire began to spread.
Not all Koreans were pleased by the uneven treaty nor the Japanese Empire though, and this would lead to a bloody revolt by 1882. The situation would be resolved in favor of the Japanese that same year however, and two years later, the Japanese Empire paired up with the Korean Progressive Party to stage a successful coup that resulted in the establishment of a Japanese puppet government. In the opposition though was the Chinese-backed Conservative Party who called in their Chinese allies to reverse the results of the coup in an effort to push out the Japanese and put a stop to their expansionism.
This worked for some time but by the 1890s, the outbreak of a new peasant revolt would do just the opposite… In the spring of 1894, the Donghak Peasant Revolution had broken out and the contemporary government of Korea reached out to China once more, this time for help putting down the rebellion. The Japanese, who had still had their sights set on Korea, saw this as the perfect excuse to interlope.
Their strategy was to accuse their neighbors of breaching the Convention of Tietsin and thus launch an allegedly justified military intervention to counteract China. This would trigger the First Sino-Japanese War, which would ultimately be won by the latter. The treaty to end the clash allegedly secured the full autonomy and independence of Korea, although now more than ever before, Japan was in the perfect position to play puppetmaster – beginning this period with the assassination of Queen Min of Korea.
The Queen’s husband, Gojong, nevertheless survived and remained King until declaring the establishment of the Korean Empire in the fall of 1897. At the same time, he was answering calls for a westernization process and hopes for closer ties to Western nations, which many Koreans viewed as necessary to keep the Japanese in check. It only took a few more years for these mild attempts at pushing back to reveal themselves as almost entirely useless, regardless.
The Japanese Empire was without a doubt the most dominant economic and even military foreign power within Korea and this was only the beginning. After successfully defeating their only viable rival in the region with the Russo-Japanese War, Japan now aimed to install some serious changes throughout Korea ranging even as far as establishing the “union of military arms” and replacing Korean government officials with Japanese citizens. And in spite of resistance from many Koreans who saw the Japanese as a looming threat to their freedom and independent identity, these reforms would eventually be passed after the Eulsa Treaty of 1905,
which turned the newly-autonomous Korea into a protectorate of the Japanese Empire. The new and again heavily uneven agreement also drastically stripped Korea of its military might, abandoning all garrisons outside of Seoul and cut the manpower of the Korean Army from 20,000 to 1,000. There was further discussion of the Japanese taking over the Korean police realm as well, but at this point, Korea did still have its own emperor and authority. Japan, of course, was not satisfied with such a fact.
When Emperor Gojong attempted to send envoys to the Second Peace Conference in The Hague, the Japanese used this as an excuse to tighten their hold on Korea as a whole and thus, in the summer of 1907, forced the Korean ruler out of his position and ensured he be replaced by Emperor Sunjong. This was then followed by yet another treaty which essentially gave Japan full control over the Korean government. Now, Japan’s Resident-General in Korea had total authority to choose all high-ranking officials within the Korean government, and all of his picks must be Japanese – not Korean.
Yet, even given all these privileges, and in the face of their own utter dominance over Korea, the Japanese decided that more must be done to make the nation their own… In August of 1910, Japan officially annexed Korea. This was accomplished through, once more, a treaty which stunningly favored Japan, this time known as the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty. Its eight articles layed out the final pieces of the foundation needed to give Japan full rule over Korea. And while the annexation itself had been non-violent, there was terror still to come for the Korean people…
In the first year of what was essentially police rule over the country, Japanese authorities arrested hundreds of dissenters and opponents. Some sources believe roughly 700 were thrown into prison and many were tortured, which shone a clear light on why Japan was able to easily take the nation to begin with. Had Koreans fought back, Japan’s superior law enforcement and military would have ensured Japanese success regardless. Nevertheless, the Japanese wanted to convince Koreans that this annexation was the right thing to do,
and that Koreans were all too similar to the Japanese to be their own nation. And yet, somehow, Japan saw its people as both the same and different to the Koreans, and opted for portraying itself as a “civilizing” force for what it deemed a “backwards” people. Korean culture was plundered. The language, the religion, nothing was off limits. Shinto shrines that were originally built for the masses of Japanese immigrants to Korea soon became mandatory places of worship for everyone.
Japanese language and education were also used to assimilate the Korean people and strip them of their own cultural identity, meanwhile, Korea’s first Japanese Governor-General had been working to pass new land reforms which helped incoming Japanese settlers obtain land while a multitude of Koreans were forced to become tenant farmers on their own lands as ownership shifted. Mandatory labor and increased economic difficulties ravaged the Korean peasant class under the new colonial rule.
But the Japanese taking over as landlords was only fitting given the full-scale of domination that the empire was enacting across Korea. Even down to people’s family names… Although at first, Koreans were barred from adopting Japanese surnames, by the start of WW2, the strategy had officially shifted. Now, the new policy was that Koreans actually should adopt Japanese names, and many would eventually do so, while those who didn’t were punished with being cut off from the bureaucracy and privileges even as simple as mail delivery.
But even with the overwhelming Japanese authority, the period prior to the Second World War saw multiple attempts at rebellion, with possibly the most significant occurring in 1919. Dubbed the March First Movement, this series of demonstrations brought together around 2,000,000 Koreans who hoped for an independent Korea. The start of the movement came on March 1, 1919 in Seoul when 33 cultural and religious leaders read a “Proclamation of Independence” that they had written and signed, while others read the same document aloud in demonstrations across the country.
This launched a frenzy of protests and other demonstrations, nearing almost 2,000 by the end of the movement, but eventually it would all be suppressed by the Japanese authorities. It’s estimated that roughly 7,500 Koreans were killed by the collapse of the movement a year later, with 47,000 arrested and 16,000 wounded. However, there were some victories that came from the demonstrations. The Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea was founded in Shanghai in April of.
Still, Japanese control over Korea would last until WW2… After the war, Japan was stripped from its position in Korea and the peninsula was split into two supposedly-temporary zones, occupied by the Americans in the south and the Soviets in the north. This would be the end of Japanese dominance in Korea, but also, the end of a single, unified Korea.
Today though, South Korea still celebrates March 1st as a national holiday, remembering the people’s resistance to the Japanese annexation. And despite the extensive efforts made by the Japanese Empire to assimilate Koreans and erase their own identity, now, Koreans are still Koreans with their own culture, language, and history
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