(94) 1866 Turmoil Sets Stage for Isolation Policy

By Yang Sung-jin

The Korean government staged its new millennium celebration across the nation with much fanfare. All the balloons, flashy parades and a large crowd spiced up the mood for the last night of a millennium.

That was a pertinent celebration for the next 1000 years but the festive mood itself may not be enough. From the perspective of historical hindsight, the lack of preparations could jeopardize the nation at any moment.

In the late Choson period, things were far from festive. With the West forcefully making inroads into East Asia, the Choson Kingdom was embroiled in imperialist dog fighting.

When King Kojong ascended to the throne in 1864, East Asia suffered a series of setbacks. Ching China lost a war with the West and Japan was forced to open its market to the United States.

As the invasion of the West into Asia gained its momentum, the Choson people also began to spot Western boats and ships along the coast.

The Western ships intended to open a trade with Choson, thereby securing an exclusive right to reap profits. Unfortunately, Choson did not want to get involved with the “blue eyed barbarians.”

It seemed inevitable that the two parties would collide. Interestingly, the first collision between Choson and Western nations was not over commerce but about religion.

In the late 18th century, the Catholic Church expanded its influence in the territory of Choson. The government, however, did not accept the Western religion and cracked down on its followers relentlessly.

In 1801 and 1839, the Choson government killed thousands of Catholic believers. The strict policy gave in to a liberal stance during the reign of King Cholchong (r. 1849-1863) thanks to the powerful Andong Kim family who relatively favored the new religion.

As a result, the number of Choson Catholics jumped to 20,000 across the nation. But as King Kojong took the throne, his father Hungson Taewongun, who exercised greater political power, reversed the situation.

On March 11, 1866, the Choson government arrested a French missionary. “This month, a strange foreigner was arrested. He was tall and appeared 50 years old, with different eyes. But the stranger could speak our language fluently. The investigation unveiled that he came from France in 1865 and wandered around the nation to spread Catholicism,” the Annals article said.

The “strange” foreigner was Father Simon Francois Berneux, who was a pioneer for Catholicism and converted thousands of Choson people.

The Annals writers clearly regarded Berneux and his followers as dangerous.

“The so-called Western studies do not know the king or forefathers. The followers including Choson citizens wrongly spread a rumor about Choson’s relations with Russia and other nations, coming up with a plot to deceive the public and overturn the nation.”

The charge of treason and subversion led to death penalties. According to the existing documents, about 8,000 people who adopted Catholicism were prosecuted.

As the crackdown continued, a group of Catholic priests escaped out of the nation in an effort to seek help from France.

At the time, France was preoccupied with imperialistic ambitions to expand its colonies in the East Asia region. Father Ridel, who made good upon his escape to China, contacted the commander of the French Asiatic Squadron, Admiral Roze, and secured his pledge to take punitive action against Choson.

Admiral Roze first crossed the Yellow Sea with three of his ships and steamed up the Han River. As the foreign warships approached, the Choson court scrambled to defend itself.

“It is deplorable that the dirty foreigners invaded deep into the Han River. I order officials and generals to come up with countermeasures to repel the invaders,” Taewongun said.

But Choson officials were not that aggressive. A ranking official named Lee Kyong-jae said, “Defeating two Western ships is no problem. But attacking foreigners first goes against the principle of generosity.”

The French ships disappeared after staying one night near Mapo, a fact which apparently pleased the Choson court. “We let those dirty mobsters keep their lives only because we put much emphasis on generosity,” Taewongun proclaimed triumphantly.

But it was only 15 days later that Admiral Roze reentered Choson waters and sent a detachment to seize the administrative center of Kanghwa Island.

On Sept. 24, French forces pillaged the government stores in Kanwha and carried away the weapons and documents stored there.

But another French force making its way toward Seoul was beaten back by Korean troops led by Han Song-gun at Munsusan Fortress, on the mainland just opposite the town of Kwanghwa.

Moreover, French troops sent to attack the Chongjok-san fortifications at the southern end of Kanghwa were repelled by units under the command of Yang Hon-su. In the end, the French squadron was forced to withdraw without having accomplished its mission on Oct. 12.

But the French force did not go back empty handed. They destroyed the court structures and took away ancient documents and silver bars largely because the Choson soldiers had only primitive weapons and had indulged in peace over the past centuries. In total, the French invaders safely stole 345 ancient books and other valuables.

The preposterous pillaging by the French left a lasting impression about the so-called “strange foreign vessels” in the eyes of the Choson ruler and people. The nature of the impression was highly negative, which resulted in a harsher crackdown on the Catholic converts.

More significantly, the disturbance of 1866 pushed Choson to solidify its isolation policy aimed at protecting itself against predatory foreigners.

A new beginning (with or without the Y2K bug) is indeed a blessing. Whether future generations will see some “historical foresight” out of the grandiose millennium events remains to be seen.