Click into the Hermit Kingdom (94); 1866 Turmoil Sets Stage for Isolation Policy

Korea Times (Seoul, Korea), January 3, 2000 | Go to article overview

Click into the Hermit Kingdom (94); 1866 Turmoil Sets Stage for Isolation Policy


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 Cholchon (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. …

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