Korea and The West


Telephone Switchboard Operator,
Courtesy of General Commision on Archives and History,
The United Methodist Church, Madison, New Jersey

When compared to some of her neighbors, Korea remained relatively isolated during the time of European explorations and expansion (16th – 19th centuries). It was not until the nineteenth century that the full force of Western peoples and cultures were able to penetrate into Korea. Despite this relative seclusion, the Chosŏn Kingdom did have sporadic interactions with foreign people, ideas, and cultures that would make lasting impacts in Korean history.

The Hermit Kingdom

Korea’s policy of isolation during the mid to late-Chosŏn (1600 – 1910) period was somewhat uncharacteristic of Korea’s history of interactions with foreign nations. During the Unified Silla period (668 – 935) items from as far away as Rome came to Korea through the Silk Road. During the Koryŏ dynasty (918 – 1392) Korean ships and traders ventured to lands far beyond Korea’s immediate coastline. But during the Chosŏn Kingdom, especially after the Hideyoshi Invasions (1592 – 1598), the Chosŏn government turned most of its attention inwards, thus closing doors that had previously been open. With the exception of China and in a small way Japan, Korea paid little attention to the outside world. Hendrick Hamel, a Dutch castaway in Korea from 1653-1666, described some Koreans’ concept of world geography.

Koreans think there are but twelve countries or kingdoms in the whole world. They say that these countries once were subject to the emperor of China and that they had to pay tribute to him… When we mentioned a number of countries they all laughed at us, saying these must be names of cities and villages, because their maps do not reach beyond Siam. 1

Despite the relative lack of encounters with the Western worlds, this isolation did not prevent some brave souls from venturing into Korea. 

First Encounters

The first known Westerner to visit Korea was Gregorio de Cespedes, a Jesuit priest that accompanied the Japanese during the Hideyoshi Invasions in 1597. 2 Because Gregorio did not venture far beyond the confines of the Japanese military camps, Koreans were mostly ignorant of his presence.

The Koreans first personal interactions with Westerners would not actually occur in Korea. They would occur in China and Japan. One Korean, Antonio Corea, was captured and taken to Japan during the Hideyoshi Invasions. In Japan, Antonio was baptized and eventually made his way to Italy, where he lived out the rest of his life. Around the same time, Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit priest that was living in China, met a Korean scholar named Yi Su-kwang. From Ricci, Yi learned about western technology and maps and later published what he learned in his own encyclopedia. 3

In 1627, a group of three Dutch sailors were captured in Korea after having left their ship to look for supplies. These Dutchmen eventually ended up serving in the Korean army and only one of them, Jan Janse Weltevree would survive the Manchu Invasions (1636). In 1653, another group of Dutch sailors became shipwrecked on Korea shores on their way to Japan. They met with the aging Weltevree and tried to seek out a living in Korea. Unlike their compatriot Weltevree, the shipwrecked Dutchmen did not wish to stay in Korea. By 1666, only sixteen of the original thirty-six man crew had survived their captivity. Eight of those sixteen managed to escape to Nagasaki, Japan. In Japan the escapees reunited with their countryman and one of them, Hendrik Hamel, published their experiences in a small book.

In the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries another encounter with the West occurred, but on a more subtle level. Sometime during the fifteenth century peppers were introduced into Korea. This native American food would eventually infuse itself into Korean cuisine. Another agricultural product, the potato, found its way to Korea from Japan via a scholar-official, Cho Ŏmin 1763. These and other agricultural products, although sometimes overlooked, had significant impacts in Korean diet, society, and culture.

Catholic Missionaries

As was the case in other Asian and American countries, many of the early encounters with the West involved Christian missionaries. Because of the Chosŏn Kingdom’s tributary relationship with Qing China, each year the Chosŏn court sent tribute missions to visit and trade with the Chinese royal court. Koreans on these tribute missions met with Catholic priests. In 1784 Yi Sŭng-hun met with priests in China and was one of the first Koreans to be baptized. He returned to Korea with several Catholic texts and began to spread the Christian faith. The faith spread rapidly and the numbers of converts would reach the thousands before any ordained priest set foot on Korean soil.

This initial success did not last long. Under the reign of King Chŏngjo (1776 – 1800), Catholicism was tolerated to some degree. But later during the reign of King Sunjo (1800 – 1834), persecutions increased and thousands of Catholics were forced to deny their faith or suffer execution. This persecution continued throughout the nineteenth century.

In 1866 Prince Taewŏngun, the reigning regent, killed nine French priests and thousands of Korean converts. Prince Taewŏngun had heard of the Opium Wars and other events with Western nations and sought to purge Korea of any foreign influence. This plan backfired. The surviving priests escaped to China and informed their compatriots of the execution. Hoping to teach the Koreans a lesson the French sailed warships into Korean seas and invaded Kanghwa Island, a large island only twenty-five miles outside of Seoul. They were unsuccessful in their attempt, but the fighting cost dozens of lives. While other foreign ships had explored Korean waters prior to this time, this was the first attempt by a Western power to attack Korea.

First Contact with America: The General Sherman

In that same year an American schooner, the General Sherman, sailed up the Taedong River in northern Korea. The crews hoped to trade with Koreans in Pyŏngyang, but were told to turn back. Refusing to listen to the Koreans the ship sailed up the river and eventually ran aground on a sandbar. The local Koreans seized the opportunity and attacked the crew, killing all aboard.

Like the French, this incident brought the attention of the United States of America. In 1871, the United States sent a crew of Marines to Korea. After the two sides failed to solve the issue using diplomatic channels, the Americans invaded Kanghwa Island, capturing several forts. After two days the Americans left.

The Treaties with America, Japan, and European Countries

The Americans would return in 1882 to sign a treaty with the now more amenable Korea. Prior to the treaty Prince Taewŏngun had been removed from power in favor of his son, King Kojong. King Kojong had a less conservative approach than his father. Under King Kojong the Koreans signed a treaty with Japan in 1887. Then following the American treaty, treaties with Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Russia, and France followed. These treaties granted each country extraterritorial rights and delegations in Korea.

This somewhat rapid penetration of Western nations into Korea brought with it a flood of new culture, technology, science, religion, and ideas. Suffice it to say that the full impact of Western culture in Korea cannot be sufficiently covered in this short of space. But to give several examples, along with the American delegation came Protestant missionaries. Eventually these missionaries were allowed to proselytize. In addition to converting thousands of Koreans, they also established the first Western hospitals and schools for women. These early institutions still lead modern Korea in their own respective fields.

With the Westerners and the Japanese came a new sense of nationalism, independence, and democracy. One group of modern minded Koreans set up the Independence Club, July 2, 1896. They worked to not only ensure Korea remained a sovereign nation, but also pushed for Korea’s modernization in technology and government. At the dawn of the twentieth century the Korean peninsula had seen more change in the past twenty years than it had in perhaps the previous two centuries.

This interplay of multiple Western powers in Korea would however, be short-lived. As Japan sought for hegemony in the region, in 1894 the armies of China and Japan would clash in Korea. Then in 1904 the Russians and Japanese would also fight for regional dominance. In both cases Japan came out victorious and by 1910 Korea had been annexed. With Korea as Japan’s newest territory, other Western nations quickly removed themselves from Korea.