Joseon (July 1392 - August 1910) (also Chosŏn, Choson, Chosun), was a sovereign state founded by Taejo Yi Seong-gye in what is modern day Korea, and lasted for approximately five centuries. It was founded in the aftermath of the overthrow of the Goryeo Kingdom at what is today the city of Kaesong. Early on, Korea was retitled and the capital was relocated to modern-day Seoul and the kingdom's northernmost borders were expanded to the natural boundaries at the Amnok and Duman rivers (through the subjugation of the Jurchens). Joseon was the last royal and later imperial dynasty of Korean history. It was the longest ruling Confucian dynasty. After declaring the Korean Empire in 1897, the dynasty ended with Japanese annexation in 1910.
An accomplished military strategist and renowned commander who originally distinguished himself by repelling the Wokou who were marauding on the peninsula, Yi Seong-gye, or King Taejo, of the Jeonju clan of Yi succeeded in a coup d'état against King U of the Goryeo Dynasty, whom he overthrew and, two years later, poisoned, King Gongyang of Goryeo. He subsequently ascended the throne. The capital was relocated to Hanseong (modern-day Seoul) from Gaegyeong (modern-day Gaeseong) in 1394 and the Gyeongbokgung palace was erected. From King Taejo descended an unbroken patrilineal succession of kings, a line of descent that continues to the modern era. The last ruling monarch was Sunjong, the Yungheui Emperor, who was demoted from his status as head of state in 1910. Surviving bloodlines of the Joseon Dynasty today primarily consist of the descendants of Yeongchinwang (Crown Prince Euimin) and Uichinwang (Prince Imperial Ui), Sunjong's younger brothers.
During its reign, Joseon consolidated its absolute rule over Korea, encouraged the entrenchment of Confucian ideals and doctrines in Korean society, imported and adopted Chinese culture, and saw the height of classical Korean culture, trade, science, literature, and technology. However, the dynasty was severely weakened during the late 16th and early 17th centuries, when successive invasions by neighboring Japan and Qing China virtually overran the peninsula, leading to an increasingly harsh isolationist policy for which the country became known as the Hermit Kingdom. However, whatever power the kingdom recovered during its isolation further waned as the 18th century came to a close, and faced with internal strife, power struggles, international pressure and rebellions at home, the Joseon Dynasty declined rapidly in the late 19th century. In 1895, The Joseon Dynasty was forced to write a document of independency from the Qing Dynasty after the Japanese victory in the First Sino-Japanese War and its peace treaty, the Treaty of Shimonoseki. From 1897 to 1910, Korea was formally known as the Korean Empire to signify a sovereign nation no longer a tributary of the Qing Dynasty. The Joseon Dynasty came to an end in 1910, when the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty was enforced by the Empire of Japan.
The Joseon's rule has left a substantial legacy on the modern face of Korea; much of modern Korean etiquette, cultural norms, societal attitudes towards current issues, and even the modern Korean language and its dialects stem from the traditional thought pattern that originated from this period.
Following the wake of the Ming Dynasty under the charismatic Zhu Yuanzhang (the Hongwu Emperor), the royal court in Goryeo split into two conflicting factions: the group led by General Yi (supporting the Ming Dynasty) and the camp led by General Choe (standing by the Yuan Dynasty). When a Ming messenger came to Goryeo in 1388 (the 14th year of King U) to demand the return of a significant portion of Goryeo’s northern territory, General Choe seized the chance to argue for the invasion of the Liaodong Peninsula (Goryeo claimed to be the successor of the ancient kingdom of Goguryeo; as such, restoring Manchuria as part of Korean territory was part of its foreign policy throughout its history). A staunchly opposed Yi was chosen to lead the invasion; however, at Wuihwa Island on the Yalu River, he revolted and swept back to Gaegyeong (modern-day Gaeseong and the capital of Goryeo), proceeding to eliminate General Choe and his followers and initiating a coup d'état, overthrowing King U in favor of his son, King Chang (1388). He later killed King U and his son after a failed restoration and forcibly placed a royal named Yo on the throne (he became King Gongyang). After indirectly enforcing his grasp on the royal court through the puppet king, Yi then proceeded to ally himself with the Sinjin aristocracy such as Jeong Do-jeon and Jo Jun. One of his first acts as the de facto generalissimo of Goryeo was to pass the Gwajeon Law, which effectively confiscated land from the land-wealthy and generally conservative Gwonmun aristocrats and redistributed it among Yi's supporters in the Sinjin camp. In 1392 (the 4th year of King Gongyang), Yi's fifth son, Yi Bang-won, after failing to win over a noteworthy aristocrat named Jeong Mong-ju, a supporter of the old dynasty, to swear allegiance to the new reign, had the noble killed by the five assassins including Jo Yeong-gyu at Seonjuk Bridge near Gaegyeong, eliminating a key figure in the opposition to Yi Seonggye's rule. That same year, Yi dethroned King Gongyang, exiled him to Wonju, and ascended the throne. The Goryeo Dynasty had come to an end after almost 500 years of rule.
In the beginning of his reign, Yi Seonggye, now King Taejo, intended to continue use of the name Goryeo for the country he ruled and simply change the royal line of descent to his own, thus maintaining the façade of continuing the 500 year-old Goryeo tradition. However, after numerous threats of mutiny from the drastically weakened but still influential Gwonmun nobles, who continued to swear allegiance to the remnants of the Goryeo Dynasty, now the demoted Wang clan, and the overall atmosphere in the reformed court that a new dynastic title was needed to signify the change, he declared a new dynasty in 1393 under the name of Joseon (meaning to revive an older dynasty also known as Joseon, founded nearly four thousand years previously) and renamed the country the "Kingdom of Great Joseon", although it came to be simply referred to, even by historians today, by the title of its ruling house.
With the declaration of the new royal house were voiced concerns of what solution to apply to the remaining descendants of the deposed Wang family. King Taejo and his officials especially felt that if the legitimacy of their rule was ever questioned by the remaining members of the Goryeo Dynasty, they might have to suppress a mass rebellion or even risk the loss of the recently gained throne. In the end, Taejo had his prime minister Jeong Do-jeon summon all of the Wang family members to the coast of the Yellow Sea and instruct them to board a ship bound for Ganghwa Island, where they were to supposedly live quietly out of the sight of the government. However, the entire ploy was a trap, and a pre-instructed crew member onboard smashed a hole in the hull as soon as the ship had entered sufficiently deep waters. The ship sank, and the last of the Goryeo Dynasty were lost by drowning. According to an urban legend, after the fate of the Wang family members gullible enough to board the doomed ship reached their relatives on the mainland, most of them changed their surnames from Wang (王) to Ok (玉) by adding an extra brush stroke and thus hiding their true descent.
After the demise of the last portions of the Goryeo Dynasty came calls for a new capital. Although Gaegyeong had served well as the seat of government for over 400 years, it was already something of a tradition for new dynasties in Korea to move their capitals to a new location considered fortuitous according the Chinese feng-shui philosophy of geomancy. Gaegyeong had also long since considered to have lost its share of energy to maintain any kind of permanent capital. As a result, three sites were officially brought into consideration: the foot of Mt. Gyeryong and the cities of Muak and Hanyang. The location near Mt. Gyeryong was quickly rejected after some time due to its relatively rough terrain and lack of convenient communication, while the site at Muak was seriously considered before it was decided by King Taejo that Hanyang was the most fitting candidate for the new capital. Hanyang outranked its rivals in various aspects; not only was it was easily accessible from sea and land, and geographically the center of the Korean Peninsula, but the fertile Han River valley on which the ancient city was situated historically had been the most contested region between the Three Kingdoms of Korea. For centuries, Hanyang had also been argued to be blessed, and Korean geomancers claimed the city was occupying a sacrosanct place flowing with geomantic energy. Hanyang was also conformed to Sino-Korean tradition; it had a larger mountains in the north and a smaller mountains in the south for defense, while in between there was a large plain, and thus the city would fit the customary north-south axis. In 1394, Hanyang was declared the new capital and formally renamed "Hanseong". That year, the foot of Mt. Bugak was chosen for the foundation of the main palace. Development and construction of the entire city and its complicated system of avenues, gates, walls, civilian residences, educational facilities, government buildings, and five main palace complexes began in 1394 as well. The official royal residence Gyeongbok Palace was completed in 1395, while the less important Changdeok Palace was completed in 1405. Other royal palaces followed suit, and by the end of the first half of the 15th century all of the capital had been completed and was in working order.
King Taejo had two wives, both of which he had sons by. His first wife, Queen Sinui, had predeceased him sometime previously to the overthrow of Goryeo but had given birth to six sons. Taejo's wife upon ascension to the throne, Queen Sindeok, had two sons as well. When the new dynasty was promulgated and officially brought into existence, Taejo brought up the issue of which son would be his successor. Although Taejo's fifth son by Queen Sineui, Yi Bang-won, had contributed most to assisting his father's rise to power, he harbored a profound hatred against two of his fathers key allies in the court, the prime minister Jeong Do-jeon and Nam Eun. Both sides were fully aware of the mutual animosity that existed between each other and constantly felt threatened. When it became clear that Yi Bang-won was the most worthy successor to the throne, Jeong Do-jeon used his influence on the king to convince him that the wisest choice would be in the son that Taejo loved most, not the son that Taejo felt was best for the kingdom. In 1392, the eighth son of King Taejo (and the second son of Queen Sindeok), Grand Prince Uian (Yi Bang-seok) was appointed Prince Royal, Successor. After the sudden death of the queen, and while King Taejo was still in mourning for his second wife, Jeong Do-jeon conspired to preliminately kill Yi Bang-won and his brothers to secure his position in court. In 1398, upon hearing of this plan, Yi Bang-won immediately revolted and raided the palace, killing Jeong Do-jeon, his followers, and the two sons of the late Queen Sindeok. This incident became known as the First Strife of Princes.
Aghast at the fact that his sons were willing to kill each other for the crown, and psychologically exhausted from the death of his second wife, King Taejo immediately crowned his second son Yi Bang-gwa, later King Jeongjong, as the new ruler. Soon after, he departed to the northern city of Hamhung.
One of King Jeongjong's first acts as monarch was to revert the capital to Gaeseong, where he is believed to have been considerably more comfortable. Meanwhile, Yi Bang-won, not in the least discouraged by the fact that his elder brother held the throne, began plotting to be invested as Royal Prince Successor Brother, the traditional title for brothers appointed as heir-presumptives to the throne when the incumbent had no issue. However, Yi Bang-won's plans were opposed by Taejo's fourth son Yi Bang-gan, who too yearned for power. In 1400, the tensions between Yi Bang-won's faction and Yi Bang-gan's camp escalated into an all-out conflict that came to be known as the Second Strife of Princes. In the aftermath of the struggle, the defeated Yi Bang-gan was exiled to Tosan, while those who urged him to battle against Yi Bang-won were executed. Thoroughly intimidated, King Jeongjong immediately invested Yi Bang-won as heir presumptive and voluntarily abdicated. That same year, Yi Bang-won assumed the throne of Joseon at long last as King Taejong. In 1401, Joseon Dynasty had officially been admitted to enter into the tribute relationship with Ming Dynasty of China.
In the beginning of Taejong's reign, the Grand King Former, Taejo, refused to relinquish the royal seal that signified the legitimacy of any king's rule. Uncomfortable at the fact that his father did not recognise him as a de jure ruler for the family deaths he caused, Taejong sent several messengers, among them his childhood friend Bak Sun, to recover the royal seal. However, Taejo assassinated every messenger that came into sight of his guards as a sign of his fury at Taejong, who continued to remain unaware of their fates. This episode became known as the Case of the Hamhung Envoys, and the term "Hamhung envoy" is still used to refer to a person who has gone on an assignment from whom there is no reply concerning their whereabouts.
With his father unwilling to pass over the royal seal he needed for recognition, Taejong began to initiate policies he believed would prove his intelligence and right to rule. One of his first acts as king was to abolish the privilege enjoyed by the upper echelons of government and the aristocracy to maintain private armies. His revoking of such rights to field independent forces effectively severed their ability to muster large-scale revolts, and drastically increased the number of men employed in the national military.
Taejong's next act as king was to revise the existing legislation concerning the taxation of land ownership and the recording of state of subjects. Although many aristocrats who benefited from King Taejo's laws redistributing property from the Gwonmun aristocrats to the members of the Sinjin faction managed to avoid taxation by deliberately hiding land they acquired, King Taejong's re-investigation of land ownership in 1405 put an end to such practices. With the discovery of previously hidden land, national income increased twofold. In addition, King Taejong initiated the first population survey in 1413 and ordered the documentation of family names/clans, places of birth/death, and the dates of birth/death for all Korean male subjects. All males over the legal age of sixteen, whichever class in society they occupied, were also required by law to carry wooden tablets on which their name, birth date, and other information was engraved. Many historians regard this legislation as the predecessor of the Korean resident identification and social security system. Taejong's new law regarding the documentation of males was also effective in preventing men from evading the mandatory military draft service.
In 1399 (the 2nd year of King Jeongjong), Taejong had played an influential role in scrapping the Dopyeong Assembly, a council of the old government administration that held a monopoly in court power during the waning years of the Goryeo Dynasty, in favor of the State Council of Joseon, a new branch of central administration that revolved around the king and his edicts. After passing the subject documentation and taxation legislation, King Taejong issued a new decree in which all decisions passed by the Euijeong Department could only come into effect with the approval of the king. This ended the custom of court ministers and advisors in making decisions through debate and negotiations amongst themselves and with the king only as an onlooker, and thus, through the implication of the king in the actual administration of Korea, brought royal power to new heights. Shortly afterward, Taejong also installed a branch of the government, known as the Sinmun Office, to receive cases in which aggrieved subjects felt that they had been exploited or unfair actions had been taken against them by government officials or aristocrats.
During the course of Taejong's rule, the growing animosity between the Buddhists and Confucian scholars was also a concern, so the new government readily decided to adopt Confucianism as the state ideology. A strict status system, dominated by the scholarly nobility class known as the yangban, was in place keeping order during this period. Hangeul (the Korean alphabet) was created by King Sejong in 1443. Prior to Hangeul, all of the Korean literati used the Hanja writing system, which were traditional Chinese characters with Korean pronunciation and meaning, and used a written language known as Hanmun, which was basically Classical Chinese, for official court documents. However, even with the advent of the Korean alphabet, use of Hanja and Hanmun in daily correspondence was not discontinued, with the Korean aristocracy, educated in Classical Chinese for the transcription of the Korean language, assumed condescending attitudes toward Hangeul and any kind of usage of it (as displayed by the number of pejoratives used to refer to it). Hangeul was officially re-recognised in the late 19th century, and everyday written use of Hanja and Hanmun eventually came to end slowly in the latter half of the 20th century.
Throughout Korean history, there were frequent pirates attacks on both the sea and land. The only purpose for the Koreans running a navy was to secure the maritime trade against the Wokou pirates. The Korean navy maintained superiority over the pirates by using an advanced form of gunpowder technologies (i.e. cannons, fire arrows in form of Singijeon deployed by Hwacha, etc.).
During Japanese invasions of Korea (1592-1598), Japanese warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi, with the ambition to conquer Ming China with the Portuguese guns, invaded Korea with his daimyō and their troops in 1592 and 1597. Factional division in the Joseon court, inability to assess Japanese military capability, and failed attempts at diplomacy led to poor preparation on Joseon's part. The use of European firearms by the Japanese left most of the southern peninsula occupied within months, with both Pyongyang and Hanseong (present-day Seoul) captured. According to the Annals of Joseon Dynasty, the Japanese were joined by rebelling Korean slaves, who burned down the palace of Gyeongbokgung and its storehouse of slave records.
Local resistance, however, slowed down the Japanese advance and decisive naval victories by Admiral Yi Sun-sin left control over sea routes in Korean hands, severely hampering Japanese supply lines. Furthermore, Ming China intervened on the side of the Koreans, sending a large force in 1593 which pushed back the Japanese together with the Koreans. During the war, Koreans developed powerful firearms and high-quality gunpowder and the Turtle ships, the first cannon-bearing ironclad warships in world history. The Joseon and Ming forces defeated the Japanese, who retreated back to their homeland, but victory came at a deep price. Farmlands were devastated, irrigation dikes were destroyed, villages and towns were burned down; the population was first plundered and then dispersed, and tens of thousands of skilled workers (celadon ware makers, craftsmen, artisans, etc) were either killed during the war or kidnapped to Japan as captives to help Japanese develop their crafts. The Japanese also pilfered many thousands of Joseon historical and royal artifacts, many of which are preserved in Japanese museums. In 1598 alone, the Japanese took the ears and noses of some 38,000 Koreans as trophies (a common samurai practice) and built the monument Mimizuka in Kyōto. The long war reduced the productive capacity of farmlands from 1,708,000 kyol to 541,000 kyol. Following the war, relations between Korea and Japan had been completely suspended. Japan was cut off from the technology of continental Asia. After the death of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, however, negotiations between the Korean court and the Tokugawa shogunate were carried out via the Japanese lord on Tsushima. In 1604, Tokugawa Ieyasu, needing to restore commercial relations with Korea in order to have access to the technology of the mainland again, met Korea's demands and released some 3000 captive Koreans. As a result, in 1607, a Korean mission visited Edo, and diplomatic and trade relations were restored on a limited basis.
Following these events the Korean Kingdom became increasingly isolationist. Its rulers sought to limit contact with foreign countries. In addition, the Ming Dynasty was weakened, partly because of the war in Korea against Japan, which led to the establishment of the new Qing Dynasty. The Koreans decided to build tighter borders, exert more controls over inter-border traffic, and wait out the initial turbulence of the Manchu overthrow of the Ming.
Despite these limits, Korea had extensive trade with Mongolia, Northern Asia, China, and Japan. However, at times trade with Japan was limited to missions appointed by the king in order to prevent piracy and conduct orderly trade, which had been a problem even in the Goryeo Period.
Korea suffered from two invasions by the Manchus, in 1627 (see the First Manchu invasion of Korea) and 1637 (see the Second Manchu invasion of Korea). Korea surrendered to the Manchus and agreed to pay tribute to the new Qing dynasty emperors as a Qing dynasty's protectorate, which at this time involved two way trade missions with China. The Qing rulers adopted a foreign policy to avoid the creation of foreign trading enclaves on Chinese soil. This policy limited the presence of the traditional entrepot of the foreign hongs to Macau. These entrepot handled the significant trade of Chinese silks for foreign silver. This arrangement relegated foreign trade to the southern provinces of China, leaving the more unstable northern region under careful regulation and limiting the influence of foreigners. This decision affected Korea since China was Korea's main trading partner.
Throughout the Dynasty, various regional and ideological factions struggled for dominance of the political system. The factions evolved and shifted with the generations. In the earliest years of Joseon, tension between the capital faction and the Yeongnam-based Sarim faction predominated. Village Seowon, which combined the function of Confucian shrines with educational institutions, often reflected the factional alignment of the local elites. In areas where the Western faction predominated, key figures of Westerner thought such as were enshrined. In the 16th century, a nationwide split occurred between the Eastern faction (Dong-in) and Western factions (Seo-in). The Eastern faction in turn split under the reign of Seonjo between the hard-line Northern faction (Buk-in) and the moderate Southern faction (Nam-in). The Western faction later split in its turn, between the Old Learning (Noron) and the Young Learning (Soron).
These factional splits were often driven by questions of royal succession or appropriate royal conduct. For example, the split between the Northerners and Southerners was driven by questions involving the proper successor to Seonjo, who had no legitimate son. The Northerners came to support the Gwanghaegun; accordingly, they flourished under his reign (1608-1623) but were swept from power by the Westerners after the succession of Injo.
Under the reigns of Yeongjo and Jeongjo in the 18th century, the kings pursued a strict politcy of equality, favoring no faction over another. However, in Jeongjo's reign strife re-emerged between the Byeokpa and Sipa, two groups which cut across the earlier factions and differed in their attitudes towards Yeongjo's murder of his son, who was also Jeongjo's father. In the 19th century, the playing field shifted once more, and in-law families rather than scholarly factions came to dominate the throne. For most of the 19th century, the Jangdong branch of the Andong Kim clan was in control of the government; however, there was a brief interlude in which control shifted to the Pungyang Jo clan.
When Daewon-gun's reign ended, Faction politics started declining and completely disappeared in the 19th century.
The French campaign against Korea of 1866 is also known as Byeonginyangyo (Korean: 병인양요, Western Disturbance of the byeong-in year ). It refers to the French occupation of Ganghwa Island in Korea in retaliation for the earlier execution by Korea of French Jesuit priests prosletyzing illicitly in that country. The encounter, which lasted nearly six weeks, was the first armed encounter between Korea and a Western power. The overall result was a French retreat and a check on its influence in the region. The violent encounter also confirmed Korea in its isolationism for another decade.
The United States expedition to Korea in 1871 also known as Sinmiyangyo (Korean: 신미양요 ,Western Disturbance of the Sinmi year) was the first American military action in Korea. It took place predominantly on and around the Korean island of Ganghwa. The reason for the presence of the American military expeditionary force in Korea was to support an American diplomatic delegation sent to establish trade and diplomatic relations with Korea, to ascertain the fate of the General Sherman merchant ship, and to establish a treaty assuring aid for shipwrecked sailors. The conservative nature of the Joseon Dynasty government and the assertiveness of the Americans led to a misunderstanding between the two parties that changed a diplomatic expedition into an armed conflict. The United States won a minor military victory, but as the Koreans refused to open up the country to them (and the U.S. forces in Korea did not have the authority or strength to press the issue) the United States failed to secure their diplomatic objectives.
In 1875, the Unyo, a small Japanese warship, was dispatched to survey coastal waters without Korean permission. It attacked a Korean port and withdrew back to Japan. Taking this opportunity, the Japanese demanded a treaty. The Treaty of Ganghwa became the first unequal treaty signed by Korea; it gave extraterritorial rights to Japanese citizens in Korea, forced the Korean government to open three ports to Japanese and foreign trade, specifically Busan, Incheon and Wonsan, and made Korea establish its independence in foreign relations from China.
In the 19th century tensions mounted between Qing China and Japan, culminating in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895). Much of this war was fought on the Korean peninsula. Japan, after the Meiji Restoration, acquired Western military technology, had forced Joseon to sign the Treaty of Ganghwa in 1876. Japan encroached upon Korean territory in search of fish, iron ore, and natural resources. It also established a strong economic presence in the peninsula, heralding the beginning of Japanese imperial expansion in East Asia.
The peasants demanded land distribution, tax reduction, democracy, and human rights. Taxes were so high that most farmers were forced to sell their ancestral homesteads to rich landowners at bargain prices. As a result, the peasant class developed intense anti-Japanese and anti-yangban sentiments. The rebellions' immediate cause was Jo Byong-gap, a government official whose rule was viewed by some as tyrannical and corrupt. On January 11, 1894, by peasant leader Jeon Bong-jun defeated the government forces at the battle of Go-bu, after the battle Jo's properties were handed out to the peasants. Meantime, the Joseon government army attacked Jeonju and both the Joseon government and the peasant army concluded an agreement. However the urgent Joseon government asked the Chinese Qing Dynasty government for assistance in ending the revolt. After notifying the Japanese in accordance with the Convention of Tientsin Qing sent troops into Korea. It was the catalyst for the First Sino-Japanese War.
In late June of 1894, the pro-Japanese forces hatched a plan to wipe out the Peasant Army in co-operation with the Japanese troops stationed in Incheon and Seoul. On October 16, the Peasant Army moved toward Gongju for the final battle, which was a trap. The Japanese and the pro-Japanese government troops were in fact waiting for them inside.
The Donghak Army was defeated in the Battle of Ugeumchi. The Japanese had cannons and other modern weapons, whereas the Korean peasants were armed only with bows and arrows, spears, swords, and some flintlock muskets. A few months later, Jeon was captured and executed.
The revolution failed, but many grievances of the peasants would later be addressed through the Gabo Reform.
In 1895, Empress Myeongseong was assassinated by Japanese agents. The Japanese minister to Korea, Miura Goro orchestrated the plot against her. A group of Japanese agents entered the Imperial palace in Seoul, which was under Japanese guard, and Empress Myeongseong (referred to as "Queen Min" by the Japanese) was killed and her body desecrated in the North wing of the palace. The empress had attempted to counter Japanese interference in Korea and was considering turning to Russia or China for support. After the assassination of his consort, Emperor Gojong refused to talk with his father, the Daewon-gun, believing him complicit in the assassination.
The Chinese defeat in the 1894 war led to the Treaty of Shimonoseki between China and Japan, which officially guaranteed Korea's independence from China. It was a step for Japan to hold regional hegemony in Korea. After that, Korea built the Independence Gate and stopped paying tributes to the Qing Dynasty. The Joseon court, pressured by encroachment from larger powers, felt the need to reinforce national integrity and declared the Korean Empire in 1897. King Gojong assumed the title of Emperor in order to assert Korea's independence. In addition, other foreign powers were sought for military technology, especially Russia, to fend off the Japanese. Technically, 1897 marks the end of the Joseon period, as the official name of the empire was changed; however the Joseon Dynasty would still reign, albeit perturbed by Japanese interventions. In 1910 Japan annexed the Korean peninsula which effectively ended the Joseon Dynasty rule.
The collapse of Russia's navy in the historic Battle of Port Arthur (in which Russia's imperial navy was destroyed in a decisive surprise attack), led to a great weakening of Korea's umbrella of protection.
The combined effect on China of the Opium Wars to the south and Japanese naval strikes in the north increasingly led the Japanese to see Korea as a strategic foothold into north China, just as Macau and Hong Kong were Portuguese and British trade enclaves into south China.
In a complicated series of manoeuvres and counter-manoeuvres, Japan pushed back the Russian fleet at the Battle of Port Arthur in 1905. Both the fleets of China and Russia had given Korea sufficient protection to prevent a direct invasion, but this ambuscade of the Russian fleet gave Japan free rein over north China, and Korea was left at the mercy of the new regional naval power: Japan.
With the conclusion of the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War with the Treaty of Portsmouth, the way was open for Japan to take control of Korea. After the signing of the Protectorate Treaty in 1905, Korea became a protectorate of Japan. Itō Hirobumi was the first Resident-General of Korea, although he was assassinated in 1909 at the train station at Harbin.
Japan annexed Korea in 1910.
The population of Joseon Korea is controversial. Government records of households is are considered unreliable in this period. . One recent estimate gives 6 million at the start of the dynasty, growing irregularly to a peak of as many as 18 million about 1750. Between 1810 and 1850, population declined approximately 10% and remained stable. Joseon Korea initially lacked a landed nobility in the usual sense. However, a centralised administrative system was installed controlled by Confucian scholars who were called Yangban. By the end of the Eighteenth Century the yangban had acquired most of the traits of a hereditary nobility, except that status was based on a unique mixture of family position, the results of a Confucian-style competitive examination, and a civil service system. The yangban and the king, in an uneasy balance, controlled the central government and military institutions. The proportion of yangban may have reached as high as 30% by 1800, although there was considerable local variation. As the government was small, a great many yangban were local gentry of high status, but not always high income.
Another 20-40% of the population were slaves. Slavery was hereditary, as well as a form of legal punishment. There was a slave class with both government and privately owned slaves, and the government occasionally gave slaves to citizens of higher rank. Privately owned slaves could be inherited as personal property. During poor harvests, many sangmin people would voluntarily become slaves in order to survive. In the case of private slaves they could buy their freedom. During the Joseon Dynasty about 30% to 40% of the Korean population consisted of slaves. However Choson slaves could, and often did, own property. . Government-owned slaves were all emancipated in 1801, and the institution gradually died out over the next century
Many of the the remaining 40-50% were surely farmers , but recent work has raised important issues about the size of other groups: merchants and traders, local government or quasi-governmental clerks (chungin), craftsmen and laborers, textile workers, etc. . Given the size of the population, it may be that a typical person had more than one role. Most farming was, at any rate, commercial, not subsistence. In addition to generating additional income, a certain amount of occupational dexterity may have been required to avoid the worst effects of an often heavy and corrupt tax system.
During the Late Joseon, the Confucian ideals of propriety and "filial piety" gradually came to be equated with a strict observance to a complex social heirarchy, with many fine gradations. By the early 1700's the social critic Yi Chunghwan (1692-1752) sarcastically complained that "[W]ith so many different ranks and grades separating people from one another, people tend not to have a very large circle of friends." But, even as Yi wrote, the informal social distinctions of the Early Joseon were being reinforced by legal discrimination, such as Sumptuary law regulating the dress of different social groups, and laws restricting inheritance and property ownership by women .
Yet, these laws may have been announced precisely because social mobility was increasing, particularly during the prosperous century beginning about 1710. The original social hierarchy of the Joseon Dynasty was developed based on the social hierarchy of the Koryo era. In the 14th-17th centuries, this hierarchy was strict and stable. Since economic opportunities to change status were limited, no law was needed. But in the 18-19th centuries, new commercial groups emerged, and the old class system was somewhat weakened. The caste system of Joseon was officially banned in 1894.
Many Korean inventions are from this period, such as the first Asian sundial and the world's first water-powered clock. Also, King Sejong saw the development of the world's first rain gauge, made by court scientist Jang Yeong-sil. During the Joseon period, the metal movable type, invented during the Goryeo dynasty in 1232, supplanted the wood-block printing in China.
The Crown Prince lost his status in Japan at the end of World War II and returned to Korea in 1963 after an invitation by the Republican Government. He suffered a stroke as his plane landed in Seoul and was rushed to a hospital. He never recovered and died in 1970. His brother, Imperial Prince Ui died in 1955 and the Korean people officially considered this to be the end of the Royal line.
Presently Prince Yi Seok is one of two pretenders to the throne of Korea. He is a son of Prince Gang of Korea, a fifth son of Gojong of Korea and currently a professor of history lecturing at Jeonju University in the Republic of Korea.
Today, many tombs of the descendants still exist on top of the mountain in Yangju. According to the pedigree written on the tombstone, it is believed that these descendants are from the great king of Joseon, Seongjeong(The 9th ruler of Joseon Dynasty). It was discovered that this mountain belongs to the member of the royal family named Yi Won (Born in 1958). More details of current descendants of the House of Yi.
There is presently no official historian of the Korean royal family, and in Korea, the annals of the last two emperors edited with help of Japanese are not included in the Annals of Joseon Dynasty. Occasional references to the Korean Royal Family and its present charities and activities in the arts or in cultural preservation are found on websites on world royalty.