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Opening the Hermit Kingdom

Wilson Strand looks at the many attempts to open Korea to Western trade in the 19th century.

In the middle of the nineteenth century Korea, the Hermit Kingdom, was isolated from the rest of the world and unknown. Today the same title is sometimes used to refer to North Korea, similarly reclusive.

The Choson or Yi dynasty, based at its capital in Seoul, had ruled Korea since 1392, despite a devastating invasion by the Japanese (1592-98) and another by the Manchus (1627-36) which resulted in the country remaining closely associated with China, culturally and politically, into the late-nineteenth century. The relationship with China confirmed the dominance of a Confucian ideology, and contacts with foreigners, and foreign travel, were strictly forbidden.

In the mid-nineteenth century the West was interested in opening the Far East to trade. In 1842 China succumbed; in 1854 the American Commodore Perry, having impressed a reluctant Japan with his military might and technical advance, opened that kingdom – previously as unwelcoming to Westerners as Korea – to foreign commerce.  It took more than twenty more years – and several attempts by various foreign powers – for Korea to be ‘opened’ in the same way; and while the French and Americans tried military force, by the end of the century it was the Japanese who succeeded in opening the peninsula.

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