Sunjongs unhappiness shadows turbulent last decades of Yi Dynasty
This article is the first part of a tale of two Korean princes during the later years of the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910). ― ED.
By Robert Neff
One of the most dynamic eras of Korean history is the period of 1866-1910. It was an era of gunboat diplomacy, wars and the eventual opening of Korea to the West in 1882. Social enlightenment, importation of Western technology and the elevation of the kingdom to an empire were all realized during this period.
But these achievements were marred by the exploitation of its mineral resources by foreign nations, the destruction wrought by two wars upon its soil (Sino-Japanese War, 1894-1895 and the Russo-Japanese War, 1904-1905), the assassination of Korea’s queen and the demise of its independence when Japan annexed the empire on Aug. 22, 1910.
King Gojong, who reigned from 1864 through 1907, was often portrayed by his Western guests as an intelligent ruler who tried to do his best for his people but was hampered by the politics of his court and the aggressiveness of his neighbors. While some blamed him for Korea’s predicament, others sympathized with him and, for the most part, it is with his successor and son, Emperor Sunjong, that the lion’s share of the blame has fallen.
It is perhaps for this reason that Sunjong has largely been ignored by historians except to recite his perceived inability to rule and the role he played in the loss of Korea’s independence.
Sunjong was born on March 25, 1874 and was Queen Min’s second son — the first son dying shortly after birth. He was, without a doubt, a blessing to his royal parents. Both Gojong and Min were very fond of children and one can imagine that they constantly doted on him but there is little information about his childhood.
One of the earliest descriptions of Sunjong in Western sources comes from Percival Lawrence Lowell, an American who stayed in Korea from late 1883 through 1884. Describing an audience he had with the crown prince, Lowell wrote:
“He was a little boy of ten. Seclusion and an enforced dignity befitting his position had given him a look beyond his years. His face lacked the beauty of his father’s. The complexion was singularly colorless, but I suspect that much of this — so marked was it — was due to the use of chalk, a common practice in the Far East. His eyes were very narrow even for an Oriental, and gave him an appearance of being half asleep.”
Although he was the crown prince and in theory wielded a great deal of power, he was, nonetheless, a boy and governed by the court officials whom hovered around him. According to Lowell:
“He stood between two tall ministers, who bent over and prompted him as to what he should say before he began to speak. He listened with statue-like passiveness to their whispers, and then repeated in his childish voice his lesson. Only when he got his answer did he turn to them again for counsel.”
Lowell summed up the crown prince as “a touching mixture of dignity and helplessness” and that “his life had taken expression from his face, and left only a sort of realization of the treadmill of his position behind.”
In 1888, Frank G. Carpenter, an American newspaperman visiting the Far East, described his own audience with Sunjong:
“We then went to an audience with the crown prince, whom we found in a palace more gorgeous than that of the king. He is a young man of about 16, though he is full grown, and is taller than his father. He was gorgeously dressed in a gown of crushed strawberry silk, and he had two eunuchs besides him just the same as the king. His face had not the strength of the king’s, and as yet the young man has hardly shown, I am told, the ability of his father. Our interview was rather tame. The crown prince asked after the president, and expressed a kindly feeling for our country, and the audience lasted but a few minutes.”
They were somber descriptions and some of the most compassionate and understanding of the crown prince and his position. Other visitors were not so kind.
John A. Cockerill, another visiting American newspaperman, described Sunjong as “flabby” while another American visitor described him as “a sickly youth of about 21 years, whom even the famous ‘ginseng’ — which is supposed to be an infallible remedy for all the ills to which flesh is heir and from the sale of which the king derives perhaps the greater part of his income — has failed to benefit.”
In September 1894, Alice Graham, the sister-in-law of the John M. B. Sill, the American Minister to Korea, declared in a letter to home that “the crown prince looks quite like an imbecile (and) it is said his looks do not belie him.”
While it would be hard to judge the crown prince’s intelligence, it must be said that there were several attempts to teach him foreign languages. Alfred Stripling, an Englishman and one of the first Westerners to come to Korea (he came as a member of the Korean Customs Department in 1883) served for a short period of time as the crown prince’s tutor teaching, amongst other subjects, English.
In 1898, following the death of her husband, the British Consul at Jemulpo, Clara Joly was hired by the Korean government to teach English to the crown prince for a period of two years. For her efforts she was to receive $300 per month.
English wasn’t the only foreign language — the crown prince also studied Chinese. According to Yi Hak-kuin, a favored member of the Korean court, all of the Chinese that the crown prince knew had been taught to him by his mother.
Like most mothers, Queen Min was extremely indulgent with her son — perhaps a little too indulgent. Yi reported that from birth, the crown prince “slept under the same cover with his royal parents.” It is unclear if this is truly a fact or a matter of character assassination by Yi.
There is no doubt that Queen Min loved her son. Even as she lay dying, savagely cut by her assassins’ blades, her only thought was the safety of her son and faintly asked about his safety before one of her assassins jumped upon her and stabbed her several more times. But there is a question of just how much he loved her.
In Yun Chi-ho’s diary there are several accounts of the crown prince’s perceived indifference to his mother’s death. After Gojong and Sunjong escaped to the Russian legation, the crown prince is described as seeming to be unaffected by his mother’s death and that “he laughed and talked...as if the 8th of October had never made him sorry.”
Perhaps the most damning account took place on his birthday.
“Today is the birthday of the crown prince. Yi Pom-chin told me that His Majesty wept this morning as the day brought to his memory old scenes and associations. Many of the old courtiers wept too. Perfectly natural. ‘But,’ said Yi in despair, ‘the crown prince who has the greatest reason for being sad, was the jolliest of the crowd. Not a tear, not a sigh, not even a serious countenance! Oh, what motherly love she had for him.’”
Sunjong had his own brushes with assassination. In the late summer of 1898, Kim Hong-nuik, a dissatisfied former court official, bribed some members of the royal household staff to slip poison into the morning coffee. Gojong, perhaps smelling something strange, did not drink the coffee but Sunjong and another court official did. After several anxious days they recovered but not fully — Sunjong is believed to have been rendered impotent. Married twice (his first wife was 12 years old and the second wife 13), he was never able to have children.
In 1907, Gojong abdicated the throne and Sunjong became the emperor of Korea. It was a short-lived reign.
In 1908, rumors circulated in the world’s press that Ito Hirobumi, the Japanese resident-general of Korea, had banished Emperor Sunjong to Japan. Hirobumi disavowed these rumors and stated that he respected Korea’s sovereignty.
In 1909, Carpenter, whose first visit to Korea was in 1888, was invited by the Japanese to come and write about Korea. In his article published in the Atlantic Constitution, Carpenter described Sunjong as “a baby of thirty five” and that the “weakness of the emperor’s mind has long been a matter of remark among both Koreans and foreigners.”
According to Carpenter, one early American minister to Korea sent a dispatch to the state department in which he speculated that Sunjong’s mental weakness was “evidence of the evil effects of intermarriage of near relatives.” Carpenter, however, was more sympathetic and felt that Sunjong’s “life in the palace, surrounded by eunuchs and the vicious servants of a depraved court, has not been conducive to his mental growth.”
It may have been reports like the above that helped lay the foundation for Japan’s annexation of Korea. On Aug. 22, 1910, Japan declared that “the existing system of government in (Korea) has not proved equal to the duty of preserving public order and tranquility” and that with the approval of the Korean Emperor and the Emperor of Japan, Korea would become part of the Japanese empire.
For the rest of his life Sunjong dwelt in Changdeok Palace. Ridiculed by the world’s press as incompetent ruler he apparently did excel at one thing — billiards. In 1910, two billiard tables were set up in Changdeok Palace and a small club was established — the best player was none other than Sunjong.
Sunjong died on April 24, 1926 in the palace. The cause of his death, like that of his father’s, remains controversial — some people believe they were both poisoned by the Japanese.
Historian Donald Clark sums up Sunjong’s life as “quite an unhappy one. He lived through the turbulence of the Yi Dynasty’s last decades and took the throne only briefly, when the Japanese were sure that he could be trusted to let them do their work.”
Robert Neff is a columnist for The Korea Times and researches Korean history.