Korea at the Crossroads of Civilization
Political Factions in the Kabo Reform Deliberations
Korea at the Crossroads of Civilization: Joseon Palace
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Tongdo Sogi (Eastern Ways, Western Technology)
Kabo Faction
The moderate Kabo group is composed largely of men of aristocratic backgrounds who had supported the Min policy of “Eastern Way, Western Machines” and had held important posts in the government during the early and mid-1880s. Some of them, however, were forced from their positions in the late 1880s by the Mins. Stunned by Japan’s easy early victories over Qing China in the summer of 1984, they began to question the Chinese-style “Eastern Way, Western Machines” approach and became open to the idea of more extensive Westernizing reforms. Some of their members, however, may be open to conservative arguments on certain issues, such as social reforms. The leader of this group is Kim Hongjip, the Chair of the Deliberative Council and also Prime Minister of the government.
East-West Icon for the Kabo Faction
The Kabo faction’s goals include abrogating the traditional tributary relationship with China, carrying out a major restructuring of the central government, implementing financial reforms that will both improve state finances and provide infrastructure for economic development, and creating a new educational system that will include both the new learning from the West and traditional Confucian learning. The Kabo faction is also interested in social reform, but is concerned that abrupt changes will lead to instability. (Gamebook, 11)
King Kojong
An Edict Ordering the Destruction of Steles Excluding the West
King Kojong (August 5, 1882)

The Classics speak of the propriety of engaging in relations with other states and peoples. Nonetheless, thoughtless and unenlightened Confucian scholars look only at the disasters that befell the Song dynasty after it entered into negotiations with the Khitan and the Jurchen and foolishly use that to argue for excluding the Japanese. Do they not think of how Heaven will view Our country if it responds with military action against those who come in peace? Where is the righteousness in an attitude that prizes isolation and that does not regret that conflict with the countries of the world will bring military action against and ruin to Our country?
          Some contend that if Korea enters into friendly relations with the West, their false teachings will gradually permeate the country. This is indeed a problem about which all should be concerned for the sake of civilization. But entering into friendly relations is one thing and preventing the spread of false learning is quite another. Signing a treaty and conducting commerce are done according to international law. We have already prohibited the Westerners from spreading their teachings in the country. How could it be that you, who have long learned the teachings of Confucius and Mencius and have long followed customs of proper ritual, would suddenly abandon the right Way and follow a false way? Even if some foolish people should secretly spread the false learning, Our country has appropriate laws to punish them without forgiveness, so how can you worry that there is no way to control the spread of false teachings?
          Furthermore, some say that if Korea follows, even in a limited way, the Western example in the making of machines, that the country will immediately be tainted with impurity. This, too, is because they do not understand. The Westerners’ teachings are impure and must be avoided like one shuns licentious music or whore mongering. But their machines are useful and can truly be employed to enrich Our people’s livelihoods, be it in farming or in the manufacturing of medicines, weapons, ships, or vehicles; why should We hesitate to use them? There is no inconsistency in a policy of rejecting their teachings while learning their machines.
          Furthermore, it is clear that the Western powers are strong and Korea is weak. If we don’t learn their machines, with what will we resist their aggression and overcome their contempt for us? What could be better than for Korea to continue to maintain the true teachings internally while entering into friendly relations, conducted on the basis of equality externally as we develop Our country into a wealthy and strong state in which Our literati and people will enjoy great prosperity and peace?
(Gamebook, 35-6)
Japanese woodblock print depicting scene from the Gapsin Coup
Kapsin Faction
The Kapsin group is composed primarily of younger officials who had traveled to or studied in Japan after Korea signed a treaty with that country in 1876. They are much influenced by the ideas of such Japanese Enlightenment thinkers as Fukuzawa Yukichi. Although these men did not participate directly in the failed 1884 Kapsin coup that had attempted to implement a program of radical Westernizing reform, they were sympathetic to the goals of the coup. They were excluded from high office during the years of Min family domination of the government from 1885 through 1894. The Kapsin group was antagonistic toward the Min and unhappy at the lack of progress toward fundamental reform under the piecemeal “Eastern Ways, Western Machines” approach to reform advocated by the Min family. These men were very impressed with the way in which Japan had transformed its society and had rapidly developed into an industrial and military power since the Meiji Restoration of 1868. Concerned about what they see as the weakness and backwardness of Korea, they are hoping to use Japanese support and influence to help them force through a program of radical restructuring of government, society, and economy in order to allow Korea to maintain itself as a free and independent country, even if it means running the risk of becoming overly dependent on Japan. Almost all the members of this faction belong to politically marginalized social groups such as secondary sons, military officials, and northerners.
Icon for the Kapsin Faction
The Kapsin faction’s goals include abrogating the traditional tributary relationship with China, carrying out a major restructuring of the central government that includes the creation of a constitutional monarchy, implementing economic reforms that will foster the growth of commerce and industry by encouraging Japanese investment in Korea , carrying out social reforms that abolish the traditional status system and improve the status of women, and creating a new educational system based almost entirely on the new learning from the West. (Gamebook, 13)
Photograph of Yu Kilchun
Observations on a Journey to the West
Yu Kilchun
The system of constitutional monarchy has the fairest institutions, which do not allow personal whims to determine the disposition of matters. These governments honor the wishes of their people and implement laws in accordance with public opinion. Because it would be too cumbersome if every single person participated directly in the decision-making process, the people select representatives on a proportional basis, choosing men of talent and virtue to assist the ruler. The people watch over how their representatives carry out the duties of their offices and how they decide on laws and political directives. Thus these systems are able to protect the rights of the people and to prevent abuses by rulers and officials.
          The republican system is the same as constitutional monarchy except for the absence of a hereditary ruler. Therefore, I will not go into the details of the republican system.
          When we compare the various systems of government, it becomes clear that constitutional monarchy is far superior to the others. The system of Great Britain is considered to be the best in the world. The representatives who deliberate on such things as taxes and political directives are chosen by the people and thus represent the whole people in deciding and carrying out the affairs of governance. There are many aristocrats among the representatives in the legislature and the administration; this is because of Great Britain’s aristocratic tradition. Nonetheless, no law or regulation, large or small, can be implemented without the permission of the monarch. Simply put, even though the aristocrats have suffered some diminishment of their traditional status, they do not complain but rather cooperate in carrying out fair governance; and even though the commoners have gained in status, there is no one who makes foolish and ignorant arguments.
          However, in countries where the people are still uneducated, they should not be suddenly entrusted with the right to participate in the government. If an ignorant people are allowed, before they have been properly educated, to try to transform their government into some other form that may seem good to them, the result will be chaos. Thus the government should first educate its people before allowing popular suffrage.
(Gamebook, 66)
Chongdong Theater (in Chongdong, Seoul)
Chongdong Faction
The Chongdong faction, whose moniker was taken from the Chongdong Club (a social club where Korean elites intermingled with foreign diplomats and businessmen), have backgrounds and experiences similar to those of the Kapsin group and agree with the need for immediate and far-reaching reform. This group, however, is deeply suspicious of the motives of the Japanese and resented the presence of Japanese military forces in Korea. They have traveled to such countries as the United States and Russia and have established contacts with the U.S. and Russian legations in Seoul in hopes of gaining support for the reform program and of counterbalancing Japanese influence. This group tends to defend the interests of King Kojong and is thus also known as the “Loyal Party.” The leader of this group, Pak Chongyang, is the vice Chair of the Deliberative Council.
Icon for the Chongdong Faction
The Chongdong faction’s goals include abrogating the traditional tributary relationship with China, carrying out a major restructuring of the central government, preventing Japanese economic encroachment and instead encouraging Western investment, abolishing the traditional status system and improving the status of women, and creating a new educational system that will be based primarily on the new learning from the West. (Gamebook, 15)
The Daewongun trying to expel American and French ships
Taewon’gun Faction
The members of this group, also men of aristocratic backgrounds, are bound to the Taewon’gun by personal ties. They tend to look toward the Taewon’gun for guidance regarding the positions they took in the Deliberative Council. Although as members of the Council they can be presumed to be in favor of some kind of reform, it is also possible that they may have been sympathetic to the “Protect the True, Reject the False” ideology that had been paramount in Korea before 1876 and is still widespread among rural Confucian elites in 1894.
Icon for the Taewon'gun Faction
The Taewon’gun faction’s goals are to prevent or at least modify reform in almost all areas. They are not strongly opposed to abrogating the traditional tributary relationship with China as long as it does not alienate the Chinese, but they are strongly opposed to the establishment of a constitutional monarchy. They are interested in financial reforms that will improve state finances and provide better for the royal family. They [are] against any kind of fundamental social reform and are opposed to including the new learning from the West in the educational system except for limited practical vocational training. (Gamebook, 16)
Memorial Opposing the Treaty with Japan
Ch’oe Ikhyon
China is the center of the world and the old land of Yao and Shun. But for the past 200 years, its people have shaved their heads, abandoned civilization, and become barbarians. Anyone with a heart can feel it sink at the thought and will beat his breast in anguish. In similar fashion, now these grotesque looking barbarians from across the ocean have set foot in China and the Chinese no longer regard them as strange. As a result, these ocean barbarians collide among themselves inside China, and there are no Chinese who can stand up to them. Most people throughout the world fear them and act as their servants. Our country is now the only area in the world that draws strength from dignity and spirit of our ancestors to maintain the correct nature that treasures good and rejects evil. How could a superior man who loves the people who live in this last land of civilization allow them to become like beasts? If all the people of the country come under the control of the ocean barbarians, they will soon discard ritual, succumb to False Learning, and no longer know human morality and the principle of Heaven. If this comes to pass, on whom will you rely to maintain your position as king? Even if you had no other concerns and were able to sleep well at night with your head on a high pillow, how could you possibly enter the ancestral shrines of Sunjo and Hŏnjong, and how will subsequent generations remember you as king?
          This is a debate over principles and the effects and damage negotiations will bring are clear for all to see. The foolish and the wise all know this, and even the children in the streets, servants, peasants, and village elders are all worried. I am concerned that only your illustrious majesty has not awakened to the danger. Your majesty’s idea is that the Japanese are not ocean barbarians so that if what they want is simply the restoration of the amicable relations of old then that cannot go against the Way. Even if we grant that the Japanese are not ocean barbarians, they are not the Japanese of old so that we must investigate them carefully. The Japanese of old were our neighbors; the Japanese of now are pirates. We can negotiate with a neighboring country, but we cannot negotiate with pirates.
          How do I know that the Japanese are pirates? It is because they have become the tools of the ocean barbarians. What makes is clear that they are the tools of the ocean barbarians? It is because the minds of the Japanese and the ocean barbarians are the same and the two have been running rampant in China for some time now. A few years ago we received a message from Chinese court saying that Japanese were coming with the French and the Americans. And we heard last year from village schoolteachers in Tongnae that Japanese traders there were asking to set up shrines and asking that people wearing strangely colored clothing be allowed to come in. Now all Japanese are wearing Western clothing, using Western cannons, and riding Western ships. This is clear proof that the Japanese and the ocean barbarians are one and the same.
          Furthermore, in a communication from Beijing last month that was concerned only with Japanese ships coming this time, there is the statement that the ship “returned after being defeated in 1866.” If those who were defeated in 1866 were Westerners and not Japanese, how can we explain that a Japanese ship returned after defeat in 1866. We can conclude that the West is Japan and Japan is the West. How, then, can we believe the contention that the enemy now at our shore are Japanese and no Westerners? This ignorant subject of your majesty will say that even if they are Japanese and not Westerners, they are clearly the tools of the Westerners and are not the Japanese of old.
(Gamebook, 33-4)
Icon for Indeterminates
The Indeterminates do not belong to any particular faction, although they share similar backgrounds with the Kabo and Chongdong factions. Their views tend toward moderation and thus they can be persuaded to form alliances with other factions. They also have family ties and personal interests that may influence they way the vote on various issues.
          The Indeterminates do not have specific goals as a group, although they are generally interested in some sort of fundamental reform and each has his own particular goals or interests. Indeterminates as individuals win when their personal goals are realized. (Gamebook, 17)

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