Photos and History of Korea's Imperial Family

The Joseon Dynasty ruled Korea for more than 500 years

The First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 was fought in part over control of Korea. The Joseon Dynasty of Korea was a long-established tributary to the Qing Dynasty of China, meaning it was to some extent under China's authority. By the end of the 19th century, however, China was a frail shadow of its former self as the dominant power in Asia, while Japan had grown more powerful.

After Japan's crushing victory in the Sino-Japanese War, it sought to sever ties between Korea and China. The Japanese government encouraged King Gojong of Korea to declare himself emperor to mark Korea's independence from China. Gojong did so in 1897.

After defeating the Russians in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), however, Japan formally annexed the Korean Peninsula as a colony in 1910. The Korean imperial family was deposed by its former sponsors after just 13 years.

Korea had been a tributary to China since long before the Qing era (1644-1912). Under pressure from European and American forces during the colonial period, however, China became progressively weaker as Japan grew. This rising power to Korea's east imposed an unequal treaty upon the Joseon ruler in 1876, forcing three port cities open to Japanese traders and giving Japanese citizens extraterritorial rights within Korea, meaning Japanese citizens weren't bound by Korean laws.

Nevertheless, when a peasant uprising led by Jeon Bong-jun in 1894 threatened the Joseon throne, Gojong appealed for help to China, not Japan. China sent troops to assist in quelling the rebellion, but the presence of Qing troops on Korean soil prompted Japan to declare war in 1894.

Here are the Korean rulers during this turbulent period:

Gwangmu Emperor Gojong, Founder of the Korean Empire

Emperor Gojong was the last king of the Joseon Dynasty
Previously Known as King Gojong Emperor Gojong, who ended the Joseon Dynasty and founded the short-lived Korean Empire under Japanese influence. Library of Congress Prints and Photos, George G. Bain Collection

In 1897, King Gojong, the 26th ruler of Korea's Joseon Dynasty, announced the creation of the Korean Empire, which lasted only 13 years under the shadow of Japanese control. He died in 1919.

Gojong and Prince Imperial Yi Wang

Emperor Gojong and Prince Imperial Yi Wang, undated photo
Undated photograph Gojong, the Gwangmu Emperor, and Prince Imperial Yi Wang. Library of Congress Prints and Photos, George G. Bain Collection

Yi Wang was Gojong's fifth son, born in 1877, and the second oldest son surviving after Sunjong. However, when Sunjong became emperor after their father was forced to abdicate in 1907, the Japanese refused to make Yi Wang the next crown prince, passing him over for his younger half-brother, Euimin, who was taken to Japan at age 10 and raised more or less as a Japanese man.

Yi Wang was known as independent and stubborn, which alarmed Korea's Japanese masters. He spent his life as Prince Imperial Ui and traveled as an ambassador to a number of foreign countries, including France, Russia, the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy, Austria, Germany, and Japan.

In 1919, Yi Wang helped plan a coup to overthrow the Japanese government of Korea. The Japanese discovered the plot and captured Yi Wang in Manchuria. He was hauled back to Korea but wasn't imprisoned or stripped of his royal titles.

Yi Wang lived to see Korean independence restored. He died in 1955 at age 78.

Funeral Procession for Empress Myeongseong

Queen Min is a national hero in Korea
1895 Empress Myeongseong's funeral procession after she was assassinated by Japanese agents. Library of Congress Prints and Photos, Frank and Francis Carpenter Collection

Gojong's wife, Queen Min, was opposed to Japanese control of Korea and sought out stronger ties with Russia to counter the Japanese threat. Her overtures to the Russians angered Japan, which sent agents to assassinate the Queen at Gyeongbukgung Palace in Seoul. She was killed at sword-point on Oct. 8, 1895, along with two attendants; their bodies were burned.

Two years after the queen's death, her husband declared Korea an empire, and she was posthumously given the title of "Empress Myeongseong of Korea."

Ito Hirobumi and Korean Crown Prince

1905-1909 Ito Hirobumi, the Japanese Resident General of Korea (1905-09), with Crown Prince Yi Un (born 1897). Library of Congress Prints and Photos, George G. Bain Collection

Ito Hirobumi of Japan served as resident-general of Korea between 1905 and 1909. He is shown here with the crown prince of the Korean Empire, variously known as Yi Un, Prince Imperial Yeong, and Crown Prince Euimin.

Ito was a statesman and member of the genro, a cabal of politically influential elders. He served as prime minister of Japan from 1885 to 1888.

Ito was assassinated on Oct. 26, 1909, in Manchuria. His killer, An Jung-geun, was a Korean nationalist who wanted to end Japanese domination of the peninsula.

Crown Prince Euimin

Yi Eun was taken to Japan at the age of 10, and married to a Japanese princess
Photo c. 1910-1920 Korean Crown Prince Yi Eun in Japanese Imperial Army uniform. Library of Congress Prints and Photos, George G. Bain Collection

This photo of Crown Prince Euimin shows him again in his Japanese Imperial Army uniform, just as the previous picture of him as a child. Euimin served in the Japanese Imperial Army and Army Air Force during World War II and was a member of Japan's Supreme War Council.

In 1910, Japan formally annexed Korea and forced Emperor Sunjong to abdicate. Sunjong was Euimin's older half-brother. Euimin became a pretender to the throne.

After 1945, when Korea again became independent of Japan, Euimin sought to return to the land of his birth. Because of his close ties with Japan, however, permission was refused. He was finally allowed back in 1963 and died in 1970, having spent the final seven years of his life in the hospital.

Emperor Sunjong

Sunjong was the last Emperor of Korea
Ruled 1907-1910 Emperor Sunjong of Korea. Library of Congress Prints and Photos, George G. Bain Collection

When the Japanese forced Gojong to abdicate his throne in 1907, they enthroned his oldest living son (the fourth-born) as the new Yunghui emperor, Sunjong. He was also the son of the Empress Myeongseong, who was assassinated by Japanese agents when he was 21.

Sunjong ruled for just three years. In August 1910, Japan formally annexed the Korean peninsula and abolished the puppet Korean Empire.

Sunjong and his wife, Empress Sunjeong, lived the rest of their lives virtually imprisoned in Changdeokgung Palace in Seoul. He died in 1926, leaving no children.

Sunjong was the last ruler of Korea who descended from the Joseon Dynasty, which had ruled Korea since 1392. When he was dethroned in 1910, it ended a run of more than 500 years under the same family.

Empress Sunjeong

The empress would have been a teenager when this photo was taken.
Photo from 1909 The Empress Sunjeong, Korea's last empress. Library of Congress Prints and Photos, Frank and Francis Carpenter Collection

The Empress Sunjeong was the daughter of Marquis Yun Taek-yeong of Haepung. She became the second wife of Crown Prince Yi Cheok in 1904 after his first wife died. In 1907, the crown prince became Emperor Sunjong when the Japanese forced his father to abdicate.

The Empress, known as "Lady Yun" before her marriage and elevation, was born in 1894, so she was only about 10 when she married the crown prince. He died in 1926 (possibly from poisoning), but the empress lived for four more decades, dying at 71 in 1966.

After Korea was freed from Japanese control in the aftermath of World War II, President Syngman Rhee barred Sunjeong from Changdeok Palace, confining her to a tiny cottage. She returned to the palace five years before her death.

Empress Sunjeong's Servant

The date on this photo is listed as 1910-1920, but the Korean Empire ended in 1910.
c. 1910 One of Empress Sunjeong's servants. Library of Congress Prints and Photos, Frank and Francis Carpenter Collection

He was Empress Sunjeong's servant in 1910, the last year of the Korean Empire. His name is not recorded, but he might have been a guard judging by the unsheathed sword shown in front of him in the photo. His hanbok (robe) is very traditional, but his hat includes a rakish feather, perhaps a symbol of his occupation or rank.

Korea's Royal Tombs

This photo of the royal tombs was taken in the old stereographic format
January 24, 1920 The Korean Royal Tombs, 1920. Library of Congress Prints and Photos, by Keystone View Co.

Attendants still tended the royal tombs after Korea's royal family was deposed. In this photo they wear traditional hanbok (robes) and horse-hair hats.

The large grassy mound, or tumulus, in the center background is a royal burial mound. To the far right is a pagoda-like shrine. Huge carved guardian figures watch over the kings' and queens' resting place.

Gisaeng at the Imperial Palace

This gisaeng girl poses in front of a bonsai palm tree, appropriately enough.
c. 1910 Young palace gisaeng in Seoul, Korea. c. 1910-1920. Library of Congress Prints and Photos, Frank and Francis Carpenter Collection

This girl is a palace gisaeng, the Korean equivalent of Japan's geisha. The photo is dated 1910-1920; it's not clear whether it was taken at the end of the Korean Imperial era or after the empire was abolished.