Photos of Korea's Imperial Family

01
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The Gwangmu Emperor, 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

1897-1910 CE

The First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 was fought in part over control of Korea. Joseon Korea and Qing China had a long-established tributary relationship. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, China was a frail shadow of its former self, while Japan grew ever 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, in order to mark Korea's independence from China. Gojong did so in 1897.

Japan went from strength to strength, though. A few years after defeating the Russians in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), 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.

In 1897, King Gojong, the twenty-six ruler of Korea's Joseon Dynasty, announced the creation of the Korean Empire. The empire would last for only 13 years and would exist under the shadow of Japanese control.

Up until the late nineteenth century, Korea was an independent tributary of Qing China. In fact, this relationship reached far back into history, long before the Qing era (1644-1912). Under pressure from European and American forces during the colonial period, however, China grew weaker and weaker.

As China's strength faded, Japan's grew. This rising power to Korea's east imposed an unequal treaty upon the Joseon ruler in 1876, forcing open three port cities to Japanese traders and giving Japanese citizens extraterritorial rights within Korea. (In other words, Japanese citizens were not bound to follow Korean laws, and could not be arrested or punished by Korean authorities.) It also brought to an end Korea's tributary status under China.

Nevertheless, when a peasant uprising led by Jeon Bong-jun in 1894 threatened the stability of the Joseon throne, King Gojong appealed to China for help rather than Japan. China sent troops to assist in quelling the rebellion; however, the presence of Qing troops on Korean soil prompted Japan to declare war. This sparked the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, which ended in a crushing defeat for China, long the greatest power in Asia.

02
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Emperor 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 Emperor 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. They passed 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 had a reputation as an independent and stubborn person, which alarmed Korea's Japanese masters. He spent his life as Prince Imperial Ui, and traveled to a number of foreign countries as an ambassador, including France, Russia, the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy, Austria, Germany, and Japan.

In 1919, Yi Wang participated in planning a coup to overthrow the Japanese government of Korea. However, the Japanese discovered the plot and captured Yi Wang in Manchuria. He was hauled back to Korea but was not imprisoned or stripped of his royal titles.

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

03
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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

King Gojong's wife, Queen Min, was opposed to Japanese control of Korea and sought out stronger ties with Russia in order to counter the threat from Japan. 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 October 8, 1895, along with two attendants, and their bodies were burned.

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

See a photo of Queen Min here.

04
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Ito Hirobumi and the 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 young Crown Prince of the Korean Empire, variously known as Yi Un, Prince Imperial Yeong, or 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, as well.

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

In 1907, at the age of 10, the Korean Crown Prince was sent to Japan (ostensibly for educational reasons). He spent decades in Japan. While there, in 1920, he entered an arranged marriage with Princess Masako of Nashimoto, who took the Korean name Yi Bangja.

05
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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 Korea's Crown Prince Euimin shows him again in his Japanese Imperial Army uniform, just like the previous picture of him as a child. Crown Prince 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.) Crown Prince Euimin became a pretender to the throne.

After 1945, when Korea became independent of Japan again, Crown Prince Euimin sought to return to the land of his birth. Because of his close ties with Japan, permission was refused. He was finally allowed back in 1963 but had already fallen into a coma. He died in 1970, having spent the final seven years of his life in the hospital.

06
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Emperor Sunjong of Korea

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 the Gwangmu Emperor, Gojong, to abdicate his throne in 1907, they enthroned his oldest living son (actually the fourth-born) as the new Yunghui Emperor. The new emperor, Sunjong, was also the son of the Empress Myeongseong, who had been assassinated by Japanese agents when her son was 21 years old.

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

The former emperor Sunjong and his wife, Empress Sunjeong, lived the rest of their lives virtually imprisoned in Changdeokgung Palace in Seoul. Sunjong died in 1926; he had no children.

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

07
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Empress Sunjeong of Korea

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 Sunjeong when the Japanese forced his father to abdicate.

The empress, who was known as "Lady Yun" before her marriage and elevation, was born in 1894, so she was only about 10 years old when she married the crown prince. He died in 1926 (possibly a victim of poisoning), but the empress lived on for four more decades. She lived to the ripe old age of 71, dying in 1966.

After the Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910, when Sunjong and Sunjeong were deposed, they lived as virtual prisoners in Changdeok Palace, Seoul. 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 instead. She returned to the palace five years before her death.

08
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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

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

09
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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.

Although Korea's royal family had been deposed by this time, attendants still tended to the royal tombs. They also wear very 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.

10
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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 to 1910-1920; it's not clear whether it was taken at the very end of the Korean Imperial era, or after the Empire was abolished.

Although technically members of the slave class in society, palace gisaeng probably had a very comfortable life. On the other hand, I would not want to wear that hair pin - imagine the neck strain!