Her name was not recorded at her birth. Neither was the name of her mother. Her father’s name was Min Chi-rok, and he was a member of the wealthy and influential Min family.
She was orphaned by the time she was 8-years old, which was actually something of a benefit to her in terms of marriage as when the future Emperor Gojong went looking for a wife (when he was 15-years old) the preference was for a girl without many relatives who would be seeking favor at court and be inclined toward corruption. [Mad Monarchist. blogspot.com]
She was smart, pretty, from a good family, healthy, appropriately educated (for a woman), and (most likely) fertile. So, at 16, after a lengthy vetting period she was married to 15-year-old King Gojong and became Queen Min.
Typically, queen consorts concerned themselves with setting fashions for the noble women of the realm, hosting tea parties, and gossiping. Queen Min, however, had no interest in these pastimes. Instead, she read widely on history, science, politics, philosophy, and religion, giving herself the kind of education ordinarily reserved for men. [Asian History/About.com]
Her father-in-law, Taewongun, the regent and puppet master over the young king, was having none of it. He moved to weaken her influence on the king by giving him a royal consort. While Queen Min had difficulty in conceiving, the consort soon produced a little boy. Taewongun said Queen Min was infertile, but the Queen had a baby of her own with in the year, again a boy. Sadly the little boy died after just four days. She claimed her father-in-law had poisoned the baby with ginseng, and vowed revenge.
She went to the council. Her husband was now 22, surely he was old enough to run the country on his own. He no longer needed a regent. The counsel agreed and Taewongun was sent away to his property in the country. (But it would not be the last Queen Min heard from him.)
Traditionally Korea had been a tributary of Qing China, but when King Gojong took the throne Japan came seeking trade access and demanding tribute. Queen Lin encouraged the King to show strength and to send them packing. But in 1874 Japan came calling again. Although Queen Min counseled her husband to stand firm again and expel the dignitaries, he signed a trade treaty. When Japan sent a gunship, the Unyo, into restricted waters to ‘survey sea routes’ the Koreans fired on it. The ship retreated. But Japan retaliated when they…
sent a fleet of six naval vessels into Korean waters. Under the threat of force, Gojong once again folded rather than fighting back; Queen Min was unable to prevent this capitulation. The king’s representatives signed the Ganghwa Treaty. [Asian History/About.com]
According to the Ganghwa Treaty:
- Japan had free access to some Korean ports and all Korean waters,
- Japan gained special trading status
- Japanese accused of crimes in Korea could only be tried under Japanese law – they were immune to local laws.
Koreans gained absolutely nothing from this treaty, which signaled the beginning of the end of Korean independence. Despite Queen Min’s best efforts, the Japanese would dominate Korea until 1945. [ibid]
The Queen commissioned fact finding missions to study Japanese westernization. It seemed that the Japanese had leap-frogged over Korea in their ability to Westernize. Where Seoul and Busan had been major commerce centers, they were now overshadowed by Tokyo and Osaka. Korea needed to change with the times. The country and the military needed to modernize.
Queen Min knew Korea would have to tread carefully and she favored a plan by which Korea would continue to deal with Japan in order to modernize and, once that was sufficiently completed, would then ally with the United States or some other or more western powers to drive the Japanese influence out of Korea. [Mad Monarchist. blogspot.com]
She reorganized the government, creating twelve new bureaus to handle foreign relations, commerce and update the military. In general she was determined to bring Korea into a more modern, technological age.Needless to say all that modernization didn’t make the traditionalist very happy. In 1882 there was a rebellion seeking to over throw Queen Min and King Gojong and replace them with Gojong’s third brother. The Imo Incident was backed by their old nemesis (and Gojong’s father) Taewongun. “The uprising temporarily ousted Gojong and Min from the palace, returning the Taewongun to power.” [ibid] With the help of 4,500 Chinese soldiers the rebellion was foiled and the King and Queen were restored to power. The Japanese took advantage of the incident to strengthen their growing hold on the peninsula. They…
strong-armed Gojong into signing the Japan-Korea Treaty of 1882. Korea agreed to pay restitution for the Japanese lives and property lost in the Imo Incident, and also to allow Japanese troops into Seoul so that they could guard the Japanese Embassy. [Asian History/About.com]
The Queen countered by granting China access to ports that the Japanese were not privy to. She also asked that Chinese and German officers to head up improvements in the army.
In 1894 The Tonghak Rebellion — a week-long popular rebellion against taxes and foreign influence ended with China sending 2,500 troops (invited) and Japan sending 4,500 troops (uninvited) to help quell the insurrection. The peasants quickly went home. The troops remained.
On July 23, Japanese troops marched in to Seoul and captured King Gojong and Queen Min. On August 1, China and Japan declared war on one another, fighting for control of Korea. [ibid]
The Sino-Japanese War ensued. Although China sent 390,000 more troops to Korea, the better prepared and more modern Japanese Meiji military easily won. China withdrew leaving Korea and other Asian allies to deal with the much stronger Japanese.
As many as 100,000 of Korea’s peasants had risen up late in 1894 to attack the Japanese as well, but they were slaughtered. Internationally, Korea was no longer a vassal state of the failing Qing; its ancient enemy, Japan, was now fully in charge. Queen Min was devastated. [ibid]
The queen did not give up she sent emissaries to Russia, hoping they would come to Korea’s aid.
The new caretaker government knew what she was up to. They aligned themselves with Taewongun (her father-in-law). He had no love for the Japanese, but he saw this as a way to get rid of Queen Lin once and for all and he took it.
In 1895 Operation Fox Hunt was put into place. A mixed group of Japanese and Korean assassins attacked Gyeongbokgung Palace. They found the King, but did not hurt him. They came upon the Queen’s sleeping quarters and dragged her out into the courtyard along with four of her attendants.
They brutally killed Queen Min, displayed her body to foreigners so there could be no doubt that she was dead, then took her outside the palace walls and burned her.
For two years Taewongun was in charge, but he lacked the desired “commitment…for modernizing Korea.” [ibid] and the Japanese ousted him.
Gojong took the throne back (with Russian support). He…
declared himself emperor of Korea. He also ordered a careful search of the woods where his queen’s body had been burned, which turned up a single finger bone. Emperor Gojong organized an elaborate funeral for this relic of his wife… The queen consort also received the posthumous title of Empress Myeongseong. [ibid]
The power-struggle over the Korean peninsula continued with Russia and Japan fighting the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-1905. Japan won again. In 1910 they formally annexed Korea. The country did not regain independence until after World War II.