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The Joseon Dynasty

Lasting a whopping 518 years, the Joseon Dynasty was by far Korea's longest-lived monarchy. Founded in 1392 by King Taejo, Joseon supplanted the once powerful Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392) that brought Buddhism to prominence on the peninsula. But the Goryeo had spent most of the 13th century fighting invading Mongols, and the Joseon Dynasty seemed to bring peace to the region. Relations with neighboring China improved, and Korea's borders were extended to their current position (if you include North Korea).

But the Joseon Dynasty had problems of its own. By the mid-1400s, Confucianism -- which includes a strict social hierarchy, with the king at the pinnacle and royalty just below -- had taken the place of Buddhism, and many peasants and farmers saw their rights evaporate. Commoners felt the yangban -- an educated, aristocratic class that often served as artists, teachers, and government advisors -- took advantage of their positions, grabbing land and charging high rents to tenant farmers. Confucianism stresses the importance of education, and the Joseon leaders did build schools. In the 1500s, peasants began a series of revolts against excessive taxes and unfair social conditions.

Still, the Joseon Dynasty managed to survive -- in part because the country was forced to contend with invasions from Japan and China. By the time peace treaties were in place with both, in the mid-1600s, Korea had turned inward and become known as the Hermit Kingdom. But by the late 1800s, corruption and inefficiency had led to a severe weakening of the Joseon's ruling structure, and instability in the rest of Asia left Korea vulnerable to outside influence. Indeed, Japan forced Korea to become its protectorate in 1905. And when Japan formally annexed the country in 1910, they forced King Sukjong, the last of the Joseon leaders, to step down.

The Last Empress

Queen Min (1851-95), aka Myeongseong Hwang-hu or Empress Myeongseong, was the first official wife of Joseon King Gojong. Alternately remembered as a jealous queen or a national heroine, there is still controversy over her role in history. What is known for sure is that she had considerable political power and was aiming to increase diplomatic ties with Russia after the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95. Not bad for a girl who was orphaned at the age of 8 and who went from being a member of an impoverished branch of the royal family to being queen. But since the war between China (which lost) and Japan was fought in large part over which country would have more influence over Korea, Min was taking a risk. She hoped the Russians would help keep the Japanese out of Korea.

Unfortunately, Min's risk didn't pay off. Recognizing that Min's power threatened their plans to annex Korea, the Japanese hired a group of assassins who broke into Gyeongbokgung during the early-morning hours of October 18, 1895, and stabbed three different women they thought might be the queen. Once they had confirmed that one of the three was indeed Queen Min, they took her corpse into the forest and burned it. The assassins were then given safe passage to Japan and found not guilty in a Hiroshima court, which cited lack of evidence as the reason for its verdict. By 1905, Japan was in control of Korea.

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