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First War between the United States and Korea, 1871

Well-known to every Korean schoolboy as the Shinmiyangyo (辛未洋擾, "Western Disturbance at Shinmi"), an American naval expeditionary force landed at the mouth of the Yomha River in June of 1871, assaulting and capturing five Korean forts and killing more than 380 Korean soldiers during a 12-day campaign. Although little known to Americans today, the incident was of major importance at the time, making front page headlines across the US, and had a major impact on the course of US-East Asian relations. Koreans, however, retain a strong memory of the war, and continue to regard the Koreans slain in the conflict as national heroes.

Prelude

In the winter of 1870-1871, the Grant administration initiated efforts to engage in diplomatic relations with Korea, a "closed" nation which had a long-standing policy of non-intercourse with the outside world other than Qing China. In March of that year, the Chinese bureau of foreign relations (Zongli Yamen) forwarded a message from American minister to China Frederick Low to the king of Korea requesting a treaty to protect American sailors shipwrecked on Korean shores. This was largely a pretense, as the real aim of the Americans was to "open" Korea as Perry had done with Japan in 1853, but it was a pretense based on real concerns, as an American ship, the General Sherman, had shipwrecked on Korean shores back in 1866 and had had its crew mutilated and killed (although, to be fair to the Koreans, the ship was mostly crewed by Malay and Chinese pirates and was probably involved in enterprises of a dubious character).

The Koreans received Low's missive, but of course did not reply in accordance with their policy of non-intercourse, whereupon Low began preparing a military expedition to press America's request in person. The expedition was commanded by one of the US Navy's most distinguished officers, Rear Admiral John Rodgers, who was a decorated veteran of the Seminole, Mexican and Civil wars and the commander of the entire US Asiatic Fleet. The force consisted of five ships - three large sailing vessels (flagship USS Colorado, USS Alaska, and USS Benicia) and two side-wheel steam-powered gunboats (USS Monocacy and USS Palos). Together, the ships carried 85 cannons and 1,230 marines and armed sailors, comprising the largest Western military force ever to enter Korean territory prior to the 20th century.

Opening Moves

On May 30, the American fleet anchored off Chagyak near the mouth of the Yomha River. This was a very provocative position, because the Yomha led to the Han River, which in turn led directly into the heart of the capital at Seoul. The Koreans reacted with a flurry of activity. Some villagers fled inland at the sight of the strange ships, while others circled around the ships to get a closer view.

On May 31, three Korean emissaries arrived, but they were only of the third rank, so Low refused to speak to them. When three higher emissaries were dispatched, Low agreed to speak with them, and was informed that Korea had received Low's missive via the Chinese, but that although they wished no unfriendliness toward the US they were not interested in opening diplomatic relations of any sort.

At this point, in an attempt to put pressure on the emissaries, Low informed them that the Americans would send ships up the river the next day on a surveying mission, whereupon the Koreans departed without comment. Low took this silence to be a tacit approval of the surveying, or at least not disapproval. This constituted a major misunderstanding, as in Korean culture, unless explicit permission was given to do something, it was not allowed. Thus, there could be no tacit approval, and silence could only mean disagreement. Moreover, even Korean ships were not allowed to sail up the river without express permission, and in fact Korean national law prohibited the passage of any foreign vessel beyond the rivers mouth, making it impossible for the officials to have given any sort of approval.

The strategy backfires

Less than a day later, on the morning of June 1, the two gunboats and four small launches headed up the Yomha as promised. Two hours into the journey, the ships rounded a sharp bend in the river - a strategic point known to the Koreans as Sondolmok, "the gateway to the capital." According to the official American account, the Korean fort that commanded the bend suddenly and unprovokedly opened fire with its cannons on the American ships. In actuality, the Koreans had lined the rivers banks with soldiers for the previous hour in a show of force they had hoped would induce the Americans to turn back, and the Americans had in fact deliberately provoked the Koreans, ordering the gun ports opened and having extra guns hauled up on deck for maximum intimidation value.

The entire incident lasted less than 15 minutes. The Americans immediately returned fire, and inflicted significant damage on the fort, while the inaccurate gunnery of the antiquated Korean cannon inflicted no damage whatsoever on the American vessels. Two Americans suffered minor gunshot wounds, while 30 Koreans in the fort were killed by American fire.

The Americans were incensed by the attack, which they viewed as the basest of treachery. Retreating back to their anchorage, they immediately began drawing up plans to land a punitive expedition, but then they noticed tides were against them, and decided to give the Koreans an ultimatum: if they did not receive an apology from the king himself for "an unprovoked and wanton attack" and a meeting with a high minister, they would "pursue such a course as they may deem proper to obtain redress for the wrongs done to us."

The Koreans responded with a flurry of messages explaining their position quite rationally in terms of the established precedents of international law. The Americans had invaded their sovereign territory, and they were within their rights to defend it. The Americans responded with a short blunt message on June 7, noting that the Koreans had not apologized, but only given empty rationalizations and reiterating their demand that Korean king apologize and send a high emissary to meet them. They noted ominously that if American demands were not met in "three or four days" then "the admiral and minister will feel at liberty to pursue such a course as they may deem proper."

Endgame

Less than three days later on the morning of June 10, as soon as the tides shifted in their favor, the Americans dispatched a punitive force of the two large gunboats and 20 smaller launches, laden with 950 armed men, including 105 marines, most of whom were experienced combat veterans of the Civil War. The Americans were armed with the latest military carbines as well as 7 advanced howitzer portable field guns, while the Koreans were armed only with ancient matchlocks, bows, and spears. With the gunboats bombarding the Koreans from the river, the American ground troops advanced up the bank, capturing and torching five forts and burning several villages. By both American and Korean accounts, the Korean soldiers fought bravely and fiercely, but they were severely outmatched. The Americans skillfully used the field artillery to keep the Koreans out of matchlock and arrow range, while picking off any Korean soldier they could see with their much longer range rifles and muskets. After three days of fighting, the Americans reached the fort that had bombarded their vessels on June 1, which they dubbed "The Citadel." After bombarding the fort for some hours, they captured it with a full frontal assault, in which three Americans were killed - the only three to die during the whole expedition. Meanwhile, three days of fighting had left at least 350 Korean soldiers dead, including an important general, Ŏ Chae-yon, who is still a major national hero of Korea to this day.

Having avenged the bombardment to their satisfaction, the Americans returned to their anchorage and sat around waiting for the Korean response. They waited in vain. Although there was scattered communications, it was more of the same, with the Koreans asserting their right to defend their country and the Americans insisting on apologies and the initiation of high-level talks. Low and Rodgers never once heard anything at all from the king or any high-level member of the court, speaking only with regional officials. Finally, on July 3, they got sick of waiting around and sailed for home.

Whose victory?

Prior to the expedition, Low and Rodgers had made a careful study of Perry's actions in the opening of Japan, and indeed had employed tactics almost identical to Perry's in their attempt to open Korea, including the visible display of military force, the provocative practice of taking sounding measurements close to shore to place pressure on local officials, the refusal to meet with low level representatives, and the repeated insistence on communication with the highest authorities. But while the real aim of the American expedition was to open Korea to diplomatic and trade relations and not just to secure a shipwreck treaty as stated, it is clear that the Americans did not intend to become involved in actual combat. They expected the Koreans to be cowed into submission by the display of superior force as the Japanese had, rather than to be entirely unmoved by even the actual use of superior force as they proved to be.

In this sense, even though the Americans had triumphed militarily, they had utterly failed to achieve their objectives, leaving without even securing the shipwreck treaty that was their stated aim. If anything, it was the Koreans who could claim victory, having fought a western enemy and succeeding in driving them off, and indeed the Korean court immediately set about touting its "great victory" with monuments and shrines to the dead. Korean history textbooks still say things like "Our valiant soldiers drove the western invaders away."

The incident severely soured relations with the Koreans, who officially maintained a declaration of war against America for the next 10 years, whereas previously the Korean government had viewed American in a very positive light due to its non-interference in China as compared with the other western powers. Thus the United States quite possible missed a chance to establish amicable trade relations when the more pro-western King Kojong took over the reins of power from the virulently anti-western Prince Regent Taewongun two years later in 1873. If anyone could have opened Korea without fighting, it would have been America, had it not been for the 1871 war. Instead, it fell to the Japanese to forcibly open Korea in 1876 by taking advantage of a declining Korean court weakened by internal strife. It has even been suggested from time to time that had it not been for the US-Korean war of 1871, the Japanese would not have been the dominant power in Korea, would not have fought the Russo-Japanese War, and would never have been in a position to invade China and set off the Pacific War.

It is not surprising then, that although the incident has almost entirely faded from the American memory today, probably due to being overshadowed by the much more extensive Second Korean War of 1950-1955, eminent American scholars of the time widely considered the first Korean War to be the most significant American foreign military action of any kind in the more than half-century between the Mexican War of 1846 and the Spanish-American War of 1898.


Sources

  • Gordon Chang. "Whose 'Barbarism'? Whose 'Treachery'? Race and Civilization in the Unknown United States–Korea War of 1871". The Journal of American History. Volume 89, number 4, March 2003.
  • Peter Duus. The Abacus and the Sword: The Japanese Penetration of Korea, 1895-1910. University of California Press. 1998.
  • Thomas Duvernay. "The 1871 U.S.-Korea Conflict: Cause and Effects". Shinmiyangyo.org.

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