Kabo Reforms Begin Modernization of Korean Government Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Japan forced Korea to introduce the far-ranging Kabo reforms, intended to modernize the country along the Japanese model and to safeguard Japanese interests in Korea. The popularity and effects of the reforms were seriously undermined by the Japanese murder of Korean queen Min in 1895, and Korea aligned itself with Russia after 1896 and retreated from the reforms.

Summary of Event

By the early 1890’s, Japan had strong commercial and political interests in Korea. These were suddenly threatened by the Korean Tonghak Rebellion, which demanded not only better government but also expulsion of the Japanese from Korea. The quasi-religious Tonghak (“Eastern learning”) movement (known as Ch’ōndogyo, or “religion of the heavenly way,” after 1905) arose in Korea during the mid-nineteenth century. Its founder, Cho’oe Che-u, was executed in 1864. By 1893, the movement petitioned the Korean king Kojong to exonerate its dead leader. Kojong refused in spite of mass appeal, and the Tonghak rose in rebellion. Japan;and Korea[Korea] Korea;and Japan[Japan] Korea;Kabo reforms Kabo reforms Kojong Min, Queen Ōtori Keisuke Miura Gorō Tonghak Rebellion (1894) [kw]Kabo Reforms Begin Modernization of Korean Government (July 8, 1894-Jan. 1, 1896) [kw]Reforms Begin Modernization of Korean Government, Kabo (July 8, 1894-Jan. 1, 1896) [kw]Begin Modernization of Korean Government, Kabo Reforms (July 8, 1894-Jan. 1, 1896) [kw]Modernization of Korean Government, Kabo Reforms Begin (July 8, 1894-Jan. 1, 1896) [kw]Korean Government, Kabo Reforms Begin Modernization of (July 8, 1894-Jan. 1, 1896) [kw]Government, Kabo Reforms Begin Modernization of Korean (July 8, 1894-Jan. 1, 1896) Japan;and Korea[Korea] Korea;and Japan[Japan] Korea;Kabo reforms Kabo reforms Kojong Min, Queen Ōtori Keisuke Miura Gorō Tonghak Rebellion (1894) [g]Korea;July 8, 1894-Jan. 1, 1896: Kabo Reforms Begin Modernization of Korean Government[5940] [g]Japan;July 8, 1894-Jan. 1, 1896: Kabo Reforms Begin Modernization of Korean Government[5940] [c]Government and politics;July 8, 1894-Jan. 1, 1896: Kabo Reforms Begin Modernization of Korean Government[5940] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;July 8, 1894-Jan. 1, 1896: Kabo Reforms Begin Modernization of Korean Government[5940] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;July 8, 1894-Jan. 1, 1896: Kabo Reforms Begin Modernization of Korean Government[5940] [c]Social issues and reform;July 8, 1894-Jan. 1, 1896: KaboReforms Begin Modernization of Korean Government[5940] Kim Hong-chip Taewon-gun [p]Taewon-gun[Taewongun];Taewon-gun Pak Yong-hyo Jung Bong-jun

In spring, 1894, the Tonghak brought much of southwestern Korea under their control. On May 31, their new leader, Jung Bong-jun, captured the town of Chŏnju, south of Seoul. Alarmed, the Korean government secretly requested Chinese help on June 3. Japan decided also to send troops to Korea. Between June 8 and 10, Chinese warships brought twenty-five hundred soldiers to the Korean town of Asan, south of Seoul. On June 9, the Japanese minister to Korea,Ōtori Keisuke, arrived at Inch’ŏn and marched into Seoul with three hundred marines. On June 10, while Japanese warships landed more soldiers, Korean officials made peace with the Tonghak. They agreed to the Tonghak’s reformist demands, aimed at ending misrule and despotism and bestowing more rights to common people. Jung Jung Bong-jun Bong-jun, satisfied, put down his arms and left Chŏnju.

With both Japanese and Chinese troops in Korea, Japanese prime minister Itō Hirobumi proposed that Korea be forced to modernize. China refused and argued for mutual troop withdrawal, which would return the Korean status quo. On June 26,Ōtori met King Kojong and demanded reforms. Two days later, he inquired if Korea still considered itself a vassal of China, as it had most recently expressed in October, 1882. On June 30, Korea declared its independence from China toŌtori.

On July 3,Ōtori met Kojong and demanded sweeping administrative, economic, social, military, and educational reforms, modeled on Japan’s modernization under the Meiji Emperor. Intimidated by the Japanese military, on July 8 Kojong set up a committee for reform that was to consult with Japanese advisors. This was the beginning of the Kabo reforms, named after the Korean name for the year 1894. The Korean committee considered the reforms, some of which were similar to those demanded by the Tonghak, as well as those demanded by the progressive party behind the failed Kapsin coup of December, 1884.

While it was still considering the reforms,Ōtori demanded that Korea break off relations with China. Faced with refusal, on July 23 Japanese troops arrested King Kojong and Queen Min and empowered the king’s father, Yi Ha-ung, as the Taewon-gun Taewon-gun [p]Taewon-gun[Taewongun];Taewon-gun or grand prince of Korea. On July 25, the Taewon-gun canceled Korea’s treaty with China. On the same day, the Japanese defeated China in a naval battle off Korea. On July 29, the conflict between the Japanese and Chinese spread to the land of Korea, and on August 1, Japan declared war on China.

The Taewon-gun appointed Prime Minister Kim Hong-chip Kim Hong-chip to supervise the Kabo reforms. The reforms effected a separation of the national and the royal household, established a ministry of finance also responsible for tax collection, and created an independent judiciary and police system. The reforms gave nobles and commoners equal legal status, ending the social status system that had separated them. They also abolished slavery and human trafficking. Certain professions, such as butchery, acting, and innkeeping, were freed from their previous social ostracism. Widows were allowed to remarry, and child marriage was abolished. There was an emphasis on good government and creating new educational opportunities, as the traditional Korean examination system was abolished. Korean currency was based on the silver standard, but Japanese currency was also allowed to circulate, benefiting Japan.

With the king and queen released, the pro-Japanese reformer Pak Pak Yong-hyo Yong-hyo was pardoned for his participation in the Kapsin coup. He returned to Korea from Japan and became a cabinet member on October 20. Considering the reformers to be Japanese puppets, in November, the Tonghak rebelled again. They were defeated by December, however; Jung Jung Bong-jun Bong-jun was captured on December 30 and beheaded in April, 1895. On April 17, China signed the Treaty of Shimonoseki Shimonoseki, Treaty of (1895) , formally conceding defeat and ending the []Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895)[Sino Japanese War (1894-1895)];and Korea[Korea] Sino-Japanese War. Japan further encouraged Korean reforms. On June 23, 1895, the last of the 421 Kabo reform articles was promulgated.

Many Koreans associated the Kabo reforms with Japanese imperialism. Queen Min leaned toward Russia. Fearing for his life, reformer Pak Pak Yong-hyo fled for Japan on July 6, 1895. Japan grew exasperated at Korea’s unwillingness to enforce the Kabo reforms. Queen Min was identified as the leading antagonist. The new Japanese minister to Korea, Miura Gorō, arrived in Seoul on September 3 with secret instructions to kill Queen Min. Miura gathered Japanese journalists and gangsters known as sōshi, as well as Japanese police and military men in Korea. Learning that Queen Min planned to disband a unit of Japanese-trained Korean soldiers, he acted. On October 5, he persuaded the Taewon-gun [p]Taewon-gun[Taewongun];Taewon-gun Taewon-gun to support the conspiracy. At three in the morning on October 8, as ordered by Miura, a gang of Japanese woke the Taewon-gun and transported him to the royal palace, forcing their way inside.

As light broke, the Japanese seized Kojong and his son and demanded the king identify his queen. When he refused, the gangsters seized court ladies. Finally breaking into the queen’s chambers, they saw a woman of royal stature and composure and mortally stabbed her. The Japanese stripped naked the dying woman, who was indeed Queen Min, and ogled her nude body before covering her in a bed sheet. They dragged the dying queen outside, killed three of her court ladies, and burned their bodies.

Miura pronounced the incident a coup of the Taewon-gun Taewon-gun [p]Taewon-gun[Taewongun];Taewon-gun . The assassination was observed, however, by an American and a Russian living in the palace, so the world was alerted to the truth. Coming on the heels of Western accounts of the Japanese massacre of the Chinese population of Lüshun (Port Arthur) in November, 1894, the murder of Queen Min significantly harmed Japan’s international reputation. Miura was recalled on October 19. The same month, Japan’s Prime Minister Itō ended pressure on the Korean government to reform. One final reform installed the Western calendar in Korea on January 1, 1896. Forcing male Koreans to cut their top-knotted hair met with such resistance that it was soon abandoned.

On February 11, 1896, Kojong escaped with his new consort, Lady Om, to the Russian legation in Seoul. From safety, he deposed Prime Minister Kim Kim Hong-chip Hong-chip and other Kabo reformers, who were killed by a mob in the streets of Seoul. Japanese influence and the Kabo reforms were further challenged by another Korean uprising that was finally defeated by spring, 1896.


Japan forced the Kabo reforms on the Korean government in order to safeguard its own economic and political interests. Even though the reforms were of a progressive nature, often along the lines previously demanded by Korean intellectuals, popular leaders, and rebels also seeking reform, they were forever associated with the Japanese invaders. The murder of the conservative Queen Min turned her into a Korean martyr. This further blemished the Kabo reforms.

Progressive Koreans tried to reap the benefits of the Kabo reforms by instituting the Independence Club (Tongnip Hyophoe) in Seoul in 1896. Kojong vacillated between promoting reform and insisting on royal prerogatives. In a desperate attempt to upgrade Korea’s international standing, he pronounced himself emperor Kwangmu and turned the kingdom into the Taehan (Great Han) Empire on October 12, 1897. With members of the Independence Club pushing for democratic reforms, the emperor at first sought to accommodate them, but in December, 1898, he turned against the club and imprisoned many of its leaders.

The Kabo reforms failed to modernize Korea. During the early twentieth century, after defeating Russia in 1905, Japan finally annexed Korea in 1910. Any possible alliance of reformist Koreans and Japan failed in the face of naked Japanese imperialism.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hatada, Takahashi. A History of Korea. Translated by Warren Smith and Benjamin Hazard. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 1969. Chapter 6 treats the Kabo reforms in the light of Korea’s lost autonomy. Appendix, index, maps, and tables.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Joe, Wanne. A Cultural History of Modern Korea. Elizabeth, N.J.: Hollym Press, 2000. Includes a passionately pro-Korean, very detailed rendition of the reforms. Focuses on Korean nationalism. Illustrations, maps, notes, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Keene, Donald. Emperor of Japan. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. Biography of the Meiji emperor of Japan. Chapters 44, 45, and 47 give a detailed account of the Kabo reforms from a Japanese point of view. Notes, index, bibliography, illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Oliver, Robert. A History of the Korean People in Modern Times. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1993. Chapters 3 and 4 treat the reforms and give biographies of Korean progressives. Notes, references, indexes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shin, Yong-ha. Modern Korean History and Nationalism. Translated by N. N. Pankaj. Seoul, Republic of Korea: Jimoondang, 2000. Chapter 3 deals with the Kabo reforms in light of the failed Tonghak Rebellion and focuses on Korean nationalism. Bibliography, glossary, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tennant, Roger. A History of Korea. London: Kegan Paul International, 1996. Chapters 30 and 31 deal with the Kabo reforms. Notes, bibliography, index.

Japan’s Meiji Restoration

Japan Expands into Korea

Korean Military Mutinies Against Japanese Rule

Japan Adopts a New Constitution

Sino-Japanese War

Related Article in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i>

Mutsuhito. Japan;and Korea[Korea] Korea;and Japan[Japan] Korea;Kabo reforms Kabo reforms Kojong Min, Queen Ōtori Keisuke Miura Gorō Tonghak Rebellion (1894)

Categories: History