Far in the back of the grounds of Gyeongbokgung, another palace sits quietly and unsuspectingly. Missed by most of the tours and tourists, Geoncheonggung has a story worth telling, one that is one part humourous, one part heart breaking, with all the makings of a great story.
The story begins with the birth of King Gojong. He wasn’t born to inherit the throne. The reigning king at the time was King Cheoljong. There had been family feuding for decades before, with many of the Korean kings of the 1800’s dying young. King Cheoljong was no exception. Passing away at the age of 32, Cheoljong had left no heir, like many of the kings before him.
Knowing that the kings of the past century had a rather short shelf life, Yi HaEung, later known as Crown Prince Heungseon Daewongun, led a low key campaign for years before. His son, born as Yi Myeongbok, had considerable chances of being chosen as the next king if King Cheoljong were to die before producing an heir. Yi HaEung spent years quietly networking and bribing those who would eventually make the decision. He was very careful to not only present his son as an ideal candidate for king, but to also make people believe he himself had no political interests.
The plan worked. Once King Cheoljong passed away, Yi Myeongbok was ushered in as King and became King Gojong at the young age of 9. Too young to rule by himself, Yi HaEung became the Crown Prince Heungseon Daewongun and the power was handed over to Daewongun until Gojong was old enough to rule.
It became very clear that the belief of Daewongun having no political interests was just an act. During his ten year rule, Daewongun ran the country ruthlessly, in a way that hadn’t been seen in decades. The long standing noble network in Korea was dispersed, and power was brought back to the royal family. He built up the army, and created massive building projects in Seoul, including extending Gyeongbok Palace. He was strict and controlling, even choosing King Gojong’s wife by picking a woman that he thought would have no political influence, being an orphan. That woman was Queen Myeongseong. This ended up being Daewongun’s downfall.
While all of these reforms were taking place, King Gojong was growing up with an eye on everything that was happening. As he got older, King Gojong did not agree with his father’s decisions. Daewongun was a stern isolationist, wanting nothing to do with foreigners, while King Gojong and Queen Myeongseong leaned more towards moderate modernization. Myeongseong and Daewongun clashed in their opinions about working with Japan. Myeongseong strongly advocated wanting nothing to do with the Japanese, seeing that Japan merely saw Korea as their next target in their growing empire. Daewongun, in contrast, was often accused of working with the Japanese, despite wanting to be isolated completely.
As King Gojong and Queen Myeongseong grew older and closer to being able to take power, the tensions between the king and his power hungry father became too much for King Gojong to bear. Geoncheonggung was built in 1873, which became King Gojong and Queen Myeongseong’s private residence, distancing themselves from the Daewongun and his politics.
Gojong loved all things modern. He was entranced by things like phones and electric lights, and had both installed in Geoncheonggung, years before any other Asian country had them. He had plans for a tram system to be built in Seoul, and when he was older, he adored motor cars as well.
It is at this point that the history of Geoncheonggung can be seen as quite funny. While many families have arguments, and children threaten to run away and live in their tree house in their back yard, many do not have the wealth or political power to actually act on these feelings. Of course, there is much more to this story than a simple family fight. However, when attempting to explain the terms of the creation of Geoncheonggung quickly, the response of “The young king hated his father so built a palace in the back yard and held awesome parties” usually gets a few smiles and laughs. Geongcheonggung is the only building on the Gyeongbokgung grounds to also have –gung added to the end, which means palace. King Gojong very clearly intended to make his palace separate from his father’s
This story doesn’t end happily here, however.
King Gojong and Queen Myeongseong were a perfect fit as king and queen. They clearly loved each other, and Myeongseong was Gojong’s main advisor in most major decisions. They had a shared vision of the future of Korea, seeing the country modernize within reason, keeping the monarchy and other traditional parts of their culture, while still keeping up with the times.
There was a huge problem for King Gojong though once he finally took power: Korea was weak. Especially compared to the countries around it, Korea was seen more as a conquest than an equal, a future member of growing empires around the world. The only way Gojong and Myeongseong could keep major powers off their tails would be by befriending them, outsmarting them, and making strong alliances. At first, China was a natural ally, and Myeongseong was a natural at charming people and making allies. However, when China was defeated by Japan in the Sino-Japanese war, the pressure coming from Japan grew even stronger. Myeongseong continued to oppose working with the Japanese, and began making allies with Russia.
Japan was beginning to get sick and tired of being constantly held back by what they saw as a weak country. The centre of the resistance was Queen Myeongseong, in their opinion. Which meant she had to go.
In the early hours of October 8th, 1895, a group of Japanese assassins stormed Geoncheonggung. They were supported by some of the military still loyal to the Daewongun. Queen Myeongseong was brutally killed, along with most of her handmaidens, and King Gojong was held prisoner in his own home. He fled and hid in the Russian Legation in Seoul for a year, fearing a complete coup d’etat. Returning to Gyeongbokgung in 1897, King Gojong announced the formation of the Korean Empire.
He never stepped foot in Geoncheonggung again.
In 1909, Geongcheonggung was dismantled by the Japanese, and an art museum was built in its place. Once the Japanese were defeated, the museum became a folk museum until that too was torn down. In 2007, Geongcheonggung was rebuilt
Built out of family rebellion, abandoned after heartbreak, the story of Geongcheonggung reads like a good movie with a tragic climax. Many tours glance over Geongcheonggung, mentioning it briefly, but do not often go into detail of the palace within the palace. The next time you go to visit Gyeongbokgung, be sure to visit the quiet palace in the back, with its unassuming, colourless walls and electric lights, and imagine the modern Korea that could have happened if history had been different.