Arts & Culture 
 Human Rights 
 U.S. Asian Policy 

Home > East Asia > 

The early US-Korea relations
Excerpt from "A Brief History of the US-Korea Relations Prior to 1945"
Kim Young-Sik, Ph.D.

Interior of the main Fort du Coude, showing some of the 350 Korean dead after the decisive battle on June 11, 1871. (Bennett, 1997)

 Related Articles
Korea? Where is it?
A brief history of the US-Korea relations prior to 1945 (Part I)
Although the ginseng trade 'war' of the 1700s devastated the Chosun ginseng trade with China, few if any Americans were aware that American ginseng trade had anything to do with Chosun (called Corea by the Americans at the time).

In 1840, Edmund Roberts, an influential American, argued that a treaty with Japan might open up Korea for trade as well. His argument was persuasive enough to induce several congressmen to draft a Congressional resolution for the establishment of commercial relations with Corea. But the US Congress tabled the draft in July 1844 for lack of interest. After this brief moment of attention to Corea, America forgot about Corea until the 1866 burning of the General Sherman, an armed American merchantman, at which occasion, the US Congress hotly debated waging war on the Kingdom of Corea. (Speer, 1872)

On January 28, 1853, the first official US-Chosun contact was made when the USS South America, a gunboat based in Hawaii, sailed into Pusan Harbor on her way to drop off two shipwrecked Japanese sailors to Japan. It is not clear why the ship decided to take the long detour to Japan via Pusan. The American captain wined and dined local Korean officials on his ship. The ship stayed at Pusan for ten days without any incident.

The Chosun court archives (kojong silrok) show that in 1855 and also in 1865, a number of shipwrecked American sailors were picked up on the Korean shores. They were fed and treated well by the Korean populace, and then sent to China for repatriation to the United States. In those years, Korea sealed itself in ("Hermit Kingdom") and let China handle Korea's foreign affairs.

On January 11, 1866, an American sailing ship, the Surprise, ran aground at Sunchun-po, Pyongahn-do, in a storm. The Korean officials of the port village rescued the shipwrecked sailors, fed them, gave them new clothing, and then sent them unharmed to China on horseback. The Koreans burned the wrecked American ship and salvaged its iron bars.

The General Sherman Incident

In August 1866, an armed American schooner, the General Sherman (formerly the US Navy warship Princess Royale), sailed up the flooded Taedong River toward Pyongyang, seeking trades with Korea. An American merchant W. B. Preston contracted with the Meadows & Co., a British firm in Tientsin, to outfit the General Sherman for an adventure into Korea.

The crewmembers were: Captain Page, Chief Mate Wilson and the owner Preston (all Americans); George Hogarth (a British); thirteen Chinese and three Malays. A British missionary, Robert J. Thomas (1840-1866), was also onboard the ship. Thomas, who had learned some Korean words from the Korean Catholics at Chefoo, was hired on as Preston's interpreter. (Han, 1999; Steiner, 2003)

The ship's cargo consisted mainly of cotton goods, tin sheets, glass, and other items. The schooner left Tientsin on July 29, 1866, and stopped briefly for water at Chefoo, from where she set sail on August 9 and reached the mouth of the Taedong River on August 18. She was heavily armed with cannons and small arms.

The Americans, ignoring Korean officials' repeated requests to turn back, continued to sail toward Pyongyang. Preston demanded to see the 'man in charge' and refused to cooperate with the local officials. In addition, he demanded that Korea stop executing Catholics. Robert Thomas told the Korean officials that his Protestant Church was much superior to the Catholic Church and demanded that he be allowed to preach the Gospel in Korea. (Sterner, 2003)

When flood water subsided, the heavy ship got stranded and became a sitting duck for the angry Koreans. Preston sent out raiding parties in small boats to collect foods and hostages. Park Gyu-Su, the governor of Pyongahn at the time, ordered his troops to destroy the ship. But the Korean canon balls harmlessly bounced off the ironclad hull of the ship. A quick-thinking junior officer loaded several boats with sulfur, saltpeter and firewood, set them afire, and then guided them to the stranded ship. The poisonous gas from the burning sulfur and saltpeter forced the ship's crew to abandon the ship. As they jumped into the water, angry soldiers and civilians beat or hacked them to death. All members of the crew were killed and their bodies were mutilated and burned.

The news of General Sherman's demise reached the US Asiatic Squadron in the fall of 1866, and Rear-Admiral Bell dispatched the USS Wachusett commanded by Commander R. W. Shufeldt to investigate the incident and recover the remains and the survivors, if any. The Wachusett reached the mouth of the Daedong River on January 23, 1867. Unable to navigate the shallow river, Shufeldt met with the local officials and learned that there was no survivor and that there were no remains either, since the corpse were burned and thrown away. (Welles, 1867) According to Welles, the US Secretary of Navy at the time, Shufeldt's inquiry went something like this:

Commander Shufeldt: Have you heard or do you know anything about the ship that was wrecked?

Corean official: I know nothing about it whatever. I only hope you will immediately leave and return to your native land.

Commander Shufeldt: What objection can there be to our waiting? If I am obliged to leave without an answer to my dispatch, many more armed vessels will return to your country.

Corean official: To return with many armed vessels would be exceedingly unjust. To return to your country would be praiseworthy.

Commander Shufeldt: To allow your country to murder our men without cause or provocation cannot be passed over uninvestigated.

Corean official: I do not know anything about this business.

Commander Shufeldt: If you know nothing, I have nothing more to say to you. (Welles, 1867)

The Corean officialís account of this meeting differs. He told Shufeldt that he had no authority to talk to foreigners and that he had sent a messenger to Seoul for the official permission and instructions, and that the messenger would be back in a few days. He told the Americans to wait but the Americans left without waiting.
In 1867, the General Sherman was refloated and brought to a shipyard by Han River. It was refitted and rearmed as Korea's first Western-style warship. But the Chinese government forced the King to give up the ship. US navy archives indicate that the General Sherman was returned to the United States in 1868 or thereabout. It was refitted as a civilian steamship. She sank on January 10, 1874 near Wilmington, North Carolina, in a storm. (Lee Wha Rang, 2000a)

The 1871 US Occupation of Kanghwado - Shinmi-yang-yo
Commander Shufeldt's threat to return with more warships was no idle threat. In the spring of 1868, the USS Shenandoah under Captain John C. Febiger reached the Daedong Riverís mouth and received an official letter acknowledging the death of all crewmen of the General Sherman. The Coreans wondered why the Americans wanted to make a treaty: "We have been living 4,000 years without any treaty with you, and we can't see why we shouldn't continue to live as we do." (Sterner, 2003)

In April 1870, the U.S. State Department told Frederick F. Low, the US minister in Beijing, to negotiate a treaty with Corea that would secure the safe treatment of shipwrecked American sailors, to establish trade, and to look into the murder of the General Sherman crew. The US Asiatic fleet under Rear Admiral John Rodgers was ordered to support Low's mission impossible. Low spent years in the Orient working for the Boston firm of Russell, Sturgis and Company, prior to his diplomatic career.

In 1871, Adm. Rodgers marshaled a squadron of five warships and a landing party of over 1,230 men. The US troops were armed with Remington carbines and Springfield muskets. The USS Colorado, a pre-Civil War frigate, served as the flagship. Minister Low and Captain McLane Tilton, commander of the Asiatic Fleet's Marine Guard were on the Colorado.

The Americans landed at Choji Fortress of Kanghwa-do on June 10, 1871, and proceeded to occupy the whole island. The Korean defenders of the island were out-gunned and could not put up any effective resistance.

It was a lop-sided victory for the Americans: about 350 Koreans, including the garrison commander Gen. Uh Je-yun, were killed but only three Americans were lost.

The American forces captured 20 wounded Korean defenders. Minister Low tried to barter them for a meeting with a decision-making Corean official, but he was turned down. The Coreans retorted that the POWs were cowards and they would be severely punished if returned. Low was told that he was welcome to keep the wounded prisoners.

The Korean army sent in reinforcement armed with modern weapons, and Admiral Rodgers wisely retreated in good order and left for China on July 3, content with the knowledge that the killers of the General Sherman crew had been punished.

This little-known "war" is known as Sinmi-yangyo in Korea and as the 1871 US Korea Campaign in America. (Duvernay, 2001; Hulber, 1898; Sterner, 2003)

The Chemulpo Treaty of 1882

After the 1871 expedition to Korea, the United States leaned heavily on China to force its client-state Korea to open up for trade with the United States, but the Korean court steadfastly refused to go along. In 1876, Korea was forced into a treaty with Japan at gunpoint, after a Japanese fleet sailed into Kanghwa waters and threatened to bombard Seoul. After the Kanghwa Treaty with Japan, the Korean King decided to open up to outside world. Soon, trade agreements with the United States and several European countries followed.

Korea's first pro-American official was Kim Hong Jip (1842-1896), who had served as the Korean minister in Japan and witnessed the rapid Americanization of Japan. Kim drew up a grand scheme to use America as a springboard to recover the vast Koguryo territory lost to China and to establish a powerful Korean empire. Kim returned to Korea in 1880 and presented his "Korea Plan" to King Kojong, who warmly accepted the plan.

On March 24, 1882, King Kojong appointed Shin Hun to negotiate a treaty with the United States. Commodore Robert W. Shufeldt represented the US side. The negotiation began on April 4 at Chemulpo, and on May 22, the delegates signed a 14-article treaty on the deck of the USS Ticonderoga. This treaty is known as the Chemulpo Treaty, the first article of which loftily proclaims - "Corea and the United States of America hereby establish everlasting amity and friendship between the two peoples."
The Chemulpo Treaty provided for immigration of Koreans to America, extraterritorial privileges for Americans in Korea, the purchase of land for an American legation, most-favored-nation trade relations, the right for American missionaries to preach the Gospel in Korea, and most importantly, mutual defense in case of a foreign invasion. It should be noted that Commodore Shufeldt rejected the Chinese request to incorporate Chinese suzerainty over Korea in the treaty, and he made it clear that the United States recognized Korea as an independent nation.

In 1860, Russia occupied Vladivostok and threatened to move south in search of ports navigable year-around. In April 1885, the British Pacific Fleet landed marines and occupied Kuh-mun-do, a Korean island in the South Chulla Province, in the pretext of stopping the Russian expansion in to the Pacific. The British hoisted the Union Jack on a Korean island. The British navy left the island in February 1887 under an intense international pressure.

* Kim Young-Sik is the editor of Korea WebWeekly.

© Copyright 2002-2007 AFAR