Home / Features / The American Invasion of Korea, nope not the one in the 1950s, the one in 1871…

The American Invasion of Korea, nope not the one in the 1950s, the one in 1871…

American servicemen after capturing Fort Dŏkjin (Fort Monocacy) on June 10
American servicemen after capturing Fort Dŏkjin (Fort Monocacy) on June 10

In the 19th century there were a number of Asian nations that had sealed themselves off from the outside world, most famously Japan and China but Korea did it too. The idea was that they had seen what the rest of the world had to offer and they weren’t impressed. So after sealing themselves off from foreign influence their societies fossilised, trapped in a time warp. Meanwhile, the barbaric west which had once been scrabbling around in the mud leapt forwards in terms of philosophy, science and industry in the 18th and 19th centuries.

America sent a mission out into the Pacific to unlock these Asian states and trade with them. It had worked well in Japan when in the 1850s Admiral Perry had arrived with his small fleet. In terms of world powers, America was a minnow in the 1850s, however the modern and large warships in Perry’s possession clearly outclassed anything the Japanese had. This was to be the beginning of the end of the “old ways” in Japan.

America’s dealings with Asia took a back seat during the Civil War and the subsequent rebuilding of a nation. So it wasn’t until 1871 a small fleet of American ships travelled to the coastline of Korea. The American diplomatic vessel (which was a merchant ship and not a warship) came in towards the shore and was fired at by the Korean shore batteries. The artillery barrage lasted for fifteen furious minutes, this was not just one accidental shot. However the cannons were old fashioned and limited damage had occurred. Regardless, the Koreans had fired on a diplomatic vessel breaking international rules of diplomacy…which the Koreans had no real idea about.

The Americans then landed ten days later with 650 marines and sailors. They made contact with the local Korean officials but the Koreans wanted to avoid the discussion about opening fire on a diplomatic mission. It was a classic case of cultural misunderstanding. The Koreans did not want to lose face over the error and the Americans mistook this for arrogance and decided to teach the Koreans a lesson.

The marines then assaulted and captured Ganghwa Island’s forts, and the batteries that had (probably) fired on the diplomatic mission. The series of clashes were one sided, Korea had not moved with the times and they were using virtually medieval technology and tactics against well trained and equipped troops. By the end of the day the Americans had captured all the forts for the loss of 3 men dead, the Koreans had suffered 243 dead.

The Americans expected that this would force the Koreans to the negotiating table. However the Koreans had the last laugh. Despite being humiliated militarily, they not only did not apologise, they refused to speak to any member of the US government for the next two years and maintained its isolationist policy (only thawing a little to Japanese trade).

The American expedition of 1871 is in a way like the British Suez incident in 1956. Both were militarily completely successful. The invading troops had completely outclassed the locals, but that was not the purpose of the missions.  In both cases there was a political and diplomatic aspect that was far more important and in both cases they utterly failed to achieve their political goals.

About Jem Duducu

Jem Duducu
Jem Duducu is an historian and the founder of the hugely popular @HistoryGems . He is soon to publish his next history book.

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