As with so many other nations in East Asia at the dawn of the 20th century, Korea was faced with the increasing threat of colonization. This tremendous period of change on the Korean peninsula was largely during the lifetime of one ruler, Kojong, the last king of Joseon. Born in 1852 and ascending to the throne at age 12 in 1864, Kojong inherited a country that was deeply isolationist. This isolationism was largely born out of earlier encroachments from both the Jin and Qing Dynasty and Japan between 1590 and 1640. However, relative peace and stability reigned on the peninsula for two centuries after this. This situation had drastically changed by the 19th century, with the ever more invasive intrusions into East Asia of the British, French, and Russian Empires as well as the burgeoning United States. The French pursued an expedition to Korea in 1866, claiming to protect Catholics in Korea who faced hostility for abandoning traditional Confucian practices. Five years later in 1871 the United States followed suit, nominally to protect a diplomatic envoy, but more truthfully to exact revenge for an embarrassing, but bloodless, attack on the United States’ Navy ships that had encroached into Korean territorial waters.
This external pressure was not unique to Korea. The entirety of East Asia faced the prospect of either outright colonization, or essentially vassal status at the hands of a Western nation. Korea’s response to this pressure can best be contrasted with that of Japan, separated from each other by the Sea of Japan. Japan embarked on a period of rapid industrialization, and as such, became a great power within three decades. Korea chose to retrench into isolationism, hoping to be spared colonialization. In the end, Korea was colonized by the Japanese, the Asian power that decided to modernize and end its isolation. Japanese attempts curry influence in Korea began in earnest in the 1870s, a development that threatened Qing China. The Qing Dynasty was the only country that had long standing relations with, and influence in, the Joseon Empire at this time, and Japanese influence in Korea was seen as a threat to China. These tensions escalated until war broke out in 1894. The First Sino-Japanese war was a disaster for the Qing Dynasty, and the Japanese military had a string of unbroken successes. This victory for Japan meant more direct control of Korea.
In 1897, aware of the danger of Japanese colonization, a Korean Empire was declared, with Kojong assuming the title of Emperor. The Empire of Korea sought Western military technology and guidance, most notably from Russia. By this time, it was too late, and Japanese superiority surpassed Russia. More war followed, this time between Russia and Japan, with the Japanese scoring a decisive victory in the Russo-Japanese war. In 1905 Korea was declared a protectorate of Japan. Kojong was forced from the throne in 1907, and Japan formally annexed Korea in 1910. Japanese rule of Korea lasted until 1945, and the occupation was particularly brutal from 1937 onward as Japan desperately tried to extract every resource, including labor, from Korea to fuel their war effort. Japan’s defeat did not mean a free Korea. Rather, the United States and Soviet Union first occupied, and then later supported regimes on opposing halves of the peninsula. Both North and South Korea were authoritarian governments dependent on external support from their allied superpower. It was not until 1987 when free elections were held in South Korea that some measure of autonomy returned to a portion of the Korean peninsula.
The political transitions in Korea during this period are reflected in the changing nature of the coinage in Korea during the rule of Kojong. In 1882 Korea produced its first non-cash coinage, Tae Dong Treasury coinage with central enamel in the denominations of One, Two, and Three Chon. In the May auction Stack’s Bowers Galleries is offering two of these types, including an attractive PCGS MS-62 2 Chon with Black Enamel. These coins were cast, and their high production costs led to a shift toward milled coinage. Patterns were produced, including this White Metal 5 Niang Pattern from Year 495 (1886), offered in the May sale. By 1892, regular milled coinage was being issued, in the name of Kojong as King. The crown-sized issue of this series, the 5 Yang remains one of the most popular Korean types. The May sale features two of these types, with a PCGS MS-62 from Year 501 (1902) providing exceptional beauty. The increasing influence of Japan is seen as time progresses, showing more and more distinctive features of contemporary Japanese coinage. The rarest Korean piece offered in the May sale is a Brass 20 Won Pattern from Year 4 (1900). Though this type had traditionally been ascribed to a Russian origin, it is almost certainly of Japanese manufacture, as the legends are identical to later Japanese puppet issues. This date was unknown to Jacobs and Vermeule in their book Japanese Coinage, although they do record an example from Year 6 (1902). This lot also comes with an intriguing pedigree and anecdote detailing an examination of this coin by Norman Jacobs in 1972. Despite a "details" designation, this piece is certainly very desirable and is already exceeding the high estimate of $15,000.
As Kojong transitioned to Emperor of Korea, his regular coinage reflected this change, with a new issuance of circulation strikes, even more Japanese inspired than before. This is typified by a Year 9 (1905) 1/2 Won graded NGC MS-65. Seldom encountered in Gem condition, this piece likewise has exceeded its high estimate of $4,000. There is also coinage from the final salvo of an independent Korea, the period from 1907-1909 when Kojong was forced from the throne, and his son Sunjong briefly reigned as an emperor in name only. A Chon from Year 3 (1909) NGC MS-65 Brown provides a beautiful example from the last year before Korea’s subsummation into the Empire of Japan. Specialists in Korean coinage will also find an interesting pattern from South Korea, a Brass Won Pattern from 1965 graded Specimen-63 by PCGS. This piece was produced during the long reign of Park Chun-hee, the military strong man who was President of Korea until his assassination in 1979.
These wonderful Korean issues, along with many more from Korea and other nations are offered in the May 2022 Hong Kong Auction by Stack’s Bowers and Ponterio. Over 7,500 lots of world coins are now available for viewing and bidding at stacksbowers.com. We are always seeking world and ancient coins, medals, and paper money for our auctions, and are currently accepting consignments for our August 2022 Global Showcase Auction and our October Collectors Choice Online (CCO) sale. If you would like to learn more about consigning, whether a singular item or an entire collection, please contact a consignment director or email [email protected] today and we will assist you in achieving the best possible return on your material.