Gabo Reforms

Being transformed into a “hermit kingdom”[1] and falling behind other countries in technology and industry by delaying development and modernization in an attempt to protect the country against Western imperialism through a strict isolationist policy from the outside world, the Joseon Dynasty finally adopted an opening policy combining eastern tradition and Western science and technology as from the mid-nineteenth century onwards in order to bolster Joseon’s economic and military power, and thereby to consolidate the monarchy. Following the promotion of external trade, the idea of the implementation of the Western model in every aspect of Joseon society, including the institutional and cultural domains, began to muster up more support. With this design, the more modern and powerful Empire of Japan was taken as a role model by the supporters of the modernization reforms with its rapid modernization during its Meiji period (1868-1912) that transformed Japan from an isolated feudal society to a modern nation under the rule of Emperor Meiji through fundamental political, legal, social, economic and military reforms following the Western model. Concerning establishing a modern state in terms of law, the Meiji Constitution was promulgated in 1889, taking the Constitution of Prussia of 1850 as an example, and being inspired other Western constitutions such as the 1867 Austrian Constitution, the 1848 Italian Constitution, the 1845 Spanish, Belgian and Portuguese Constitutions while maintaining its traditional Japanese approach regarding the sacred Emperor.[2] Japan’s footsteps were followed by reform-minded Koreans aiming to found a modern Western-style state in Joseon under the Japanese sponsorship, and a pro-Japanese cabinet in the Joseon government was eventually installed in 1894 when Japanese troops invaded the royal palace to force the king to declare a series of sweeping laws and regulations known as the Gabo Reforms.[3]

Regarded by some as the country’s biggest reforms,[4] the Gabo Reforms represented an important step toward Korea’s modernization, and their importance lay in their novelty of a completely new form and direction for the government by “overturning social and cultural traditions that had dated back centuries.[5] The series of fundamental changes decreed by a group of Korean government officials under Japanese coercion marked the end of Korea’s old socio-political order by eliminating social distinctions of all sorts, abolishing the civil service exams confirming elite status, enacting the new principle of law opening all positions to men of talent regardless of social background, abolishing slavery in all forms, allowing widows to remarry, outlawing child marriage and increasing the marriage age, establishing a legal foundation for the society, and outlawing the torture of suspects, guilt by association and punishment of family members of criminals.[6] For the first time in thousands of years, the country broke off its ties with the old Chinese tributary system, used the Korean alphabet Hangeul in government documents, replaced the old Ming Chinese calendar with the Western one, taught Korean history at school, adopted the Western-style education system, and established primary schools in the capital with plans to establish others throughout the country.[7] A cabinet-style organization with a prime minister was implemented, and new ministries were created to deal with foreign affairs, finance, justice, education, defense, agriculture, commerce and industry. The authority of the king was weakened, while the new cabinet and the prime minister were empowered. The affairs of the court were separated from the rest of the government, and a hierarchy of courts was established. The government was defined with clear separations of judicial and military functions from civil ones. A new capital and provincial police system was created. Arbitrary taxes and merchant monopolies were abolished.[8] The reforms of this period institutionalized a major rupture in Korean statecraft by proposing that the state’s legitimacy and organization were based on systems of thought beyond Confucianism or native conventions.[9] The Gabo Reforms represented a significant effort to transform the traditional government structure of Joseon in accordance with the modern nation states of the West and Japan. Although reformulating a new state order where the royal power was almost ignored could be considered as a path toward a constitutional monarchy,[10] it also had a negative impact because in this way, too much power was concentrated in the hands of the Japanese-controlled cabinet, especially in a period in which national sovereignty was under fire. To that end, the Gabo Reforms actually paved the way for Japan to easily control and interfere in Joseon’s domestic affairs.

Finally, the Gabo Reforms were noteworthy regarding the Korean modernization, but they were also so radical that they could not get public consensus. Furthermore, because hundreds of reform measures were passed over a considerably short period of time of a mere one year, it was impossible both for the government and the people to internalize all these changes. The reforms were essentially set with the intent of combining Western ideas of codified laws and the existing customs in Korea, but they resulted in weakening Korea’s national sovereignty, as those Western ideas were imported and implemented in the peninsula under the Japanese sponsorship. As the reforms continued, Joseon’s dependence on Japan deepened, and so did Japan’s intervention in each affair on the peninsula. Still, as the first comprehensive effort at restructuring the Korean government and society, the Gabo Reforms marked a turning point in Korea’s path towards modernization. The “Gabo spirit”[11] persisted as a driving force for social and political reform later on and it shaped the subsequent emergence of modern Korea.[12] It was amidst such circumstances that the Great Han Empire (or Korean Empire) was born, and the Gwangmu Reforms were undertaken in 1897.


[1] Griffis, “Corea, the Hermit Nation,” 125.

[2] Nakamura, “Die Rezeption des deutschen Rechts in Japan,” 77.

Steenstrup, “Die Rezeption des deutschen Rechts im Japan der Meiji-Zeit,” 37.

Beckmann, The Making of the Meiji Constitution, 284.

[3] Connor, The Koreas, 184.

[4] Lee, “‘Gabo years’ have many historic moments.”

[5] Hwang, “Three major events happened in Korea in 1894.”

[6] Lee, “‘Gabo years’ have many historic moments.”

[7] Seth, A History of Korea: From Antiquity to the Present, 247.

[8] Seth, A History of Korea: From Antiquity to the Present, 247.

[9] Hwang, Rationalizing Korea: The Rise of the Modern State, 90.

[10] Eckert et al., Korea: Old and New History, 226.

[11] Hwang, Rationalizing Korea: The Rise of the Modern State, 91.

[12] Hwang, “Three major events happened in Korea in 1894”.

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