Today, in my Highlights of Asian History class, I’ll be teaching an overview of the Choson Dynasty, about three hundred years of the dynasty in about 90 minutes, from the Hideyoshi Invasions to the Japanese annexation of the peninsula. One of the things that I will talk about will be the attack on the merchant ship the General Sherman in Pyongyang and the 1871 United States Expedition to Korea to establish trade and diplomatic relations, as well as to find out what happened the General Sherman.

When Korean shore batteries fired upon two US Navy ships, the US attacked ten days later (after having received no apology from the Korean command).

Not exactly an auspicious beginning for US-Korean relations.

I first visited the island, which is about a ninety-minute drive west of Seoul in April 1991, but I never got around to visiting the the Gwangseong-bo Fortress, the site of the 1871 battle, until 2002 and 2003 when I wrote about the island and some of its historical landmarks (including Goindol, Korea’s most famous dolmen) for the Korea Times.

The battle itself was a combination of the Joseon (Choson) Dynasty’s “hermit kingdom” isolationism and the assertiveness of the Americans. After all, it had only been a few years since Japan opened its doors to the West, so why not Korea?

And speaking of Japan, there would be another battle here involving the Japanese in 1876 and the subsequent Kanghwa Treaty. When Japan wanted to exert influence on Korea before Europe, it sent a warship to survey coastal waters and was subsequently fired upon by the Korean shore batteries (no doubt the French and US intervention still fresh in their memories). This eventually led to the 1876 Kanghwa Treaty, which started Japan down the path to its domination and colonization of the Korean peninsula until 1945.