Queen Min was a rose hiding a deadly thorn. Born into a world of privilege and luxury, Min’s classic beauty covered up her incredible cunning. Korean courtiers watched as Min played a dangerous game of thrones, transforming herself from teenage consort into a terrifying ruler in her own right. Yet her ambition made her mortal enemies, and her meteoric rise ended in a catastrophically brutal downfall.
In the autumn of 1851, Min was born into a world of danger. Sure, she came from an illustrious Korean aristocratic clan that counted queen consorts among their number, but that didn’t mean she was safe. In fact, Korea at the time—then called the Joseon Kingdom—was full of power-hungry courtiers looking to gain any scrap of influence. Min’s first test came at a devastatingly young age.
When Min was only eight years old, she went through a trial by fire that would leave anyone scarred for life. Her father fell ill with a fatal malady, and her mother also perished around this time, leaving the young girl as an orphan without anyone to look out for her best interests. It wasn’t long before the wolves swooped in.
Soon after Min turned sweet 16, destiny came knocking at her door. King Gojong, the 15-year-old ruler of Joseon, was in the market for a bride to take the throne beside him. Immediately, all eyes fell toward Min. After all, she came from the right bloodlines and she was about the same age as Gojong. But there was a darker reason for the interest.
The teenaged King Gojong wasn’t really running the royal show; his controlling, wily father Prince Gung was. So when it came time to pick Gojong’s future wife, Prince Gung wanted her to be young, naïve, and malleable so he could continue grabbing power for himself. When he saw sweet, orphaned Min, he thought he’d found the perfect victim, uh, I mean queen. He would be so, so wrong.
In order to suss out Min as a potential bride, the palace made her undergo a series of rigid meetings to make sure she was fit for the role. She sealed the deal with one feature. See, by this time, Min had developed into a slender, small woman with a sharp, graceful face—AKA, she looked like a dang little sweetheart who couldn’t defy anybody. Only, there was one issue…
When Prince Gung interviewed Min for the royal role, he was as convinced as everyone else that she could be a pretty little doll he could pose around for his needs. He did, however, have an unsettled feeling, and noted with slight worry that she “was a woman of great determination and poise.” Yeah, he should have listened to that feeling.
On March 20, 1866, Min married King Gojong and officially became Queen Min. To say she wasn’t ready is an understatement: On the day of her wedding, the tiny girl was so weak, she couldn’t even support the heavy ceremonial bridal wig she was supposed to wear and had to assign a court lady to be with her at all times to hold it up. And then it went from bad to worse.
Min might have entered into her royal wedding thinking it was going to be a fairy tale, but it started to fall apart almost immediately. The teenage Gojong was obviously a bit of a simpleton under his daddy’s thumb and no real match for the intelligence of his new queen. Still, Min could have likely handled that—but Gojong had more up his sleeve.
Upon taking up residence in the palace, Min had a very rude awakening. Even in his tender adolescent years, Gojong already had a favorite concubine, a beautiful woman named Yi Gwi-in who was all sass and sensuality next to Min’s precise beauty and grace. More than that, Gojong had no qualms about showing his favoritism…and he quickly hit Min with a brutal betrayal.
Get this: In a gut-wrenching move, King Gojong didn’t even visit Queen Min on their wedding night—an insult no matter the time or place. But wait, there’s more. Not only did he skip out on his conjugal duties, he spent that night in his beloved mistress’s room instead. YIKES. This would eventually have ruinous consequences.
Don’t worry too much for Min, though, because she definitely knew how to take care of herself. Besides, the feeling was definitely mutual. While Gojong loved to go out carousing late into the night, Min wasn’t about frittering her life away, and she had a healthy amount of disdain for her new husband. As she once confessed to a friend, “He disgusts me.”
With her husband paying exactly zero attention to her, Queen Min pulled a move that shocked everyone. In the lead up to the royal wedding, everyone had assumed Min was quiet, polite, and concerned with ladylike endeavors such as balls and tea times. Heck no. As queen, Min completely eschewed parties and schmoozing unless absolutely necessary, and spent her time reading books on “masculine” subjects instead.
While this is something to applaud, it came back to bite her, big time.
Although many courtiers’ tongues were wagging about Queen Min’s evident intelligence and burgeoning ambition, one man in particular was extremely concerned: Her domineering father-in-law Prince Gung. One thing he definitely did not need was an upstart queen gaining influence over his son and ruining all his plans. So Gung started working on an ingenious and deeply evil plot.
Four years into Queen Min’s marriage, trouble started brewing in a big way. To the court’s great embarrassment, the queen had still not conceived a child at this point. This didn’t just make it crystal clear that Min and Gojong hated each other, it also made it look like Min wasn’t doing her wifely duties. Except, well, Min then went and shut everyone’s mouths.
Just before it became the complete talk of the town, Queen Min finally got pregnant at the incredibly decrepit age of 21. Even better, she not only carried the child to term, but she also gave birth to a coveted baby boy, giving the country a male heir. Nearly everyone in the kingdom rejoiced at the good news—and then horrific tragedy struck.
After she had her son, Queen Min didn’t have time to breathe a sigh of relief. The scrawny boy was a sickly child, and just four days after he came into the world, he passed out of it. Min must have been beside herself with exhaustion and grief over her young child’s tragic end, but the nightmare didn’t even end there.
Throughout her pregnancy, Min’s father-in-law Prince Gung had been watching beadily from the sidelines, praying that Min never bore a healthy boy so that he could keep an iron hold on his power. So when the little boy passed, Min made a chilling accusation. She claimed that Gung had a hand in his demise, and had fed her poison disguised as medicine.
And in case you think Min being paranoid…just wait.
Gung didn’t lay low during this time, not at all. Right after hearing about the baby’s passing, Gung commanded his son King Gojong to avoid Min’s bed, and instead pushed for him to try to conceive a child with his favorite concubine Yi Gwi-in, just to mess up Queen Min’s influence at court even more. Worst of all, it worked…
On April 16, 1868, Min’s world came crashing down around her once more. The concubine Yi Gwi-in gave birth to a healthy boy who she named Prince Wanhwa. This was exactly what Gung wanted, and he even had the audacity to name this newborn as Crown Prince of the country, skipping right over any children Min might have. But oh, Min got her revenge.
Instead of worrying herself over her womb, Queen Min began amassing more influence at court. Clever Min had always gotten along with the nerds, and one of her closest confidants was the court scholar Choe Ik-Hyeon, who used his book smarts to draw up a formal impeachment for her father-in-law Prince Gung. And Min was just getting warmed up.
Now that Min had the court bookworms on her side, her next move was jaw-dropping. Somehow, she even won over her notoriously inattentive husband Gojong. How did she do it? Simple. She quite rightly convinced him that since he was a 22-year-old adult, he should boot his father out from power and rule in his own right. Then came sweet, sweet justice.
Where many would-be rulers try and fail to stage a coup, Queen Min actually did it. In 1873, when she was just 22 years old herself, she got the court to kick her father-in-law Prince Gung to the curb, forcing him out of the palace and back to his ancestral estates where he couldn’t cause trouble. As it happened, though, Min celebrated her victory with one more brutal act.
The day Min ousted her father-in-law, she saved her cruelest punishment for last. In one fell swoop, she also exiled her husband’s once-favorite concubine Yi Gwi-in along with the woman’s infant son. To seal the deal, Min then stripped the boy of his “Crown Prince” titles. If it sounds like Min wore the pants in her relationship, that’s because she did.
Min was finally on top…but she wouldn’t be there forever.
At first, the whole world seemed to be in Min’s hands. Case in point: She got pregnant soon after her triumph at court. Yet, in an omen of worse things to come, it too ended in tragedy. Just like Min’s first child, this infant, a little daughter, perished soon after her birth, leaving the queen humiliated and still desperate to provide Gojong with an heir. Only, let it not be said that Min didn’t work hard…
When Min was 24 years old, she gave birth to a son, the Crown Prince Sunjong, who survived infancy at last. But this good news soon turned sour. Although Min’s boy lived, he was never a healthy child and experienced extreme bouts of illness that often laid him up in bed for weeks at a time. Min did not take this well.
Queen Min knew a robust heir was absolutely essential to her power, and she went into overdrive researching how to make Sunjong better. For years, she greased the palms of all the prominent shamans and monks in the land, trying to get them to heal her boy and fearful all the time that one of Gojong’s other concubines would get pregnant again and usurp her position. She didn’t stop there, either.
During these years, Min also kept trying to add a “spare” heir to her brood and only received further trauma for her efforts. She carried two boys to term twice more after Sunjong, only to have these sons tragically perish in infancy like all the rest. It was incredibly stressful, and it was about to get a whole lot worse.
With King Gojong woefully uninterested in politics, Min was happy to work double time to keep her country in check—only, her wheeling and dealing behind the scenes was tres controversial. In one infamous move, the ambitious woman asked Korea’s cutting-edge neighbor Japan to train her new military units in a bid to modernize her country. This? Did not go down well.
Korea’s relationship with Japan at the time was “frenemy” at best, and not everyone in Min’s court liked the idea of fancy new Japanese-trained military units…least of all Korea’s old military leaders. It led to a heartbreaking disaster. In a viciously personal retaliation, discontented soldiers killed one of Min’s relatives and razed his house to the ground. Then the tragic plot thickened.
In a plot twist worthy of a Hollywood movie, these vengeful soldiers then fled to Min’s greatest enemy: Her father-in-law Prince Gung. Although the prince was supposed to be staying the heck away from Min and her throne, he couldn’t help but use the opportunity to jump right back into the fray. And believe me when I say that this time, he was out for blood.
Like many in-laws, Prince Gung knew how to hit Queen Min right where it hurt most. He gathered up all the angry military units he could find and marched right up to the royal palace where King Gojong and Queen Min lived, slaying nearly everyone who opposed him along the way. But if you think Min was cowed by this trail of blood, you don’t know Queen Min.
When Min learned that a power-hungry Gung was heading straight for her, she came up with an ingenious plan. Both she and King Gojong disguised themselves and crept out of the palace without anyone noticing them, giving Gung and his enraged group of soldiers the slip. Then again, Min had a little help from a scandalous source…
According to one version of Min’s great escape, none other than Gung’s wife, Princess Sunmok, had a hand in secreting the queen into safety. Sunmok, who was apparently also completely fed up with Gung’s not-so-petty grudges, helped conceal Min in a litter during her flight from the palace. Look, when your own wife turns against you, you know you’ve done something wrong.
Despite this crucial aid, however, Min was now firmly on her back foot when it came to her archrival Prince Gung. Boy, did he take advantage of that.
The minute Gung arrived at Min’s palace and saw she had successfully evaded his grasp, he gave an earth-shattering speech. In a bald-faced lie, Gung announced to his followers and the rest of the citizens, “The queen is dead.” With that whopper out of his mouth, Gung then set about acting like he was ruler once more, executing any of Min’s followers he came across and undoing many of her laws.
Once more, Queen Min’s rule was put to the test, and once more she came back with a vengeance—literally.
Min was nothing if not resourceful, and she knew how to use her powerful allies to her advantage. This time, she called on the help of the mighty Chinese army, who just so happened to have an interest in Korean territories. As a result, they were all too happy to swoop, in, take Prince Gung, and try him for treason back in China.
With that problem out of the way (again), Min and her husband made their victorious return to their rightful thrones. Still, Min wasn’t out of the woods yet, and her next decisions would come back to haunt her.
In the 1880s, Queen Min was walking a dangerous tight rope. She tried to advance her ambitions of modernizing Korea, all while trying to please the fickle and often combative governments of China on one side and Japan on the other—not to mention the various factions of her own citizens. It led to multiple military flare-ups over the years, but Min had been forged in fire, and she held fast to her power.
Still what goes up must come down, and Min didn’t have long left.
While Queen Min weathered the storms of her evolving country, she didn’t escape unscathed. After her extremely difficult years trying to give birth to more children, she stopped trying to conceive altogether at a relatively early age. This would have been eyebrow-raising at the time, but Min had simply gone through too much to try again. There was, however, a bright side.
Throughout the years that Min took the reins on her rule, her husband King Gojong developed a deep respect for her abilities to handle the politics he loathed. Then, to everyone’s immense shock, this respect eventually turned into profound affection by the 1890s. That’s right, these crazy kids actually fell in love. Sadly, this only makes Min’s fate all the more tragic.
Let this be a lesson to you: Always make double sure your enemies are deep in the ground. Unfortunately, Min’s nasty father-in-law Prince Gung was still kicking, and more determined than ever to topple Queen Min at last. In October 1895, he even managed to convince the Japanese to become his allies in his plot for retribution. It would end in blood and horror.
At the crack of dawn on October 8, 1895, Prince Gung used his connections inside Queen Min’s palace to ferry in a group of terrifying Japanese ronin into the queen’s inner sanctum. Make no mistake; these men were bent on destroying Min once and for all. For better or for worse, though, Queen Min would not go gentle into that good night.
One of Min’s guards spotted the men as they entered and alerted the queen and her entourage, igniting an enormous battle between court traitors and the queen’s loyal men in the courtyards of the palace. Thinking quickly, Min changed into the dress of one of her ladies-in-waiting in order to disguise herself from her attackers. In reality, it merely delayed the inevitable.
In the chaos of the attack, Min’s husband made a heartbreaking sacrifice. He put himself in front of the ronin in order to buy his beloved Min more time and hopefully allow her to escape the castle. But the men were too skilled and too single-minded, and they simply beat the court ladies until they gave up Min’s location.
Within minutes, it was all over for Queen Min. After disposing of many of her best men and two of her ladies-in-waiting, the ronin caught up to the queen at last and brutally slayed her. As if that weren’t enough, the assassins then burned her corpse in a nearby forest, leaving only a single finger bone to remember her by. Yet this was not the end of her story.
When King Gojong realized that all was lost, his reaction was utterly tragic. He locked himself in his room for days on end, staunchly refusing to take up his duties as king in Queen Min’s place. After all, she had been the real ruler of the country, and Gojong was a hollow crown without her. Unfortunately for everyone, this immediately started to show.
With King Gojong practically catatonic, his father Prince Gung easily wriggled his way back into power, and he wasted no time getting up to his old tricks. In particular, he started pressuring his son to sign lopsided treaties with his buddies the Japanese, and at first, the traumatized Gojong agreed to every single thing put in front of him. But then Gung made his most horrific demand yet.
Destroying Queen Min’s life simply wasn’t enough for Prince Gung. In the aftermath of her violent end, Gung not only insisted that Gojong lower Min’s royal title to just a regular aristocrat, he subsequently demanded that Gojong demote her even further, stripping her of all her titles and turning her into a mere commoner. Gojong’s response has lived in legend ever since.
Placid, heartbroken Gojong had accepted so much from his father before this, but he simply could not abide this sullying of Queen Min’s memory. Reportedly, he told Prince Gung, “I would rather slit my wrists and let them bleed than disgrace the woman who saved this kingdom.” It was one of the only times he ever defied his father.
Almost exactly two years after Queen Min’s death, her husband gave her one final goodbye. In October 1897, King Gojong officially proclaimed the Empire of Korea, and then posthumously turned Queen Min into “Empress Myeongseong.” For good measure, Gojong also spent a vast amount of money to re-inter Min’s remains in a proper royal tomb.
Queen Min’s violent fate still echoes into today, with one modern historian calling her end, a “hideous event, crudely conceived and brutally executed.” As a testament to the infamy of the tragedy, Korean advocacy groups still continue to prod the Japanese government for an official apology and acknowledgment of their responsibility for her murder.
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