The closing years of the Joseon Dynasty, Korea’s last, are pretty grim: having maintained its isolation for so long, Korea is totally unprepared for its encounter with an aggressively expanding West, and the country is rapidly infiltrated by a variety of foreign powers before finally falling under the harsh dominion of Japan.
One of the early contacts from outside was a French expedition that sailed to Korea and tried to deliver a letter to the Taewongun, the prince regent and ruler, who refused to receive it. Troops were sent to repel the French, which they did, but not without heavy losses. In the aftermath, the Taewongun determined to strengthen his military. The process is fascinatingly described by Pak Chehyeong, whose essay is included in Sources of Korean Tradition, Vol. 2. Here is a rather lengthy excerpt:
The law of the land had proscribed the occult arts and supernatural means of building up strength. These restrictions were now set aside, and anyone with special skills and talents was encouraged to come forward and render service for enriching the country and strengthening its defense ….
Persons … were recruited or promoted because of their extraordinary strength, as were … others who possessed mechanical skills. Every day, people came to Unhyeon Palace offering novel and strange plans. One claimed that cotton cloth could stop bullets, and tests were conducted. The bullet penetrated two layers of cotton cloth stuffed with cotton, but twelve layers stopped the bullet. Finally, vests made of thirteen layers of stuffed cotton cloth were produced together with helmets made of ivy stems. When riflemen wearing these new devices underwent training in midsummer, they were overcome by heat and suffered nose bleeds. There was also a suggestion that a boat made of crane feathers would be so light that a direct hit by a cannonball would mearely push the vessel backward without destroying it. Accordingly, hunters were sent out to capture cranes whose wings were then glued to a boat. The boat, named a “flying boat,” was found useless, however, because the glue melted suddenly when it was launched in the water.
The essay goes on to describe the encounter with the American steamer the General Sherman, which the Koreans captured, executing its crew. Unfortunately, none of the Koreans could figure out how to operate the unusual craft, and even after making a direct replica, then taking apart the original and rebuilding it at great expense, they couldn’t get the boat to go faster than “a dozen or so paces in one hour,” probably because they were using charcoal rather than coal to fuel it.