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The Tonghak peasant revolution
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A Japanese scroll records the defeat of the Tonghak Army in the Battle of Seoul. The Japanese had canon and other modern weapons, whereas the Korean peasants were armed with bow-and-arrows, spears, swords, and some flintlocks muskets.

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Profile of a Tonghak rebel
[Editor's note: This is part 2 of 3 parts.]

The Tonghak Peasant Revolution 東學農民革命

The 1894 Peasant War (Nong-min je'n-jaeng) saw the poor farmers rise up against the rich, corrupt, oppressive landlords and the ruling elite. The peasants demanded land distribution, tax reduction, democracy and human rights. Taxes were so high that most farmers were forced to sell their ancestral homesteads to rich landowners at bargain prices. Landlords got richer by selling rice to the Japanese and by buying poor peasants off their land. The rich sent their children to Japan to study and enjoyed things Japanese. It was in this context that the peasants developed intense anti-Japanese and anti-yangban sentiments.

In 1862, the peasants of San-nam and surrounding villages took up arms against the elite. They were brutally butchered by government troops (kwan-gun). In subsequent years, peasants rose up in small groups all across Korea until 1892, when they were united into a single Peasant Guerrilla Army (Tonghak Peasants Army). The peasants worked in the fields during the day, but during the night they armed themselves and raided government offices, and killed rich landlords, traders and foreigners. They confiscated their victims' properties and distributed the loots among the poor.

Choe Che-U was executed in March 1894 at Taegu. After Choe's death, Choe Si-Hyong took over the Tonghak movement. Choe Si-Hyong went beyond the religion and appealed to the general peasant populace, who made up the majority of the Korean population. He offered the down-trodden farmers a way to better their lives - Tonghak, which provided its followers a hope for eliminating the yangban class and foreign powers. Under the leadership of Choe Si-Hyong, Tonghak became a legal political organization recognized as such by the government. Choe's followers exceeded 20,000.

The peasants were not on their own. Progressive-mined yangbans, scholars and nationalists joined the Army. The Army was politically indoctrinated in Tonghak (Eastern Learning). On January 11, 1894, the first major battle of the Army erupted in Go-bu. The rebellion was caused by Cho Pyong-gap, a Chosen government official in charge of Go-bu. Cho Pyong-gap was tyrannical and corrupt - he oppressed the peasants and extorted exorbitant money from his subjects.

The Tonghak rebels routed Cho's government forces and took over the county office, and handed out Cho's properties to the peasants. The rebels took weapons from the government soldiers and marched onto adjacent villages. The armed rebellion spread like a wildfire. The peasant army had few muskets and its arms were mainly bamboo spears and swords. The peasants wore bandanas on their heads and waistbands on their wastes to identify themselves. The peasant army waved yellow flags with the characters "sustain the people and provide for the people" written. Jung Bong-jun (全琫準 ) was the military commander. Jung's father was killed for refusing to pay bribes.

The peasants raided the armory and killed the local officials and rich folks. The war went well for the peasants until March 13, 1894. On this day, the Army was crushed by the government troops led by Lee Yong Tae, who mercilessly butchered captured peasant guerrillas, burned villages, and confiscated peasants properties in Go-bu. The news of Lee's scorched-earth butchery quickly spread to other regions and angry peasants rose up all across the country. Thus began the Peasant War of 1894.

The peasants' marching orders were:

Do not kill or take peasants' properties
Protect peasants' rights
Drive out the Japanese and purify our sacred land
March to Seoul and clean out the government
The Peasant Army defeated one government garrison after another and closed in on Seoul. The Seoul government asked Japan and China for help. These powers were more than happy to send in their troops. The Peasant Army, although many government troops joined their ranks, was no match for the 'Allied' forces with modern weapons and numerical superiority. The Army abandoned its march to Seoul.

In late June of 1894. pro-Japanese forces hatched a plan to wipe out the Peasant Army in collusion with the Japanese troops stationed in Inchon and Seoul. On October 16, the Peasant Army moved toward Gong-ju for the final battle. It was a trap. The Japanese and the pro-Japanese government troops were waiting for them.

The bitter battle started on October 22, 1894 and lasted till November 10, 1894. The poorly armed peasants stormed the well-entrenched enemies some 40 times but they were beaten back with heavy losses. The remnants fled to various bases. The triumphant Japanese and their lackeys pursued the Army and eventually wiped it out. Jung Bong-jun, the Tonghak commander, was captured in March 1895.

* The author's views do not necessarily reflect those of AFAR.

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