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Profile of a Tonghak rebel
Korea WebWeekly

Photo: Kim Gu. The Security Section Chief of the Korean Provisional Government. Kim Gu commanded a Tonghak army and later joined yibyong (The Roghteous Army) to fight the Japanese in Korea.

Kim Gu, one of the most prominent nationalist leaders, was a Tonghak military leader. He was born in 1876, the year the Treaty of Kanghwa-do was signed. He studied the Chinese classics at a sodang [traditional village-level primary school]. At 17, he applied for the Confucian civil service examination but flunked out.

In 1893, Kim Gu (18 years old) joined the Tonghak movement and was appointed the district leader of Palbong. He commanded a Tonghak army regiment in the 1894 Peasants War. His troops stormed the Haeju fort in Hwanghae-do. However, his army was defeated. Gen. Ahn Tae Hoon (father of Ahn Joon Gun who assassinated Ito Hirobumi) of the royal army gave Kim Gu's Tonghak rebels a safe pass, but other government troops ignored Ahn's safe pass and attacked them. Kim Gu managed to escape and went into hiding.

In 1896, Kim Gu killed a Japanese general named Tsuchida at Ch'iha-p'o, who was involved in the murder of the last Chosun Dynasty Queen Min. Kim was arrested and sentenced to death, but escaped and hid out as a Buddhist monk at Magok-sa in Kongju near Pyongyang.

The Righteous Army (yi-byong)

The Righteous Army was formed by Yu In-sok and other Confucian scholars during the Peasant Wars. Its ranks swelled after the Queen's murder by the Japanese troops and Korean traitors. Under the leadership of Min Chong-sik, Choe Ik-hyon and Sin Tol-sok, the Righteous Army attacked the Japanese army, Japanese merchants and pro-Japan bureaucrats in the Kangwon, Ch'ungch'ong, Cholla and Kyongsang provinces.

Choe Ik-hyon was captured by the Japanese and dragged away to Tsushima Island where he refused to eat the food given by the Japanese army and finally died as a martyr. Sin Tol-sok, an uneducated peasant commanded over 3,000 troops. Among the troops were former government soldiers, poor peasants, fishermen, tiger hunters, miners, merchants, and laborers.

In 1907, the Righteous Army under the command of Yi In-yong massed 10,000 troops to liberate Seoul and defeat the Japanese invaders. The Army came within 12 km of Seoul but could not withstand the Japanese counter-offensive. The Righteous Army was no match for two infantry divisions of 20,000 Japanese soldiers backed by warships moored near Inchon.

The Army retreated from Seoul and the war went on for two more years. Over 17,000 Righteous Army soldiers were killed and more than 37,000 were wounded in combats. Unable to figh the Japanese army head-on, the Righteous Army split into small bands of partisans to carry on the War of Liberation in China, Siberia and the Jangbaik Mountains in Korea. The Japanese troops first quashed the Peasant Army and then disbanded what remained of the government army. Many of the surviving guerrilla and anti-Japanese government troops fled to Manchuria and Siberia and carried on their fight.

Tonghak Becomes Chundo Religion
In 1905, Korean nationalists founded Chundo-gyo based on the themes of Tong-hak teachings popular during the Peasant Wars. The nationalists wanted to stem, by peaceful means, the tide of pro-Japanese sentiments sweeping across Korea. During the waning days of the Chosun (Yi) Dynasty, King Kojong himself embraced Chundo and promoted it nationwide. The King added rituals and codices to the new religion. It was organized into a formal organizational hierarchy similar to that of Chunju-gyo (The Catholic Church) with Pope, Papal Muncio, formal ceremonies, etc.

Chundoism preaches that there is God and that He resides in each of us - not in Heaven as Christianity and other religions preach. It strives to convert our earthly society into a paradise (Heaven) right here on Earth. It attempts to transform the believers into intelligent moral beings with high social consciousness. In this respect, it is humanistic socialism.

* Views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of AFAR.

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