A Person Who Marks the End of Righteous Armies
When imperial Japan plundered the Korean kingdom of Joseon toward the end of the dynasty, countless leaders led righteous armies of volunteer soldiers to resist against Japanese intrusion.
They include Jeon Bong-jun(전봉준) who was called General Mung Bean, Choi Ik-hyun(최익현) who raised an army in the cause of justice at the grand old age of 74, and army leader Shin Dol-seok(신돌석) who was a commoner by birth, to name a few.
But little is known about the last leader of the righteous army in the Korean Empire, which lasted from 1897 to 1910. Army leader Chae Eung-eon shared his fate with the loyal resistance troops, which fought to the end as fiercely as in the initial period. He fought desperately for his country from the age of 25 to 33, still in the flower of his youth, and participated in the longest-ever resistance military campaign. Let’s follow the traces of this army leader.
Joining Loyal Resistance Troop
Chae Eung-eon was born in Seongcheon(성천), South Pyongan Province in 1879. His family was so poor that the whole family moved to Goksan(곡산), Hwanghae Province to slash and burn fields for a living.
Chae was a strong, smart and righteous lad. When wealthy landowners brutally exploited poor farmers, Chae would come right out and speak up for the farmers.
Chae served as a noncommissioned officer of Korean Empire’s army infantry. Unfortunately, the Korean military was dissolved by imperial Japan on August 1st, 1907. When first battalion commander of the royal guard Park Seung-hwan(박승환) shot himself to death in protest, Chae became a military officer of the righteous army led by Lee Jin-ryong(이진룡) to engage in armed resistance against the Japanese in Pyongan and Hamgyeong provinces.
Chae’s reputation grew when he attacked Japanese police substations and military police in Hwanghae and Hamgyeong Provinces in 1908, as weapons taken from the attacks helped facilitate the activities of the righteous Korean armies.
Military Campaign Continues even after 1910 Korea-Japan Annexation Treaty
Even after Korea lost its sovereignty when the Korea Japan Annexation Treaty was forcibly concluded in 1910, Chae refused to disband the resistance army and served in Kim Jin-muk(김진묵)’s righteous army.
Employing guerrilla tactics involving a few good soldiers effectively, Chae moved to and from various provinces quickly and smartly to destroy Japanese police substations and communication facilities.
In 1913, he raided outstations of Japanese military police in Hwanghae Province and killed a number of Japanese soldiers there. Japan even offered a massive reward for the capture of Chae, who freely crossed the mountainous areas in Gyeonggi, Gangwon and Hamgyeong provinces and launched a guerrilla war.
On November 12th, 1914, Japanese police said it would provide a reward of 280 won to anyone who would arrest Chae and hand him over to the police. It also promised to offer a reward to anyone who would give information about Chae’s whereabouts and who would help arrest him, depending on the level of their contribution.
Yet, Chae was so good at guerrilla warfare that even the Japanese admitted that the meticulous search efforts of Japanese garrison and military police were totally ineffective. However, Chae could no longer put up resistance after 1915.
Continues the Struggle to the Bitter End
Chae was waging a guerrilla war near Baeknyeon(백년) Mountain in Seongcheon(성천), South Pyongan Province in 1915. On July 5th, he visited a wealthy man in the local village to raise money for his military activities but he was arrested after a tip-off. He was sentenced to death in a court in Pyongyang in September and died in a prison in Pyongyang on November 4th.
The eight years of his military activities, spanning from 1907 to 1915, came to an end. The resistance troops lost steam noticeably after the 1910 Annexation Treaty and they almost disappeared following Chae’s arrest. It would be fair to say that Chae’s death marked the end of the righteous armies, which relentlessly fought for the country for about 20 years.
Chae is called the “last leader of the righteous army” who fought over the longest span of time. While his nation was deprived of its sovereignty by Japan, he still rose up in every corner of the country boldly and swiftly. He chose to walk the path of a patriot. It was like passing through a tunnel without an end in sight. But he never got distracted and eventually sacrificed his life for his country. Chae was posthumously awarded the Order of Merit for National Foundation, the Independence Medal in 1962.