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Catholicism in Korea

Long isolated, Korea was first exposed to Christianity when envoys to Beijing brought books back home with them. In 1784, a Chinese priest arrived, and a French priest followed in 1836. But although a small percentage of Koreans were intrigued with Catholicism and converted, the Joseon Dynasty saw the religion as a threat. Threatened by the fervor of these newly converted Catholics, the Confucian government cracked down hard, and there were multiple mass executions of believers. The most well known of these are the Sinyu Persecution of 1801, Gihae Persecution of 1839, Byeongo Persecution of 1846, and Byeongin Persecution of 1866. These bloody conflicts took the lives of over 800 Catholics, some of whom were canonized by Pope John Paul II in Seoul in 1984. Today, Catholicism is one of South Korea's three major religions (along with Protestantism and Buddhism), with over five million followers.

You Say You Want a Revolution?

In 1894, long-suffering Korean peasants reached the end of their patience with royalty and with the yangban (the aristocracy). Tensions had long been simmering among the peasant class, angry over the oppressive rule of the Joseon Dynasty, which taxed them heavily while providing little in return. Severe droughts in the early 1800s had led to crippling famines, and taxes had grown so onerous that many farmers were forced to sell their ancestral farms to wealthy landowners, who then rented it back to them at outrageous prices. Local uprisings in 1812 and 1862 focused their rage on these landowners, and were brutally suppressed by government soldiers.

At the same time, an ideology called Donghak (Eastern Learning) was spreading throughout Korea's rural areas. A mix of Buddhism, Confucianism, and other elements, it was both a political and a spiritual movement. Akin in many ways to Marxism, it was centered on the premise of basic human rights -- and on driving out foreign influences. The peasant class had grown frustrated by the influence exerted over Korean politics by the Chinese and particularly the Japanese, whom they felt did not care about their needs.

Finally, in January 1894, the peasants rose up en masse in what is called the Donghak Peasant Revolution. Their aim was to expel foreigners (specifically the Japanese -- no surprise there) and to bring about social reforms like democracy, land redistribution, and tax reduction. At first they managed to defeat some government troops, but by March 1895 the military, with the help of Japanese soldiers, had crushed the rebellion completely.

But while the revolution itself failed, it did have a lasting impact. It sparked the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), as China and Japan struggled for dominance over the Korean Peninsula. Japan won -- and promptly made Korea its pawn. Within 10 years, Japan had formally annexed Korea and would remain in control until the end of World War II.

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