Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Im Kkeok-jeong: The Real-Life Korean Robin Hood

One of Korea's most legendary real-life "outlaw heroes" was the Joseon-era outlaw Im Kkeok-jeong (Kr. name 임꺽정; 林巪. Born ?-1562). While very little is known of him in the English language, his story was made into the 1996-97 TV drama  from South Korean broadcaster SBS that shares his name. Also, Im Kkeok-jeong is supposedly an inspiration for Heo Gyun's classic novel The Tale of Hong Gil Dong, which is Korea's equivalent of Robin Hood. The only difference is that Hong Gil Dong is a work of fiction. Im Kkeok-jeong isn't.

 In 16th century Joseon dynasty-era Korea, the yangban aristrocracy who governed the countryside were imposing a multitude of taxes on the ordinary peasants. They were having to pay land taxes, military taxes, corvee taxes, and tribute taxes, which were the hardest-hitting. In addition, the land allotments of the yangban were growing ever-larger and the peasants were losing land. They were growing more and more desperate by the hour.

During the mid-16th century, one man decided to rise up and challenge the status quo. That man was Im Kkeok-jeong. He organized a large group of peasants and together they became a major thorn in the side of the yangban in Gyeonggi and Hwanghae (located in modern-day South and North Korea respectively) provinces. They robbed the wealth of the yangban officials and redistributed their booty to the poor, suffering peasants. They raided the government granaries and distributed the plundered food to the peasants, many of whom were starving.

In 1562, Im Kkeok-jeong was captured by Joseon officials and beheaded. However, they were not able to stamp out the legend surrounding him and he remained an inspiration to the Korean people for generations to come.

In modern-day South Korea, the cave where Im hid with some of his men has been turned into a tourist attraction at the Chiljangsa Temple, which is located in Anseong, Gyeonggi province.

Im Kkeok-jeong is a true hero to the people of Korea. He defended them from a corrupt system of government and, ultimately, gave his life so the Korean peasants could keep on living and have a better future.

*Portions of this blog entry were referenced from "A Handbook of Korea" (Seoul: Korean Overseas Information Service, 1980).


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