Monday July 23, 1894, started out as any other day in Seoul: the streets at dawn were filled with merchants and farmers preparing for business. It was usual in all ways, except one. Japanese soldiers were seen marching through the streets toward the Korean palace.
By Robert Neff
Since the previous Friday, Japanese troops had marched through the streets around Namdaemun in an attempt to coerce King Gojong to accept Japanese demands. These demands included the removal of Chinese soldiers from Korea. Failure to meet them would force Japan to take decisive measures. No one knew what those decisive measures were until now.
At 4:30 in the morning, Gen. Charles W. Legendre, an American advisor to the Korean government, went to the palace only to discover that the gates had been forced open and were guarded by Japanese soldiers.
At a couple minutes past five, a missionary was awoken by banging on his door. It was a Korean neighbor who informed him that war had begun. The missionary quickly made his way to the top of the hill near Pai Chai School where a large crowd was watching the events unfold.
Suddenly shots rang out. At first it was thought that they might be an effort to drive away the “demons that had disturbed Her Majesty’s peace by giving her neuralgia” (the queen had a large carbuncle on her face), but it wasn’t.
The firing increased and so did the panic throughout the city and the palace.
“The flight from the Palace was as precipitate as it was disgraceful. ‘Yangban’ (nobles) of such exalted rank, once so inflated with their self-importance that they could hardly persuade themselves to treat their equals with civility or to mingle with them, now seized the rack — jiggy — of the first coolie that happened to be in their way and as bearers of the filth and off-scouring of Korea, they sought egress from the Palace and fled to the country or skulked in some dark hole in the city. The wail, the howl, the crocodile tears of these mighty ones was as repulsive to the foreigners as they were disgraceful to the Koreans themselves.”
Some of the high Korean officials managed to escape to the American legation. One was dressed “as a coolie with a pack on his back” and the other came pretending to be an American advisor’s interpreter. They were not the only ones seeking refuge. A Chinese tailor and his half-Korean son were also given sanctuary.
The American residents in the city raised the American flag over their homes and hospitals as a precaution against molestation by the Japanese and, unfortunately, unscrupulous Koreans who might take the opportunity to enrich themselves on the misfortunes of others.
Korean soldiers were seen running from the palace — shedding their uniforms as they fled. Some did stay and tried to defend the palace but when the king realized that it was hopeless he ordered them to desist. Depending on the source, the 20 minute battle cost the lives of around 7 to 17 Korean soldiers while around 20 to 70 were wounded. The Japanese suffered only three injuries. It was caustically noted that nearly all the Korean soldiers treated by the foreign missionaries had been wounded in the back.
In the afternoon “it commenced to rain in torrents. The scream of fugitives increased. A bundle of clothing on the mother’s head, a child on her back, one at her side and the father following with a heavy load on his back. The young, the old, the weak, the strong, the high, the low, helped to swell the steady stream that for days afterwards poured out through the seven gates of the city.”
The Japanese later claimed that it was the Korean soldiers who fired upon them first and that they had only protected themselves. And, the reason they were in the palace was to protect the royal family — an unasked for protection that lasted quite some time.
Robert Neff is a contributing writer for The Korea Times.