Korea and Japan in World War I

World War I

On August 23, 1914, Japan entered World War I on the Allied side. It played a relatively minor role in the war, securing the sea lanes in the South Pacific and Indian Oceans against the German navy. Japan used its participation in the war to strengthen its position in China, first by occupying the German-leased territory on the shore of Jiaozhou Bay on the Shandong Peninsula.

To China Japan posed a military threat even stronger than it had in 1895, when Japan had defeated China in the Sino-Japanese War. In 1911 the Qing dynasty had fallen at last, and China was now the Republic of China, but it was weaker and more divided than ever. In 1915, with the other great powers distracted by the war, Japan presented China with an ultimatum of Twenty-one Demands, which amounted to a demand that Japan be allowed to dominate the Chinese territories of Manchuria and Mongolia.

Also included were demands that China discontinue leasing territory to foreign pow-ers, a demand aimed at giving Japan a monopoly of power in China and one that therefore threatened the interests of Japan’s supposed allies, the United States and, especially, Great Britain. China agreed to the terms in May. By the end of the war, Japan’s well-placed alliances and military might had gained it enough international prestige that it was welcomed at the conference at Versailles, where territorial and other claims were settled.

However, some of its gains were annulled at the Washington Naval Conference, conducted between 1921 and 1922 among nine nations with interests in East Asia. The victorious allies, who had their own interests in China, were not eager to let it become a Japanese colony. Japan’s designs on China threatened Western interests, and gradually, from this point on, the British and the Americans, who had admired Japan, began to see it as a threat.

From 1910 Manchuria had been used as a base by Korean guerril-las against Japan, and many Koreans had emigrated to Manchuria to escape the Japanese or simply to survive after having lost their land. By the end of World War I, Korean nationalists at home and in exile were aware of Japan’s incursions into China as a serious threat.

At the same time they saw other events in the world as opportunities. Like many other colonized peoples, Koreans took hope in the ideas of U.S. presi-dent Woodrow Wilson. His Fourteen Points, a plan for the imminent postwar world, called for reduced armaments, freedom of the seas, self-determination for all peoples, and foremost, “a general association of nations . . . for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.”

The occasion of the peace conference to be held in Versailles in 1919 galvanized the various Korean independence movements that had already grown up or were beginning to form among Korean exiles in Japan, China, Russia, and the United States. The victors of World War I were about to redraw the map of the world, supposedly on the principle of national self-determination.

Korea was a nation with its own language and culture and a long history of independence, colonized against the will of its people. Now was a good time to bring this logic to the atten-tion of the Western democracies. The Korean National Association, formed in 1909 in the United States by Syngman Rhee (1875–1965), who would later become the first president of South Korea (1945–60), voted to send Rhee to the peace conference.

As a colonial subject of imperial Japan, Rhee was refused a passport by the U.S. government, but the New Korea Youth Association, founded in 1919 in China by Yo Un-hyong (1885–1947), was able to send Kim Kyu-sik (1881–1950) to Paris to lobby for Korean independence. In Japan Koreans studying in Tokyo formed the Korean Youth Independence Corps and passed a dec-laration dated February 8, 1919, demanding immediate independence for Korea.