The March First Movement in Korea, 1919

The March First Movement, 1919

Within Korea, the more radical and active nationalists were in hiding or in prison. However, since the Japanese permitted their colonial subjects to assemble for religious purposes, pro-independence political activity centered around religious organizations—Christian, Buddhist, and Chondogyo (Religion of the Heavenly Way), the last an outgrowth of the Tonghak movement that had been at the core of the peasant uprisings of 1894.

Leaders of all three of these religious groups were in contact with young Korean nationalists and were inspired by the Tokyo declaration of the Korean Youth Independence Corps. With their help plans for a large demonstration of Korean unity spread through the colony (Eckert 1990, 277). Nationalists clandestinely drafted a declaration of independence and 33 men—16 Christians, 16 Chondogyo followers, and one Buddhist—prepared to read and sign the document in a downtown Seoul park. Copies of the document were distributed around the country and overseas using the church network.

In Korea, the movement gained strength and visibility when it turned the funeral for the last Choson king, Kojong, who had died on January 22, 1919, at age 71, 12 years after his abdication, into a huge public protest against the occupying power. It was widely rumored in Korea that Kojong had actually been murdered by the Japanese. Though historians do not believe this to be true, the rumor aroused the emotions of Koreans who ordinarily would not have taken part in political demonstrations. In life Kojong had not been an able leader.

In death, he became a powerful symbol of Koreans’ yearning for independence. The demonstrations’ organizers made use of these emotions.Setting the date for the declaration was critical, and the occasion of the king’s funeral seemed ideal, as the organizers expected people to gather in large numbers. His funeral was set for March 3, 1919, but fear-ing a leak, or perhaps a traitor who might turn them in, the planners moved the date up to March 1.

Demonstrations supporting the declaration of independence quickly spread throughout the country. It is estimated that more than a mil-lion of Korea’s 20 million people participated in street demonstrations. Their cry was “Manse!” (pronounced mahn-seh, literally meaning “ten thousand years” and often translated as “long live”—in this case “long live Korean independence!”). The Japanese indeed referred to it as the “Manse Movement.” There were demonstrations in all but a handful of Korea’s 218 counties.

Kim Sunok, interviewed for Hildi Kang’s Under the Black Umbrella, was a 10-year-old boy living in a village near Seoul at the time; he remembers seeing people in a tram wearing Korean clothes but Western hats and that they took their hats off and waved them in the air, “screaming at the top of their lungs, ‘Independence now!’ I asked the grownups what was happening. They said they wanted to get their country back. Those people on the tram were going to Seoul to join a demonstration” (Hildi Kang 2001, 17).

Another of Kang’s interviewees, also a boy in 1919, remembered going to a demonstration in Osan city: “I pushed my way into the crowd, and heard whispers that someone had a Korean flag. This was the first time in my life I ever saw a Korean flag.” The same man remembered that in Osan there were many Japanese stores, “and as we passed these stores, they were all shut tight” (Hildi Kang 2001, 17).

The Japanese colonial authorities, under the direction of Hasegawa Yoshimichi (1850–1924), who was governor-general of Korea from 1916 to 1919, attempted to suppress the movement with any force necessary.

Since men, women, and children were all demonstrating, women and children were beaten and killed with the men. One famous martyr was Yu Kwansun (1904–20), a 15-year-old schoolgirl who passed out copies of the declaration and led demonstrations in her hometown area south of Seoul.

She was arrested, imprisoned, and tortured, and after a year she died in prison. Yi Chae-im, a Korean housewife who was born in 1919, the year of the March First Movement and the Japanese response to it, remembers growing up hearing about Yu Kwansun. “Such a young girl! Her story caught the imagination of everyone. It became a rallying cry” (Hildi Kang 2001, 23).One of the more brutal atrocities occurred when a group of people meeting at a church to read and discuss the declaration were confronted by the Japanese police.

The police told them to disperse and go home, but the people refused, citing the sanctuary of the church. The Japanese police, in effect, took their dare, and in spite of the sanctuary of the church—or perhaps in anger at the church’s role in providing the net-work of support for the movement—burned the church to the ground with all those trapped inside, including women and children.

Altogether, more than 7,000 people were killed in suppressing the movement by the Japanese government’s own count. There may have been many more.Despite the swift response, the movement spread; copies of the dec-laration were read in major cities around the world. The word was out. Korea did not want to be part of the Japanese empire.

The Provisional Government in Exile

The March First Movement unified and energized the Korean resis-tance, which decided in 1919 to form a provisional government in exile to lead and, to the degree possible, coordinate Korea’s national liberation movements. In fact, to begin with, three separate provisional governments were formed, and their origins give a presentiment of the conflicts of postindependence Korea.

One government was formed in Vladivostok, Russia (a port city in easternmost Russia, not far from Korea, and thus a natural base for Korean exiles); another in Shanghai, China; and another in Seoul. Among the Korean exiles, all passionately devoted to Korean independence, were left-wingers and right-wingers.

There were people who looked forward to a Korea as a Western-style republic with a Western emphasis on the rights of property, and there were communists who wanted justice for the poor and thought (as many intellectuals and workers around the world believed in 1919) that a wonderful new classless society was being created in the Soviet Union. In the 1920s Korean communist and anticommunist irregulars in Manchuria would often take time off from fighting the Japanese to fight each other (Kim Young-sik, 2003).

For the present these forces set aside their differences in the interests of a united front. A single unified provisional government was officially formed in April 1919 in Shanghai. Its president was Syngman Rhee, who had formerly headed the Seoul provisional government, and its prime minister was Yi Tonghwi (1872–1936), who had been the former leader of the Vladivostok government. Kang Man-gil describes its early activities:

The Shanghai Provisional Government’s diplomatic campaign for independence initially focused on the League of Nations. The Shanghai government sought to join the League and to gain the League’s support for Korean Independence.

When this failed, the government shifted its efforts to gaining support from individual powers such as China, the US, Great Britain and the Soviet Union, setting up offices in Paris, Washington, DC, London, Beijing, and Ussuri. The only office able to engage in sustained activities, however, was the one in Washington, DC, which came to be called the Europe-America office. (Kang Mang-gil 2005, 32)

In time the liberation movement split again over the issue of whether to pledge itself primarily to diplomatic action or to armed struggle such as the one being conducted in Manchuria. Kang Man-gil suggests in A History of Contemporary Korea that this was because Syngman Rhee could control the diplomatic efforts but had little control over events in Manchuria (where eventually many Koreans fought the Japanese side by side with Mao’s communists).

Under Rhee the provisional government declared armed resistance to be a “last resort.” Rhee alienated other supporters with a proposal to entrust the rule of Korea to the League of Nations. Eventually the provisional government impeached Rhee, abolished the post of president, and cre-ated a looser form of organiza-tion that attempted to embrace all facets of Korea’s liberation movement. Despite these efforts, the provisional gov-ernment was unable to retake control of the movement as a whole.

One of Syngman Rhee’s left-leaning cofounders of the Ko-rean Provisional Government in exile was Yo Un-hyong. Yo grew up in an impoverished yangban family with a long history of resistance to foreign incursions and demands for social justice; his grandfather had participated in the Tonghak rebel-lion. In 1927 Yo was imprisoned by the Japanese. Upon his release three years later he became the editor of Chungang Ilbo, a newspaper in Seoul, and gained fame as a populist leader who advocated socialism as well as democracy.

The future leader of North Korea, Kim Il Sung (1912–94), was seven years old at the time of the March First Movement. The son of Protestant Christians and grandson on his mother’s side of a Protestant minister, in 1920 Kim emigrated with his parents to Manchuria, where he attended Chinese schools. In the early 1930s Kim became the leader of a group of Chinese partisans fighting the Japanese and led them in raids against Japanese outposts in Korea.

Kim’s later position as pre-mier of North Korea, surrounded by a mythologizing cult of personal-ity, made his early career controversial. North Koreans see him almost as a god, while South Koreans dismiss his importance as a fighter. However, there is good evidence that Kim Il Sung was taken seriously by the Japanese as a formidable opponent.

Two Japanese Guandong Army colonels who tracked Kim in Manchuria later described him as “the most famous” of Korean guerrilla leaders and as “particularly popular among the Koreans in Manchuria,” who “praised him as a Korean hero and gave him, secretly, both spiritual and material sup-port” (quoted in Cumings 2005, 161).

In 1941, the year the Soviet Union signed a “friendship pact” with Japan, Kim Il Sung moved to the Soviet Union, where he received additional military education. He returned after World War II with Soviet support, eventually becoming the leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea).