(Image Credits to Korean Cultural Center New York)
As a Korean-American, I was raised by parents who greatly value raising their children in their culture. Whenever March 1st rolled around, my mother would explain the unimaginable hardships and atrocities that Koreans faced during Japan’s invasion of Korea and the long-term effects that still last. As a result, my interest in researching more about the March 1st anniversary accumulated over the years.
The Korean Independence movement was an ongoing campaign to liberate the colonial occupation of Korea by the de facto military rule of the Japanese since 1910. After many years of war, Korea was annexed by the Empire of Japan in 1910. However, the war on Korean culture continued even after the annexation. Japanese-controlled schools and universities forbade speaking Korean and forced the students to learn and adopt Japanese culture. Teaching history from non-approved texts was declared a crime. Authorities burnt more than 200,000 Korean historical documents to wipe out the historical memory of Korea. Loyalty to the Japanese Emperor was heavily emphasized. Additionally, there was a widespread suspicion that the Japanese poisoned former Korean Emperor Gojong.
The Korean Independence campaign reached a high point on March 1st, 1919. President Woodrow Wilson’s statement of nations holding the right to national “self-determination” motivated a lot of Korean patriots. Korean students in Tokyo even published a statement demanding freedom from Japanese colonial rule. There were public demonstrations against the Japanese government, a nationalistic show of strength and resistance against Japanese military rule in Korea. The Korean Declaration of Independence, which was created by historian Cho Nam-Seon, was signed by 33 Korean Movement core activists at Taehwagwan Restaurant in Seoul on March 1, 1919, and later read publically by a Korean student, Chung Jae-Yong, at Pagoda Park (now Tapgol Park). A translation of the Declaration is as follows:
“We herewith proclaim the independence of Korea and the liberty of the Korean people. This we proclaim to all the nations of the world in witness of humane quality. This we proclaim to our descendants so that they may enjoy in perpetuity their inherent right to nationhood. In as much as this proclamation originates from our five-thousand-year history, in as much as it springs from the loyalty of twenty million people, in as much as it affirms our everlasting liberty, in as much as it expresses our desire to take part in the global yearning for the advancement reform rooted in human conscience, it is the solemn will of heaven, the great tide of our age, and a just act necessary for the coexistence of all humankind. Therefore, no power in this world can obstruct or suppress it!”
(Image Credits to Wikimedia Commons)
Post-signing, a copy of the Declaration was sent to the Governor-General. Movement leaders phoned the local police department to let them know of their intentions. As anticipated, the leaders were publicly arrested afterward. Subsequently, the gathering formed into a peaceful procession, which the Japanese military police attempted to suppress.
As the procession continued to grow, the local police could not control the crowds. The panicked Japanese officials called in military forces to quell the crowds. As the public protests continued to grow, the suppression turned to violence, resulting in massacres and other atrocities.
Police rounded up the protestors and crammed them into a church which they promptly set ablaze. Soldiers even fired into the flames through the windows to ensure that there were no survivors.
Throughout the next month following March, more than 1,500 demonstrations in which approximately 2 million Koreans had participated nationwide were hit by the Japanese police and military. According to the book, “Bloody History of the Korean Independence Movement”, around 7,509 people were killed, 16,000 wounded, and 46,303 were arrested. 715 private houses, 47 churches, and 2 school buildings were destroyed by fire.
Those arrested were taken to the infamous Seodaemun Prison where they faced torture and death without any due process or trial. Cells that were built with the capacity for one prisoner often held seven to nine protestors, which meant that inmates could not lie down and sleep. This resulted in the freedom fighters taking turns to sleep. Many died of starvation because the food would be severely reduced. Women and men were both tortured at the prison. Underground cells in a separate building were used to imprison female members of the independence movement.
(Image Credits to BlackLink)
The movement lasted for a little over a month, from March 1st to April 11th. While the movement did not achieve its intended effect of bringing about national independence, March 1st is seen as a day that strengthened national unity, spread independence movements in other local governments, and drew worldwide attention, which triggered a nationwide civil protest against the Japanese ruling of Korea.
Later on, the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea, or PGK, was established in April 1919 in Shanghai following the exile of Korean movement leaders to different parts of China, where they continued their activities to liberate Korea.
Korea remained under Japanese rule until the end of World War II in 1945. Later, the Korean Liberation Army was formed in China, integrating many scattered volunteer independence armies and militias in Manchuria. The PGK declared war against Japan and dispatched troops to the front lines in India and Myanmar to fight on the side of the Allied Forces. Some young Koreans received special training from a special military unit of the United States to better equip themselves to attack Japanese forces in Korea. On August 15, 1945, Koreans were able to finally receive the country’s liberation as a result of Japan’s surrender in the Pacific War. U.S. and Soviet troops were deployed to the south and north of the 38th parallel respectively to disarm Japanese troops remaining on the Korean Peninsula. Because of the protests on March 1, 1919, the holiday’s official name became the March 1st Movement Day or Sam-il Movement Day (meaning Three – One or March 1st). In Korean, it is referred to as 삼일 운동 (samil oondong). It is also sometimes known as Manse Demonstrations or 만세운동 (manseundong).
(Image Credits to The Seoul Guide)
(Image Credits to Be Marie Korea)
The 서대문형무소, or Seodaemun Prison History Hall was originally built in 1907 and opened in 1908 to imprison Korean independence fighters. Originally called Gyeongseong Prison, at its height it held more than 2,000 prisoners when it was only meant to house 500.
The first floor of the first building in the museum is “A Place of Reverence”, which educates visitors about the prison and its history. The second floor, “A Place of History”, has three walls covered from top to bottom with photographs of those that died at the prison, while the basement depicts torture scenes. Videos and lifelike mannequins portray the harrowing experiences of the imprisoned. Then visitors are led into prison halls, where some rooms house mannequins allowing visitors to see how the prisoners had communicated by knocking on the walls and how they got through the daily struggles of prison life. Visitors can also look at the prison cells where thousands of people were held. Around the prions, there are torture chambers, tools, and displays of execution photographs.
(Image Credits to Atlas Obscura)
(Image Credits to Korea Tourist Organization)
(Image Credits to Be Marie Korea)
After the Korean War (June 25, 1950 – July 27, 1953), March 1st was declared as a national holiday in South Korea on May 24, 1949. The historic day is now a symbol of the national unity, sacrifice, and bravery of thousands of Koreans who came together to fight for their freedom.
This holiday is observed to pay respect to those who fought, protested, and died for the Korean Independence Movement. On this day, many businesses and government agencies are closed, and the Flag of South Korea is flown by Korean businesses and homes. Many people participate in concerts, events, activities, and festivals. In Tapgol Park, the Korean Declaration of Independence is read as it has been since 1919.
(Image Credits to Korea Travel Post)
Koreans would wave South Korean flags and chant “Manse!” (which roughly translates to “Long live Korean independence!”) to celebrate the students and other protesters who fought to shake Korea of Japanese colonial rule a century ago. Yu Gwan-sun, a 16-year-old student demonstrator who became the face of the fight for freedom, and four Ewha Haktan classmates joined others on the streets of Seoul in one of the earliest protests against Japanese colonial rule. At the urging of the organizers of that protest, they joined a March 5 student demonstration. They marched at Namdaemun, a gate in central Seoul, and were detained by the Japanese authorities, but missionaries from the school negotiated their release. The colonial government then ordered all schools closed on March 10.
A few days later, Yu smuggled a copy of the Korean Declaration of Independence to her hometown, Cheonan, about 50 miles from Seoul, and rallied residents in the surrounding villages to join the movement. On April 1, 1919, 3,000 people, including Yu, who was distributing homemade taegeukgi, or Korean national flags, and giving speeches calling for independence, gathered at Aunae, a marketplace in Cheonan, where they were met with violence. The Japanese military police fired on the crowds, killing 19 people, including Yu’s parents.
After being convicted of sedition, she was sent to Seodaemun Prison, where she demanded the release of other prisoners and expressed her support for Korean independence. She, with other inmates, organized a large-scale protest on the first anniversary of the March 1 Movement.
“Even if my fingernails are torn out, my nose and ears are ripped apart, and my legs and arms are crushed, this physical pain does not compare to the pain of losing my nation,” she wrote in prison. “My only remorse is not being able to do more than dedicating my life to my country.”
She was eventually transferred to an underground cell, where she was repeatedly beaten and tortured for speaking out. She died of her injuries on September 28, 1920, at 17-years old.
Three years ago, Yu was awarded South Korea’s highest medal of honor, according to the news agency Yonhap. During January of 2019, the New York State Legislature passed a resolution commemorating March 1, 2019, as the “Centennial of the March 1st Movement” and honoring Yu’s legacy “as one of the youngest female human rights movement leaders.”
Her legacy continues to live on through the yearly celebrations of the freedom of Korea.
Information taken from New York Times, 90DayKorean, KoreaTravelPost, Blog.Trazy.com, HolidaysCalendar, trazy.com, pressenza.com, History.com, and Korea.net.