If Korea is the “Ireland of the East,” the March 1 Movement of 1919 was its Easter Uprising. Granted, one can stretch the analogy too far — unlike the Irish armed uprising of Easter 1916, the massive independence protests in Korea three years later were peaceful, at least as far the Koreans were concerned. Yet the commonalities are striking: both movements failed when they were harshly suppressed by their respective colonial overlords, but their spirit lived on to inspire the struggle for independence even after the revolts were put down and their leaders arrested and/or executed.
Seoul’s modern history of war and breakneck urban redevelopment has not been kind to the city’s historical heritage, but fortunately, many of the sites related to the March 1 Movement still remain. This photo essay will visit some of them as we look back at this dramatic period in Korean history.
Seodaemun Prison History Hall
Continuing the Irish analogy for the movement, Seodaemun Prison is Korea’s Kilmainham Gaol. It was here that many Korean independence activists were imprisoned, tortured and executed by the Japanese during their 35-year colonial rule over Korea. Today, it stands preserved as a museum and a shrine to the martyrs and patriots who sacrificed all so that Korea might be free.
Seodaemun Prison was first constructed in 1907—1908 while Korea was, at least technically speaking, still an independent country, but one very much under the Japanese thumb. A Japanese architect was commissioned to build a wooden jail to hold about 500 men, producing a structure that at a stroke doubled Korea’s existing prison space. This, too, proved insufficient, so a second prison was built in Gongdeok-dong in 1912. From 1918, Seodaemun Prison began training prison guards, too.
When the March 1 uprising of 1919 broke out, the Japanese arrested the leaders and imprisoned them in Seodaemun Prison. Prisoners included most of the 33 Nationalist Representatives who kicked the movement off by reading the Korean Declaration of Independence and Korea’s most famous martyr, Ewha Girls High School student Yu Gwan-sun, who died of mistreatment at the prison in 1920. Son Byeong-hui, the leader of the Cheondogyo faith and one of the most prominent of the March 1 leaders, was sentenced to three years at Seodaemun. During his imprisonment, he fell ill and was released in October 1920, only to died of his illness in May 1922.
Following the March 1 movement, the inmate population at the prison spiked to 3,000, so the authorities rebuilt the facility in the early 1920s. Most of what you see today dates from this reconstruction, completed in 1923. In 1944, a total of 2,890 inmates were imprisoned here.
If you visit the prison, you’ll hear a lot about what transpired here during the Japanese colonial period; some of the displays can be a bit over the top. Sadly, what you won’t hear much is that after Korea’s liberation from colonial rule in 1945, the facility continued to be used as a prison until 1987. Instead of independence activists, however, political prisoners and democracy activists were imprisoned and executed here, including:
- Cho Bong-am: A former communist-turned-social democrat, Cho was a political rival of Korean President Syngman Rhee as a founder of the Progressive Party. Under pressure from Rhee, he was arrested on charges of espionage and subversion for North Korea in 1958; he was cleared in the first trial, but convicted in the second. In July 1959, he was executed at Seodaemun Prison. Incidently, Cho spent time in Seodaemun Prison as an independence activist during the colonial period, too.
- Cho Yong-soo: A Japanese-Korean, Cho was the founder of the progressive Minjok Ilbo, but following Park Chung-hee’s 1961 coup, he was arrested on charges of being pro-North Korean and executed at Seodaemun Prison in December of that year.
- The “People’s Revolutionary Party Incident” Eight: In 1974, amidst growing protests against President Park Chung-hee’s authoritarianism, the KCIA arrested 23 individuals for allegedly trying to form the People’s Revolutionary Party. On April 9, 1975, the Supreme Court sentenced eight of them to death: just 18 hours later, the sentence was carried out at Seodaemun Prison.
Ironic given its grim past, the prison itself is rather charming architecturally, as many older prisons around the world tend to be. With its hub-and-spoke design, the red brick facility largely follows the “separate system,” an American contribution to global prison culture first put into practice at Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary in 1829. Overlooking the prison are the beautiful granite faces of Mt. Inwangsan. Some restoration work is ongoing, including recently completed work on restoring the old Administrative Building (see the second photo), which was covered in ugly white tile in 1960s. In the back of the complex, surrounded by brick walls, is the old wooden execution house (built in 1923), which you not allowed to photograph, a fact I learned the hard way. I believe this is for preservation reasons, although why this is when I can photograph the outside of Buseoksa Temple’s wooden Muryangsujeon Hall (built in 1376) as much as I like, I don’t really know.
The Gyeonggyojang (Capital Bridge Mansion), located on the grounds of Samsung Gangbuk Hospital, is not directly related to the March 1 Movement, but as the post-Liberation home and office of independence activist Kim Gu, I felt it deserves mention.
The Gyeonggyojang was originally built as a villa for Korean gold magnate Choe Chang-hak, one of colonial Korea’s richest men. Choe owned the Samseong Gold Mine in Guseong, in today’s North Korea, and grew so wealthy that it’s said when he left Guseong for Seoul in 1938, the local provincial government took a major hit in its tax revenues. Clearly, Japanese rule was good to Choe, and he showed his appreciation with a record of collaboration that was impressive by any standard, including a donation of eight airplanes to the colonial government.
The villa was designed by Kim Se-yeon, one of Korea’s first modern architects. I do find this significant in that even open collaborators like Choe could contribute to the development of Korean culture by patronizing Korean architects. Built by a Japanese construction company and completed in 1939, it was a luxurious home, complete with a billiard table, barber’s room, hot running water and a central heating system. Beginning this month, it will undergo a massive interior restoration to return its interior to its original condition. As of now, only the upstairs Japanese-style bedroom/office has been preserved.
When Korea was liberated in 1945, Choe moved quickly to atone for his past collaboration by lending his villa to Kim Gu, the returning President of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea. He also became a financial backer of Kim’s Korean Independence Party.
Kim Gu was one of the most prominent of Korea’s independence fighters and today is one of the most revered men of Korean modern history, even if his political methods could be a bit, ahem, direct (see also here). Even before the 1919 March 1 Movement, Kim racked up a colorful record of pro-independence activities, including fighting in the Donghak Rebellion, being sentenced to death for killing a Japanese man in his home province of Hwanghae-do, escaping from prison, spending time as a Buddhist monk, founding modern schools, participating in protests, and getting arrested again and serving time in Seodaemun Prison. After participating in the March 1, 1919 protests, he fled to Shanghai, where he joined the new Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea. Kim served in many high-ranking roles in the provisional government, including its president from 1926 to 1927 and from 1940 to 1948.
Kim returned to Korea in 1945, but only as a private citizen as the new US occupational government in Seoul did not recognize the legitimacy of the Provisional Government. He continued his political activities, though, leading movements against the establishment of a four-power trusteeship over Korea and, later, the establishment of separate North and South Korean governments. He became Syngman Rhee’s chief rival on the right and something of a thorn in the Americans’ side. In April 1948, he traveled to Pyongyang as head of a southern delegation for unsuccessful talks with Kim Il-sung and other Northern leaders to stop the formation of separate governments.
On June 26, 1949, while the 73-year-old Kim was in his bedroom on the second floor of the Gyeonggyojang, he was shot by Ahn Du-hui, a ROK Army officer. Ahn fired six shots, four of which hit Kim (the two that missed passed through the window; a recreation can be seen today). He died almost immediately. The assassination is widely believed to have been a conspiracy, the most common theory being that the hit was ordered by his rival, President Rhee. Kim, however, had plenty of enemies for plenty of reasons, not the least of which being Kim’s alleged involvement in numerous assassinations himself.
The assassin, Ahn, was sentenced to death, but Rhee commuted his sentence to 15 years. Less than a year later, when the Korean War broke out, he was released and reinstated in the Army. He finished the war at the rank of colonel. In 1992, he told the Dong-A Ilbo that the hit on Kim had been ordered by Rhee’s intelligence chief, Kim Chang-ryong. In 1996, the 79-year-old Ahn was beaten to death with a club at his home by a bus driver in retaliation for Kim’s assassination.
As for old Choe, the original owner of the Gyeonggyojang, he was unable to flee Seoul at the outbreak of the Korean War. When the North Koreans took the city, they captured Choe and brought him North, where he was never heard from again.
(Interior shots taken last year)
Site of Boseong Printing Company
Behind Jogyesa Temple and surrounded by office buildings is a small park that marks the site of Boseong Printing Company. Founded in 1910 and affiliated with the faith of Cheondogyo, Boseong Printing Company specialized in printing religious materials and school text books, but on the night of Feb 27, 1919, company president Lee Jong-il, factory manager Kim Hong-gyu and general manager Jang Hyo-geun quietly printed up 35,000 copies of the Korean Declaration of Independence. After they were done, they brought the copies home and distributed them nationwide the next day, setting the stage for the March 1 Movement. They were almost caught by a Japanese detective, too, but bluffed their way out of it, telling him they were printing up family registries.
On March 1, the company printed up 10,000 copies of the Joseon Independent Newspaper, an underground newspaper. For its troubles, the company was immediately closed by the Japanese police, and on the night of June 28, a fire burnt it to the ground. All that remains is the marker where the printing house once stood.
Old Joseon Jungang Ilbo Headquarters
Like the Gyeonggyojang, the old headquarters of the Joseon Jungang Ilbo newspaper is not directly related to the March 1 Movement, but as this was the paper founded by independence activist and post-Liberation politician Yuh Woon-hyung, it definitely deserves mention.
Along with the Chosun Ilbo and Dong-A Ilbo, the Joseon Jungang Ilbo was one of colonial Korea’s three largest privately-owned newspapers. Its history goes back to 1924, when it was founded by Korean historian and cultural activist Choe Nam-seon, the man who drafted the March 1, 1919 Korean Declaration of Independence (a document he did not sign, interestingly enough — see below). After a couple of starts and stops, the paper took its final form when Yuh — fresh out of Seodaemun Prison, where he’d completed a three year stint — was named president of the paper in February 1933. Unlike its wealthier competitors, the Chosun Ilbo and Dong-A Ilbo, the Joseon Jungang Ilbo was always in financial trouble, but it was run by earnest men willing to experiment. For instance, it was the first daily paper in Korea to run a separate sports section.
The paper was not long for the world, however. In August 1936, Korean marathon runner Sohn Ki-jung, running with a Japanese flag upon his chest, won the gold medal at the Berlin Olympic Games. The Dong-A and Joseon Jungang ran photos of Sohn upon the victor’s podium, but removed the Japanese flag using creative editing. The Japanese colonial authorities were not amused, and shut down the papers. The measure was later lifted, but the damage to the already financially shaky paper had been done, and in 1937, it closed for good.
“Munyang” Yuh Woon-hyung was a rare breed: a Korean nationalist who came to be revered in both South and North Korea. The son of a wealthy family, a young Yuh began studying the Bible in 1907 and befriended American Presbyterian missionary and scholar Charles Allen Clark. He enrolled in Pyongyang Presbyterian Theological Seminary and later enrolled in a Chinese university to study English literature. He spent the 1920s heavily involved in both the Korean independence movement and the wider anti-imperialism movement. Looking for help from both left and right, he joined both the Korean Communist Party (and attended the First Congress of the Toilers of the Far East in Moscow in 1921) and the Chinese Nationalist Party. For a time, he also worked for the Soviet news agency TASS in Shanghai.
Starting in 1925, Yuh began participating in anti-British protests as part of the Chinese revolutionary movement. In 1929, he became a soccer coach at Fudan University in Shanghai; while on road matches in Singapore and the Philippines, he made anti-imperialist speeches. It seems the British had had enough, so in July, Japanese police — with the cooperation of British police — arrested Yuh as he was watching in a baseball game in Shanghai. He was brought back to Korea and sentenced to three years in prison.
Following his release from prison, he spent the 1930s and 1940s running a newspaper, promoting sports, engaging in social and political activism (even meeting with high-ranking Japanese officials in an effort to convince them to end the war in China), and doing more prison time. When Japan was finally defeated in the Pacific War, the Japanese turned to Yuh to head a caretaker government that would preserve order as the Japanese withdrew. In August 1945, Yuh formed the Committee for the Preparation of Korean Independence, and on September 6, the committee declared the establishment of the People’s Republic of Korea. The republic soon ran into trouble, however, as the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea refused to recognize it. Likewise, it refused to accept the Provisional Government, which it criticized for being out-of-touch after 30 years in exile. The newly arrived Americans, meanwhile, recognized neither, and instead declared their own military occupational regime on Sept 9. The Americans held a particular mistrust of the People’s Republic, which they regarded as collaborators with the Japanese and pro-communist, largely thanks to what they were being told by the Republic’s political rivals.
In November 1945, Yuh founded the People’s Party of Korea and worked to form a political movement uniting left and right. The American military governor, Gen. John Hodge, favored him and American-educated independence activist and politician Kimm Kiusic as moderate leaders on the left and right, respectively. Unfortunately, the turbulent post-Liberation years were not particularly conducive to moderate politics: between 1945 and 1947, Yuh was attacked no fewer than 10 times. Finally, on April 3, 1947, as he was driving back home from Dongdaemun Stadium, his car was cut off by a truck at Hyehwa Rotary. A young man appeared and fired two shots at Yuh. Both shots hit their target, killing Yuh instantly.
Who ordered the hit on Yuh is a matter of much speculation. Political terrorism and assassinations by left and right were rife in the 1940s. The Baekuisa, a far-right terrorist organization also suspected of killing Kim Gu (interestingly enough, it is also suspected by some of working for Kim), is talked about a lot. Many seem to think Syngman Rhee ordered the hit, while others point the finger at Kim Gu. Still others blame the communists.
As an architectural note, the old newspaper headquarters was built in 1926. It is now used as a bank. It’s easy enough to find: just walk up the road to Jogyesa Temple from Jonggak Station and it’s on the right side of the street.
Old Taehwagwan Site
Insa-dong’s Taehwagwan was a high-class restaurant/entertainment establishment that earned its spot in Korean history by being the venue in which the 33 Korean nationalist representatives gathered to read the Korean Declaration of Independence. It might not have had the colonial charm of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall or the imposing Georgian magnificence of Dublin’s General Post Office, but I’m sure the food was better.
The Taehwagwan opened in 1918 as a branch of the Myeongwolgwan, the legendary restaurant opened in 1908 by former royal chef An Sun-hwan. Ironically, given its role in nationalist history, the restaurant was originally a villa owned by none other than Yi Won-yong, the most infamous traitor in Korean history. Yi moved out of the place when lighting stuck a large tree in the courtyard, splitting it in two. Back then, high-end restaurants such as the Taehwagwan were more than just places to eat. They were, in fact, yojeong, or entertainment establishments serving high-end food while providing entertainment in the form of gisaeng (singing and dancing girls). What such places provided, above all else, was seclusion, and as such, provided the perfect venue for the wealthy and powerful to discuss business, politics and other important matters in a relaxed setting.
It was in the Taehwagwan that 29 of the 33 nationalist representatives met at 2pm, March 1, 1919 to read a copy of the Korean Declaration of Independence. The representatives originally intended to meet at Tapgol Park to read the document in public, but switched to a more private location our of concern that a public reading might spark a riot. The representatives had An, the owner of the restaurant, call the Japanese Government-General to tell them what they were doing. The Japanese responded by sending 80 cops to the place. One of the representatives, famed Buddhist monk and poet “Manhae” Han Yong-un, cried, “Long live Korean independence!” The rest of the representatives followed suit, after which they were promptly arrested.
The 33 nationalist representatives represented an attempt by the various independence-minded groups to form a united front against Japanese imperialism. In practice, what this meant was a lot of Cheondoists and Christians (Methodists and Presbyterians): of the 33, 15 were Cheondoists and 16 were Christians. Two were Buddhists. Conspicuously absent are Catholics: put bluntly, the Catholic Church in Korea, led at the time by French Archbishop Gustave-Charles-Marie Mutel, largely collaborated with the Japanese. The Cheondoists took responsibility for drafting and printing the Declaration of Independence, while distributing the document nationwide in time for March 1 was an interfaith effort.
With the exception of Presbyterian minister Kim Byeong-jo, who did not actually attend the reading and was able to escape to Shanghai, all the participants were arrested. Only one, Presbyterian minister Gil Seon-ju, was acquitted of charges, while another, Cheondoist Yang Han-muk, died in jail soon after his arrest. The rest were sentenced to prison sentences ranging from a year, six months to three years.
Typical of the complicated period that was the Japanese colonial era, some of the 33 nationalist representatives later engaged in pro-Japanese activities. Later collaborators include Cheondoist Choe Rim and Methodist ministers Park Hee-do and Jeong Chun-su. For that matter, Choe Nam-seon, the very man who penned the Korean Declaration of Independence, turned into a collaborator, joining the Japanese Government-General’s Korean History Compilation Committee.
In 1920, the Southern Methodists bought the Taehwagwan property, and in 1937, they tore down the existing building and replaced it with a new educational facility for girls. It was a rather pretty Western-style structure with a Korean roof (seen in the Chosun Ilbo photos below), but sadly, it was pulled down in 1980 and replaced with the 12-story building that stands today.
The site’s history is noted by a simple stone marker.
Cheondogyo Central Temple
An Insa-dong landmark, the Cheondogyo Central Temple is one of Korea’s most beautiful pieces of contemporary architecture. Conceived by Cheondogyo leader and independence activist Son Byeong-hui, one of the leaders of the March 1 Movement, construction of the hall began in 1918 and was completed in 1921. The grand structure was designed by Japanese colonial architect Nakamura Yoshihei, but given the building’s distinctive Vienna Secession style, it is likely Anton Feller, an Austrian architect in Nakamura’s employ, had at least a hand in the design. Built as an intentional challenge to Myeong-dong Cathedral, the temple was one of Seoul’s three largest buildings at the time of its construction. Its beautiful Art Nouveau interior, decorated with symbols of Korean nationalism, is made all the more amazing by the lack of pillars to hold up the massive roof, a revolutionary design in Korea at that time.
The temple’s construction was financed with donations from believers. Most of the donations, however, were used to finance the March 1 Independence Movement:
The group needed organizational power and funds. Son started fund-raising in the name of building a temple and received donations from 3 million believers, each of whom gave 10 won. Although the Japanese empire carried out nonstop sabotage, Son was able to collect a total of 5 million won, worth around 200 billion won ($175 million) today. Only 360,000 won was used in construction, which means the rest was used as March 1st Movement funds.
After the liberation, Kim Gu, the sixth and later the last president of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea, delivered a speech thanking Cheondogyo for financing the independence movement at the Central Temple of Cheondogyo.
At one time, an annex in similar style used to stand on the grounds, but it was later moved to Cheondogyo’s Bonghwaggak monastery on Mt. Bukhansan: a photo I took of it last year can be seen below:
A direct descendant of the great peasant revolts of the 19th century, Cheondogyo (“Religion of the Heavenly Way”) mixes elements of Korean shamanism, Taoism, Buddhism and Christianity, and teaches that God lives in all of us, and that we should strive to create a paradise on Earth. With its roots in peasant rebellion and Korean nationalism, it has always had a strong focus on social activism. Although a relatively minor faith today, with its faithful numbering less than 1% of the population, it was a more prominent presence in the early part of the 20th century. Nearly half of the 33 nationalist representatives who led the March 1 Movement were Cheondogyo believers, including faith leader Son Byeong-hui, who was imprisoned for his role in the protests and died soon after his release. The movement also benefited from the faith’s cell structure and organization, which allowed both the independence protests to rise up simultaneously nationwide and take the Japanese by surprise.
A bit more about Son. If you go to Tapgol Park (see below), you’ll find a statue of Son near the entrance, which should give you an idea of his importance to the March 1 movement. Born in Cheongju in 1861, as a young man he joined the Donghak (“Eastern Learning”) movement, a religious movement founded by Choe Je-u in 1860. Donghak was a reaction to both yangban exploitation of Korea’s peasantry and the disturbing (in Choe’s mind) growth of so-called “Western Learning,” or Catholicism, in Korea. The religion sought to revive Korea’s own spiritual traditions and reform Korean society by stressing the equality of man. Choe was martyred by Heungseon Daewongun in 1864, ironically enough on the charge that Donghak was just Catholicism in disguise.
Choe’s successor was Choe Si-hyeong, who worked to spread the faith despite persecution by the government. In 1894, Donghak followers launched the Donghak Peasant Revolt, two full-scale peasant uprisings that were put down with much blood by an alliance of loyalist forces and Japanese troops. After several years on the run, Choe was captured and executed for his role in the uprising, but not before naming as his successor Son, who had served as a commander during the revolt. In the spirit of the times, Son went to work trying to modernize Donghak, but with Korea too dangerous for a man with his record, he went into exile in Japan, where he hung out with other reformist-minded Korean exiles and witnessed Japan’s post-Meiji modernization in action. From Japan, he launched a reform movement to modernize Donghak, even changing the faith’s name to Cheondogyo. Reformists cut their hair and took to wearing simpler, more modern garb.
In 1905, he returned to Korea, where he continued his work to modernize his faith and Korean society at large. This work became even more important after Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910: in his view, Korean society needed to strengthen itself in order for the nation to recover its independence. Cheondogyo’s nationwide organization and associated businesses like printing also allowed it to promote nationalism and independence ideals under the nose of the Japanese. Son also undertook to form alliances with other religious groups, most notably Christians and Buddhists, to promote his modernist and nationalist agenda.
Seungdong Presbyterian Church
On Feb 28, student representatives met in a small basement prayer hall at Insa-dong’s Seongdong Presbyterian Church to plan and prepare for the independence protests the following day at nearby Tapgol Park. With its long history of social and nationalist activism, the church was a natural choice.
The forerunner of Seung Dong Presbyterian Church, Gondanggol Church, was established in what is now Taepyeong-no by American missionary Samuel F. Moore in 1893. Moore was a rather interesting character — he was very passionate about his work, he learned Korean in about six months by living away from the usual foreigner haunts of the day, and he put a lot of his effort into spreading the word among Korea’s social underdogs, including women and baekjeong, the “untouchable” class of Joseon society. A year after the church was founded, a baekjeong by the name of Park Seong-chun joined the congregation. This didn’t sit too well with the church’s yangban members, who protested that Park should either be expelled or forced to sit in the back. Moore said there would be no class discrimination in his church, and the yangban members walked out, forming their own church in Hongmun-dong (now Samgak-dong). In 1898, however, a fire destroyed the Gondanggol Church, but by that time, the yangban had gotten with God’s program and accepted its now-homeless baekjeong followers into the Hongmun-dong church.
Interestingly, after the Seungdong Church was founded, it first two elders were baekjeong Park and Yi Jae-seon, a member of the royal family.
Moore had his detractors, however. Horace Allen (who in addition to being a missionary was also a doctor, businessman and diplomat, and ran in somewhat more rarefied circles) apparently found Moore a troublesome bastard. In 1900, Moore, a premillennialist, sent a rather rude letter — by mail — to King Gojong requesting an audience to convert him, an incident cited by some as an example of the early missionaries’ ignorance and arrogance regarding Korea’s politics and culture. He is also reported to have damaged a Buddha statue at a temple in Bukhan Fortress. If you read Korean, be sure to check out this thesis on Moore and his detractors — fascinating stuff.
In addition to its role in the March 1 Movement, the church produced many figures connected to the Korean independence movement, including Yuh Woon-hyung (see above), who was close to the church’s American missionary pastor, Charles Allen Clark.
The current church building dates from 1914. It’s a massive Romanesque structure that still dominates the low-rise hanok homes and businesses that surround it, so you can imagine how imposing it must have been when it was first erected. A couple of years ago it benefited from a much-needed restoration, although sadly, the ugly front extension was kept. As part of that restoration, it got a nice new pipe organ, a 1946 Moeller formerly in the Belk Auditorium of Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina.
Originally named Pagoda Park, Tapgol Park is the real starting point of the March 1 Movement. The JoongAng Ilbo has a good explanation as to what transpired in the part that day in 1919:
The original plan was to read out the declaration in the park on March 3, but that day was the funeral of King Gojeong, and March 2 was a Sunday.
The 33 signatories were also aware of the growing numbers of people gathering in Seoul for the royal funeral. They feared the situation could turn violent, so they choose the nearby restaurant as a more discreet meeting place.
After they signed the declaration at the Taehwagwan, they shouted “Daehan dongnip mansei! (Long live independent Korea!)” and sent a copy of the declaration to the Japanese governor general. They then called the Japanese police to explain their actions and were promptly arrested.
At 2 p.m. that afternoon, the crowd waited for the 33 nationalists to show up. They didn’t, but a student named Jung Jae-yong did. From the Palgakjeong Pavilion in the center of the park, he read out the declaration to the listening masses.
In response, the crowds shouted “Long live independent Korea!” and marched out of the park waving national flags.
In all, some historians estimate that 450,000 protesters participated in the rally that day. The Japanese authorities used force to break up the demonstration, but news spread all over the country, even to Jeju Island.
Over the next three months, an estimaed 2 million people joined 1,500 demonstrations nationwide.
Just some notes about the park itself. Pagoda Park was created in 1897 as Seoul’s first Western-style park. As you can tell by the name, it was a Westerner who came up with the idea, in this case, King Gojong’s favorite Irishman, Sir John McLeavy Brown, the head of Korea’s Maritime Customs Service and, as one of Gojong’s chief financial advisors, a highly influential figure in early modern Seoul’s urban development. Brown chose to put his park on the former site of the Buddhist temple Wongaksa, which was closed down in the early Joseon era by Yeonsangun, who turned the temple into a pleasure ground for gisaeng, a fact that should tell you all you need to know about Yeonsangun. By the latter Joseon era, all that remained of the temple was the grand, 10-story marble pagoda, one of Korea’s most beautiful and quite similar to the Gyeongcheonsa Pagoda, which is now a centerpiece at the National Museum of Korea. As you can see above, the pagoda — designated National Treasure No. 2 — is still there, although sadly covered in a pavilion of steel and glass that makes it difficult to really appreciate it as it deserves.
The octagonal hall from which the Korean Declaration of Independence was read is believed to have been built in 1902 as a stage for military bands to play as part of the celebrations that year to mark the 40th anniversary of King Gojong’s reign. Similar bandstands can be found in public parks throughout Europe and North America.
In the back of the park is a series of reliefs that tell the story of the March 1 Movement. In this one, we can see (mostly) students and local citizens gathered at the park for the reading of the Korean Declaration of Independence. About 1,000 students gathered in the park for the reading, but were later joined by countless citizens from Seoul and elsewhere to create a mass in the tens of thousands.
While we have mentioned the Korean Declaration of Independence quite a bit, we have not actually talked about the document itself. There is a monument at Tapgol Park with the Declaration engraved in both Korean and English. You can read the English version for yourself in .pdf form here. While critical of Japanese policies, it is surprisingly devoid of malice towards Japan, at one point saying:
Despite their disregard for the ancient origins of our society and the brilliant spirit of our people, we shall not blame Japan; we must first blame ourselves before finding fault with others. Because of the urgent need for remedies for the problems of today, we cannot afford the time for recriminations over past wrongs.
Also clear in the document is the influence of US President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points address of Jan 18, 1918. Wilson’s articulation of the right of national self-determination was welcomed by Korean independence activists: Yuh Woon-hyung, then studying in China, saw it as a major development, and sent English-speaking and Princeton-educated Kimm Kiusic to the Paris Peace Conference to argue the case for Korean independence. Unfortunately for the Koreans (as well for many other nations), self-determination at the end of World War I meant self-determination for the peoples of defeated empires only, and even then only if the victorious Allies didn’t want you for themselves.* Japan had picked the winning side in World War I, so not only was it not pressured to give Korea independence, but it was even rewarded with control over former German colonies in China and the Pacific.
* One of the most beautiful songs about the Easter Uprising, “The Foggy Dew,” talks about the irony of Ireland sending her sons to die on the Somme and in Gallipoli “so that small nations might be free” while Ireland itself remained a colony. Korea would taste this irony in World War II, when thousands of Korean soldiers were sent to hellholes in China and the Pacific to die in a war fought by the Japanese at least ostensibly to free Asia of European imperialism.
After the reading of the Korean Declaration of Independence at Tapgol Park, the crowd split in two. One group marched towards Sungnyemun Gate via Bosingak, while the other went towards the Daehanmun Gate of Deoksugung Palace. At Jongno, the Japanese tried to break up the crowd with military police and cavalry, but the crowd stood their ground, and at 6pm, the crowd dissolved on its own.
The protests spread throughout Korea and even overseas, where expatriate Koreans in China, Russia, Japan and the United States lent their support. On March 3, many Koreans gathered in Seoul for the funeral of King Gojong; many of the participants would join the protests. In marked contrast to the Easter Uprising, which was an armed insurrection, the March 1 protests were a largely peaceful affair. The Japanese were caught off guard by the scope of the protests, and soon enough were resorting to heavy-handed measures to regain control of the situation.
One of the more famous protests took place in Cheonan, Chungcheongnam-do, where about 3,000 people gathered in Aunae Market on April 1 to call for Korean independence. The Japanese police responded with bullets and cold steel, killing 19 and wounding many more. One of those arrested in the Cheonan protest was protest leader Yu Gwan-sun, an Ewha Hakdang student who returned to her hometown of Cheonan after the Japanese shut down schools on March 10. Yu’s parents were killed in the protest, and she was sentenced by a provincial court to five years in prison. She appealed the decision to a court in Seoul, which reduced her sentence to three years. She was imprisoned at Seodaemun Prison, but abused and tortured, she died on Sept 18, 1920 at the age of 17. The Japanese were initially reluctant to release the body to Ewha Hakdang, but when the school’s American teachers protested, the body was finally turned over for burial.
The most notorious atrocity committed by the Japanese against protesters took place in the village of Jeam-ri in Suwon, Gyeonggi-do on April 15. Earlier independence protests in the village were met with Japanese violence, which in turn led to Korean violence against Japanese police stations and local Japanese residents. Finally, a small detachment of Japanese troops entered the village, assembled the adult men in the village church, locked the door and set the the church ablaze, killing the roughly 30 men inside. It is largely thanks to Canadian missionary doctor Francis Schofield — the unoffficial “34th nationalist representative” — that we know of this incident, which was initially denied by the Japanese.
More evidence and background to the incident came to light when the journal of Gen. Utsunomiya Taro, then commander of Japanese forces in Korea, were published:
Unsealed over 80 years after the death of Taro, the journal draws keen attention as it includes details of how the Jeam-ri slaughter was covered up, how Korea’s independence movement was suppressed, and how Japan won over Korean independence activists.
When the Jeam-ri massacre took place on April 15, 1919, Gen. Utsunomiya wrote, “In southern Seoul, the Japanese forces drove around 30 [Koreans] into a church, slaughtered them and set fire [to the church].” The Japanese military, however, denied the slaughter and arson when it announced the incident.
The reason was explained in his journal on April 19: “[Announcing the truth] will significantly disadvantage the Empire. So it was decided in a meeting of senior officials to announce, “[The people] were killed as they resisted,” and not to ‘admit the slaughter or arson,’ and we closed the meeting at midnight.”
In his journal on the following day, he wrote, “I was determined to put the first lieutenant involved in the case in heavy disciplinary confinement for 30 days because the method and means he used were inappropriate.” The newspaper confirmed that a 30-day disciplinary confinement was actually imposed upon the first lieutenant in question.
Interestingly, Utsunomiya was sympathetic to the grievances of the Korean population, or at least critical of Japan’s military-centered administration of Korea, likening it to “forcing a girl into marriage against her will.” Still, like the Korean Government-General, he also accused Western missionaries of agitating unrest, and eventually judged that only by mobilizing the military could the protests by crushed.
I thought this protest by gisaeng in Jinju, Gyeongsangnam-do was fascinating, if only because a) it involves gisaeng, and b) the history involved. In this one, the town’s gisaeng conducted a march for independence, boasting that as Jinju gisaeng, they were the descendants of Nongae. Nongae was a gisaeng in Jinju at the time of the Imjin War (1592—1598). When the Japanese took the fortress city of Jinju, they celebrated their victory with a party on a pavilion on a cliff overlooking the Namgang River. Naturally, the city’s gisaeng were invited. At the party, Nongae embraced a Japanese general, lured him to the edge of the pavilion and threw herself — and the general — off the pavilion into the rocks and river below, killing both.
Effects of the March 1 Movement
Although the March 1 Movement failed, it did have serious consequences. The uprising — and the brutality with which it was suppressed — made its way into Western newspapers, placing Japan on the defensive. At the Paris Peace talks, the Japanese even tried to enlist British support by likening its troubles in Korea to those suffered by the British in Ireland. Western sympathy, however, did not translate into material support: with the horrors of World War I still fresh in everyone’s mind, nobody wanted to get involved in another foreign dispute in a country few could likely find on a map.
The Japanese, however, knew something had to change. For his high-handed and ham-fisted response to the March 1 Movement, Japanese Governor-General Hasegawa Yoshimichi was replaced by Saito Makoto, who sought to address some Korean grievances through a liberalization of cultural policy. The lifting of restrictions led to a flowering of Korean culture in the 1920s, but these gains would largely disappear in the 1930s, when Japanese politics took a militarist turn and imperial policy grew much more assimilationist. Even Saito fell victim to this — in 1936, several years after his stint as governor-general, he was assassinated in Tokyo during an attempted coup by military extremists.
Not long after the start of the March 1 protests, the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea was founded in Shanghai on April 13, 1919.
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