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Mass movement that led to a modern Korea

Support sought from U.S., which had its own colony in Asia, the Philippines
Feb 11,2019
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The Washington Post’s March 15, 1919, edition covered the events following the March 1 Independence Movement in Korea. [WASHINGTON POST ARCHIVE]
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Above: Koreans hold peaceful “Manse” demonstrations in front of Daehanmun, the main gate of Deoksu Palace in central Seoul, during the March 1 movement demanding Korea’s independence and liberation from Japanese colonial rule in 1919. Below: A copy of the March 1 Proclamation of Korean Independence signed by 33 leaders. [INDEPENDENCE HALL OF KOREA]
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U.S. newspapers’ coverage of the events following the March 1 Independence Movement in Korea in 1919. From left: The New York Times March 13 edition; Honolulu Advertiser March 15 edition; Indianapolis Star March 17 edition; and Los Angeles Times March 19 edition. [EACH ARCHIVE]
This year marks the 100th anniversary of Korea’s March 1 Independence Movement, the peaceful, nationwide demonstrations of 1919 that led to the establishment of a provisional government in Shanghai. People in both cities and rural towns came together to call for “Manse” - an old rallying cry that took on a brand new meaning - and proclaimed the independence of the country from Japanese colonial rule. In a three-part series, the Korea JoongAng Daily will reflect on the significance of the movement on modern Korea and global history through the eyes of scholars and the media of the time.



It was 2 p.m. on Saturday, March 1, 1919, when a group of activists gathered in a restaurant in downtown Seoul, ready to proclaim Korea’s independence and demand liberation from Japan’s colonial rule.

The group of independence fighters, who became known as the 33 leaders, signed the Proclamation of Korean Independence at the Taiwhagwan restaurant in Insa-dong, Jongno District, central Seoul, then sent a copy to the Japanese governor general.

Around the same time, thousands of students gathered in nearby Pagoda Park. They read out the proclamation in full. Eventually, they took to the streets, distributing copies of the declaration, hailing, “Manse,” or “Long live!” Formerly used as a chant in honor of the king, Manse now came to mean “Long live an independent Korea!”

The events in Seoul spread to other cities and villages nationwide in the coming days and was eventually dubbed the March 1 Independence Movement, which marks its centennial anniversary this year.

Up to 2 million people - across regions, classes, genders, ages and religions - eventually participated in the mass movement, which led to the establishment of the Korean provisional government in Shanghai on April 11, 1919. The provisional government enacted a constitution calling for democratic republicanism, which would eventually plant the seeds for the Republic of Korea.

Korea’s uprising came in the aftermath of World War I and became a trailblazer as colonial countries around the world sought liberation from imperialist powers and to exercise national self-determination.

It took a fortnight for Western media to report on the March 1 events on the peninsula of Korea. But when it did, U.S. media covered the independence movement with considerable empathy and zeal, a story which headlined American national and local newspapers.

The Washington Post in its March 15, 1919, edition carried a front-page article entitled: “Girl’s Hands Cut Off: Atrocity by Japanese Soldiers Reported by Koreans; Seoul Outbreak Subsides.”

The article reads: “The leaders of the Korean independent movement arrived in Peking and declare that the movement is a national one with 3,000,000 adherents, including Christians and Buddhists, heaven worshippers and nearly all the students. The leaders say they do not countenance force in obtaining their aims, but are relying upon appeals to the generosity of the western world.”

The paper reported that 40,000 people had been arrested, prisoners were being tortured and that Japanese soldiers cut off the hand of a Korean girl holding up a copy of the independence manifesto.

Ultimately, Korea did not get independence until 26 years later, after Japan surrendered to the Allied forces in August 1945 at the end of World War II.

However, the March 1 movement, or Samil Undong, is recalled as holding significance both in Korean and global affairs for being unprecedented in method and nature, a pivotal moment in the country’s shedding of monarchy and imperialism and transforming into a modern state.

“At that time, the first country to show the will for national self-determination through action was Korea,” said Park Chan-seung, a history professor at Hanyang University and chairman of the Association for Korean Historical Studies. “In world history, smaller and weaker countries showed movement toward independence after World War I, but the March I movement was nearly unprecedented for clearly conveying a nationwide intention for self-determination through its people, which is why it holds significance in world history.”



Changing world order

The four-year World War I came to an end in 1918. On Jan. 8, 1919, at the Paris Peace Conference, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson made his Fourteen Points speech, which emphasized the concept of national self-determination. Wilson said this applied for all oppressed minorities. This served as a catalyst and inspiration for Korean independence fighters active at home and overseas.

Emperor Gojong (1852-1919) unexpectedly died on Jan. 21. Gojong was the last king of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) before Japanese annexation in 1910 and the first emperor of the short-lived Korean Empire (1897-1910).

Religious activists, including Christians and followers of Chondogyo, an indigenous religious movement also known as the “heavenly way,” played a key role in the initial organizing of the March protests. Korean activists in China, Russia and the United States also keenly watched the Paris conference and reached out to foreign governments for support.

On Feb. 8, Korean students in Tokyo issued a declaration of independence for their country, influenced by Wilson’s doctrine of national self-determination.

In the days leading up to March 1, the movement’s leaders held meetings nearly daily on principles and strategies. The date to proclaim Korea’s independence was scheduled for two days before Emperor Gojong’s funeral, scheduled for March 3, a Monday.

Eventually, the 33 leaders in Seoul proclaimed Korea’s independence on March 1 and announced a series of nonviolent protests. The leaders were arrested by Japanese police afterward.

Over 20,000 copies of the Declaration of Independence, drafted by activist Choe Nam-son, were printed in advance to be circulated by students in major cities and rural areas.

There were some violent clashes with Japanese police as well as raids on police stations and other symbols of Japanese control. But the vision of the leaders was to hold nonviolent protests. The protesters, instead of bearing arms, waved the Taegeukgi, the Korean national flag, and sang the national anthem.

By April 10, on the eve of the establishment of the Korean provisional government, hundreds of villages and cities, including those in present-day North Korea such as Pyongyang and Wonsan, had held generally nonviolent demonstrations.

Korea had a caste system that was abolished in the Gabo Reform at the end of the 19th century. But class stratification “remained in the consciousness of the people,” according to Hanyang University’s Park.

“All the people in one town, whether they were a noble, commoner or slave, shouted manse together and went to jail together,” said Park. “And through such a process, the March 1 movement was an opportunity for Koreans to be reborn as modern people based on the prerequisite to being a modern people: equality. The people transcended social stratifications through the movement.”

“At the end of World War I, there were various independence movements demanding liberation from colonial rule in places around the world,” said Kim Hee-gon, a history professor at Andong National University and director of the Gyeongsangbuk-do Independence Movement Memorial. “But Korea’s March 1 movement can be characterized by the fact that it took the lead and that it happened simultaneously nationally and abroad.”



U.S. media embraces March 1 movement

Unbeknownst to what was transpiring half way across the world that very day, New York Times in its March 1, 1919, edition printed an article: “Ask United States to Plead for Korea: Korean Independence Committee in China Present Petition to American Minister.”

Some days later, news of the peaceful demonstrations in Korea against Japanese colonial rule reached the U.S. media. The articles featured in American media were generally sympathetic to Korea’s cause, although sometimes sensationalized.

In its March 13 edition, the New York Times described the March 1 movement in an article headlined, “Koreans Declare for Independence: Thousands Who Engage in Demonstration Are Arrested by the Japanese.”

On its March 17 edition front page, the Washington Post featured: “Korean Riots Spread; All Classes Join in Outbreak to Gain Independence; Arrests Compel Closing of Churches and Schools-Japanese Kill 20 Rioters at Yangdok; Others at Sungchun and Suheung.”

The Los Angeles Times ran the article “Renounce Rule of Japan” on Page 1 of its March 10 edition. On March 15, it reported “Korea Movement Spreads”; on March 17 “Scores Killed in Korea Fighting” and “Korea Plea Sent Wilson”; on March 19 “All Korea is in Move: Christians, Pagans for Freedom; Missionaries Tell of Passive Resistance, Most Wonderful in History; Break Silence Concerning Japanese Brutality of the Past Decade.”

On the front page of its March 15 edition, the Honolulu-based Pacific Commercial Advertiser carried the article, “Koreans Independence Movement Growing, Washington Hears; Many Dead and Jailed as Result of Revolt; ultimate freedom from Japan sought.”

Hawaii was a center of expatriate Korean activists, and the paper, now the Honolulu Advertiser, on Page 1 of its March 20 edition carried the article: “Koreans Assert Independence,” and “Domination of Korea By Japan Proclaimed at End of March 1: Honolulu Associated Receives Cable telling of Declaration of Liberty at Seoul and Other Cities-Ask U.S. Support.”

The Indianapolis Star in its March 17 front page even featured a full banner headline: “Korea Tries to Throw Off Yoke of Japan.”

Further reports had more details, including some news of violence and arrests of Koreans. The New York Times on March 15 reported, “Koreans Still Fighting Japanese; Bloodshed on Both Sides Occurs as Independence Riots Spread Over Country; 40,000 Arrests Reported.” On March 18, it ran an article: “Tell of Japanese Cruelty to Koreans: American Missionaries Say There Is a Reign of Terror Throughout the Country.”

The following day, on March 19, the New York Times carried an Associated Press wire saying, “An American missionary who has just returned from Korea describes the independence movement there as the most wonderful passive resistance movement in history.”

The Los Angeles Times in its March 18 Page 1 article, “Treat Korea as Belgium,” reported: “Helpless men, women and children have been beaten, kicked and stabbed as well as shot down by soldiers for no other crime than shouting, ‘Hurrah for Korea!’ The missionaries say the cause of the independence movement lies in ten years of oppression and cruel treatment to natives who have suffered from the ruthless conquerors. From the beginning strict orders were issued by the leaders that there should be no fighting opposition, no matter what the Japanese did.”

The Los Angeles Times in its March 21 edition front page described, “Butchery in Korea: Report Says Dead Number 10,000; Number Arrested by Japanese During the Demonstration Forty-five Thousand; Missionaries Let the World Know How Flocks are Being Murdered.’

U.S. media often detailed Korea’s plea for help from the United States. Some papers, including the Los Angeles Times on the front page of its April 3 edition, later carried the full text of the Proclamation of Korean Independence.

It reported that the Korean proclamation of independence resulted “in rioting in Seoul, the capital of Korea, when it was publicly distributed, March 1.” A copy of the independence proclamation was brought to the United States from Asia by V.S. McClatchy, the director of the Associated Press. The L.A. Times reported that the proclamation was signed by 33 “men of influence in Korea,” including Christian and Buddhist leaders, who were all arrested later.

“U.S. and Canadian missionaries played an important role in bringing news of Japanese atrocities to the West, especially since the Japanese authorities attempted to censor reporting from Korea during the March 1 protests,” said Erez Manela, a professor of history at Harvard University. “Many Americans, particularly those involved in missionary circles and some in the U.S. Congress, voiced support for the Korean protests and condemned the Japanese response. However, the U.S. government took the view that Japanese rule over Korea was a settled matter and remained largely passive in the face of the March 1 events.”

“The media, separate from the government, could express more amicable positions, but no country, especially imperialist countries, would act beyond their interest,” said Andong National University’s Kim. “The United States was an imperialist nation, with the Philippines under its colonial rule, so unless it was going to liberate its own colonies, it would not do anything to help another country achieve independence.”

Up to 2 million people were said to have taken part in the movement over the next weeks, according to historian Park Eun-sik, the second president of the Korean provision government in Shanghai. Some 47,000 people were arrested, 16,000 injured and 7,500 killed.

Estimates for the number of people killed in the March 1 movement vary, but Park pointed out that the difference could be a “matter of perspective and time period.” He added, “There are people who died on scene and others who were injured and died later in hospitals or at home, and there are a considerable number of people who died in prison as well.”

“The Manse movement is not just a name but related to the method of the protest; there is a close link to the way of the movement and it being nonviolent,” said Park. “That was a method of rallying never done before. During the Korean Empire era, ‘manse’ was a cheer for the emperor, but now they were calling out manse for the independence of the country.”

According to Park, chanting “Manse” while walking was “awkward and unfamiliar to them, but the organizers believed that the rally had to be peaceful and without bearing arms - and this was instructed to students and religious activists in the rural areas.”

The protesters had been instructed by the organizers not to insult the Japanese, use their fists or throw stones.

“It was conducted generally nonviolently, but as the movement spread some farmers in rural areas, for example, were not notified and in such cases, there could have been some violence,” said Park.



The legacy of March 1

The first line of the Proclamation of Korean Independence of the March 1 movement reads: “We herewith proclaim the independence of Korea and the liberty of the Korean people.”

Historians regard the March 1 Independence Movement as a turning point in the transformation of Korea into a modern country, establishing a democratic republic encompassing universal principles. It also served as inspiration for other nationalistic movements including China’s May Fourth Movement of 1919.

“Wilson’s Fourteen Points, and his subsequent speeches, inspired Koreans with their suggestion that the postwar settlement would uphold the principle of self-determination and oppose colonial rule,” said Harvard’s Manela. “The Korean Independence Declaration of March 1, 1919 was widely noted in Asia and elsewhere as signifying hopes for a new era in world affairs.”

He continued, “The March 1 Movement was widely noted in its time around the world and it helped inspire similar movements elsewhere, notably in China. It also united Koreans from across the peninsula, and could continue to serve as a point of unity among Koreans today.”

The concept of minjung, or the masses, also emerged through the grassroots March 1 movement in its process of seeking national independence and modernization, said Andong University’s Kim.

“The March 1 movement in the larger picture sums up all the previous independence movements,” said Kim. “The March 1 movement combines offshoots of thoughts of Confucian scholars and progressives envisioning republicanism. That is why the national spirit resulting from the March 1 movement brought fruit to the building of the Republic of Korea.”

Kim continued, “It is significant that around the world, with many countries under colonial rule, on the occasion of the end of World War I, we proclaimed ourselves an autonomous independent state and a civil society that is a democratic republic.”

“At that time, there were not very many people who believed that Wilson’s principle of national self-determination could be applied to Korea,” said Hanyang University’s Park. “However, regardless, they called out ‘Manse’ believing that it was an opportunity to let Korea’s desire for independence be known, and that it would be great, perchance, if independence was earned. So even people in the countryside who were arrested and asked why they took part in the Manse movement were able to reply in court, ‘I had to call out Manse for the independence of the Joseon.’”

“The spirit of the independence fighters was astounding beyond our imagination considering that they emerged at a time when our country had failed,” said Chang Se-yun, a senior researcher at the Northeast Asian History Foundation, “but they decided to reclaim the country, something realistically impossible. And from having nothing, they eventually achieved it.”

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]