Spirit of March First Movement for Independence Lives On in Korea

Commemoration of the centenary of the March 1 Movement in Seoul.

On March 1, the Korean people marked the centenary of the March First Movement. This movement that began March 1, 1919 was a turning point in their national struggle for independence and self-determination against the Japanese imperialist occupation. It galvanized their struggle for emancipation and finds expression today in the fight for peace and national reunification of Korea.

In the early morning of March 1, 1919, Korean students and activists gathered in the capital Seoul and declared the independence of Korea from Japan. The movement spread to all corners of the peninsula and continued for a full year. In his book Korea's Fight for Freedom, eyewitness Frank McKenzie noted: "Large numbers of copies of the declaration of independence were ready. These were circulated, usually by boys and schoolgirls, sometimes by women, each city being mapped out in districts. It was soon seen that every class of the community was united. Men who had been ennobled by the Japanese stood with the coolies; shopkeepers closed their stores, policemen who had worked with the Japanese took off their uniforms, and joined the crowds, porters, and labourers, scholars and preachers, men and women all came together."

Some 2,000,000 Koreans participated in more than 1,500 demonstrations in that period. They were met with brutal repression by the Japanese military. It is estimated that 7,000 patriots were killed by Japanese military and police and some 16,000 people were wounded. Almost 46,000 people were arrested and many were jailed, tortured and killed. More than 700 private homes, many churches as well as schools were burned to the ground by the Japanese in an effort to quell the rising tide of the Korean people's fight for freedom and independence. Even though the Japanese military occupiers were able to suppress the protest movement of the people for the moment, the seeds of national liberation took hold. Political activists forced into exile formed their own organizations in China, Russia and elsewhere to continue to agitate for freedom. Later on, guerrilla movements also were launched from China and Manchuria against the Japanese in the 1930s, including the North East Anti-Japanese Army led by Kim Il Sung, the founder and first leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. These armed struggles ultimately led to the defeat of Japan and the liberation of Korea on August 14, 1945.

The Japanese occupation of Korea was a consequence of Japan's rise as an imperialist state in the late 19th century. After defeating Russia in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, imperial Japan laid claim to Korea. In a secret deal between imperialists in 1905 called the Taft-Katsura Agreement, the U.S. "recognized" Japan's claims to Korea while Japan "recognized" U.S. claims to Hawaii (an independent kingdom annexed by the U.S. in 1898) and the Philippines (taken as spoil of war by the U.S. in 1899 after prevailing in the Spanish-American War).

In November 1905, Japan imposed the Eulsa Treaty on Korea that deprived the latter of her sovereignty and made her a protectorate of Japan. The Korean people resisted this act of aggression. They took up resistance in many forms, including guerilla warfare involving thousands of fighters called the "Army of the Righteous" against Japanese troops which continued for the next five years until the armed struggle went into retreat and Japan formally annexed Korea in April, 1910.

What followed was a reign of terror over the Korean people. Their lands were confiscated and handed over to Japanese farmers, and many lost their livelihoods. Almost 100,000 landlords and farmers were moved from Japan to Korea. Koreans were forbidden to speak their language and were forced to learn Japanese and take on Japanese names. Korean cultural treasures were looted and taken to Japan. Tens of thousands of Koreans were forced to flee or were recruited as slave labourers in Japanese industry. Political dissent was suppressed. Japanese manufacturing companies set up shop and exploited the rich natural resources of Korea. In this way, the Japanese imperialists sought to assimilate Koreans into their empire.

The Korean people, with their long and glorious history of resistance to Chinese, Russian, and U.S. aggression against their country, were not about to permit the Japanese militarists to do the same. At the end of the First World War, inspired by the Russian revolution and the striving of the colonial peoples for their rights, some 600 Korean students living and studying in Tokyo, Japan held a secret meeting and then proclaimed the Independence of Korea in a public demonstration in February 1919. The students were successful in secretly sending their declaration to Seoul which became the inspiration for the March First Movement.

The opening of the March First Declaration of Independence reads:

"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 human equality. This we proclaim to our descendants so that they may enjoy in perpetuity their inherent right to nationhood. Inasmuch as this proclamation originates from our five-thousand-year history, inasmuch as it springs from the loyalty of twenty million people, inasmuch as it affirms our yearning for the advancement of everlasting liberty, inasmuch as it expresses our desire to take part in the global 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 co-existence of all humankind...."

This same spirit inspires the Korean people's movement today to re-unify their divided nation, establish peace on the Korean peninsula and take their place as one independent nation among the nations of the world.

Seoul, March 1, 2019

(With files from www.declarationproject.com, www.britannica.com, www.korea.net. Photos: Republic of Korea, Wikipedia.)

This article was published in

Volume 49 Number 9 - March 16, 2019

Article Link:
Spirit of March First Movement for Independence Lives On in Korea - Philip Fernandez


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