The Poland of Asia: Korea and the March 1st Movement

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Today marks the one hundredth anniversary of the March 1st Movement, which sparked the Korean resistance to Japanese colonial rule (1910-45) and now is celebrated in South Korea annually as Independence Movement Day. On this day one hundred years ago in Seoul, thirty-three Korean nationalists and students declared Korea’s independence, which triggered a nationwide civil protest and was the catalyst for the establishment of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea, which was established on April 11, 1919 and existed in exile in Shanghai and then later in Chugking. Syngman Rhee (1875-65) was part of this government and later returned to Korea as South Korea’s first president (1948-60) until his resignation and exile to Hawaii in 1960.

Japan traditionally had always looked to Korea as the gateway to challenge Chinese hegemony in East Asia. Prior to the first Sino-Japanese War in 1894-95, the colonization of Korea (1910-45), and the establishment of the puppet state of China Manchukuo (1932-45), Japan’s most successful attempt was the its invasion of Korea during the Imjin War (1592-98), a crucial event in East Asian history and politics that is much neglected by western scholars, especially those in international relations. During the war, Japan occupied large portions of the Korean Peninsula but, with reinforcements from Ming China and the death of the Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-98), Joseon Korea was eventually able to expel the Japanese from the peninsula.

The war involved armies of hundreds of thousands and had severe consequences for all three countries: the Edo (Tokyo)-based Tokugawa claim would emerge victorious over the Kyushu-Toyotomi one, unifying and ruling Japan (1600-1868); Ming China would eventually collapse due to the financial burden of defending Korea, making it possible for the Manchu to supplant the Ming dynasty with the Qing (1644-1912); and Korea suffered a cultural, demographic, and economic devastation worse, according to some estimates, than it had suffered during the Korean War (1950-53).

The modernization of Japan, in response to Matthew Perry’s arrival in 1853, led to the Meiji Restoration in 1868 and the expansion of the Japanese Empire in the first (1894-95) and second (1937-45) Sino-Japanese Wars, the Chinese Boxer Rebellion (1897-1901), the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5), and the Japanese’ seizure of Micronesia and the Qingdao during World War I. All of these gains were negated with Japan’s defeat in World War II. However, for Korea and the rest of East Asia, the first Sino-Japanese War shifted regional dominance from China to Japan with Korea now being a tributary state for Japan. The humiliation of this defeat for China was the catalyst for its 1911 Xinhai Revolution that overthrew imperial China for a republic.

Since 1876, Korea was internally divided and externally torn in its loyalties to Japan and China. A series of events – the assassination of the pro-Japanese Kim Ok-gyun, the Donghak peasant rebellion (which led both Japan and China to send troops to help the Korean king quash it), and the installation of a new pro-Japanese Korean government by the Japanese military – led to war between Japan and China with Korea, again, being one of the places where it was waged. The defeat of China led to the independence of Korea from its tributary status from China only to be supervised by the Japanese.

Korea officially became a Japanese protectorate in 1905 and then later outright annexed in 1910. A policy to “Japanize” Korea was soon enacted thereafter. In response to these events, anti-Japanese rallies took place with the most notable one being on March 1, 1919. In spite of industrial modernization, Koreans suffered from summary executions, forced labor, rape, human experimentation (an estimated quarter million people were subject to it), and other atrocities from their colonial masters during Japanese rule.

Inspired by Wilson’s Fourteen Points, on March 1, 1919 thirty-three activists read out loud the Korean Declaration of Independence in Seoul and sent a copy to the Governor General. Crowds assembled to hear the declaration and formed a peaceable procession with Japanese police panicking. The suppression of the public protests turned violence. Approximately two million Koreans participating in more than fifteen hundred demonstrations over twelve months, with an estimated 7,000 Koreans killed by Japanese authorities.

International reaction was mute with the United States not willing to assist Koreans since Korea was a colony of Japan. However, the Nationalist Chinese Government did allow the leaders of the March 1 Movement into their country where Korean leaders established the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea (1919-48) in Shanghai. China also allowed the formation and operation of the Korean Liberation Army in 1940.

At Cario, Tehran, and Yalta, Roosevelt floated the idea of Korea being under a trusteeship with the eventual goal of being independent. But Roosevelt was unable to obtain agreement from Stalin or Churchill. On August 8, 1945, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan and the Soviet army advanced rapidly into Korea. Cluelessly about East Asian geography and history, Dean Rusk (1909-94) and Charles Bonesteel (1909-77), who were assigned to define the American occupation zone of Korea, selected the 38th parallel because it would put Seoul under American control – a demarcation that forty years earlier Japan and pre-revolutionary Russia also had discussed about sharing Korea. To the surprise of the Americans and to the delight to the Russians, the Soviet Union accepted this division and it was incorporated into General Order No. 1 for the surrender of Japan.

A trusteeship was established in 1945 to oversee Korea by the Soviet Union, the United States, the Republic of China, and Great Britain. The trusteeship was to be five years in the lead-up to independence, even though most Koreans wanted independence immediately. The Korean Communist Party, which closely coordinated with the Soviet Communist Party, supported the trusteeship because the Soviet Union had no plans for a permanent division on the Korean Peninsula.

A Soviet-U.S. Joint Commission to create a unified Korean administration failed in 1946 and 1947 due to increasing Cold War antagonism between the two superpowers. In South Korea, a U.S. military government was established that crushed a labor and peasant uprising against it and later killed between thirty to one hundred thousand Koreans who were classified as left-wing insurgents. In North Korea, a provisional government under Kim Il-sung was established with industries were nationalized and land was redistributed, prompting an estimated four hundred thousand northern Koreans fleeing south of the 38th parallel.

In 1947 the United Nations tried to resolve the situation of a divided Korea with its declaration of holding free elections, a withdrawal of foreign troops, and a temporary commission on Korea to be established. The Soviet Union boycotted the resolution and, in the absence of Soviet cooperation, the UN decided to hold elections in the south only, a decision that was unpopular among Koreans who correctly saw it as a prelude to a permanent division of the country. Uprisings and protests against the resolution were crushed by the South Korean military, most notably on Jeju Island and in South Jeolla province where thousands of people, many with left-leaning politics, were killed.

In May 1948 general elections were held in south Korea amidst violence, political intimidation, and boycotts by opponents of Syngman Rhee. On August 15, the Republic of Korea formally took over power from the U.S. military with Rhee declared the first president. In response, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was declared on September 9, with King Il-sung announced as prime minister. In December, the UN General Assembly accepted the Republic of Korea as the only lawful government of the peninsula. Soviet troops withdrew from Korea in 1948 and American troops departed the year after.

In China, a second civil war erupted between the Republic of China and the Communist Party from 1946-50 (the first war, 1927-37, was suspended due to second Sino-Japanese War). North Korea made significant contributions to the Communist Party of China during this war, which was remembered when the Communist Party gained control of mainland China in 1949, pledging its support for North Korea if Kim Il-sung were to invade South Korea. Authorized by Stalin, Kim Il-sung called for Korean-wide elections in August 1950 which was rejected by Rhee. On June 25, 1950 the North Korean military crossed the 38th parallel and invaded South Korea, sparking the Korean War (1950-53).

The modern struggle for independence – and the present hope for a unified Korea – started with the March 1st Movement in 1919. The day was designated a national holiday in 1949 in South Korea where it is only celebrated (although both countries still today celebrate August 15 as Liberation Day from the Japanese Empire). As evident from this brief excerpt of its long history, Korea has experienced civil strife and war, foreign invasion and occupation, and a place where the great powers – now China, Russia, the United States, and Japan – have and continue to assert their hegemony in East Asia.

In the West, Koreans are sometimes called the “Irish of the East” because both people share a divided homeland; a history of colonial occupation; a rapid transition from a rural, agricultural society to a postmodern, capitalist one (at least in the South); and a penchant for drink, humor, and hospitality. Koreans also have labelled the “Italians of Asia” because of their supposedly mercurial and emotional temperaments, the importance of family and food in their cultures, and are peninsula countries. But if one were to take into account geopolitics, a better analogy might be Poland: both countries are located at the crossroads among larger, imperial periods; both countries have been confronted with the constant threat of foreign invasion and meddling in its internal affairs; and both countries at one moment in their history have entirely disappeared as an independent entity. From a certain perspective, one could say that both Korea and Poland have been defined by their suffering from outside, bigger powers and from themselves in a history of violence, retribution, and invasion.

The Koreans actually have developed a concept for this experience called han which has been characterized as a form of grief, resentment, sorrow, or regret (there is no English equivalent). It has been described as a feeling of injustice or spite that can never be erased, even if one were to undertake actions to try to alleviate it. The result is that the past, whether personal, familial, or national, can never be redeemed but only remembered. March 1st therefore holds a special place in Korean hearts because it aspires for something that has not yet been realized and may never be: a unified, independent nation of its own.

Lee Trepanier

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Lee Trepanier is a Professor of Political Science and University Pre-Law Advisor at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan. He is author and editor of several books and also is the editor of VoegelinView (2016-present) and editor of Lexington Books series Politics, Literature, and Film (2013-present).