Remembering The March 1st Movement

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march 1st movement

We might be a few days late to the party, but March 1st marked the 101st anniversary of the March 1st Movement, the first, or one of the first (depending on where you sit on this fence) resistance movements against colonial Japanese rule on the Korean peninsula.

The Sam-Il (meaning 3-1, or March 1st) movement began at a huge time for international affairs, and ideals, particularly those pertaining to self-determination. President Woodrow Wilson firmly believed in the independence of nations, and was very much against colonial rule, and ideal which resulted in the birth, or at least rebirth of a number of independent countries in Europe.

As with any ideal they did not stay regionalized  for too long, and spread to the Korean peninsula. The Joseon dynasty (also transcribed as Chosŏn or Chosen, Korean: 대조선국, lit. Great Joseon State) had ruled over a unified Korean state from 1392, before being superseded by the Korean Empire in 1897 (the last independent unified Korean state), it lasted until 1910, when the forced Japan – Korean Treaty annexed the Korean peninsula to the Empire of Japan.

The Japan – Korea “Treaty” certainly deserves its own entry, but for now it can be summarized as a continuation of the 1905 treaty that made Korea a Japanese protectorate, followed by the 1907 treaty whereby Japan took over the internal affairs of the country, before finishing with in 1910 with formal annexation.

In many ways, and whilst certainly brutal Korea was spared many of the horrors that other colonies (notably China) befell, but even with that taken into affect people with always desire independence.

At 2 p.m. on March 1, 1919, 33 activists of the Samil Movement convened at Taehwagwan Restaurant in Seoul, whereby they proclaimed the Korean Declaration of Independence (another  item that could and should warrant its own article). It had originally been planned to this in the open, but fearing a backlash instead sent the document to the Japanese Governor-General. It went 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 human equality. 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 yearning for the advancement of everlasting liberty, in as much 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. Therefore, no power in this world can obstruct or suppress it!”

The group leaders promptly telephoned the police station to inform them of their actions and were later arrested. This was not to be the end of things, but merely the start.

Crowds assembled in Pagado Park to hear a student, Chung Jae-yong, read the declaration, an event which was practiced throughout the country at 2pm, following which things snowballed into as many as 2 million Koreans taking part in over 1500 demonstrations.

With the 20-20 vision that history give us, what was to follow was fairly inevitable, but it should be remembered that at the time Japan was very much an ally of the victorious parties of the First World War.

An estimated 7500 dead, 16000 wounded, and 47000 arrested over the period of four months that included public executions put paid to official opposition from inside occupied Korea, for the time being at least.

Historically there is very little ambiguity about this period in Korean history, and it remains a defining moment in the start of the Korean struggle against Korean colonial rule.

Following the division of Korea the March 1st movement held different positions of importance on both sides of the 38th parallel, with the DPRK focussing more on the exploits of President Kim Il Sung, and his partisans, whilst the ROK made March 1st a national holiday in 1949 (to which it remains).

Interestingly, and ironically following what would later occur with Japan, the movement was completely ignored by the USA, who preferred to keep an ally in the Empire of Japan.

One hundred years later their ambivalence to Korean independence and reunification remains largely unchanged.