People chant for independence in this undated file photo. The demonstrations spiraled into a nationwide protest movement on March 1, 1919, the likes of which Korea had never seen before. / Korea Times
By Michael Breen
Korea Times Columnist
This is the ninth in a 60-part series featuring 60 major events in Korea’s modern history
from 1884 till now. The project is part of the 60th anniversary of The Korea Times, which falls on Nov.1.
When the American President Woodrow Wilson declared at the end of World War I in 1918 that all people should have the right to self-determination, Koreans saw an opportunity to bring the plight of their country to the attention of the world.
Korea had been under Tokyo’s control since 1905 and completely absorbed and reinvented as part of Japan since 1910, when King Sunjong, who some historians believe was mentally deficient, signed the country over.
The old leadership was thus discredited and therefore resistance disorganized and spotty.
After Wilson’s announcement, Korean students in Tokyo issued a demand for independence.
In Korea itself, leaders of the local Cheondo-gyo religion began to plan an independence appeal in alliance with Christian and Buddhist activists.
The plan was to use the cover of the funeral of the old emperor, Gojong, in March 1919, as a platform for nation-wide protests and draw the otherwise non-political mourners into action.
As the condition of their participation, the Christians insisted the demonstrations be non-violent. Planners decided a straightforward declaration of independence would be the best way to touch the international conscience.
On March 1, the 33 men who had signed the declaration met in a restaurant in Seoul, read it out, and then turned themselves in to the police.
The Japanese were taken completely by surprise. Citizens, secretly alerted days earlier, paraded through Seoul, thrusting their hands into the air with exhilarating shouts of “Long Live Independent Korea.”
The police began hauling demonstrators off to jail and arresting Christian ministers.
For the next three days there was calm. On March 5, high school students were due back at school, but none turned up.
At 9 a.m., hundreds of boys swarmed out of the shops and alleyways in front of the Seoul Railroad Station, chanting for independence.
Girls joined the march as it made its way through the city gate toward the palace.
According to missionary reports, they got about half a mile before they were charged by police with drawn sabers and cut down.
Thereafter, the demonstrations spiraled into a nation-wide protest movement, the likes of which Korea had never seen before.
Even the old yangban diehards, who had been bought off with offices by the Japanese, joined in.
The colonial administration weighed in with a vicious suppression. Peaceful demonstrators were shot, bayoneted, clubbed, arrested and tortured.
In some instances, the citizenry fought back and the violence escalated. After a policeman was murdered in the village of Jeam in Gyeonggi Province, Japanese police called the men to a meeting at the village church, saying they wanted to officially apologize for having beaten a villager earlier.
Once the men were inside, police nailed the door shut and set the church on fire and shot anyone who tried to climb out of the windows.
Twenty-three people died. Over the next six months, 7,500 were killed and 45,000 arrested, according to Korean figures. (The official government figures at the time were 533 dead and 12,522 jailed.)
Although meticulously planned, the protest lacked leadership. In fact, as the leadership strategy of submitting to immediate arrest on Day One indicated, the planners had been relying on a response from the major powers. But none came.
This over-estimation of major power commitment to their cause and misjudgment of the Japanese government resolve meant that in a political and practical sense, the Samil (March 1) Movement, as it became known, failed.
In another sense, though, it was a remarkable success. Given the disunity and ineffectiveness that plagued the political leadership, the unity of the nationalists involved in this protest and the mass support behind the call for freedom, amounted to a historic statement of national identity.
Many historians consider this moment as the birth of modern Korea.
One interesting feature of the uprising was that it demonstrated more than a rejection of Japanese rule.
It also marked a rejection of the monarchy. The royals were nowhere to be seen in the protests, except in the coffin which the organizers had used as cover.
The crown prince had married a Japanese lady and lived most of his life in Tokyo. The revival of the monarchy was dropped as an option forever.
After the protests were subjugated, a new governor-general, Admiral Saito Makoto, was appointed.
A sophisticated diplomat, Saito gathered an experienced team and consulted with leading Koreans, and even with foreign missionaries, before launching a more subtle rule under the catch-all cultural policy.
Moderate nationalists were permitted to form organizations and publish Korean newspapers, albeit under continuing censorship.
Two modern leading dailies, The Chosun Ilbo and the Dong-A Ilbo, began in 1920 and became a magnet for young, patriotic intellectuals.
Despite the Japanese assimilation plans, the teaching of Korean was increased in schools and literacy increased.
Whipping was abolished as a punishment and some governmental responsibilities were decentralized.
Policemen and officials no longer wore military uniforms and schools were built.
Regulations were changed so that companies could be freely established without government approval.
Saito also expanded the police, which became more sophisticated in gathering information, infiltrating and subverting opposition.
As a consequence, during this period, moderate nationalists living on the peninsula took a pragmatically gradualist approach toward independence and focused on raising the economic and cultural standards of the population and the development of future leaders.
At the same time, the failure of the Samil Movement radicalized other nationalists, inspired by the successful proletariat revolution in Russia.
The Korean Communist Party was started in Shanghai in 1920. But factional infighting began almost immediately and, combined with police repression, limited the effectiveness of the left.
In particular, leftists held the view that business was itself a feature of imperialist oppression.
With this argument, the ideological differences first broke surface which, despite efforts at unity, would cleave the nationalists into two broad camps, and, eventually, into separate countries.