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On the Centennial of the March First Independence Movement of Korea

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Children look around cells at Seodaemun Prison, the former prison used to lock Independent fighters from 1908, on August 15, 2016 in Seoul, South Korea.
Children look around cells at Seodaemun Prison, the former prison used to lock Independent fighters from 1908, on August 15, 2016 in Seoul, South Korea. Korea was liberated from Japan's 35-year colonial rule on August 15, 1945 at the end of World War II.
Photo credit: 
Woohae Cho/Getty Images

On the centennial of the March First Independence Movement of Korea, APARC Director Gi-Wook Shin and Rennie Moon, associate professor at Yonsei University’s Underwood International College and former Koret fellow in Korean studies at APARC, discuss the origins of the movement and its impact and legacy for anti-imperialist movements in Asia and beyond.

The year 2019 is the centennial of several anti-colonialist movements that emerged in Asia, including the March First Movement of Korea. On that day a century ago, protesters shouting “Mansei!” (“Long live Korean independence!”) gathered in Seoul and formed what would become the first nationwide political protest in Korea under Japanese colonial rule. Although the movement failed to achieve national sovereignty, it left important legacies for Korea and other parts of Asia under foreign dominance.

In a new essay for The Journal of Asian Studies,1919 in Korea: National Resistance and Contending Legacies,” APARC Director Gi-Wook Shin and Rennie Moon, associate professor at Yonsei University’s Underwood International College and former Koret fellow in Korean studies at APARC, discuss the origins of the March First Movement, its impact on colonial Korea and other parts of Asia that fought against imperialist dominance, and its implications for postcolonial and contemporary Korea, North and South. Their essay is part of the journal’s special forum entitled “Anti-colonialism in Asia: The Centenary of 1919,” which explains why 1919 was not only a single year of important events in Asia, but also a center point for the larger movements of anti-colonialism that emerged globally in the early decades of the twentieth century.

Korea became Japan's protectorate in 1905 and was “annexed” to Imperial Japan five years later. Soon after, Koreans experienced a decade of severe suppression and minimal rights under a brutal military colonial regime. In the aftermath of World War I, however, Shin and Moon write, the international geopolitical climate began to shift. Inspired by the Russian revolution of 1917 and by Wilsonian ideals of national self-determination, Korean intellectuals and leaders began secretly collaborating both inside Korea and abroad, with support from religious leaders and their nationwide mobilizing networks.

On March 1, 1919, twenty-nine leaders gathered in downtown Seoul and read aloud a declaration for Korean independence, sparking a movement that spread quickly from Seoul and Pyongyang throughout the country, with more than one million people protesting. The Japanese, who were caught by surprise, responded with brutal crackdown on protestors.

The March First Movement eventually did not achieve national independence from Japanese rule, but it forced Japan to shift from the earlier military rule to a colonial policy known as bunka seiji (cultural rule), which selectively accommodated Korean demands in nonpolitical spheres and gave rise to many cultural, educational, and media organizations and activities.

It also left Korean leaders divided over what to do next, leading to a schism between moderates, who were willing to work with the new cultural policy in preparation for future national independence, and the socialist radicals, who rejected compromise and went on to establish the Korean Communist Party in 1925. This bifurcation, note Shin and Moon, is seen by many scholars “as the primary origin of the postcolonial national division that would incite a civil war in 1950.”

South Korea recognizes the March First Movement as the basis of the founding of the republic, though conservatives and progressives still disagree about its founding date. When the Democratic People's Republic of Korea was established in the North, however, it downgraded and rewrote the movement in various ways to fit it into its own version of history that traces the legitimacy of the regime to an anti-imperialist, democratic revolution spearheaded by Kim Il-Sung, who became the leader of the DPRK after 1945.

Beyond Korea, explain Shin and Moon, the March First Movement influenced the rise of the anti-imperialist May Fourth Movement in China two months later, inspired the 1919 anti-imperialist resistance that took place in the Philippines and Egypt, and was an impetus that can be seen in the Satyagraha, or nonviolent resistance in India. “By considering the March First and other political movements of 1919 in other Asian countries from a comparative, transnational perspective,” Shin and Moon say, “we can recognize interrelationships and diffusion processes traditionally ignored in historical writings prior to the ‘historiographic revolution’ in the 1990s.”

Read the full article in The Journal of Asian Studies >>