Japanese Rule Over
Korea - A Liberation
Day Korea History

Korea between 1905 and 1945

August 15th is the only national holiday that appears both in the North Korean and South Korean calendar, known as Jogukhaebangui Nal (조국해방의 날; lit. Day of the Fatherland’s Liberation) in the DPRK; and as Kwangbokjeol (광복절; Liberation Day, lit. the day the light returned) in the ROK.

This year (2020), Liberation Day marks the 75th anniversary of the end of Japanese rule over Korea.

Although this day is considered as a joyous holiday and both states on the Korean Peninsula celebrate it as the return of Korean sovereignty, it was also the first step towards the division of the nation.

But how did Korea came under Japanese rule, what it meant for Koreans, and to what extent did Korean liberation movements contributed to the liberation of the fatherland?

How do North Koreans spend Liberation Day? 

Korea as Protectorate of Japan

Until the end of the 19th century, Korea was a vassal state of China; Korea sent envoys to the Chinese emperor yearly paying tributary gifts in return for autonomy in the form of self-governance and limited intervention by China in domestic affairs.

At the end of the 19th century, however, China was gradually losing influence and the Korean Peninsula had become a theatre for the rivalry between China, Russia, and Japan. In the meantime, Western powers were also struggling to gain economic access to Korea.

In 1876, Korea was made to open its ports for Japan, while in 1882 for the Western powers.

The end of the 19th century was also the years of tumultuous domestic events (military uprising, peasant war, and domestic reforms somewhat similar to the Meiji Restoration in Japan referred to as the Gabo Reform that abolished feudalism and marked an end of Chinese influence) providing excuses for both China and Japan to intervene.

The First Sino-Japanese War was primarily fought for the influence over Korea and to some extent also on Korean soil – in part as an intervention to the peasant war. The Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895 that marked the end of the war also meant the end to the vassal status of Korea from China (known as Joseon at this time).

Independence Gate in Seoul honouring the end of Korea’s status as a Chinese tributary state

In 1897, the Korean Empire (대한재국) was declared and Japanese influence was gradually growing.

In 1905, after the Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese War, a Protectorate Treaty was signed that meant the loss of Korean sovereignty in foreign policy and diplomatic matters, and a Resident-General of Korea was appointed.

Two years later, the Korean army was disbanded, a new emperor proclaimed, and Japanese vice-ministers appointed in the Korean government.

In 1908, a quasi-colonial institution, the Oriental Development Company was established in Seoul.

Korea as part of the Japanese Empire

On August 22nd 1910 the Annexation Treaty was signed and Korea became a part of the Japanese Empire.

A Japanese Governor-General was appointed and all Japanese appointees for posts in Korea came from the military.

Historians divide the 35 years of Japanese rule into three distinctive periods;

  • Heavy repression (1910-1919)
  • Cultural Policy (1919-1931)
  • Wartime Mobilization (1931-1945)

Seodaemun Prison in Seoul a symbol of Japanese repression for all Koreans
(In Cho Sung-hyung’s documentary “
My Brother and Sisters in the North the patriarch of director’s North Korean host family’s died in this prison and now he has bust at the Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery in Pyongyang)

Korea was to become the primary rice supplier of Japan and the rich natural resources of the northern part were also exploited by the Japanese.

In the 1930s, the industrialization process started with the establishment of heavy industry in the north, and light industry in the south.

Most of the rail-network on the Korean Peninsula was developed during this period, as well as the hydroelectric dams.

Japanese ‘settlers’ also arrived in Korea. 

During the period of heavy repression, only one Korean language newspaper was allowed to be published and heavy censorship was introduced over any form of publications.

No political dissent was tolerated, Japan built up a secret police and prison system. 

Japan introduced universal, free education but under the Japanese system and with the goal of educating Koreans to become loyal citizens of the Japanese emperor. In the 1940s, teaching and speaking Korean at schools were prohibited.

Korean cultural relics were brought back to Japan.

State Shinto was introduced as religion.

In 1939, an order to adopt Japanese names was issued.  

As Japanese war efforts were strengthening, Koreans were also mobilized as part of the Japanese War machine both on the fronts and the hinterland.

From 1932, an estimated 50-200 thousand Korean girls were taken as comfort women to serve as sex slaves in the Japanese Imperial Army.

Korean forced labourers were also taken to the Japanese islands and other Japanese occupied territories. The estimated death toll is between 270 and 810 thousand.

Until 1944, serving in the Japanese Imperial Army was voluntary and roughly 17,000 applicants were accepted among them later South Korean military dictator Park Chung-hee (whose daughter became the first female president of the ROK in 2013 now serving her prison sentence for various charges).

An interesting part of the history of Koreans serving in the Japanese Imperial Army is that according to the testimonies of Former Allied Forces POWs who worked on the construction of the Thai-Burma Railway (known today as the Death Railway), Korean guards were infamous for their brutality and inhumane behaviour, overdoing their ethnic Japanese peers.

In the last two years of the war, around 200 thousand Koreans served in the army.

Korean Resistance Movements

Armed resistance in Manchuria began even before 1910 by Korean settler communities that according to Kim Il Sung’s official biography was later joined by his father when his family moved there.

The first major event in the Korean independence movement occurred on March 1st 1919 when the Korean Declaration of Independence was read out demonstrations took place all over the country.

As a result, in April, the Korean Provisional Government was formed in Shanghai.

kim il sung

Kim Il Sung leads his guerilla army on an assault against a Japanese garrison in Manchuria along with Chinese soldiers, 1933
(North Korean painting)

The ideological division of Korea and a North-South division (albeit in China at this time) can be traced back to these years. The independence movement was severely divided along with the nationalist (the Provisional Government and those fighting against the Japanese in southern China and later on in the Southeast Asian Theatre of World War II along with Chiang Kai-shek) and socialists (fighting against the Japanese in guerilla warfare in Manchuria along with Chinese communists and the Soviets, many Koreans joined either of these communist parties and formed Korean cells in them). A united front was unable to form against the Japanese.


Korean Army of Volunteers in China, 1938
(Museum of the War of Chinese People's Resistance Against Japanese Aggression, Beijing)

The first leaders of the divided nation also emerged during these days and became known for the later invading forces. North Korean leader-to-be Kim Il Sung joined the guerilla forces in Manchuria in April 1932 (in the USSR from 1940 on), while the first President of South Korea Syngman Rhee was the first President of the Provisional Government (1919-1925) and spent most of these years in the United States.

Although the resistance movement was acting in Korea as well, most of their activities took place in China that ranged from assassinations and assassination attempts to guerilla warfare.

The North Korean historic narrative refers to this period as the anti-Japanese Revolutionary Struggle which plays a significant role in the national identity almost as far that one has the impression that Korean history starts at this time (not to mention the Juche calendar in which year 1 is the birth-year of Kim Il Sung in 1912).

In the North Korean historic canon, Kim Il Sung and his comrades among them his first wife and mother of Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Suk spent this time in the Northern border region and in secret camps around Mt. Peaktu fighting the Japanese in the Anti-Japanese People’s Guerilla Army.

Liberation of Korea

In 1943 at the Cairo Conference, Churchill, Roosevelt and Chiang Kai-shek agreed that Korea will be a free and independent nation after the War, an idea that was supported by Stalin at the Tehran Conference. 

On August 6th 1945, the US dropped the first atomic bomb in Japan on Hiroshima – in which many Korean forced labourers also died – and the Soviet Army launched a military campaign in Manchukuo on August 9th, the same day the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.

While the Soviets fought the Japanese on the battlefields of Manchuria, the fate of Korea was decided at the negotiation tables.

At the Potsdam Conference, the Allied Forces agreed to divide the Korean Peninsula along the 38th parallel, north of which the Soviets will disarm the Japanese while south of it the Americans, forming two occupation zones.

On August 15th Emperor Hirohito announced the surrender of Japan to the Allied Forces, and as a result, Japanese colonial rule ended in Korea.

north korea

Arch of Triumph in Pyongyang honouring Kim Il Sung’s triumphal return to Korea after the liberation in 1945 after 20 years of exile fighting the Japanese

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Gergo Vaczi

Greg is the Koryo Tours DPRK Tour Manager.

He grew up in post-socialist Hungary and first travelled to North Korea as a tourist in 2016 following in the footsteps of his grandparents, who visited in 1988. He has since lived in the Netherlands, Israel, China, Korea and Iceland and holds a degree in Sociology and Anthropology. He has taken 26 groups to North Korea and lived in Seoul studying the Korean language full-time for two years. He also completed a long study course in Korean at a university in Pyongyang.

Read more about Greg's journey to become a North Korean Tour Leader here.

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