Pyongyang Review of Books:
The March 1st Movement in
'Korea's Fight for Freedom'

On the hundredth anniversary of the 1919 protests against Japanese colonial rule

Mt. Taesong

March 1st 2019 is the 100th anniversary of the large-scale organised public demonstration against Japanese colonial rule that took place across Korea in 1919. The date 3.1 (삼.일) is still venerated as in north and south as a major step in the Korean independence movement. In the south event is known as The March First Movement (3.1운동), while it is called the March First People's Uprising (3.1인민봉기) in the north.

On that Saturday morning a group Korean independence activists met in a restaurant in Seoul to announce ‘The Proclamation of Korean Independence’, drafted in secret, to a group of ‘prominent Japanese’ of the colonial capital. Inspired by US President Woodrow Wilson’s post-World War I ‘Fourteen Points’ advocating national self-determination, the group of thirty-three Korean intellectuals, community and religious leaders chose the upcoming funeral of the deposed Korean monarch Kojong on March 4th as a symbolic impetus for their declaration of explicit non-violent resistance.

In Korea’s Fight for Freedom (1920), F.A McKenzie gives a detailed account of the how these events rapidly developed and were facilitated by different aspects of Korean society at the time. McKenzie writes:

…the Declaration was produced before their guests and read. It was dispatched to the Governor-General [the highest Japanese colonial authority]. Then the signers rang up the Central Police Station, informed the shocked officials of what they had done, and added that they would wait in the restaurant until the police came to arrest them (246).

The drafters’ peaceful submission to the colonial authorities in the morning was followed by coordinated readings of the document in public spaces across the country by community leaders that afternoon, in turn leading to widespread demonstrations on the streets.

Large numbers of copies of the declaration of independence were ready. These were circulated, usually by boys and schoolgirls, sometimes by women, each city being mapped out in districts. It was soon seen that every class of the community was united. Men who had been ennobled by the Japanese stood with the coolies; shopkeepers closed their stores, policemen who had worked the Japanese took off their uniforms, and joined the crowds, porters, and labourers, scholars and preachers, men and women all came together (251-2).

The Japanese crackdown was swift, brutal, and bloody employing both the colonial police and military units to arrest or disperse unarmed civilians. Yet protests continued for over a month into April, particularly in cities and towns in the northern half of the peninsula. The region’s involvement in the demonstrations provides some interesting insight into the regional character of the provinces today making up the DPRK and their subsequent development.

This is the centre of the present uprising. It is not Seoul but in Pyeng-yang.

— McKenzie

Despite a relatively small population compared to the southern half of Korea, "...just under half (fifteen) of the Koreans who signed the March First Declaration of Independence were from Korea's northern provinces. It was the north, however, that rejuvenated the fading movement in the days following King Kojong's funeral" (Caprio in Kim et al. 2010: 311). In the north, a region long discriminated against by Korean regal authority in Seoul since 1392 and oppressed by colonial rule since 1910, three ideas had taken particularly deep roots which inspired widespread resistance to traditional authority, foreign or domestic: the native Korean philosophy/religion of Chondoism (‘Religion of the Heavenly Way’) as well as western-inspired Christianity and Communism. All three provided powerful ideological and organizational means to mobilize the region’s disenfranchised populace and following the long-road to independence in 1945, the three would come to loggerheads, pitting neighbor against neighbor and often with horrific violence. For the time being, the three were united in opposition to Japanese rule and put the northern provinces on the front lines of the ongoing struggle.

Just over two-weeks after the start of the movement, the Japanese Osaka-based Asahi newspaper would claim: "This is the centre of the present uprising. It is not Seoul but in Pyeng-yang" (McKenzie, 1920:284). The region would pay dearly for its valiant stand. Reporting for the Chicago Daily News, the American reporter William R. Giles wrote: “Northern Korea suffered the most from the Japanese brutalities. In the Pyeng-yang and Sensan [North Hamgyong] districts whole villages were destroyed and churches burned…” (272). McKenzie’s own chapter of the event in Pyongyang was titled ‘The Reign of Terror in Pyongyang’.

Today the events of 1919 will be commemorated across the peninsula, north and south. In Pyongyang, there will be a ceremony with speeches by dignitaries, yet echoes of that era are still present in the DPRK today.

The three groups at the centre of the March First Movement in northern Korea all still exist in the DPRK today in some form. While the Korean Worker’s Party is indisputably the ruling political organisation in the DPRK, two minor parties exist for the small communities of Chodonists and Christians and occupy a number of seats in the national legislature. The continued existence of these minor parties is at least partially in recognition of their role in resisting Japanese colonial rule.

Few physical traces from the era remain in Pyongyang, the city having been totally rebuilt following the Korean War. Only the Potong Gate, the west gate of the former city walls, which was a centre of demonstrations can still be seen today.

Perhaps more telling are graves at the Revolutionary Martryrs’ Cemetery in Pyongyang which commemorate those who died in what is referred to in the DPRK as the ‘Anti-Japanese Armed Struggle’. The earliest martyrs in the cemetery died in 1920, the year following the March First Movement. In light of the failure of non-violent protests to achieve independence, many Koreans would begin to consider sabotage, assassination, and eventually guerilla warfare as legitimate means to oppose colonial rule. Many of those who took up arms and survived to see independence in 1945, would later play significant roles in establishing post-independence Korean states in the north and south.

Anti-Japanese Armed Struggle

The Pyongyang Review of Books (PYRB) is a modest literary review of books from the DPRK and Korea related topics. Regular visitors and browsers of Pyongyang’s bookstores. Follow us on Instagram: @pyongyangreviewofbooks.The views expressed in PYRB do not necessarily reflect those of the Koryo Tours.

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