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March 1st Independence Struggle

A nationwide uprising on March 1, 1919 in Korea was an outcry for national survival in the face of the intolerable aggression, oppression, and plundering by the Japanese colonialists. An apparent sudden change in the international situation in the wake of World War I stimulated a group of Korean leaders to launch an independence struggle, both at home and abroad. Among the activities of Korean leaders abroad, Syngman Rhee, then in the United States, planned to go to Paris in 1918 to make an appeal for Korean independence, but his travel abroad was not permitted by the U.S. government, which considered its relationship with Japan more important. As an alternative, Rhee made a personal appeal to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, who was in Paris at that time, to place Korea under the trusteeship of the League of Nations.

In December 1918, Korean students in Tokyo discussed the question of Korean independence and selected a committee of 10 members, including Ch'oe P'al-yong, to put their plan into practice in January 1919. They convened a meeting of the Korean Student Association at the Korean Young Men's Christian Association building in Tokyo and declared Korean independence, but the students who gathered were dispersed by police after a brief clash. On February 23, they held a rally in Hibiya Park under the auspices of the Korean Youth Independence Corps, and staged demonstrations calling for Korean independence. Their aim was to stimulate independence resistance and make an appeal to the international society of nations.

The New Korea Youth Party was organized in China in 1918, and it was decided that Kim Kyu-shik would be sent to the Paris Peace Conference to appeal for Korean independence. The party broadened its contacts with leaders in China, the United States, Japan, Manchuria and the Maritime Province of Siberia to promote its cause.

At home, leaders of the Ch'hondogyo (formerly Tonghak) movement, the most prominent among them being Son Pyong-hui, decided that the independence movement should be popular in nature and non-violent. Under the leadership of Yi Sang-jae and Pak Hui-do, directors of the Young Men's Christian Association, students rallied to the banner of independence. The leaders of the movement also opened contact with Yi Sung-hun. The contributions of Ch'oe Nam-son and Kim To-t'ae were especially valuable in cementing ties between Ch'aondogyo and Christian leaders.

On the Buddhist side, Han Yong-un had been carrying out a reform movement to rescue Buddhism from its decline caused by Japanese policy, and he also called strongly for an independence movement. Receiving an offer of cooperation from the Ch'tondogyo leaders, he immediately responded. The Confucianists had been constantly expressing antagonism to Japanese aggression, and some of them led the volunteer "righteous armies" in direct engagements with the Japanese.

The independence movement was planned also in close liaison with various organizations which had been operating in secret. The climax came on March 1, 1919, when, during a period of public mourning for the recently deceased Emperor Kojong, the Declaration of Korean Independence was publicly proclaimed at Pagoda Park in Seoul. The aroused citizenry then demonstrated in the streets, shouting for Korean independence. This ignited a nationwide movement in which many people took part, regardless of locality and social status.

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The Koreans who were arrested by the Japanese and brought to trial represented all occupations and educational levels. Whereas the Koreans had no weapons at that time, the Japanese had stationed in their colony regular ground forces of one and a half divisions, in addition to a 5,402-man police force in 751 stations and a military police force nearly 8,000 strong. By mobilizing these armed forces, the Japanese perpetrated brutal atrocities in their effort to suppress the peaceful demonstrations of the Korean people. The Japanese side reinforced its police by throwing six infantry battalions and 400 military police troops into the suppression campaign. These forces killed about 7,500 Koreans and wounded nearly 16,000.

Defining any Korean taking part in the independence resistance as a criminal, the Japanese decided to cope with subsequent demonstrations by a policy of massacre. A case at Suwon, Kyonggi-do province, was typical. On April 15 that year, a squad of Japanese troops ordered about 30 villagers to assemble in a Christian church, closed all the windows and doors, then set the building afire. While the church burned for five hours, the Japanese soldiers aimed a concentrated barrage at the confined civilians, killing all of them, including women and infants. The Japanese soldiers also burned 31 houses in the village, then set fire to 317 houses in 15 villages in the vicinity. Informed of the incident, F.W. Schofield, a Canadian missionary, and other American missionaries visited the scene of the incident on April 17, personally viewing the traces of Japanese atrocities, and informed the world of what they had seen.

The 33 signers of the Declaration of Korean Independence were taken before a Japanese court for trial, along with 48 others who worked in close cooperation with them for the independence movement. One of the prisoners, Han Yong-un, wrote "A Letter of Korean Independence," stating the reasons why the Korean people should be free. This writing ranks with the three-article Public Pledge attached to the Declaration of Korean Independence as one of the basic documents which laid the spiritual foundation of the 1919 independence movement. The Korean people in the course of the movement realized the necessity for both a government and armed resistance.

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Information provided by the Korean Embassy

 


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