March 1 movement had deep roots in North

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March 1 movement had deep roots in North


The New York Times on the front page of its April 14, 1919 edition, covered a story of the arrest of an American missionary in Pyongyang. [NEW YORK TIMES ARCHIVE]

On March 1, 1919, as thousands of people in Seoul flocked to the streets to proclaim Korea’s independence from Japan’s colonial rule, similar demonstrations were taking place in six other cities in present-day North Korea.

The movement began downtown Seoul as 33 leaders from across the country convened at Taiwhagwan, a restaurant in Jongno District, to sign the Proclamation of Korean Independence on March 1, 1919. Students also held a ceremony declaring Korea’s independence and kicked off street demonstrations at Pagoda Park nearby, calling out “Manse,” or “long live.”

Around the same time in Pyongyang, activists from the Presbyterian and Methodist churches and followers of Chondogyo, an indigenous religious movement that means the “heavenly way,” likewise held ceremonies to declare Korea’s independence from colonial rule. Hundreds of activists, including students from the Sungdeok and Sunghyeon academies, took to the streets to demonstrate peacefully.

Similar demonstrations were held in Jinnampo, Sunchon and Anju (South Pyongan), Uiju (North Pyongan) and Wonsan (Kangwon), all in North Korea. In cities such as Wonsan, students at Christian missionary schools also joined the protests.

Scholars today recall the March 1 Independence Movement as a rare event in Korea’s modern history that can be jointly celebrated by the entire Korean Peninsula. The nationwide, peaceful mass movement harkens back to a time when the peninsula was not yet divided. It brought together people of all social classes, ages, gender, religions and regions to protest Japan’s colonial rule, which lasted from 1910 to 1945.


Rock climbers shout out “Manse,” or “long live,” on the peak of Mount Bulam, northern Seoul, Sunday to mark the centennial anniversary of 1919’s March 1 Independence Movement. [NEWS1]

South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at their third summit last fall agreed to “jointly commemorate the 100th anniversary of the March First Independence Movement Day.”

The plans for a joint North-South government celebration of the anniversary, however, were not realized. Pyongyang told Seoul last Thursday it would not be able to take part in a joint celebration.

Religious leaders, politicians and scholars alike have called the 100th anniversary of the March 1 movement a moment to recall the spirit of peace and unity envisioned by the Korean independence fighters who called held the Manse demonstrations.

“What is the spirit of the March 1 movement?” asked Lee Soon-ja, a chief researcher at the Institute of the History of Christianity in Korea. “If you think about what the 33 leaders would like to tell us today, surely that would be peace and unification. Because what they desired surely was not a divided country.”

“The youths who put their lives on the line and called out ‘Manse’ surely envisioned a unified homeland,” said Lee. “However, 100 years later, the decedents have yet to achieve this. That’s something we should be embarrassed about now. The year 2019 that they envisioned was not a divided peninsula, but a unified one.”


Leaders of Korea’s seven largest religions take part in the “World Peace Prayer Gathering for the Centennial Commemoration of the March First Movement” at Dorasan Station in Paju, Gyeonggi, with a group of some 250 people from home and abroad and a children’s choir on Feb. 20. [YONHAP]

Pyongyang in the eyes of the West

“This is the center of the present uprising,” wrote Frederick Arthur McKenzie, a Canadian journalist. “It is not in Seoul but in Pyeng-yang [Pyongyang].”

McKenzie (1869-1931) was quoting an article from the Osaka Asahi newspaper as he recounted the March 1 movement in detail in his 1920 book, “Korea’s Fight for Freedom,” which included a chapter entitled “The Reign of Terror in Pyeng-yang.”

In his book, McKenzie described Pyongyang as the “famous missionary center in Northern Korea,” adding, “The people here, Christians and non-Christians alike, took a prominent part in the movement.”

Pastor Kil Son-ju of Pyongyang, a Presbyterian leader and one of the 33 signatories described by McKenzie as one of the most “famous Christians in Korea,” missed the meeting in Seoul because of traveling delays. Only 29 actually made it to the ceremony.

McKenzie said that three memorial services were held on March 1, 1919, in memory of the late Emperor Gojong (1852-1919), the last king of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). They were held at the compound of the Christian Boys’ School, at the Methodist church and at the headquarters of the Chondogo religious movement.

McKenzie wrote that “a veritable reign of terror was instituted” following the events of March 1. He detailed the Japanese police’s arrest, beatings, torture and imprisonment of Koreans linked with the demonstrations.

“Despite everything, the demonstrations of the people still continued,” he added, describing that on March 7 villagers from 20 miles north of Pyongyang “came out practically en masse to shout for independence.” This led to a scuffle the following day as Japanese soldiers stabbed a school teacher and a church elder with swords. Young men threw stones at the soldiers as they left, he wrote, and the soldiers “replied with rifle fire, wounding four men.”

McKenzie, as a correspondent in Asia, authored several books, including “The Tragedy of Korea,” published in 1908, which detailed Japan’s plunder of the peninsula. He had long been a supporter of Korea’s independence and was a founder of the “League of the Friends of Korea” in the United Kingdom in 1920 with activist Earl K. Hwang, or Hwang Ki-hwan.

U.S. media at the time covered in detail the arrest of Eli Miller Mowry of Ohio, an American Presbyterian missionary active in Pyongyang. The houses of Mowry and two other American Presbyterian pastors, Samuel Moffett and Ansel Gillis, were searched on April 4.

Mowry was indicted on charges that he harbored Korean students in his house. He eventually received a six month sentence at a Pyongyang district court and was released on bail. Mowry later appealed the case.

The New York Times ran the story on the front page of its April 14, 1919 edition, writing “Japanese Arrest Americans in Korea; Houses of Rev. Drs. Moffett, Gillis, and Mowry at Pyeng Yang Searched by Police. Dr. Mowry is detained; Accused of Permitting Use of His Premises for Printing Revolutionary Propaganda.”

Mowry, a teacher at the Union Christian College, and principal of boys’ and girls’ grammar schools in Pyongyang, was “detained on the charge of sheltering Korean agitators,” according to McKenzie. Mowry said he only let Koreans sleep at his house and that “he had no knowledge that the police were trying to arrest these lads.”

Mowry was jailed for 10 days. “Then he was suddenly brought before the Pyeng-yang court, no time being given for him to obtain counsel, and was sentenced to six months’ penal servitude,” McKenzie wrote. “He was led away wearing a prisoners’ cap, a wicker basket, placed over the head and face.”

On the first page of their May 19 edition, The Los Angeles Times published an article datelined Pyongyang and titled “Missionary to Prison Says High Jap Court” that describes how Mowry was later sentenced by a higher court to serve four months in penal servitude for sheltering Korean agitators and suspended the sentence for two years.” Mowry appealed again.

“Missionaries at that time held the motto of separation of politics from religion,” said historian Lee Soon-ja. “Thus, it was their general principle not to conduct any activity that interrupts their missionary work and to avoid intervening directly in Korean politics. In some ways, their attitude could have been considered stern or indifferent, but then there were also exceptions like Dr. Frank Schofield or Ansel Gillis.”

Dr. Frank W. Schofield, a British-born Canadian veterinarian and missionary, is sometimes called the 34th patriot for his support of the Korean independence activists.

“Of course there were also missionaries who may have been opposed to the movement, but there were those like Schofield, who was called the 34th patriot,” said Lee. “Such missionaries did not lead or organize the Manse movement, but through their writings, they were able to report what was happening in Korea and relay it to the world media. Thus, they had influence over how global opinion was formed, and their role in enabling countries to have interest in Korea’s independence movement was considerably important.”


Left: The 33 leaders of the independence movement - including representatives from present-day North Korea - at a ceremony to sign the Proclamation of Korean Independence at the Taiwhagwan restaurant in Jongno District, central Seoul, on March 1, 1919, in a picture at the Independence Hall of Korea. Only 29 leaders actually made it to the signing ceremony that day. Right: President Moon Jae-in, third from right, on Feb. 19, receives a New York State resolution honoring Korean independence activist Yu Gwan-sun, which was adopted in January, at the Blue House. [YONHAP, BLUE HOUSE]

Korea celebrates

On Feb. 20, around 250 local and global religious leaders, along with scholars, held a prayer for peace at the Dorasan Station in Paju, Gyeonggi, near the inter-Korean border, to reflect on the meaning of the March 1 movement.

They included Korea’s seven largest religions - including Buddhism, Protestantism and Catholicism. These leaders called on the people of today to commemorate the spirit of the March 1 Independence Movement.

Earlier this month, these members of the Korean Conference of Religions for Peace, released a statement that read: “The March 1 movement is not a mere declaration of independence from colonial Japan. It was a declaration that all human beings are equal and represented hope for a new world humankind will build together.”

They also urged North Korea to join in centennial events commemorating the March 1 independence movement against Japan’s brutal colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

The seven religious groups will take part in a government-organized ceremony scheduled to take place at Gwanghwamun Square, central Seoul, on March 1. They will simultaneously ring a bell at all churches, cathedrals and Buddhist temples for three minutes beginning at noon on the centennial anniversary and also participate in separate ceremonies planned in other provinces.

The South’s Presidential Commission on the Centennial Anniversary of March 1 Independence Movement and the Korea Provisional Government were launched in July last year to organize a slew of government events.

The commission focuses on various events to mark 100 years of the Republic of Korea by examining its rapid national transformation and exploring strategies for the next 100 years, including the establishment of peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula.

On July 3, President Moon Jae-in said, “The March First Independence Movement was the declaration and the act by which the Korean people spoke out about the value of independence, peace, democracy and human rights.”

Stating his hopes for joint commemorative events with the North to mark the centennial anniversary, Moon continued, “If the South and North can share together the history of Korean independence, both will become much closer in their hearts.”

Moon pushed to jointly commemorate the 100th anniversary of the March 1 Independence Movement this year with North Korea.

Yet the North had been unresponsive despite the Pyongyang Declaration last September, which called for working-level consultations to make such preparations.

On Thursday, the South Korean Ministry of Unification said it had officially been notified by Pyongyang that “it would be difficult” for the two Koreas to jointly hold a ceremony to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the March 1 movement together this Friday. Ri Son-gwon, chairman of the North’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country, was said to have explained through a letter “that circumstances do not allow it,” without specifying further.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is scheduled to hold a second summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in Hanoi, Vietnam, Wednesday and Thursday, right before the March 1movement anniversary, likely leaving Pyongyang preoccupied with preparations for the talks.

Some scholars have pointed out that the two Koreas may share different views on the historical significance of the March 1 movement. South Korea commemorates its roots in the establishment of the Republic of Korea provisional government in Shanghai in April 1919. North Korea is said to prefer highlighting its founder Kim Il Sung’s anti-Japanese activities instead.

Nonetheless, there still remains room for civilian cooperation between the South and North to mark the anniversary.

The Seoul Metropolitan Government, other municipal provincial governments and cities are also organizing interactive events, exhibitions, and educational and cultural programs to pay tribute to the movement at a local level.

On March 1, South Korea will host re-enactments of the “Manse” demonstrations, including a march from Seoul City Hall to the Gwanghwamun intersection in central Seoul, with participants shouting, “Daehan dongnip manse,” or “Long live the independence of Korea,” re-enacting their ancestors 100 years ago. Commemorative events, both governmental and civilian-based, will not only be limited to Korea, but will also be organized abroad.

The South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated last week that it will also attempt to involve the 7.4 million Koreans overseas in celebrating the 100th anniversary of the March 1 movement and the establishment of the provisional government of the Republic of Korea. It added that 49 Korean overseas missions will carry out 64 projects over the course of the year, including holding receptions, tours of independence movement sites, lectures and academic seminars, photo exhibitions and film screenings.

South Korea and China will jointly host a “friendship caravan” and invite 100 young people to tour the provisional government’s five locations in China by train. It will also establish a peace memorial museum in Utoro, Japan, to save a residential area of Korean laborers who were mobilized to construct military airfields in Japan from demolition.

In a statement, the Foreign Ministry said the events are intended to share with the globe that the March 1 Independence Movement sought “not only the liberation of Korea but also peace in the East and the world; and to build trust and solidarity needed for establishing future-oriented peace in Northeast Asia for reconciliation and co-existence as well as peace in the entire world.”

Korean communities abroad also lent support to remember the March 1 movement. On Jan. 15, the New York State Legislature adopted a resolution to designate a memorial day to honor the young female Korean independence activist Yu Gwan-sun (1902-20) through the efforts of the Korean American Association of Greater New York.

The resolution called “to honor the lasting impacting of Yu Gwan-sun’s legacy as one of the youngest female human rights movement leaders,” and a copy was delivered to President Moon in the Blue House last week.

Amid the March 1 movement back home in 1919, Koreans overseas played a role in their communities in spreading word about the peaceful independence demonstrations and appealing to foreign governments.

A vision for unification

“The peaceful uprising of the people of Korea against Japan in the spring of 1919 came as a world surprise,” wrote Frederick McKenzie in 1920. “Here was a nation that had been ticketed and docketed by world statesmen as degenerate and cowardly, revealing heroism of a very high order.”

While North Korea will not take part in an official joint ceremony with the South this Friday, the centennial anniversary is a moment to reflect on the shared history, brotherhood and vision for a peaceful, united peninsula, scholars point out.

“March 1 is perhaps the unique event in modern history that South and North Korea can jointly celebrate together,” said Han In-sup, a law professor at Seoul National University who also serves as the president of the Korean Institute of Criminology. “It falls before the splitting of left and right from the 1920s, then the splitting of the South and North, and is a moment to reflect on the influence and strength of the people when unified together.”

He pointed out that March 1 should be a moment to celebrate the shared history both in Seoul and Pyongyang. He noted “The Pyongan region in particular showed great force and spirit during the movement, and it was Pyongyang and this region that was first communicated with during the March 1 movement.”

Park Chan-seung, a history professor at Hanyang University and chairman of the Association for Korean Historical Studies, notes that the South Korean Constitution’s preamble calls to “uphold the cause of the Provisional Republic of Korea Government born of the March First Independence Movement of 1919 and the democratic ideals of the April Nineteenth Uprising of 1960 against injustice, having assumed the mission of democratic reform and peaceful unification of our homeland and having determined to consolidate national unity with justice, humanitarianism and brotherly love, and to destroy all social vices and injustice, and to afford equal opportunities to every person.”

Park continued, “The March 1 proclamation calls upon justice, humanitarianism and brotherly love, and our Constitution succeeds the spirit of the March 1 movement. While South and North Korea are divided and there have been conflict and issues in the past, as we face the 100th anniversary, I believe now is the stage to transcend all this and embrace justice, humanitarianism and brotherly love.”

The March 1 Proclamation states, “The enslavement of 20 million resentful people by force does not contribute to lasting peace in the East.” It continues that independence for Korea shall not only “enable Koreans to lead a normal, prosperous life, but help the “cause of world peace and happiness for mankind, which depends greatly on peace in the East.”

Thus, the declaration of the independence activists is now regarded as having went beyond its times to envision a liberated Korea, not only for the sake of its people but for peace in East Asia, including in Japan and China.

“In the late 19th century, our task of the era was to get rid of feudalism and imperialism,” said Lee Soon-ja of the Institute of the History of Christianity in Korea. “During the time of Japanese colonial rule, it was our independence movement. And after liberation, it was to create a true democracy for the Republic of Korea. So, what is the task of today? I believe that it is peace and unification.”

“What we need to bear in mind as we mark the centennial of the March 1 movement is that we need to transcend religion, social stratum, political affiliation and worldview, and join determined to see how we can attain a peacefully united Korean Peninsula,” said Lee.

“Likewise, in terms of Korea-Japan relations and Northeast Asia relations, when South and North Korea are unified, I believe that new prospects will open up for Korea-Japan relations and Korea’s position in Northeast Asia will also be elevated. Thus, if the spirit of the March 1 movement can materialize today, I believe it will be in the form of peace and unification of the Korean Peninsula.”


Mass movement that led to a modern Korea

Resistance in Tokyo encouraged the March 1 Movement
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