Korea’s Shanghai gov’t was born 100 years ago
First in a three-part series
This year marks the centennial anniversary of the establishment of Korea’s provisional government in Shanghai on April 11, 1919, following the March 1 Independence Movement, the peaceful, nationwide demonstrations which proclaimed the country’s independence from Japanese colonial rule. The provisional government of the Republic of Korea, established as a democratic republic, lasted until Korea’s liberation after World War II. In a three-part series, the Korea JoongAng Daily will reflect through the eyes of scholars 100 years later and the media of the time on the significance of the provisional government in shaping a modern Korea.
Inspired by the massive independence movement burgeoning back home, a group of 29 Korean independence leaders gathered in a two-story building in the cosmopolitan French Concession area of Shanghai on April 10, 1919.
They tasked themselves with establishing a new government in the aftermath of the nationwide mass demonstrations which kicked off on March 1 in Seoul, in which Korea declared its independence from Japanese colonial rule.
Shanghai was the ideal location for the Korean provisional government as a commercial and diplomatic hub of Asia.
The independence activists from various regions quickly agreed to launch a provisional assembly. The first meeting of the assembly was immediately convened, and was chaired by Yi Dong-nyeong, who later served as a president of the Korean provisional government.
Their objective was to establish an independent country, as was proclaimed through the March 1 Independence Movement. They discussed the details of establishing a provisional government, such as what to name the new country and what to include in its constitution.
The meeting continued into the next morning.
On April 11, 1919, the provisional government of the Republic of Korea was established.
The name of the new country was the Republic of Korea, and it was declared to be a democratic republic.
The Shanghai government, over the next few months, consolidated a provisional council based in Russia’s Vladivostok and the Hanseong government based in Seoul.
The Korean provisional government survived for over a quarter century. In the 1930s, the government moved from Shanghai to other cities across China until Japan’s surrender on Aug. 15, 1945. It was officially dissolved on Aug. 15, 1948.
“At the time of the March 1 movement, the Joseon monarchy disappeared with colonization by Japan, but we were still left with the imperial system,” said Baik Young-seo, a professor of history at Yonsei University. “But the desire of the people was gathered together as they called for a democratic republic. This desire was reflected in the process of creating a provisional assembly.”
“In over 4,000 years of our history, we have set up countries under different names, such as Buyeo, Goguryeo, Baekjae, Silla, Goryeo and Joseon,” said Han Si-jun, a history professor at Dankook University. “Until the fall of the Korean Empire in August 1910, we had a history in which the monarch held sovereignty, and the country was an absolute monarchy.”
Throughout its independence movement, Korea transformed from a monarchy to a democratic republican form of government, and the name Republic of Korea also stems from the provisional government. Likewise, the provisional constitution is considered the blueprint of the current South Korean Constitution.
“The March 1 independence movement and the establishment of the provisional government represents the change from sovereignty being held by the monarch to the people, and a country ruled by an absolute monarchy to a democratic republic,” Han continued. “We are now living in the Republic of Korea. And this marks the 100th anniversary of the country called the Republic of Korea.”
The short-lived Korean Empire (1897-1910) came to a close on Aug. 29, 1910, with the Korea-Japan Annexation Treaty.
Koreans had lost their country.
Following World War I (1914-1918), activists, both in Korea and overseas, were on the move to declare their independence from Japan. They were in part inspired by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s “Fourteen Points” speech and principle of national self-determination, and were intent on making an appeal at the Paris Peace Conference, which opened in January 1919 as the Allied powers discussed how to deal with the aftermath of World War I.
Emperor Gojong (1852-1919) died suddenly on Jan. 21, marking the end of an era. Gojong was the last king of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) and the first emperor of the Korean Empire before the Japanese annexation in 1910. His funeral was set for early March, and activists, frustrated with nine years of Japan’s oppressive colonial rule, were mobilized.
Koreans of all classes, ages, religion and regions gathered together in peaceful demonstrations that began on March 1 in Seoul, and 33 leaders proclaimed Korea’s independence and demanded liberation from Japan’s colonial rule. The rallies also took place in other cities the same day in Korea and became a nationwide grassroots movement, where people called out Manse, or “Long live!”
The Korean people, through the March 1 Proclamation of Independence, declared that Korea was a sovereign nation and that Japan’s occupation was null and void.
The March 1 Independence Movement took place amid the wave of anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism heightened by the end of World War I. Koreans carried out independence activities in countries including the United States, China and Manchuria as they faced strict censorship back home.
Shanghai had been the destination for key independence leaders such as Kim Koo, Kim Kyu-sik, and Sin Chae-ho, and from the beginning of the year, activists were busy preparing for the independence movement. Independence activists in Shanghai joined forces with members of the New Korea Youth Association who fled to China after the March 1 movement. The activists in Shanghai were elated at the news of the March 1 movement. They opened a liaison office, where activists gathered to share information and discuss policy direction.
“At that time, one center of civilization and exchange in East Asia was Tokyo, and the other was Shanghai,” said Baik Young-seo of Yonsei University. “It was thus natural to gather in Shanghai, which is also the site of the French Concession, to resist the force in Tokyo.”
Against such a backdrop, the provisional government in Shanghai was established the following month as 29 leaders gathered in a building in the French Concession over April 10 and 11 to convene the first provisional assembly.
The activist leaders organized the provisional legislative assembly and launched the Korean provisional government as a democratic republic.
Article 1 of the provisional charter reads that the “Republic of Korea shall be a democratic republic.”
The Korean people made clear that the nation would not return to a monarchy, marking the end of the Korean Empire. The Republic of Korea provisional government in Shanghai, the provisional council in the Russian Far East and the Hanseong government in Seoul were established nearly simultaneously. Through the efforts of independence activists, namely patriot Ahn Chang-ho, a leader in the Korean-American community who had been active in San Francisco, the three provisional governments were eventually consolidated in Shanghai in September 1919.
“On March 1, 1919, Korea rejected Japanese colonial rule and proclaimed itself an independent country,” said Han Si-jun of Dankook University. “After declaring independence on March 1, we had to set up an independent nation, but it was difficult to get in touch with each other at that time. The three provisional governments were established separately, but they could not all play the role of representing the people, so they entered the process of consolidation right away. Thus, on Sept. 11, 1919, the three governments were consolidated into one. The government was headquartered in Shanghai, its name was the Republic of Korea provisional government, and its authenticity was recognized in Korea by the Hanseong government.”
The provisional constitution was enacted on Sept. 11, 1919.
“If you look back in history, the provisional governments in the Russian Far East and Hanseong did not try to purport it had to become the representative government but were for unifying, which is significant in our history,” said Han. “The people in Russia’s Far East generally held the ideology of socialism at the time, while the activists in Korea and Shanghai generally held strong nationalism ideology, so it was also significant that they were able to achieve such consolidation.”
Earlier that year, in the beginning of February, activist Kim Kyu-sik set off for Europe from Shanghai for the Paris Peace Conference first as a representative sent by independence group Sinhan Cheongnyeondang, or the New Korea Youth Association, in an attempt to convey Korea’s bid for national independence.
After April, Kim became a representative of the Korean provisional government. While he did not achieve the goal of gaining international recognition of Korea as an independent country, his activities set a platform for future diplomatic efforts by the provisional government.
The provisional government continued to work on diplomatic activities to gain international recognition, though without much avail. It eventually formed its own military in 1940.
Shanghai continued to serve as the headquarters for the provisional government for 13 years before it was forced to move out as the city was attacked by Japan in 1932. The Second Sino-Japanese War between China and Japan took place between 1937 and 1945.
As Japan closed in, the Korean provisional government moved westward across Chinese cities, from Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province, and eventually ended up in Chongqing in southwestern China in 1940, where it remained until Korea’s liberation. The Korean Liberation Army was formed on Sept. 17, 1940, in Chongqing.
Syngman Rhee served as the first president of the Korean provisional government, from 1919 to 1925, and later went on to become the first president of the Republic of Korea. Kim Koo served as the last president of the provisional government before its liberation from Japanese colonial rule, serving from 1940 to 1947.
“The provisional government signifies the nation of the Republic of Korea, and on March 1, we proclaimed that we were an independent nation,” said Han. “The independent nation we established was the Republic of Korea. In order to maintain a nation, a government is needed, hence a provisional government was set up. So in our history in 1919, the Republic of Korea was established. When the Korean Empire failed, the Republic of Korea was established.”
In a reflection of the activists’ efforts to spread the word to the Western world about their independence movement, the establishment of the provisional government of the Republic of Korea was well covered by U.S. media at the time.
The Los Angeles Times in its April 3, 1919, edition featured an article with the headline “Koreans to Ban Kings; Republic Held Aim of Rebellion; Efforts to Throw off Japan’s Yoke are Told by China’s Peace Delegate.”
“Korea is certain to adopt a republican form of government in the event that she achieves her desire to become independent of Japan,” the article quotes “Hon. Wang Ching Wai” from China, or Wang Jingwei, who later became president of the Japanese puppet government in Nanjing, as he was on his way to the Paris Peace Conference to be an adviser to the Chinese delegation. Wang continues, “In her effort to secure her independence she has the entire moral support of China, all that we are able to extend to her.”
The San Francisco Examiner, on the front page of its April 5, 1919, edition, declared “Koreans Set Up New Republic: New Formation of Provisional Government Received in San Francisco.” The article reads, “News of the formation of a provisional government by Korea and plans for a military campaign against Japan reached San Francisco yesterday in cablegrams from Shanghai to the Korean National Association,” and describes the provisional government as “republican in form.”
The New York Times, on Page 3 of its April 17 edition, featured an article headlined “Hear Koreans Set Up Government at Seoul; Chinese Cities Get Reports of Japanese Excesses in Trying to Curb Movement.”
The Honolulu-based Pacific Commercial Advertiser in its April 19 edition’s front page reads, “Koreans Circulate Mysterious Daily; Japanese Baffled: Uprising Against Japan Rule Greatest Demonstration in History - Thousands Brave Torture for Cause of Independence.” In its April 20, 1919, edition, the newspaper ran a full banner headline on its front page: “Koreans Demand Full Freedom.”
In the Pacific Commercial Advertiser’s May 13 edition, the article “Rhee pleads for Korea; Big Four is Asked to Act: Representatives of ‘Hermit Kingdom’ Present Petition for Independence to Council” reported that Syngman Rhee of Honolulu, secretary of state of the provisional government of Korea, requested that the Paris Peace Conference “give recognition to Korea’s claims to independence” in a message forwarded to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson.
It adds, “Dispatches from Paris yesterday said a petition from the Korean people and Korean nation asking for liberation from Japan was submitted to the peace conference Monday by representatives of Korea. The petition also asks for the recognition of Korea as an independent state and also for the nullification of the treaty of August 1910, under the terms of which Korea was placed under the suzerainty of Japan.”
A Pacific Commercial Advertiser Page 1 headline on June 17 reads: “Equal Suffrage and Abolition of Titles Provided by Koreans: Adopt Provisional Constitution - Compulsory Education and Admission to League of Nations Are Clauses in Document.”
It describes: “Equal suffrage, compulsory education and military training and the abolition of titles and other evidences of class distinction are provided in the constitution of the new [Korean] Republic, promulgated on April 27 at an unnamed city in the Orient. Copies of the constitution have been received by officials of the Korean National Association of Hawaii.”
In September, U.S. media went on to cover the enactment of the provisional constitution and also referred to the Republic of Korea for the first time.
On Sept. 1, the New York Times on Page 2 ran an article with the headline, “Proclaims Korea a Free Republic; ‘President’ Rhee Renounces Japanese Sovereignty and Asks for Recognition. Outlines the Constitution; Plans Government Based on Principles Expressed by Wilson, Lincoln, and Washington.”
It reads, “In a proclamation addressed to ‘the people of the world,’ the ‘Republic of Korea’ was proclaimed today. The proclamation is signed by Dr. Syngman Rhee, who signs as ‘President of the Republic of Korea.’”
Likewise, the Boston Globe on its Sept. 1 edition wrote, “Independence of Korea Proclaimed: Japanese Aggression and Cupidity Condemned.”
The Washington Post’s Sept. 1 edition read on Page 3: “Proclaim Free Korea: ‘Republic’ Officials Renounce the Sovereignty of Japan.”
The San Francisco Chronicle on May 11, Page 1, further covers: “Conditions in Korea during the revolution against Japanese rule are described in a letter made public here today by the headquarters of the ‘provisional Government of Korea.’”
While foreign governments did not officially recognize the Korean provisional government, the media to a certain extent conveyed the creation of a Korean state and a provisional government, as well as the enactment of a constitution and election of its first president.
A bridge to today’s Korea
The provisional government declared itself a democratic republican government, enabling the transition from traditional Korean monarchy to the democratic republic of South Korea today.
The declarations made by the Korean provisional government and in its constitution are the blueprints to the current South Korean Constitution promulgated in 1948.
Some scholars have pointed out that the provisional government ultimately failed to gain recognition from the international community. However, at this period in history, imperialist countries had no reason to recognize a government trying to escape imperialism and colonial rule.
Instead, the provisional government signifies Korea’s pursuit of modernization, pursuing ideologies such as a modern democracy, civic society, liberty, equality and human dignity.
Kim Hee-gon, a history professor at Andong National University and director of the Gyeongsangbuk-do Independence Movement Memorial, said, “In 1910, the country failed, and the emperor gave up sovereignty, and where does the throne go to traditionally? It wouldn’t be Japan. From that instant, sovereignty automatically goes to the people. But in the case when the people cannot exercise sovereignty, it is the duty of the independence activists to regain such sovereignty and enable the people to exercise it.”
“Did the provisional government bring about Korea’s independence or did the government actually rule?” said Baik. “Perhaps not, as it was more symbolic, but it was still significant. Some may say that the provisional government at that time did not amount to much, but the provisional government in 1919 brought together the Koreans abroad in the United States, Russia and China, and the various movements, toward a provisional government. It was before activists were split between left and right.”
Ultimately, Korea through the March 1 movement and the establishment of a provisional government gave birth to a modern state and granted sovereignty to the people. Article 2 of the provisional constitution stipulates: “The sovereignty of the Republic of Korea rests with all Koreans.”
The preamble of South Korea’s constitution adopted in 1948 states: “We, the people of Korea, proud of a resplendent history and traditions dating from time immemorial,” upholds “the cause of the Provisional Republic of Korea Government born of the March First Independence Movement of 1919.” Likewise, Article 1 states “The Republic of Korea shall be a democratic republic,” and that “the sovereignty of the Republic of Korea shall reside in the people.”
Kim said, “The March 1 movement’s Proclamation of Korean Independence in its first line declares that Korea is an independent state. The Shanghai independence activists came up with the Republic of Korea as its name. Article 1 of the provisional constitution decided that the Republic of Korea shall be a democratic republic, the same as Article 1 of our constitution today. And the independence activists organized a parliamentary government through the Korean provisional government.”
“In the past, people, such as in the case of Sin Chae-ho, the Korean independence activist who held the Great Man theory, waited for a hero to save the country when it failed,” said Kim. “But through the March 1 movement, the people held grassroots mass demonstrations as they recognized that the masses are the impetus for change in history.”
BY SARAH KIM [firstname.lastname@example.org]