Struggles of provisional government were many
Second in a three-part series
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the establishment of Korea’s provisional government in Shanghai on April 11, 1919, following the March 1 Independence Movement, peaceful, nationwide demonstrations that 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 the significance of the provisional government in shaping a modern Korea.
A young Korean patriot, Yun Bong-gil, set off bombs disguised as a water bottle and lunch box during a rainy birthday celebration for Japanese Emperor Hirohito held in Shanghai’s Hongkew Park on the morning of April 29, 1932.
The event was attended by some 10,000 Japanese residing in Shanghai, along with Japanese top military officials and diplomats.
The bombings killed Imperial Japanese Army Gen. Yoshinori Shirakawa, the commander of the Shanghai Expeditionary Army, who succumbed to his injuries on May 26, and Kawabata Sadaji, a chancellor of Japanese residents in Shanghai. Several other Japanese officials were injured.
The March 1 Independence Movement in 1919 had brought together men and women of all classes, ages, religions and regions toward the joint objective of liberation from Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945) through peaceful means.
Consequently, the provisional government of the Republic of Korea was established on April 11, 1919, in the French Concession in Shanghai.
But after the large and peaceful demonstrations in 1919, in the coming years there were increasing factionalism and splintering of ideologies and visions among the leaders of the independence movement.
The Hongkew Park bombing was a turning point and a key reason the provisional government fled Shanghai, along with the invasion of the city by Japanese forces.
In September 1931, a leader of the provisional government, Kim Koo (1876-1949), organized a nationalist group called the Korean Patriotic Association, which was based in Shanghai. Yun Bong-gil (1908-1932) sought out Kim and joined his group.
The Hongkew Park bombing was covered extensively in the Tokyo Nichi Nichi Shimbun and Asahi Shimbun on the same day and on May 1.
A May 4, 1932, article in the English-language journal China Weekly Review, “The Alleged True Story of the Hongkew Park Bombing,” recounts the incident, quoting Kim Koo. It published a photograph of Yun taken days before the bombing, on April 26, holding a gun, with a handwritten statement pinned to his chest that read: “I make this oath as a member of the Korean Patriotic Association to kill the military leaders of the enemy who are invading China in order to redeem the independence and freedom of our country.”
Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the Republic of China, was impressed with Yun’s actions and lent support to the provisional government in the coming years.
The Shanghai French Concession, to a certain extent, had offered limited protection to the Korean provisional government. However, that was no longer possible.
The Korean provisional government was warned by French authorities that it was no longer safe after Yun’s bombing. The members made preparations to flee Shanghai right away.
After 1932, the Korean provisional government moved across Chinese cities for the next 13 years, traveling some 4,000 kilometers (2,485 miles) as Japanese forces closed in amid the heat of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). As Japanese forces pushed in, the provisional government established itself in Hangzhou, Zhenjiang, Changsha, Guangzhou, Liuzhou, Qijiang and finally Chongqing, in southwestern China.
The Korean provisional government eventually formed its Korean Liberation Army in 1940 in Chongqing.
“Unlike in the early 1920s, when there was consolidation and a coalition of many independence groups, starting from the late 1920s, there is a split between left and right,” said Baik Young-seo, a history professor at Yonsei University, “and it is only in the beginning of the 1940s that there is some unity again, though it may not be as complete and excludes groups that went to North Korea.”
On the move
In September 1919, the provisional governments in Seoul and Vladivostok were consolidated into the unified provisional government of the Republic of Korea in Shanghai.
In 1919, there were some 500 Koreans living in Shanghai, many independence activists, according to records left by Kim Koo. French Foreign Ministry records in April 1934, show the number of Koreans settled in Shanghai had increased to 1,400.
While relations between the French Concession and the Korean provisional government were amicable, the French Concession also cooperated with Japanese authorities.
Military tensions between China and Japan escalated in the decades following the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895). Japan eventually colonized Korea in 1910.
Like Korea’s March 1 Independence Movement in 1919, China that year held its May Fourth Movement, named after massive student-driven protests in Beijing protesting imperialism and the Treaty of Versailles in Paris ending World War I, which saw former German colonial territories handed to Japan.
The Japanese military invaded Manchuria in September 1931.
On Jan. 28, 1932, Japanese forces attacked Shanghai, and China retaliated, leading to skirmishes that ended in a cease-fire on May 5. Thus, Shanghai was no longer a safe haven for the Korean provisional government.
Military conflict between Japan and China continued in the coming years. Japan eventually withdrew from the League of Nations in 1933.
Japan’s full-invasion of China began as the Second Sino-Japanese War started in July 1937 to September 1945. Japan eventually occupied Shanghai and Nanjing in 1937, and China’s capital was relocated to Chongqing during the Second Sino-Japanese War.
The Yun Bon-gil incident on April 29, 1932, was a key trigger for the provisional government to flee the city.
The Japanese military raided the provisional government’s headquarters in the French Concession in Shanghai that very afternoon, but members of the provisional government had already escaped.
However, they did not have enough time to collect all their official documents. This occasion served as a lesson for the provisional government, and it is said the members began carrying their documents with them at all times afterward.
“The reason the provisional government had to keep moving was because the situation in China was unstable,” said Baik. “The Chinese government also shifted its capital several times toward the end of the war, so we followed that.”
Baik also described the difficulties the provisional government faced in gaining official recognition and maintaining funding, but pointed out, “It would have been difficult to maintain the provisional government without the help of the Chinese government. The Chinese government couldn’t officially provide funding, since it didn’t even accept the provisional government, but the Chinese Foreign Ministry provided some funding through individual channels.”
The provisional government worked with both the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party. Activists also tried to foster relationships with the United States and Soviet Russia.
At times, the provisional government had difficulties scraping together enough money to pay rent for their headquarters. Unlike in the early 1920s, there was also internal strife in the ideologies and methodologies of the movement within the provisional government and independence fighters.
The provisional government established itself in Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province in East China from May 1932 to November 1935; Zhenjiang, or Nanjing, in Jiangsu Province from November 1932 to November 1937; Changsha in Hunan Province from November 1937 to July 1938; Guangzhou in Guangdong Province from July 1938 to October 1938; Liuzhou in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region from October 1938 to March 1939; and Qijiang from March 1939 to September 1940. After so many years on the move, it settled in Chongqing from September 1940 to Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule in 1945.
Commemorative photos show the members of the provisional government in disguise, wearing Chinese clothes. Kim Koo, also known by his pen name Baekbeom, was reunited with his mother and two sons in 1934 in Nanjing, fearing their persecution by Japanese authorities back in Korea. Other times, they sent off longtime comrades. Yi Dong-nyeong, a founding member and president of the provisional government, died from overexertion in Qijiang on March 13, 1940, and a funeral ceremony for him was held several days later. Kim Koo became the last president of the provisional government.
While the provisional government in Shanghai is oftentimes referred to as a government in exile, some scholars argue against that label.
Han Si-jun, a history professor from Dankook University, said, “The provisional government was not a government in exile. If we went to China and our officials said we planned to revive the Korean Empire [1897-1910], that would have been a government in exile. However, the Republic of Korea provisional government established in Shanghai was a different country from the Korean Empire, so it cannot be called a government in exile.”
After being constantly on the move, Chongqing, the wartime capital of the Republic of China, served as the final headquarters for the Korean provisional government.
Along with gaining international recognition, a government also needs its own independent military, a vision endorsed by Kim Koo, who served as president of the provisional government during its time in Chongqing.
Setting up an army had been planned by the Korean provisional government since 1919 but didn’t come to fruition because of a lack of manpower and funding.
Guerilla fighters had been scattered in northern Korea, Manchuria and China over the past two decades.
The Korean Liberation Army was established in Sept. 17, 1940, in Chongqing, as the armed forces of the provisional government of the Republic of Korea.
Gen. Ji Cheong-cheon, who graduated from the Imperial Japanese Army Academy and defected to Korean guerilla forces in Manchuria in 1919, served as the KLA commander.
Their motto was: “Long live the Korean Independence,” echoing the cries of “Manse” of the March 1 movement in 1919. However, unlike two decades earlier, the provisional government was prepared to wage war against Japanese invaders.
The provisional government declared war against Japan and Germany on Dec. 9, 1941, and participated on the Allied side in the Pacific theater of World War II, alongside the Chinese army.
Training from the U.S.
The KLA received support from the National Revolutionary Army of the Kuomintang. The KLA also cooperated with Allied powers and sent troops to fight alongside British soldiers in the Pacific War, including in Burma and India.
Hundreds of Korean soldiers trained in cooperation with the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS), America’s wartime intelligence agency and the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency. Through the then-classified joint strategy plan “Project Eagle,” the Korean soldiers were to receive special military training from the OSS and enter the Korean Peninsula to attack the Japanese forces.
Their first round of training was completed on Aug. 4, 1945. The KLA had completed preparations to advance to Korea in cooperation with the OSS when Japan abruptly and unconditionally surrendered, just days before their planned departure.
The leading units were due to depart on Aug. 20, with General Lee in command. However, the aspiration of the KLA to play a significant role in the liberation of Korea from Japanese occupation was not fulfilled, as Japan unconditionally surrendered to the Allies on Aug. 15.
The KLA was dissolved in June 1946, but it was seen as the basis for the modern day Republic of Korea Armed Forces.
“A government has to have an independent military force, so it was significant to have established the Korean Liberation Army, however, it was also limited,” said Baik of Yonsei University. “In the northern part of China, there were other forces receiving support from China and Soviet Union. The task was to combine the forces, and without combining them, there was the danger of division even then. And even more importantly, the Chinese government, because of pressure from the United States, couldn’t support the KLA fully, and everybody returned home individually, which was regrettable.”
Baik added, “If more time could have been drawn out, and if there had been more leeway for the Chinese government to support it, the Korean Liberation Army may have been able to have more influence later on.”
A century since the establishment of the Korean provisional government, its traces and history are left in the trail it left behind in China, surviving 26 years in an unstable environment, with internal division, limited support and funding.
Today, the sacrifices made by the Korean patriots for their vision of an independent nation are remembered and honored with new retrospective.
Shanghai, where the first headquarters of the Republic of Korea provisional government was, and Chongqing, the last, have restored the provisional government buildings, and they serve as museums for visitors today. There is a statue in Chongqing of Kim Koo, often referred to as the “father of the nation.” Yun Bong-gil is commemorated in a memorial hall in Hongkew Park, now the Lu Xun Park.
The KLA building was demolished in March 2015 and President Moon Jae-in, during a visit to Chongqing in December 2017, agreed to restore it in a meeting with Communist Party Secretary Chen Miner. Last month, Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon visited Chongqing and attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a newly-restored Korean Liberation Army’s general headquarters building on March 29.
The Pacific War came to an abrupt end on Aug. 15, 1945, with the unconditional surrender of Japan.
Korea was finally liberated after 35 years.
Though free from Japanese colonial rule, Korea however was divided into north and south by rival powers.
The United States and Soviet Russia reached a prior understanding that Korea should share a trusteeship between the United States, Russia, Britain and China as a preliminary step toward complete sovereignty.
Korea was divided at the 38th parallel, with the Soviet overseeing the north and the United States the south.
They had faced factional division and differences in political ideology during the long struggle for independence. The leaders had different foreign supporters.
Rightist nationalists Kim Koo and Kim Kyu-sik were representatives of the provisional government in China, which was influenced by Chinese leader Sun Yat-sen’s republicanism and supported by Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese National Government.
Leftists were namely influenced by socialism and communism and supported by China and the Soviets. They were left disillusioned following the March 1 movement as Western powers did not pay much attention to their bid for independence despite U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s principle of self-determination.
Leftist independence fighters operated in Manchuria and the Soviet Union, engaging in guerilla warfare against the Japanese military. This included future North Korean leader Kim Il Sung.
U.S. Gen. John Hodge, military governor of South Korea under the United States Army Military from 1945 to 1948, distrusted the Korean provisional government, giving it no authority and endorsed U.S.-educated Syngman Rhee, who was impeached as president of the provisional government in Shanghai in 1925.
Rhee was eventually elected as the first president of the Republic of Korea on Aug. 15, 1948. In the North, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was launched the following month.
Kim Il Sung, in the Soviet Union in the 1940s, returned to Wonsan on Sept. 19, 1945, and emerged as the communist leader in North Korea.
Those like Kim Koo opposed separate governments in the North and South and hoped for a unified country, as envisioned more than a quarter century ago by the organizers of the March 1 movement.
The Korean people again were faced with a new critical dilemma, which eventually resulted in the bloody Korean War 1950-53.
But for the time being, Korea was liberated from Japanese colonial rule in 1945. It took several months after Japan’s surrender for the members of the Korean provisional government in Chongqing to return home.
The United States Army Military Government records show that more than 500,000 Japanese had been repatriated by mid-December of 1945. By the end of August 1946, over 908,500 Koreans from Japan and 86,580 from China had been repatriated to Korea.
Members of the provisional government, including Kim Koo, departed Chongqing for Shanghai on Nov. 5, 1945, homeward bound. From Shanghai, they flew by a C-47 military transport plane to Seoul in two batches on Nov. 23 and Dec. 1 that year.
They made a quiet return greeted only by U.S. soldiers, as the United States Army Military Government in Korea did not make public their return to Seoul at the time.
However, tens of thousands of people cheered the returned members of the Republic of Korea provisional government in a welcome ceremony held at 11 a.m. on Dec. 19, 1945, in a stadium in Dongdaemun, central Seoul.
Maj. Gen. Archer L. Lerch, the U.S. military governor of Korea, gave a welcome address, with remarks made by the repatriated leaders of the provisional government, including Kim Koo, Song Jin-u and Syngman Rhee.
After the ceremony, the members marched in a procession toward Jongno District, where it all began with the mass demonstration on March 1, 1919, with the shout of “Manse,” or “Long Live!” the independence of Korea.
They were finally home.
BY SARAH KIM [email@example.com]
Korea’s Shanghai gov’t was born 100 years ago