Provisional gov’t was active on global stage
Last 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.
Delegates from around the globe gathered in Paris at the Palace of Versailles in January 1919 to come to peace terms after World War I ended in late 1918.
A 38-year-old Korean activist, Kim Kyu-sik, departed from Shanghai at the end of that month with a mission - raising Korea’s bid for independence at the Paris Peace Conference and gaining international recognition, as weaker countries were finding a voice to fight against imperialism and colonization.
U.S.-educated Kim (1881-1950), a newlywed, departed from Shanghai to Europe as a representative of the independence group New Korea Youth Association.
A fugitive who fled Japanese authorities to Manchuria in 1912 and arrived in Shanghai in 1918, Kim managed to arrange passage to France with members of the Chinese delegation to the Paris Peace Conference, obtaining a Chinese passport and name for the long voyage.
While Kim made the month-and-a-half-long trip to France by sea, on Feb. 8 a group of Korean students in Tokyo declared Korean independence, inspired in part by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s “Fourteen Points” speech, which emphasized the concept of national self-determination. Soon after, on March 1, a massive peaceful movement proclaiming the independence of Korea from Japanese colonial rule (1910-45) kicked off in Seoul and spread nationwide.
Kim arrived in France in March, and in the meantime, the provisional government of the Republic of Korea launched in Shanghai’s French Concession on April 11. Nearly overnight, Kim became the Korean provisional government’s top envoy, tasked with establishing a makeshift one-man diplomatic office of sorts in Paris.
Kim, as foreign minister of the fledging Korean provisional government, led its initial diplomatic activities in France. In Paris, Kim established the Korean Bureau of Information, which was charged with gathering and disseminating information related to Korea to further its case for independence.
As Korea’s sole official representative in Paris - as others like Syngman Rhee, who became first president of the provisional government, failed to make it to the Peace Conference - Kim also sought to meet with other delegates and influential people to explain the plight of the Korean people under Japanese occupation and convey to them the idea that an independent Korea was the key to lasting peace in East Asia.
Kim, in May 1919, presented the “Petition of the Korean People and Nation for Liberation from Japan and for the Reconstitution of Korea as an Independent State” to the Paris Peace Conference. Korea was among others like the Chinese, Indians and Egyptians who attempted to have their voice heard in Paris.
Despite his efforts, ultimately, Kim did not achieve his mission of gaining international recognition of Korea as an independent country in Paris, but his work created a platform for future diplomatic efforts by the Korean provisional government.
Nearly a quarter century later, as the leaders of the United States, United Kingdom and China gathered together in 1943 to discuss the fate of Japan during World War II and draw up the Cairo Declaration, Korea was able to ascertain a clause guaranteeing its sovereignty.
The Korean provisional government faced much difficulties and disillusionment over the years, eventually moving locations across China in the 1930s as Japanese forces closed in as the Pacific War raged on. It ended up in Chongqing, in southwestern China, from 1940 until 1945.
“Korea was the only country where the Allied forces agreed to guarantee independence after the war,” said Han See-jun, a history professor at Dankook University. “U.S., British and Chinese leaders gathered in Cairo and said that if they beat Japan, they would guarantee the independence of Korea. However, one country would have had to propose this, and the other two agreed. That proposal was made by Chiang Kai-shek of China.”
But it was the Korean provisional government that reached out to Chiang to leverage its position in Cairo.
The provisional government did not receive formal international recognition and was limited by a lack of resources and internal factional fights, as well as geopolitical struggles and historical circumstances of the time with the Second Sino-Japanese War, World War II and the Pacific War. However, it survived for 26 years to see the liberation of Korea. Japan’s World War II surrender resulted in Korea’s abrupt yet long-awaited liberation from colonial rule on Aug. 15, 1945.
This year marks the centennial anniversary of the March 1 Independence Movement and the establishment of the provisional government in Shanghai in 1919. Korean and international scholars today recognize such limitations by the provisional government in China while acknowledging its role in setting the foundation for the modern Republic of Korea and its Constitution through persistence efforts by the independence activists to be heard.
From Paris to Washington
Dejected after failing to gain international support at the Paris Peace Conference, Kim Kyu-sik left for Washington in August 1919.
In its early years, the Korean provisional government and independence activists focused its diplomatic efforts on the United States.
While dismissed in large by the envoys in Paris and Washington, Korea’s independence movement in 1919 still managed to gain global sympathizers, individual supporters and recognition amid other similar movements of the time, such as China’s May Fourth Movement.
Kim arrived in Washington in September 1919 and remained in the United States until early 1921. After Kim returned to Shanghai, Kim served in the provisional government in various capacities, including as its vice president in Chongqing, the stronghold for Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China, and returned to Seoul only in 1945.
Philip Jaisohn, a Korean-American physician and longtime activist, held the First Korean Congress in Philadelphia in April 1919 to garner support for the Korean independence movement, involving overseas Korean organizations.
Over the years, there were Americans sympathetic to their cause, like the group League of Friends of Korea.
A monthly journal, Korea Review, was published in the United States from March 1919 through 1922. It was published under the Bureau of Information for the Republic of Korea and included news about Korean nationalist activities as well as documents and speeches by Korean nationalist leaders, students abroad and Americans scholars and clergymen supportive of the independence cause.
S. A. Arneson, a political science professor at Ohio Wesleyan University, wrote in the journal’s Vol. 1, No. 4 edition in June 1919, “The Peace Conference should be open to appeals from Korea as well as from Japan … The foreign offices of all the capitals of the world should be ready to hear all the facts and get at the truth … The interests of Korea, the welfare of Japan and the good of humanity demand that Korea should have a hearing.”
After the Korean provisional government failed to gain independence through diplomatic means in Paris, they saw the Washington Conference as their last shot.
The International Conference on Naval Limitation was held in Washington from Nov. 12, 1921, to Feb. 6, 1922. The conference was hosted by the United States to limit the naval arms race and work out security agreements in the Pacific region. The Korean delegation to the conference included future South Korean President Syngman Rhee and Fred A. Dolph, an American who served as a middleman lobbyist between overseas Korean activists and the U.S. Congress.
While Korea was precluded from the Versailles Treaty, as it was not a participant of World War I, they thought they could make a better case at the Washington Conference, which specifically dealt with peace in Asia.
In 1922, the Korean Commission delivered a petition to the American delegation signed by more than 25,000 Koreans stating that the only governing authority Koreans recognized was their provisional government in Shanghai and that they never agreed to Japanese annexation. This captured unprecedented media attention. The New York Times reported in its Jan. 1, 1922, edition on Page 1, “Koreans Publish Appeal to Conference; Ask Independence as Guarantee of Peace.”
Nonetheless, Washington, like Paris, failed to produce recognition for the Korean provisional government, and over the years many grew disillusioned with the prospects of receiving American support.
The provisional government continued diplomacy through a Secret Liaison Office and Transportation Office while facing limitations as it was not recognized as an official government under international law as Japan continued to exercise sovereignty over Korea.
“There are really interesting parallels [in global independence movements in 1919], one being that the same kind of arguments are made for independence,” said Fearghal Patrick McGarry, a history professor at Queen’s University Belfast in Ireland. “You have a Korean Declaration of Independence, you have an Irish Declaration of Independence; you have a very similar strategy which is basically go to Paris, make your case for independence in front of the international community and use the rhetoric of Wilson.”
He continued, “It is almost an attempt to expose the hypocrisy of imperial power politics. Another interesting parallel is the way this argument made not just nationally or globally but transnationally. You have Irish people in America, Korean people in America. If the space to make the argument is difficult in your own country, you can make that argument more effective internationally.”
McGarry added, “One of the reasons why nationalist movements are becoming more influential in 1919 and 1920s is the modern technology and modern global journalism. That means that news can be relayed everywhere all across the world, within a day or two, and I don’t think that was even the case even before World War I. Newsreel is becoming mainstream, and nationalism benefits from the globalization of media.”
World War II and the Pacific War waged on as Korea tried to keep its footing among the power struggle amongst world leaders. Neither the Americans nor Chinese would recognize the Korean provisional government, but both were concerned about the Soviet Union’s plans for Korea.
In November 1943, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, President of the Republic of China Chiang Kai-shek and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill met in Cairo, Egypt, to discuss the progress of the war against Japan and the future of Asia.
A sentence was included in the Cairo Declaration of Dec. 1, 1943, which stated that Korea would become free and independent should Japan be defeated. The Allies in the declaration pledged to eject Japanese forces from all the territories it had conquered during the war including in China, Korea and the Pacific Islands.
The declaration read: “Japan will also be expelled from all other territories which she has taken by violence and greed. The aforesaid three great powers, mindful of the enslavement of the people of Korea, are determined that in due course Korea shall become free and independent.”
The New York Times on Dec. 2, 1943, on Page 1 reported that the leaders in Cairo “Plan to Retake Manchuria” and “Pledge Free Korea.”
The United States was seen as tacitly having earlier accepted Japan’s occupation of Korea, and the Cairo Declaration was in a sense reversing the U.S. approach to Korea.
“International conferences are where confrontations take place, as each country pushes for its interests, said Han See-jun of Dankook University. “Chiang proposed to Roosevelt to guarantee Korea’s independence. Churchill at that time was opposed to this but agreed later.”
He added, “What convinced Chiang? Members of the provisional government sought out Chiang on July 26, 1943, and made a request ahead of the Cairo conference. They asked Chiang that if Japan is defeated, for Korea to be granted independence right away. That is why Chiang goes to Cairo and proposes Korean independence and includes it in the Cairo Declaration. Of course this happens thanks to Cairo, but this is also the result of the provisional government.”
China expert Baik Young-seo, a history professor at Yonsei University, pointed out to the Korean provisional government’s restrictions at the time.
“Without the Chiang Kai-shek government, Korea wouldn’t have been able to exert such a big influence at the Cairo conference,” he said, noting Korea and China had “a sense of asymmetry.”
Korea eventually was liberated from the Japanese colonial rule on Aug. 15, 1945, but 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 Soviets overseeing the North and the United States the South. It was not the unified Korea envisioned by the leaders of March 1 and the provisional government. To this day, the Korean Peninsula remains divided.
The New York Times in its front page on Dec. 31, 1945, carried an article, “Koreans Angered By Trusteeship,” which reported that “The announcement from Moscow that the Foreign Ministers of Russia, Great Britain and the United States agreed upon a period of ‘trusteeship’ for Korea, not to exceed five years, has been greeted here with a rising tide of disappointment, chagrin, anger and finally violence.”
The Northeast Asian History Foundation on April 9 hosted an international forum on the March 1 movement and provisional government at the Press Center in central Seoul, bringing together foreign and local scholars to reflect on the significance of the year 1919 and its relevance today.
“March 1 was a large movement letting the world know of Korea’s opposition to Japan’s colonial rule,” Naoki Mizuno, a professor emeritus of Kyoto University, told the Korea JoongAng Daily on the sidelines of the forum. “Nine years after the Japanese colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula began, the Korean people conveyed their feelings, emotions and ideas through this movement. This was also linked the global movement after World War I, envisioning creating a new world, and March 1 was one such movement.”
He noted that the Feb. 8 Declaration of Independence calls for peace in East Asia, but that court records left from that time were also reflective of the views of the Korean public.
“Many court decisions from the time were left behind and reflect the voice of the regular people, not just the leaders,” said Mizuno. “Regular people also spoke a lot about peace in Asia. I believe that this was a warning against the path of imperialism and militarism that Japan was walking.”
He continued, “Even after the March 1 movement, Japan continued its colonial rule, and then invaded China. After that, Japan wages war against the United States and the United Kingdom. And because of such a war, Japan faces its fateful collapse. That is why the lesson of the March 1 movement is one where Japan didn’t listen to the warnings of the Korean people. Such a history is linked to the issue of Japan’s role in Asia today.”
McGarry of Queen’s University Belfast sees a number of parallels between the March 1 movement of Korea and the Irish independence movement. Ireland’s Easter Rising of 1916 is seen as symbolizing the wider struggle for Irish independence and is comparable to the March 1 movement “representing the birth of Korean nationhood,” he pointed out. Ireland also celebrated its centennial anniversary of the Easter Uprising in 2016.
“We had our centenary in 2016, and walking around in Seoul, you can see the banners and posters and public celebration of March 1 is very similar to the Easter Rising,” said McGarry. “One difference is that it was not strongly nationalistic. There was commemoration of British soldiers and policemen. There was more of a sense of looking at broader perceptions and a consciousness that the commemoration of nationalism in Ireland shouldn’t cause problems in Northern Ireland or the United Kingdom.”
McGarry said, “What the Irish government did which was very successful in 2016 is they put a lot of money into making historical sources available, digitizing archives, encourage local history groups to reflect on what happened in their areas, putting money into art, culture and theater. That proved much more successful than the old-fashioned way of the state deciding what the political narrative and historical message was.”
He added, “Each part of the U.K. and Ireland has a slightly different attitude and response to this period in Irish history. I guess that’s similar to North and South Korean and different political groups in South Korea.”
While recognizing current tensions with the Japan’s government, Yonsei University’s Baik said, “We need to draw out the Japanese people so that they can play a role toward reconciliation of South and North Korea and peace in Northeast Asia, something that was not brought to fruition during the March 1 Movement, and can be revived 100 years later.”
On the ongoing diplomatic tensions between Seoul and Tokyo, Mizuno said, “Japanese and Korean relations have a lot of issues right now, but the two countries also share much in common - including societal, economic and environmental, aged society issues, and they should tackle how to resolve these issues together.”
Mizuno continued, “Of course, historical issues are important, but I think cooperation and exchange on historical issues may be difficult. That is why start with what we share in common. Historical issues, as I mentioned, have elements of human rights and discrimination against women, so taking this into consideration is important.”
Mizuno noted, “Of course at that time, as the Korean people were colonized by Japan, it was natural to resist. Rather than an anti-Japanese movement, it was resistance against Japan. I think is regrettable that even now in Japan, there is still talk that the March 1 movement was an anti-Japanese movement.”
Dankook’s Han said, “While we had our country taken away, we continued to be active in our diplomatic efforts and even earned the guarantee to our freedom through the Cairo Declaration. In our independence movement, our diplomatic efforts were our asset and wisdom. Currently, we have many diplomatic issues and we need to reflect back on our past efforts and wisdom from that time.”
Through the independence movement and establishing a provisional government in 1919, Korea shifted away from an absolute monarchy and set the roots of South Korea’s current democratic republic system of government. The provisional charter of 1919 also set the roots for the current Republic of Korea’s Constitution, and the provisional assembly can be seen as a precursor to today’s National Assembly. And the spirit of the peaceful mass demonstrations starting March 1 was also seen in the large-scale protests in following decades in Korea’s democratization process.
Han said, “So many people in many countries lost their countries, but Korean independence activists can be proud of the March 1 movement. In what other country did the entire nation rise up like that? Korea’s independence movement shines also in modern world history, as during the independence movement, Korea set up a new country and established a new government.”
Scholars today look at the events following March 1 as beyond just a movement and some describe it as a revolution.
Baik said, “The March 1 movement was possible because the entire people came together effectively. But as time passed, the right and left split, and it lost effectiveness. That was is why we need some introspection looking back at how people of all classes, backgrounds and religions came together for the common goal of a forming a democratic republic.”
He added, “I see March 1 as a revolution, as it was an opportunity to bring about a continuous, fundamental change.”
BY SARAH KIM [firstname.lastname@example.org]
Korea’s Shanghai gov’t was born 100 years ago
Struggles of provisional government were many
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