By Suha Choi, III Form
March 1st of 1919: A Big Step Towards Unity and Freedom in Korea
“A day goes so slow, but a week seems to fly.”
This seems to be a famous saying during the academic year. Time goes so quick, and the third month of the year feels like it flipped on the calendar soon after New Year’s Day. For many, March evokes thoughts about women’s history or the March Madness. For many others, the start of March signals the blessed Senior Spring season. To me, one more thing comes to mind: the March 1st Movement (or the Sam-il Independence Movement).
I ask my parents whether they have put up the Korean flag at our veranda back home yet. Then, I start wondering what my home country would have looked like just 100 years ago. I suddenly see my great grandparents and millions of my ancestors marching on the flat dusty streets of Seoul, where now countless tall and polished buildings stand.
All of these randomly seeming sceneries appear in my mind due to the March 1st Movement. Exactly a hundred years ago, on March 1st of 1919, the Sam-il (translating into “March 1st”) Independence Movement began in Korea with the hope for sovereignty. In the past decades, Korea has undergone myriad changes, which nobody would have ever imagined only a hundred years ago: independence, war, division, and unbelievably rapid growth from extreme poverty to one of the largest economies in the world now.
Beginning in 1910, Korea lived under the suppression of Japan and suffered from brutal colonialism for close to a decade before Koreans sought independence for the first time. Shortly after the end of World War I, nearly thirty nations convened at a city just outside Paris to establish terms of peace. At this Paris Peace Conference in January 1919, the U.S. president Woodrow Wilson asserted that even weak nations have the right of national “self-determination” (Fischer). Wilson’s motivational speech provoked several Korean students and intellectual leaders to publish a statement demanding national liberation from Japan’s dominion (Fischer). Very soon, the organizers aspired to revolution within the Korean community along with support at an international level.
At 2 pm on March 1st of 1919, a total of 33 leaders gathered at Taehwagwan Restaurant. They read and signed the Korean Declaration of Independence (Encyclopedia Britannica). The following evening, the document was publicly read for the first time at Pagoda Park, and massive crowds of people appeared at Pagoda Park to listen (Encyclopedia Britannica). This document also spread all across Korea by activists of the movement; the whole nation looked up to the thought of freedom. More and more people assembled and marched in the cities to demand independence. Strolling on the jam-packed streets, millions held up the Korean flags and altogether shouted encouraging words: “Long Live Korean Independence”. The procession lasted from March 1st to April 11th, and around 2 million people participated in more than 1,500 total demos (Fischer). The movement arose so fast that Japanese police could not stifle it, thus, their military forces came to create terrible mass killings. During the movement, 7,509 people got killed, 15,849 were wounded, and 46,303 were arrested (“Understanding March 1st”). Many houses, buildings, and churches burned down as well (Encyclopedia Britannica).
As the large number of injuries tells, each and every protester fought for liberty despite the peril of tortures and deaths. But among many and many of these activists, GwanSun Yu is recognized as an outstandingly active participant of this movement. Yu, who was only a 16-year old student at the time, initially joined the protest along with her peers. After a few days since the start of the movement, the Japanese government shut down the schools in Korea with an attempt to eradicate the rebellion and chaos (The Dragon Historian). Instead of going on a pleasant vacation, Yu dedicated her time in expanding the movement and gathering her neighbors (The Dragon Historian). Strikingly, she succeeded in leading approximately 3,000 supporters to the movement within just a few weeks (The Dragon Historian). Yu was then arrested; she even witnessed her parents get shot by Japanese soldiers (The Dragon Historian). Yet Yu claimed for freedom. Even when the Japanese offered to let her go in exchange for surrender, she refused without hesitation and argued against injustice. She was then placed into prison and got brutally tortured for months. After enduring through extreme agony, GwanSun Yu ended her life at the age of 17 (The Dragon Historian). Legend says that the prison hall echoed over and over with shouts of “Long Live Korean Independence.”
Although the actual liberation occurred later in 1945, the exceptional sacrifices these people have devoted stay as an unforgettable event in Korean history. March 1st is considered as one of the most significant memorial days in Korea. To commemorate this revolution, households in Korea put up a Korean flag right outside their balcony or the veranda. It is truly mesmerizing to see all the Korean flags in town sway by the spring wind on March 1st. As this day is a national holiday in Korea, numerous galleries, performances, and marathons are open for people to join every year. A great number of celebratory activities occurred this year particularly because of the movement’s 100th anniversary. The bold roars of “Long Live Korean Independence” spread across the streets, just as on every March 1st since 1919. I hope that the Koreans’ empathy and passion for their history may continue.
Being more than simply a movement for independence, the March 1st movement remains as a paradigm for demonstrating courage, patriotism, and strong faith between Koreans. As I wrote about the March 1st movement, my understanding and affection for my home country have grown deeper.
Suha Choi is a III Form boarding student from Seongnam, South Korea. She enjoys discovering new books, visiting coffee shops, and traveling.
Fischer, Lisa. “March 1st: Independence Movement Day in Korea.”10 Magazine, 10 Magazine, Mar 2019, https://10mag.com/march-1st-independence-movement-day-in-korea/. Accessed 18 Mar 2019.
Encyclopedia Britannica, “March First Movement.”Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, 22 Feb 2019, https://www.britannica.com/event/March-First-Movement. Accessed 21 Mar 2019.
The Dragon Historian. “Yu Gwansun and the March First Movement (#1).” Youtube, The Dragon Historian, 15 Oct 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZtJU_z8GQ0Q. Accessed 8 Apr 2019.