My goal to learn something new every day
I woke up this morning and looked out of the window to see a sea of Korean flags hanging outside each of the windows on the apartment opposite. Koreans do this on a number of special days throughout the year. The days when flags are raised are known as national flag raising days and there’s even a national flag law that encourages every household to display the flag on these days. Sometimes these days are national holidays and other times they are not. Today, March 1st, is a national holiday, however, because it’s on a Sunday this year, I hadn’t noticed that it was coming up. I’ve been in Korea for the past eight March 1sts, and every year I have to ask my wife what the holiday is. I always say I’ll remember what it is next year, and I never do. This year was no different… but next year will be!
The March 1st holiday is called Sam-Il Jeol (삼일절) in Korean, which translates directly as ‘Three-one holiday’ (three refers to March, the third month, and one to the first day of the month). In English, the holiday is known as Independence Declaration Day. While I could grumble about the fact that this year the holiday falls on a Sunday, which ultimately means that every one in Korea is missing out on a day off, I thought perhaps it would be better to learn more about the day, why do we have it and what happened on March 1st all those years ago. This post will assume the reader has some knowledge of Korean history, especially the Japanese occupation of Korea, which ran from 1910 to the end of WWII in 1945. If not, you can read more on the Korea under Japanese rule page on Wikipedia.
The Independence Declaration Day commemorates the March 1st Movement which took place on March 1 1919. The March 1st Movement was a peaceful demonstration that was led by 33 Koreans who acted as representatives of the whole of the Korean people. The impetus for the movement was provided by the doctrine of self-determination, which was the idea of American President Woodrow Wilson. On 11 February 1918, the final year of WWI, Wilson had given a speech in which he stated:
National aspirations must be respected; people may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent. Self determination is not a mere phrase; it is an imperative principle of action. . .
The people of Korea embraced the doctrine of self-determination and on February 8 1919, three weeks before the March 1st Movement, several hundred Korean students in Tokyo met at the YMCA hall to adopt a series of resolutions and demand independence for their country. This demonstration is seen as giving the encouragement to the people in Korea to also demand independence from Japan.
The movement in Korea was organized through a variety of religious organizations, and leaders from the Christian and Buddhist faiths, as well as others, joined together to form the 33-strong group who signed the Korean Declaration of Independence. March 1st was chosen as the date to present the declaration to the Japanese authorities because people were already travelling to Seoul from throughout the country for the funeral of King Gojong.
The 33 representatives met at a restaurant called Taehwagwan and proceeded to read out the Declaration of Independence. The first few lines of the declaration (translated into English) are:
We herewith proclaim the independence of Korea and the liberty of the Korean people. We tell it to the world in witness of the equality of all nations and we pass it on to our posterity as their inherent right. We make this proclamation, having back of us five thousand years of history and twenty millions of a united loyal people. We take this step to insure to our children for all time to come, personal liberty in accord with the awakening consciousness of this new era. This is the clear leading of God, the moving principle of the present age, the whole human race’s claim. It is something that cannot be stamped out, or stifled, or gagged, or suppressed by any means.
After the the Declaration was read out by the group, they handed themselves over to the Japanese authorities and were quickly arrested. Meanwhile, students had gathered at Pagoda Park in Seoul to hear the declaration being read out. They then marched through the streets of Seoul chanting Tongnip Manse (독립 만세), which means ‘Long live Korean Independence’. Soon, many other members of society joined in with the demonstrations, including shopkeepers, farmers and laborers. The demonstrations soon spread across the rest of the country, and it is estimated that around 2 million Koreans took part.
The Japanese authorities were initially surprised by the demonstrations but soon began to answer with force. The police, army and even navy were called in to stop the demonstrations. The authorities shot at the demonstrators, locked them inside buildings and even burned them down with the people inside to suppress the demonstrators. The number of people killed, injured and arrested is debated, and different books suggest different numbers. Cumings (2005), for example claims that the Japanese officials say 553 Koreans were killed and 12,000 were arrested. He states that the Korean sources say the number was 7,500 killed and 45,000 arrested. Lee (1984), however, says that it is the Japanese authorities who reported the 7,500 deaths and 46,948 arrests, with Korean sources claiming that the actual numbers are much higher than this.
Unfortunately, the March 1st Movement did not gain enough support from Western countries, and Japan continued to occupy the Korean peninsula up until the end of the Second World War. Independence Declaration Day is not the anniversary of the day Korea gained independence from Japan. That day is celebrated on August 15th, and is known as Liberation Day in English or Gwangbok Jeol (광복절) in Korean. Gwangbok translates literally as ‘restoration of light’.
The next time a Korean national holiday falls on the weekend, I’ll take a minute to stop and remember the people who made much bigger sacrifices than not getting a day off work.
Cumings, Bruce (2005). Korea’s place in the sun. New York: WW Norton & Co
Lee, Ki-baik (1984). A new history of Korea. Trans. Wagner, Edward. W. with Shultz, Edward, J. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press