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The Peninsula

The Global History of Korean Independence

Published March 1, 2019
Category: Korea Abroad

By Haram Chung, Steven Lim, and Yeaji Nam,

March 1, 2019 marks the centennial anniversary of Korea’s declaration of independence from Japan. In the United States, the legacy of the March First Movement has recently received significant public attention. Most notably, New York designated March 1 as a commemorative day for Yu Gwan-sun, a 17-year-old activist who participated in the peaceful protests against Japanese colonial rule and died in prison as consequence. Her story and her role in the March First Movement was also featured in the New York Times.

The attention in the United States partly stems from the role that President Woodrow Wilson played in catalyzing the Movement through his insistence that all people have a right to self-determination. U.S. House of Representatives Resolution 164 to commemorate the March First Movement highlights this historic link between Korean aspirations for freedom and the United States.

As this resolution hints, the story of how the Korean people came to declare their nationhood is a global story. This is a journey not only characterized by the world coming to Korea with new words like “self-determination,” but also defined by Koreans going to the world with their common dream.  Here are three short stories leading up to and immediately following the 1919 March First Movement that highlight the role of the Korean diaspora.

The Muo Declaration of Independence

On February 1, 1919, 39 exiled independence activists met in Jilin province in Northeast China and proclaimed Korea’s independence. The statement nullified Japan’s annexation of Korea and explicitly called for an armed struggle against the colonial administration. While it is not very well known today, the signatories of the “Muo Declaration” went on to establish key institutions that spearheaded the movement, such as the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea that was founded in Shanghai later that year. Signatories included Syngman Rhee, who would go on to become the first president of the independent Republic of Korea from 1948 to 1960, and Kim Jwa-jin, the commander of the Korean Independence Army. The sacrifice of the people who were present at the signing of this document is evidenced by the fact that only 11 of the 39 lived to see the liberation of Korea in 1945.

2.8 Declaration of Korean Independence in Tokyo

Also predating the March First Movement, Korean students studying in Japan organized a public demonstration against the colonial rule on February 8, 1919, and declared the nation’s independence. One of the signatories of the Muo Declaration of Independence, Jo So-ang, smuggled himself into Japan to coordinate this demonstration with Korean student leaders. The February 8 Declaration of Independence was composed in both Korean and English – and the students distributed the document to the Japanese Diet, the colonial administration in Korea, and various embassies in Tokyo. Notably, both male and female students participated in the organization of the event – and one of its participants, Maria Kim, who smuggled the text into Korea to coordinate with independence activists who would launch the March First Movement.

1919 Philadelphia Korean Congress

The March First Movement in Korea sparked action in the Korean-American community. In April 1919, a group of Korean immigrants and expatriates gathered in Philadelphia for the 1919 Philadelphia Korean Congress. The organizer of the event was Philip Jaisohn (Seo Jae-pil), the first Korean to gain U.S. citizenship. Among the 200 delegates that attended the event was Syngman Rhee, future president of South Korea. The delegates sought to rally the Korean diaspora in America and generate U.S. support for Korean independence. The city of Philadelphia was specifically chosen to draw parallels between America and Korea’s declaration of independence – and simultaneously, the delegates reaffirmed that an independent Korean state would be a democratic one.

Haram Chung, Steven Lim, and Yeaji Nam are interns at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the authors’ alone.

The picture from Independence Hall of Korea depicting Korean students who were arrested during the February 8 Demonstrations in Tokyo.

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