Korean Independence Movement Day! 3/1
March First Independence Movement Day (3.1 절).
If you ever find yourself travelling to Seoul, you will inevitably find yourself wandering down the iconic Sejong-daero (세종 대로). Looking up at King Sejong (세종 대왕) sitting on the throne, and looking north towards Gwangwhamun (광화문), the President’s house, and up at the imposing granite peaks of Bugaksan, you may look past the The National Museum of Contemporary History. And although you would be forgiven for walking on by, and heading for those impressive gates of Gwangwhamun, you would be missing out on one of the most interesting museum experiences in the Republic. But it is not for the faint hearted. It will leave you feeling quite unsettled afterwards, and you might find yourself looking for a bottle of medicinal soju to lighten your mood.
Korea has been a hotly contested peninsula from the very beginning, but the 20th Century I find particularly easier to relate to as I have lived in it. The narrative presented in the museum is largely held together by an impressive collection of photographs, films, letters and official documents. Thus, the Japanese Occupation of Korea (from 1910-45) is brought to life, and it is a harrowing tale of exploitation, oppression, and hardship. Reading, writing and speaking Korean was banned for this period, as were Korean names. Many were sent to work in Japan, often taken forcibly from families. One official document in particular housed in this museum is The Declaration of Independence, a document written on the 1st March 1919, and then read out later that day at a non violent demonstration. This sparked the Korean Independence Movement, and although suppressed by the Japanese Occupation Forces, it sowed a seed.
The museum also celebrates the life of some key figures from this movement, and a couple of people in particular I think are most worthy of a special mention. Ryu Gwansun and Kim Gu are just two of many who helped ignite the fuse. Ryu Gwansun stands out because she was a university student at the time, and after taking part in the initial demonstration in Seoul she went back to her hometown and spread the word, knocking on doors, informing people of the protest movement, and with a little help from her friends and family, organised a demonstration in her local area near the city of Chonan. Afterwards she was arrested, tortured and yet continued to rally prisoners whilst in gaol. She finally died in custody in 1920. She wrote whilst in prison that her only regret was not being able to do more than give her life for her country.
Kim Gu was a bit more seasoned than Ryu. He also saw the writing on the wall and was active in movements leading up to the official annexation. I see him as a guerrilla fighter. At one point (February 1896) he was imprisoned for killing a Japanese salesman, believing him to be an assassin. Apparently he had military papers on his person. Thus, he became nicknamed ‘The assassin’ himself. After the March 1st Demonstration, he figured he would be more use sparking interest abroad, and made it to Shanghai. Whilst living there in exile he formed a Korean Liberation Army, which was active during the Second World War fighting the Japanese in China and South-East Asia. By the time he organised for his army to head to the peninsular, the war was over and the Japanese were gone. The best part is, he wrote all of this down in an autobiography ‘Baekbom Journal’. Definitely worth a read, if you are studying Korean.
Today is a national holiday commemorating this movement, and document, and on every major road in every major city in Korea, you will see lines of flags as far as the eye can see. People may take this day as a well earned rest from work, but you can rest assured that there will be a moment taken during this day to reflect on this moment in time, and consider previous generations who made it through such challenging times. And tomorrow, back to work.
Written by Brett Allen