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Korean Rebellion: March First

Mar 09, 13 Korean Rebellion: March First

Last Friday, March 1st, I had the day off from work and a three-day weekend. It is a seemingly unimportant day to Americans and other westerners. However, in Korea, it is important enough of a holiday that all schools, elementary to university, are off for the day. I even found the March First monument one day when I was walking around Seoul with a friend.

In Korea they celebrate the March First Movement, also known as the Samil Movement. Samil literally means 3-1, or March First.

The March First movement took place in 1919, and happened during the last Japanese occupation. Part of the reason I stumbled upon the history for the movement is because I was working on a project that involved the details of President Wilson’s Fourteen Points. The Koreans were inspired by Wilson’s Fourteen Points, especially the part where colonies are given the right to self-determination. This part of the speech inspired Korean university students in Tokyo to write papers about why Koreans should have self-determination. This motivated Koreans to assemble and to attempt to throw out the Japanese.

They wanted equal treatment; the Japanese were in control of all key positions. The taxes were too heavy and Korean culture was being destroyed. Land was being taken away from Koreans by the Japanese for personal gain. The development of Korea was only for the benefit of the Japanese Empire, and Koreans were getting nothing in return.

One of the motivators for this was the death of the last King of the Joseon Dynasty or, as he proclaimed himself, the Emperor of Korean Empire. Emperor Gojong died on January 21st, 1919. Many Koreans suspected foul play and alleged that he had been poisoned. This wasn’t some paranoid delusion, because the Japanese had attempted to assassinate him on several occasions, including once in what was known as the “coffee plot”.

The Japanese government was also directly responsible for his wife’s assassination. In 1895, Empress Myeongseong, a.k.a Queen Min, was assassinated by order of the Japanese minister to Korea, Miura Goro. She was killed at night in the Imperial Palace, which was protected by Japanese guards. They killed her and burned her body in the courtyard. The Japanese did this because she was allegedly thinking about turning to the Chinese or Russians for help in dealing with the Japanese.

Going back to the day of March First, at 2 P.M. the Korean Declaration of Independence was read at several places across the country; it was read in a secluded area so as to prevent a riot. The leaders of the movement then called the police stations to turn themselves in for their actions and were arrested.

However, massive crowds did form and started to spread. At its peak, it is estimated that two million Koreans were involved in 1500 demonstrations. The Japanese used the Army and the Navy to try and get everything under control.

Author and historian Park Eunsik reports that 7,509 people were killed, 15,849 were wounded, and 46,303 were arrested from March 1st to April 11th. However, the Japanese officials reported that only 553 people were killed, over 12,000 arrested, only 8 policemen and military policemen were killed, and 158 wounded.

Sadly, many of the protestors who were arrested were taken to Seodaemun Prison in Seoul where they were tortured and executed without trial. The best estimate is that several hundred were murdered in what was called the “death house.” I had previously started an article on this prison and now I plan to finish it so that you can read up on the atrocities that happened there.

Image Credit: J. Henning Buchholz / Shutterstock.com

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