Screening Korea
Experiences, Challenges and Achievements of the Korean Independence Activists in the Colonial Period (1910-1945)
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The Koreans’ fight for Independence was a path filled with suffering and heroism, as is the case with many other such endeavors in history. The key players that were actively involved in this effort were primarily individual Independence activists or groups of such motivated individuals, like the Korean Provisional Government (KPG) or the Korean Commission for Europe, that were established with the vision of gaining autonomy for the Korean peninsula that was under Japanese rule from 1910 (Kim 2009 159), although efforts at colonization began long before. This period of foreign rule and lack of independence finally ended in the year 1945 after Japanese surrender, however, the activities of and the sacrifices made by individuals and groups alike cannot be left unacknowledged. What were the experiences, challenges and achievements of the Korean Provisional Government and other freedom fighters and independence activists in the struggle for Korean Independence during the colonial period?

Korean independence fighters and activists are known to have been active since before the official Japanese colonization of the Korean peninsula in August 1910. This can be observed from writings about the armed resistance by soldiers of the Righteous Army in the South and the nationalists and Christians in the Northern provinces. However, their efforts were immediately put down by the new administration of Korea after the Japanese occupation was made official (Kim 1989 82). This was only the beginning of the long and difficult journey for independence activists in their fight to re-establish an autonomous Korean peninsula.

In all the struggles and efforts of resistance groups and individual leaders that were involved in the fight for independence, one common strategy among them is the use of education and publishing as a means to reach out to the masses and promote a sense of need for autonomy while also deliberately spreading anti-colonial and anti-Japanese sentiments. We can see this in the first decade of the 1900s through the involvement of activists like An Chung-gun and Sin Chae-ho in the critical newspaper Korea News Daily that promoted nationalistic consciousness among the citizens (Hwang 2010 155). For the 1920s, we can take the example of Mun Il-pyeong, who used familiar topics to actively write articles that enlightened the general populace about Korean history and the independence movement (Hanscom 2013 64). Continuing the trend of fighting for independence through writings in the concluding years of the Japanese colonial period are the poet Yun Dong-ju and his friend and cousin Song Mong-kyu as can be seen in the movie Dong Ju: The Portrait of a Poet. But these actions did not come without a price. Major restrictions had been put upon the contents of publications and censorship of articles with even a remote mention of nationalistic content was implemented. Those who conducted these passive activities of resistance did so mostly in hiding, especially from the Japanese authorities. The consequences of being caught were most imprisonment, as a result of which, they were subjected to different kinds of harsh treatments. The Terauchi administration that was formed right after colonization is known to have framed 123 prominent Korean leaders showing any active or passive involvement in independence activities with the false charge of a conspiracy to assassinate Governor-General Terauchi and sentenced them to prison where they were subjected to bitter experiences (Kim 1989 82-83).

Image 1 (Lee “Dong Ju: The Portrait of a Poet”)

The above image shows two scenes from the movie Dong Ju: The Portrait of a Poet. The one on the left shows Dong Ju before he goes to college in Japan whereas the scene on the right comes from the last days of his life after he is captured by Japanese officials and imprisoned in Kyoto on charges of rallying Korean students against Japan and distributing Korean books and literature, a crime deemed punishable by law. While in prison, Dong Ju, along with hundreds of other Korean prisoners are given experimental injections that reduce him from a good looking youth to the horrible state as is shown in the image on the right. This was one of numerous different torture methods used on independence activists and even innocent people suspected of activities against the Japanese empire within the country and in the colonies.

In spite of such horrors, there were a number of Korean youths and leaders fighting for Korean Independence from all around the world and the March First Independence Movement that started in Seoul and spread all around the country was possibly the one major event that ties them all together. The signers of the Declaration of Independence and consequently, the ones responsible for the instigation of the movement were well aware that “at best their actions would mean heavy punishments for them, and at the worst might well mean death” (McKenzie 1920 245). But their grit and readiness to embrace martyrdom resulted in probably one of the most prominent events in history which saw the entire Korean citizenry united for one cause; their freedom. The feeling of nationalism was imminent in every corner of the peninsula and eventually spread to Koreans living abroad as they all came to hear about the incident. The movement was a peaceful one and no harm was induced upon the Japanese until the colonial authorities started a brutal crackdown on the demonstrators (Hanscom 2013 64). Of the many activists who were captured was Yu Kwanun, a schoolgirl in Seoul who rallied the locals soon after the outbreak of the movement. She was eventually killed after suffering the brutality of the authorities (Hwang 2010 163), which was one of the key challenges to the independence activists of that time. Besides Yu, two of the captured original signers of the Declaration of Independence were reported to have committed suicide in jail, which Koreans all around knew was a facade to cover up their murder at the hands of the officials, causing the entire nation to go into mourning. Those who were eventually released had dreadful tales to tell (McKenzie 1920 285). However, it was due to these sacrifices that this movement was successful in bringing about some changes in the colonial rule that allowed Koreans more freedom of action and involvement in the country’s development . In addition, this was also the event responsible for the establishment of the Korean Provisional Government (KPG) in Shanghai as many prominent resistance leaders came together to set up the KPG upon hearing about the March First Movement (Kim 2009 148).

The KPG was set up with the intent of rallying the international community to aid them in the establishment of Korea’s sovereignty. As such, their first task was to send out telegrams to delegates at the Paris Peace Conference, informing them of the movement and the Korean people’s desire for freedom from the Japanese (Kim 2009 148). The KPG was also later joined by some of the signers of the Declaration of Independence like Yi Kwang-su and Choe Nam-seon upon their release by Japanese officials. Yi was a strong activist of solidarity among individuals and groups and the importance of youth mobilization for the purpose of national reconstruction to gain autonomy even before the 1919 movement. Choe was the founder of the monthly journal Youth (Sonyeon) that focused on youths as leaders of the movement. After the March First Movement, all of Choe’s magazines were subjected to surveillance, many were forced to shut down, and he was often arrested for publishing contents criticizing Japanese policies. Both Yi and Choe, however, are famous for the fact that from the late 1930s, they both turned into Japanese collaborators, published pro-Japanese writings and even advocated against Western powers and for the colonial rule (Hanscom 2013 3,65). In the movie, Assassination, the character of Yeon Seok-jin can be interpreted to be a metaphor for the defectors and traitors that are believed to have created major hurdles for the KPG.

Image 2 (Choi Assassination)

The movie depicts the lives of Korean freedom fighters as they hatch a plan to assassinate a ruthless Japanese general and his Korean collaborator. The image above shows the character Yeom Seok-jin, the very man responsible for planning out the assassination attempt along with Kim Gu, a character based on a famous leader of the KPG. Here, Yeom is seen with a lit match in Kim’s office as he searches for information about the targets and the assassins to hand over to the Japanese. By making Yeom the traitor, the movie makes the betrayal a painful event not just for the characters, but also for the audience and creates an emotional connection between Korean history, the film, the characters and the audience. The fact that Yeom is depicted as a very passionate Independence fighter whose bravery can be witnessed at the starting scenes of the movie, before he goes on to betray everyone in the Independence cause, directly correlates with the problems of defection and treachery that were experienced within the KPG in Shanghai.

Despite their actions during the latter part of the colonization period tainting their reputation post-colonization, Yi and Choe had their reasons for their decisions. After much criticism from his contemporaries, Choe released a confession where he wrote, “when forced to choose between the road of scholarship and that of fidelity to the nation, he chose the former.” (Hanscom 2013 64) This does not completely justify his actions, considering the thousands who sacrificed their lives for the cause of national independence. However, this further adds to the role that the colonial government played in hindering the efforts of the KPG, especially through the use of force. This is further supported by the experiences of Yun Chi-ho, a prominent Korean leader who was arrested and subjected to such brutal Japanese mistreatment during the One Hundred and Five Man Incident in the early colonial period that he removed himself completely from any activities concerning Korean Independence.

Image 3 (Choi Assassination)

Going back to the character of Yeom in Assassination, the story of how he comes about to betray Korea is not very different. The above scene shows the torture and humiliation that Yeom had to undergo while under imprisonment by Japanese officials before his life is spared in return for him acting as a spy for the colonizers. After the revelation of  Yeom being a traitor to the audience, he can be seen as a character who wants nothing more than to survive. Yun Chi-ho’s reason for abandoning the fight for freedom was that he had established colonialism as a “fait accompli” (Kim 1989 82) and that the only way he could serve the cause and his family was by staying alive. In comparison, the real life Yun and fictional Yeom aren’t much different from each other except for the latter’s role as a spy.

But defection wasn’t the only problem that the KPG had to deal with. Most of the members were not in complete agreement with the idea of appointing Syngman Rhee as the leader of the KPG due to rumors about his petition to place Korea “under the mandatory of the League of Nations”, which accounted for a bad start. In addition, there were factional conflicts within the government arising due to differences in ideologies (the An Chang-ho vs the Yi Tong-hwi faction) or even regions of origin of the members (Hamgyeong province vs Hwanghae and Pyongyang Provinces) (Kim 2009 151-162). On that note, this very problem is also depicted in the movie Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet where the Japanese officer interrogating Dong Ju makes the comment shown in the image below, referring to one of the various reasons Dong Ju’s friend, Song Mong-kyu leaves the KPG, despite his initial enthusiasm to join the committee.

Image 4 (Lee “Dong Ju: The Portrait of a Poet”)

The factional division was so intense that while Rhee, who was trying to run the KPG was struggling to collect finances, An Chang-ho of the opposing faction had enough money to bribe innocent women into working on gaining people’s trust for him (Kim 2009 157). Such strong divisions inside the KPG made any substantial progress towards independence on its part a very difficult achievement. As mentioned as an example in the previous sentence, the lack of finances also played a pig role in hindering the proper operation of the KPG. In addition to these hardships, the Japanese spy networks always came as an obstacle in the functioning of the government as they had to be constantly wary of the spies no matter where in the world they might be working (Kim 2009 153). Korean nationalists abroad had a difficult time due to a lack of foreign sanctuaries as most foreign powers had accepted Japan’s argument that Korea had become an incapable nation and that the citizens would fare better under Japanese rule. Parties like the KPG and the Korean National Revolutionary Party never for legitimacy from the international community. There were several Korean communist guerrilla groups stationed in Manchuria, but they were not able to do well either under Japanese forces (Buzo 2007 42-43). In this manner, the hardships for all individual and groups of Korean nationalists faced more burdens than support in their endeavors for the establishment of Korean independence.

Modern nationalists in the 1930s and 40s were increasingly suppressed by Japanese authorities.

Image 5 (Lee “Dong Ju: The Portrait of a Poet”)

The story of Dong Ju accurately portrays the struggles of modern nationalists like the poet and his friend against colonial authorities. The image above shows the frustration that Song Mong-kyu feels at not being able to accomplish all the anti-Japanese actions that he is being accused of having done. The eventual defeat he feels after experiencing the suppressive and inhumane treatment by the Japanese is so great that he does not even try to prove his innocence as he realizes that no matter what he says, he will never to able to escape their captivity. For the most part, this image depicts the feeling not just of the individual character from the movie, but also of other independence activists around that point in time after all their hard work and sacrifices without much accomplishments to show for as the Japanese dominance did not seem to falter.

In short, it can be said that although the independence activists and groups were not able to contribute substantially to the accomplishment of  Korean autonomy, despite their many efforts and sacrifices, their constant struggle, either passive through articles and other forms of publication and art or through active means like protests, served to constantly show the colonizers that not all Koreans had given up hope and that they were still ready to fight for their nation. Moreover, their activities like the 1919 March First Movement also served to lift up the spirits of the Korean citizens who had either already given up hope or were on the verge of losing it and for these reasons, the memories of the experiences, challenges and accomplishments of the Korean Nationalists during the colonial period should be remembered and cherished.

Works cited

Assassination. Dir. Dong Hoon Choi. Perf. Ji hyun Jun, Jung jae Lee. Caper Film, 2015. Netflix. Web. 26 Apr. 2017.

Buzo, Adrian. The Making of Modern Korea. Second ed. Cornwall: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group, 2007. Print.

Dong Ju: The Portrait of a Poet. Dir. Joon Ik Lee. Perf. Ha neul Kang, Jeong min Park. Luz y Sonidos, 2016. Film. Web. 26 Apr. 2017. <>.

Hanscom, Christopher P. Imperatives of culture: selected essays on Korean history, literature and society from the Japanese colonial era. Honolulu: U of Hawaii Press, 2013. Print.

Hwang, Kyung Moon. A history of Korea. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. Print.

Kim, Hyung-Chan. “Portrait of a Troubled Korean Patriot: Yun Ch’i-ho’s Views of the March First Independence Movement and World War II.” Korean Studies 13.1 (1989): 76-91. Web.

Kim, Robert Hyung-Chan. “Soon Hyun (Hyŏn Sun) And His Place In The History Of The Korean Independence Movement: With Emphasis On The Korean Commission.” Acta Koreana 12.2 (2009): 127-83. Web.

McKenzie, F. A. Korea’s Fight for Freedom. New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1920. Print.


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