BECK index

Korea 1800-1949

by Sanderson Beck

Korea in Isolation 1800-64
Korea in Transition 1864-93
Korea Reforms 1894-1904
Japan's Annexation of Korea 1904-18
March First Movement 1919-20
Colonial Korea under Japan 1921-45
Korea Liberated and Divided 1945-49

This chapter has been published in the book EAST ASIA 1800-1949.
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Korea in Isolation 1800-64

Korea to 1800

King Sunjo (r. 1800-34) was only ten years old when he became king of Korea, and dowager Queen Chongsun acted as regent. The Pyokp’a party used the Catholic issue to increase their influence. They argued that the tolerance during Chongjo’s reign was illegal, and they persecuted Catholics in 1801. Six leaders were arrested; they refused to recant under torture and were executed, including Yi Sung-hun and Chong Yag-yong’s older brother Yak-chong, who had led the laity. The first Korean Catholic priest Chou Wen-mu turned himself in to try to stop the persecution, and he was put to death. Hwang Sa-yong wrote a long message on silk to the French bishop in Beijing, asking for western nations to use a large fleet and many troops to force Korea to grant religious freedom, but he was caught and executed. This aroused more fears, and another three hundred became martyrs. Also in 1801 the massive slave registers were ordered burned, emancipating 66,067 government slaves. Local governments still retained slaves, and private slavery also persisted. In 1802 the dowager Queen Chongsun died, and King Sunjo’s tutor Ch’ae Che-gong opposed the persecution of Christians. Sunjo’s father-in-law Kim Cho-sun of the Andong Kim clan gained the political power and promoted many of his clansmen.

Two Chong brothers were banished to distant islands in 1801. Chong Yak-chon made a detailed study of 155 species of marine life. Chong Yag-yong (1762-1836) wrote Design for Good Government and a Treatise on Land. At first he suggested confiscating the large landholdings and redistributing them to the peasants; land would be owned and worked by each village unit with the harvest apportioned according to the labor of individuals. Later he accepted a private system that guaranteed tenants suitable plots to rent. Chong Yag-yong has been considered the greatest Sirhak scholar. He believed in a reformed Confucianism and wrote 314 volumes and 2,469 poems. Many of the poems portrayed rural life under greedy landlords and officials. He explained how the law enabled petty officials to act badly.

A man may become wicked
when he is overqualified for the post
to which he is assigned,
when he is educated beyond his station in life,
when he is able to reap immediate benefits
with a minimum of effort,
when he stays at the same job for a long time
while his supervisor is changed frequently,
when his superior is not consistently honest and ethical,
when he has many friends
and followers among his subordinates
but his superior is isolated and unsure of himself,
when there is someone who envies him
but that person is weaker than him
and is therefore afraid to expose any of his misdeeds,
when he is guilty of the same crime as someone he dislikes
but they each refrain from exposing the other’s misdeed
for the sake of mutual protection,
when the punishment for an offense is so light that
it would not make him feel
the least bit guilty or embarrassed,
when he sees that some profit by their wickedness
though others do not,
and when he realizes that some who are not wicked
end up being treated as though they were wicked anyway.1

Chong Yag-yong noted that humans are different than other animals because of their ability to make tools. Earlier in their history the Koreans had adopted many techniques from the Chinese, but in recent centuries they had not done so and had fallen behind. Using more advanced tools and techniques would improve agriculture, military defense, medical treatment, and crafts. Yag-yong observed that Japan prospered and become militarily strong by learning from China. From an old book by a Jesuit missionary he read how helpful pulleys could be, and he worked with Pak Chega on promoting the immunization of children against smallpox. Chong Yag-yong also wrote on the importance of music for calming emotions such as anger, and he argued that good music can prevent crime and wars. In his best known work, The Nurture of the People (Mokminsimso), he noted that only three tenths of the interest grain went to the government while the rest was taken by individuals. This book would later influence many revolutionaries, including Ho Chi Minh.

Corrupt officials collected taxes that often amounted to half the harvest. Even abandoned fields were taxed. Ten percent interest was charged on grain loans as “wastage.” Thus what was intended to be relief became a burden, and some officials forced peasants to borrow more than they needed. Most magistrates gained their positions by bribery and then received bribes from the lower functionaries (hyangni), who in turn profited by extorting the taxes. The government tried to limit the corruption by sending out secret inspectors. Ever since the 17th century the yangban status had been declining, and now many fell into the local gentry. Some in the middle class (chungin) became technical specialists in the capital and raised their status. Others acquired fortunes through farming or commerce. Many lost their lands and had to work as wage laborers during the planting and harvests. As the yangban society deteriorated, people formed kye associations in order to pool their resources. As a group they could repair a reservoir, pay the military cloth tax, or purchase an ox or farm tools to share. Cho Om brought sweet potato seeds from Tsushima in 1763, and its cultivation spread. White potatoes were introduced from China in the 1820s and grew even better in Korea. Poor harvests and famines caused many peasants to wander and become “fire-field” farmers. When officials tried to tax them, some migrated across the border into Manchuria or the Russian Maritime Territory.

Drought and famine led to a “Secret Account of Conditions in P’yongan Province” being illegally posted on four gates of Seoul in 1804, and in Hwanghae province a poem denounced government policy. The wandering peasants began robbing, and the roaming bands became larger; “fire brigands” on horses used muskets, and “water brigands” used boats. In 1811 the yangban Hong Kyong-nae, who had failed the exam, led a rebellion in P’yongan province. They appealed to yangban farmers, Kaesong merchants, and hungry peasants. Saying he was organizing laborers for mining, Hong trained a force and defeated government soldiers in Pakch’on county. They fortified Chongju and held out for a hundred days before Hong was killed and the rebellion was defeated. In the 1820s Korea suffered from floods and a cholera epidemic that spread from China in 1821. King Sunjo passed the presidency of the State Council to his son Ikchong in 1827. He tried to appoint officials based on their ability, but he died before his father. Andong Kim continued to be prime minister and sold offices. Practical scholarship continued with Sixteen Treatises Written in Retirement by So Yu-gu and Random Expatiations by Yi Kyu-gyong.

Sunjo was succeeded by his grandson Honjong (r. 1834-49). His mother Cho Man-yong was a leader in the influential P’ungyang Cho clan. Her brother Cho In-yong became chief state councilor. Pope Gregory XVI had designated Korea a separate diocese from China in 1831. The French priest Maubant arrived in 1836, and two more priests came the next year. In 1839 the P’ungyang Cho clan of the Pyokp’a party executed the three priests and eighty Korean converts, of whom fifty were women. King Honjong published a condemnation of Catholicism, arguing its writings contradicted the laws of past kings. He wrote that only the ignorant would ask Heaven to forgive misdeeds or to grant special favors. He thought that the religion belittled reverence for one’s parents and while believing in the soul contradicted itself by not believing in the spirits of the ancestors. Chong Hasang, who was executed in 1839, defended Catholicism, believing it taught the same moral principles as Confucianism such as the fourth commandment to honor one’s parents. He believed they should follow God’s commands rather than the king’s. He asked why Catholics were not granted the same tolerance shown to Buddhists and shamans. The Korean priest Kim Tae-gon had studied at Macao and was ordained in Shanghai in 1845; he entered the country and tried to preach secretly, but he was caught and killed the next year along with eight other Catholics.

When Ch’olchong (r. 1849-63) became king, the Andong Kim clan regained power because of his queen being the daughter of Andong Kim Mun-gun. His kinsmen Kim Hung-gun and Kim Chwa-gun became the chief officials. They stopped the persecution of Catholics, but those in the royal house who attacked the Andong Kim clan were banished. Western priests came to Korea, and Catholic writings were published. Some scholars became Christians, but most of the converts were poor, uneducated, and lived in Seoul. The Catholic creed that all are children of God appealed to the lower classes wanting equality. The second Korean priest, Ch’oe Yang (1821-61), began preaching in 1850 and helped the Catholic congregation grow from 13,638 believers in 1855 to 23,000 in 1865.

Yi Chin-hung was a lower official (hyangni), and in his History of the Clerkly Class he argued that the hyangni and yangban should be treated the same. In 1857 Yu Chae-gon included works by monks and women in the Third Selection of Poems of the People. Fellowships of poets (sisa) were formed. Masked dances and dramas also included shamanistic elements and lampooned the yangban class. In 1859 a book called Sunflowers collected the writings of men who suffered from discrimination because they were the sons of a yangban and a concubine. Ch’oe Han-gi wrote Personnel Administration in 1860 to suggest that government could be improved by employing the most talented and well educated from all social classes. He also recommended that Korea end its policy of isolation so that it could join the community of nations. P’ansori tales were sung to outdoor audiences. Sin Chae-hyo (1812-84) was especially skilled at satirizing the yangban class.

The Chinju uprising of 1862 was led by yangban farmer Yu Kye-ch’un using bamboo spears against the rapacious army commander Paek Nak-sin. The rebels killed local officials and burned government buildings, but they were suppressed. A few weeks later peasants rose up in Cholla and three southern provinces. Even the fishermen of Cheju Island rebelled against local authorities. Including the northern provinces of Hwanghae and Hamgyong, forty cities and towns experienced upheavals.

Ch’oe Che-u (1824-64) founded a religious movement that was called Tonghak (Eastern Learning) because it drew from Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism as well as from shamanism and Christianity. He was the son of a yangban but could not qualify for the exams because his mother was a peddler and had been married before. He studied Confucian books until he was twenty, then Buddhism, Daoism, and Christianity. For five years he had religious experiences as he went on long retreats. To raise money to open a hardware store, he sold his land to seven persons. In the ensuing scandal an old woman was believed to have died of anger before being revived by Ch’oe. On April 5, 1860 while trembling he conversed with a supernatural voice that claimed to be the Lord of Heaven. He was given a round symbol containing the opposites of yin and yang for healing people, and he was told to teach people. At first his wife thought he was mad, but soon he attracted many disciples and was called the Great Godly Teacher. During the uprisings of 1862 Tonghak became a church and spread in Kyongsang province. In August 1863 while Ch’oe Si Hyong (1829-98) was having a mystical experience, Ch’oe Che-u transferred consciousness to him and appointed him head of the northern churches.

Ch’oe Che-u wrote the Eastern Scripture and the Yongdam Hymns, teaching that God and humans are one and the same. He prayed that the Ultimate Energy be conscious in him that he may serve the Lord of Heaven. The Ultimate Energy is God, and to serve God is to be one with God, which is present in all things. The spirit of God is in humans, and to serve humanity is to serve God. Ch’oe proclaimed social equality and welcomed oppressed peasants, lifting them to the highest class in the Heavenly Way of the Tonghak religion. The chanting of magical formulas and the acceptance of mountain deities appealed to shamanistic traditions. Ch’oe called for reform of the corrupt government and prophesied that the “welcome tidings” would come in 1864. So the government had him arrested in December 1863 for sedition. Ch’oe Si-hyong visited him in prison and was told that he would “fly high and run far.” In March 1864 Ch’oe Che-u was beheaded. His followers fled into the mountains to hide, and Ch’oe Si-hyong led an underground movement that would revive a generation later.

Korea in Transition 1864-93

Since Kojong (r. 1864-1907) was only twelve years old when he became king, his father Yi Ha Ung was named Taewon’gun (Grand Prince) and governed as regent. His reforms aimed to create a strong monarchy. He appointed officials from all four colors (factions) based on merit, especially the Southerners and Northerners who had been neglected by the Andong Kim clan. The Taewon’gun was the first in the Yi dynasty to appoint anyone from the royal Wang family of Koryo, and he promoted able commoners. He converted the military cloth tax to a household tax that the yangban class also had to pay. To reform the collection of the grain taxes he sentenced corrupt officials to death or exile. However, a land surtax, a gate tax, and much labor were needed for the reconstruction of the Kyongbok palace that began in 1865 and took two years. Large contributions by the royal family and others were rewarded with official titles and entertainment. He also had debased coins minted that caused inflation and counterfeiting. Cho Tu-sun (1796-1870) led the team that revised the administrative code of the Choson dynasty in 1865.

Because of its isolation the Choson dynasty became known in Europe as the “hermit kingdom.” Giving information to foreigners was a capital crime, and travel abroad was forbidden. An English merchant ship was turned away in 1832, and a British warship spent a month in Korean waters in 1845. The next year three French warships left a letter for the court demanding that amends be made for the killing of the French priests. In 1854 two Russian warships killed some Koreans. The German merchant Ernest Oppert twice asked permission to trade in 1866. That year the American schooner Surprise was stranded, and the crew was helped by the local Koreans. In July the trading vessel General Sherman sailed up the Taedong River to P’yongyang; after they abducted three Koreans, a battle erupted in which twelve local people were killed. Then Korean soldiers and a mob burned the ship and killed all on board—three American officers, a Protestant interpreter, and the mostly Chinese crew. The Korean government rejected western demands for trade because of China’s unfortunate experiences in the Opium Wars and because of the concern that Catholicism would spread. Korea would not trade with Japan either.

The Taewon’gun may have learned of French missionaries from a proposal by the Catholic Nam Chong-sam that France help Korea against the Russians on the northern border. The Taewon’gun ended his toleration in 1866 when he had nine French missionaries and about 8,000 Korean believers executed; even more were imprisoned. Three French missionaries were in the provinces, and Felix Ridel escaped to China. There he contacted Admiral Roze, who promised to punish Korea with his French Asiatic Squadron. After sending three steamships to reconnoiter Seoul, seven warships attacked Kanghwa Island, carrying off weapons, silver, and 3,000 books that went to the French National Library. However, Koreans led by Han Song-gun defeated another French force at Munsu-san Fortress opposite Kanghwa, and Yang Hon-su’s troops drove the French from Kanghwa. In reaction to the foreign attacks, the conservative Confucian, Yi Hang-no (1792-1868), proposed forming a militia; he led the opposition to western trade and religion. In 1867 his disciples published his writings as Reflections of the Master Hwaso. Yi Hang-no urged Koreans not to use Western goods so that trade would not be necessary.

In 1868 the French priest Feron persuaded Oppert and his crew to try to steal the bones of the Taewon’gun’s father in order to bargain for open trade. This venture was financed by the American Jenkins, but they only managed to desecrate the tomb. A response from the United States to the loss of the General Sherman came in 1871 when their ambassador to Beijing, Frederick Low, and Admiral John Rodgers with five warships and 1,230 marines tried to force open ports for trade by attacking Kanghwa. At least 53 Koreans and three Americans were killed, but once again stubborn Korean defense drove the westerners away. The Taewon’gun had monuments inscribed in various places declaring that they must fight against the barbarian invasions to deter further attacks.

By this time hundreds of academies (sowon) had acquired large agricultural estates with slaves to work on them along with exemptions from taxes and corvée labor. Their economic and political power threatened the government, and in 1864 the Taewon’gun banned unauthorized repairs or construction of academies and shrines. In 1868 he began taxing the sowon, and in 1871 he closed down all but 47 that served as shrines to famous scholars. Confucian scholars objected, but police beatings drove the demonstrators from the capital. The reductions in officials’ corruption increased the government’s revenue, which accumulated after the costly palace was completed. Eventually the Confucians drove the Taewon’gun from power in 1873.

King Kojong had fallen in love with Lady I, and in 1868 she bore him a son, whom the Taewon’gun proclaimed as crown prince. When Queen Min had a son, the Taewon’gun sent rare ginseng; the five-day-old baby became ill and died. When Ch’oe Ik-hyon impeached the Taewon’gun, the Queen got his regency terminated. Kojong was old enough to rule. The Taewon’gun retired to his estate at Yangju but in 1874 may have sent the bomb that killed his political enemy, Min Sung-ho. After the Meiji restoration the Japanese had been trying to establish diplomatic relations with Korea since 1870, but their efforts were rebuffed three times as improperly advanced by an emperor. In 1875 the Japanese warship Unyo landed twenty men on Kanghwa, and Korean defenders fired on them. Japanese ships also landed men at Pusan and demanded negotiations. They sent the minister Kuroda Kiyotaka with two warships and three troop transports, and Korea accepted a friendship treaty at Kanghwa in February 1876, ending Korea’s period of isolation. Korea ended China’s claims to suzerainty and granted Japan trade and extraterritorial rights in its first unequal treaty. In addition to Pusan, which was already open to Japanese trade, the Bay of Wonsan would open in 1880 and Inch’on in 1883. Japan would not have to pay any taxes “for several years.”

Kim Ki-su was sent to Japan as a special envoy, and he wrote his Record of a Journey to Japan and let King Kojong order copies. Kim Koeng-jip, who later became known as Kim Hong-jip, brought back even more information about Japan’s advances in 1881. “A Policy for Korea” was written by the Chinese diplomat Huang Zunxian and recommended Korea develop a close relationship with Japan and China and form an alliance with the United States as a defense against Russian aggression. Another treatise, Presumptuous Views by Zheng Guanying, advised Korea to adopt China’s policy of self-strengthening by importing western technology and political ideas. Also in 1881 a technical mission of “sightseers” went to inspect Japan’s modern facilities. That year King Kojong reorganized the army into two garrisons instead of five.

Traditional Confucians opposed the Japanese treaty, and Ch’oe Ik-hyon wrote “Five Reasons Against,” warning against Japanese aggression and Catholicism. In March 1881 Yi Man-son submitted the “Memorial of Ten Thousand Men in Kyongsang Province” that defended the orthodox views against the new “enlightenment.” Most of the leaders were banished, but some of the more radical, such as Hong Chae-hak, were executed. The Taewon’gun tried to regain power through his oldest son Yi Chae-son by a secondary wife; but the plot was discovered, and Yi and more than thirty conspirators were executed. As father of the King, Taewon’gun was not investigated.

Because of the recent reform the traditional military units went thirteen months without pay or rations. When these soldiers were given rice mixed with sand and pebbles in 1882, they attacked the ration clerks. The superintendent Min Kyom-ho had the ringleaders arrested and sentenced to death, but soldiers stormed Min’s house and appealed to the Taewon’gun. The mutineers seized weapons and freed their comrades from prison. They killed the Japanese officer Horimoto Reizo and threatened the Japanese legation. The minister Hanabusa fled to Japan as the legation was burned down. The soldiers attacked the palace and killed Min Kyom-ho, but Queen Min escaped. King Kojong restored the Taewon’gun to his position of deciding all governmental matters. He dismissed the two new garrisons and revived the five old garrisons, abolishing the Office for Extraordinary State Affairs.

Hanabusa came back from Tokyo supported by soldiers and the Japanese navy, but on August 20, 1882 Chinese forces also arrived in Seoul led by General Wu Changqing. He seized the Taewon’gun and sent him to Tianjin in China. On August 29 the Korean army and citizens attacked the Chinese forces; 376 Koreans were killed; 173 were arrested, and ten mutiny leaders were executed. Korea and Japan negotiated the Treaty of Chemulp’o in October that punished the leaders of the mutiny. Korea paid Japan’s government 500,000 yen in reparations and 50,000-yen indemnities to the families of the Japanese victims. The Min family took control of the Korean court and favored China, which sent the diplomat Ma Jianchang and the German advisor Paul Georg von Mollendorff. General Yuan Shikai trained the new Four Barracks Commands. The Chinese urged the Koreans to make commercial treaties. Korea made unequal treaties with the United States in 1882, with England and Germany in 1883, with Italy and Russia in 1884, and with France in 1886. In 1883 the Korean government developed a factory for manufacturing arms, a mint, and a facility that published Hansong Sunbo, Korea’s first newspaper. In 1885 the government supported the Kwanghyewon Hospital that was founded by Horace N. Allen and developed a medical school. In the 1880s the Bible and some western literature were translated into Korean.

The disciples of Yu Hong-gi formed the Progressive party to support the enlightenment policies with the help of China. Pak Yong-hyo was sent to Japan as a special envoy with Kim Ok-kyun and So Kwang-bom, and they persuaded King Kojong to adopt reforms. They modernized the postal service and the army, but the Min clan began to block their efforts. Kim Ok-kyun brought back gunpowder, but his effort to get a loan was rejected at home. While China was in a conflict with France over Annam in 1884, the progressives planned a coup with support from 140 Japanese soldiers. On December 4, 1884 they gathered at a banquet to celebrate the opening of the Postal Administration. Kim Ok-kyun went to the palace and told the King that the Chinese were causing a disturbance and asked for Japanese protection. They called in conservative officials and Barracks commanders, killing them as they arrived. Kim later wrote in his Journal of 1844 that they had 14 reforms to implement. The first was to return the Taewon’gun, and the second was to abolish class privileges and establish equal rights. They wanted to revise the land laws to end extortion by officials. A State Council would submit proposals to the King. However, the Chinese had 1,500 soldiers and quickly suppressed the coup attempt. Kim, Pak, and a few others managed to escape to Japan; the Japanese minister Takezoe set fire to his legation as he fled. Families of the traitors were executed. Foreign minister Inoue Kaoru negotiated the Treaty of Hansong that paid for rebuilding the legation and provided indemnities for the Japanese civilians killed.

Japan’s prime minister Ito Hirobumi went to China and signed the Convention of Tianjin with Viceroy Li Hongzhang on April 18, 1885. Japan and China both agreed to withdraw their troops from Korea within four months and to notify each other if they were to send troops to Korea. Yuan Shikai remained in Seoul as a diplomat and was influential, forming a settlement that became Seoul’s Chinatown. China sent the Taewon’gun back, but Mollendorff and his replacement, the American Owen N. Denny, both urged the court to make an agreement with the Russian minister Karl Waeber. England became concerned and in 1885 sent a naval force to occupy Komun-do at the gateway of the Korean Strait. Russians objected, and China persuaded the English to remove these forces in 1887. The Russians pledged that no nation would be allowed to seize Korean territory. Pak Chong-yang was sent as an envoy to the United States. In 1888 Russia and Korea agreed to an Overland Trade Agreement. Yu Kil-chun visited the United States and Europe, and in 1889 he wrote the influential Observations on a Journey to the West. He favored a constitutional democracy and a free-enterprise economy, but for Korea he was willing to accept a constitutional monarchy.

Meanwhile the peasants were still suffering from extortion, and armed bandits were raiding public markets more often. Japan increased their share of Korea’s exports to more than 90%, but by 1893 their proportion of the imports to Korea had fallen to 50% from 81% in 1885. Korea exported mostly rice, soybeans, gold, ginseng, and cowhides. Peasants eager to import tools, utensils, cotton goods, and other useful items from Japan often mortgaged most of their crops. The Korean government banned the export of rice from Hamgyong province in 1889 and from Hwanghae in 1890, but the Japanese protested and got around them.

Japan had laid undersea cable from Pusan to Nagasaki in 1883 and built the Pusan-Inch’on telegraph line in 1885. The next year they established a coaling station on Yongdo off Pusan, and in 1888 they gained coastal fishing rights. In 1891 Japan put a coaling station on Wolmi Island off Inch’on and gained fishing rights off Kyongsang province. In 1894 they built a railway from Seoul to Pusan.

Korea Reforms 1894-1904

Ch’oe Si-hyong compiled the Bible of Tonghak Doctrines and Hymns from the Dragon Pool and developed the Tonghak (Eastern Learning) into a religion with churches. In 1892 a movement grew in Cholla province to clear the name of their founder Ch’oe Che-u. They petitioned the throne in Seoul, and 20,000 assembled at Poun in Ch’ungch’ong province. They wanted the Japanese and Westerners expelled from Korea. In 1894 these revolutionary peasants began military operations by rising up against the tyranny of Cho Pyong-gap, the magistrate in Kobu county. He had forced peasants to build a new reservoir and then extorted rice from them too. Led by Chon Pong-jun, the peasants entered the county office, grabbed weapons, distributed the rice to the poor, and then destroyed Manokyo reservoir. An official arrested some Tonghak members, executed a few, and burned their homes. The Tonghaks aroused the peasants to seize more weapons, and thousands joined their army. They defeated the government troops in Kobu county and then captured Chongup, Koch’ang, Mujang, Yonggwang, and Hamp’yong. Seoul dispatched Hong Kye-hun with 800 well armed men; but half of them deserted before they reached Chonju, where they were defeated by the Tonghaks.

Korea appealed to China for military help. When they sent 3,000 men, Japan sent 7,000 troops to Inch’on. Chon Pong-jun tried to negotiate to stop the yangbans from extorting crops from the peasants and to block the foreign merchants. The Tonghaks spread out to establish more congregations in villages and to reform the abuses of local governments. Chon established the directorate headquarters at Chonju. Their 12-point program included punishing corrupt officials and wealthy extortionists, burning slavery documents, permitting young widows to remarry, banning arbitrary taxes, ending class discrimination in employment, canceling debts, and distributing land equally to cultivators.

In late July 1894 China and Japan went to war, and the Japanese drove the Chinese out of Korea by October. That month the Tonghak army marched north, but the Japanese defeated them at Kongju and again at T’aein. The Northern Assembly of Tonghak led by Ch’oe Si-hyong had denounced the armed revolt as treasonous and a betrayal of Tonghak teachings, but the peasants in the Southern Assembly were determined to fight. The Northern Assembly joined the second uprising against the Japanese, but, lacking modern weapons, the peasants were crushed by Japanese imperialism and the yangban power. Chon Pong-jun was arrested in Seoul on December 28, and he and other leaders were executed. Japan proposed that with the Chinese they could reform Korea’s administration, but China rejected this as outside interference. China lost the war, and in the April 1895 Shimonoseki Treaty they acknowledged the independence of Korea.

The Korean government demanded that the Japanese withdraw before they instituted reforms; but their forces restored the Taewon’gun to power. The Japanese minister Otori Keisuke and Kim Hong-jip’s Deliberative Council began implementing the reforms on July 26, 1894. In the first three months 208 reform laws were enacted, but after six months the Taewon’gun abolished this council. The new department of the Royal Household separated the palace affairs from the administration of the government. New ministries of Agriculture, Commerce, and Industry were added to the traditional ministries of Foreign Affairs, Home Affairs, Finance, Justice, Education, and Defense; but Industry did not last long.

The old examination system was abolished, and the new exams were on Korean, Chinese, calligraphy, mathematics, political science, international relations, and composition. There were special tests in scientific and technical subjects. Class distinctions were eliminated, and despised butchers and leather-workers were given equal rights. The eight provinces were organized into 23 prefectures and then into thirteen provinces as two in the north and three in the south were divided into northern and southern parts. The administration of justice was separated from the executive as a system of courts was established. All fiscal matters were put under the ministry of Finance, and taxes had to be paid in cash. Peasants had difficulty paying taxes with money. Slavery had no longer been hereditary after 1888, but now it was completely abolished. Legislation ended torture and the punishment of relatives of criminals. The minimum ages for marriage became 20 for men and 16 for women. Any widow could remarry, and illegitimate sons could inherit. Social dress codes were relaxed, and practical clothing was encouraged.

The Taewon’gun opposed the reforms and tried to replace King Kojong with his own grandson Yi Chun-yong, but the plot was discovered and stopped. The Japanese sent Inoue Kaoru, and with Japanese forces in P’yongyang he forced the Taewon’gun to retire. Inoue persuaded Kojong to appoint Pak Yong-hyo to work with Kim Hong-jip’s cabinet as a coalition government. In a ceremony on January 7, 1895 the fourteen articles of the “Guiding Principles of the Nation” were proclaimed at the Royal Ancestral Throne by the King and his family. They have been summarized as follows:

1. Korea is a sovereign nation completely independent of China.
2. The rules of succession to the throne are to be legally determined.
3. The King alone heads the government, and the Queen and other relatives are excluded from political power.
4. The finances and other affairs of the royal family are to be administered separately from those of the government.
5. The powers and functions of each official post are to be clearly defined.
6. Taxation is to be imposed solely according to law.
7. All government financial affairs without exception are to be controlled by the Ministry of Finances.
8. The expenses of the various offices are to be reduced.
9. Annual budgets are to be prepared to regularize finances.
10. The functions and jurisdictions of local administrations are to be clearly defined by law.
11. Talented persons are to be sent abroad for study in order to develop and apply modern science and technology.
12. An army is to be established on the basis of conscription.
13. Reformed civil and criminal law codes are to be enacted.
14. Appointments to government posts are to be made on the basis of merit only, without regard to social status.2

The reforms were completed by April 1895, and 16,000 of the 22,300 district officials were dismissed. When Queen Min learned that Pak Yong-hyo wanted her to abdicate, she forced him to flee with the pro-Japanese faction. Her faction led by Yi Pom-jin and Yi Wan-yong were pro-Russian and took control. The Japanese minister Miura Goro approved the assassination of Queen Min, and she was killed by Japanese civilians who accompanied a training unit and Japanese guards into the palace on October 8. The Korean commander of the training unit was also killed, and the minister of the royal household was beaten to death. Japanese troops seized King Kojong and restored the pro-Japanese government. Japan recalled Miura for trial, but he was acquitted. Kim Hong-jip once again led the cabinet and continued the reforms—adopting the Western calendar, smallpox vaccinations, and elementary schools. The military was restructured, and men were ordered to cut off their topknots. Some guerrilla groups rose up against this and the Japanese, but they were suppressed by the capital guards.

After their minister Waeber brought one hundred Russians to guard their legation in Seoul, Yi Pom-jin and others moved King Kojong into the Russian legation on February 11, 1896. Armed uprisings broke out in Korea during the first half of 1896 against the foreigners and the five Korean traitors. Kim Hong-jip and Chong Pyong-ha were arrested at a palace gate and were killed by an angry crowd. A mob also killed O Yun-jung, but Yu Ku-chun and Cho Ui-yon escaped to Japan. Yi Pom-jin and Yi Wan-yong became the leaders in the pro-Russian cabinet. Russian arms were procured, and a Russian language school was established. Japanese advisors and military trainers were replaced by Russians. In 1896 Russians were given mining rights in Homgyong province and timber rights in the Yalu River basin and permission for a coaling station on Wolmi Island off Inch’on. The Japanese owned 210 of the 258 foreign commercial companies in Korea, and 42 were Chinese.

The United States also gained economic concessions—gold mining rights in P’yongan province and the Seoul-Inch’on railway line. France built the Seoul-Uiju railway, and in 1897 Germany gained mining rights in Kangwon province. In 1898 Russia also established a coaling station on Yongdo off Pusan, and they were authorized to establish the Russo-Korean Bank. Japan was given exclusive rights to purchase coal from P’yongyang and bought the Seoul-Inch’on railway concession from the Americans, who laid electricity and water mains in Seoul. The Standard Oil Company had an oil storage depot on Wolmi Island. England was given gold mining rights in P’yongan province. Japanese banks had twenty branches in Seoul and treaty ports, and the Daiichi Bank of Japan acted as a central bank for Korea.

These foreign concessions disturbed many Koreans. So Chae-p’il had fled to Japan after the failed coup in 1884. He became a medical doctor in the United States, where he used the name Philip Jaisohn and married an American. In 1895 Pak Yong-hyo visited So and persuaded him to return to Korea. So founded the Independence Club in 1896, and within three months they had ten thousand members. Many government officials joined the Club but dropped out as it grew and became more radical. Confucian reformers such as Namgung Ok and Chong Kyo also joined. Their first project was to change the gate and hall where Chinese envoys were welcomed by renaming them Independence. So Chae-p’il started The Independent newspaper on April 7, wrote its editorials, and sponsored weekly debates. The Confucians had their own paper, the Capital Gazette (Hwangsong Sinman). The Independence Club favored a neutral foreign policy and democratic political rights. They also promoted the self-strengthening movement that was popular in China.

On February 20, 1897 King Kojong moved from the Russian legation to the Kyongun Palace, where he was protected by other legations as well. In October he announced that Korea was to be known as the Great Han Empire, and on October 12 he was crowned emperor in order to be equal to the monarchs of Japan and China. On February 9, 1898 the Independence Club organized a mass rally at the Chongno intersection in Seoul, and public opinion persuaded the government to dismiss Russian advisors and close the Russian bank. So Chae-p’il was deported and went back to the United States.

In October 1898 another mass demonstration submitted six proposals to the King recommending that Korea not rely on foreign aid, that all agreements must be approved by state ministers and the president of the Privy Council, that offenders should have public trials, that the King’s appointments must be approved by a majority of the cabinet, that the Finance ministry should have exclusive control over revenues and taxes, and that laws should be enforced. Kojong immediately agreed, and the Independence Club even elected half the Privy Council; but on November 4 the King ordered the Club dissolved and arrested seventeen of its leaders. They responded with a continuous protest meeting. Cho Pyong-sik organized the conservative Imperial Association, and hooligans from the Peddlers Guild attacked the demonstrators. Troops were called in to clear the streets, and protests were banned.

Meanwhile Russia had gained Chinese ports at Port Arthur and Dairen and was advancing in Manchuria with its Trans-Siberian Railway. In 1898 Korea had 15,062 Japanese, 2,530 Chinese, and 220 Westerners. In April 1898 Russia and Japan agreed that neither would interfere with Korea’s internal administration, but in 1900 Russia built a naval base in Masan between Vladivostok and Port Arthur. While China was preoccupied with the Boxer Rebellion, Russia moved troops into Manchuria. In January 1902 Japan formed an alliance with England to counter the Russian threat. Japan recognized English interests in China while the British accepted Japanese influence in Korea. The United States joined them in demanding that Russia withdraw from Manchuria; but the Russians only kept part of their promise, and in July 1903 they crossed the Yalu River and built a settlement in Yongamp’o, which remained a trading port after they withdrew under Japanese pressure. Japan and Russia tried to negotiate but could not agree. On February 8, 1904 the Japanese attacked Port Arthur by surprise, and two days later both sides declared war.

Japan's Annexation of Korea 1904-18

Korea had declared its neutrality in January 1904, but Japanese troops landed at Inch’on and marched to Seoul. King Kojong let the Japanese occupy strategic points and canceled all Korea’s agreements with Russia. Japan built railways from Seoul to Uiju and Pusan, took over the telegraph network, and used Korean rivers and coastal waters. Koreans especially complained when they opened up uncultivated land to Japanese colonists. Song Su-man organized the Korean Preservation Society to oppose the Japanese seizure of Korea’s uncultivated land. Japanese advisors influenced key ministries, especially Megata Tanetaro who moved into Finance in August. The American Durham W. Stevens became Foreign Affairs advisor, and he was later assassinated by two Koreans in San Francisco in 1908. Korea’s ministers to Japan, China, Germany, France, and other nations were recalled.

Japan had delayed this war until they were strong militarily and won a series of victories over the Russians, astounding the world. US president Theodore Roosevelt offered to mediate, and envoys met at Portsmouth, New Hampshire. In July 1905 Japan and the United States made the secret Taft-Katsura Agreement in which Japan recognized American control over the Philippines in exchange for US acceptance of Japanese influence in Korea. The next month England made a similar deal in which Japan recognized British domination in India. Then in September the defeated Russians agreed that Japan was paramount in Korea. Japan gained Port Arthur, Dairen, and the equal right to move into Manchuria. The sovereignty of Korea was not to be recognized by any treaty as Japan took control of its foreign policy.

Japan sent Ito Hirobumi with troops to establish Korea as a protectorate in November 1905. Korean officials who opposed the treaty were forcibly removed from the chamber by Japanese gendarmes. The negotiations were kept secret because King Kojong and the government feared the independence movement. The pro-Japanese organization Ilchinhoe was led by Songo Pyong-jun and Yi Yong-gu, who were paid by the Japanese. The King’s military aide Min Yong-hwan committed suicide in protest, and several others followed his example. Hundreds of scholars petitioned at the palace gates; some committed suicide, and others joined the guerrilla forces in the countryside that called themselves “righteous armies” and fought the Japanese. Min Kung-ho led a garrison that grew into thousands and defeated the Japanese at Wonju and other places in central Korea. The Kanghwa garrison led by Yu Myong-gyu moved into Hwanghae province. Ho Wi had resigned a high position and commanded disbanded soldiers in Choksong. Ito was appointed Resident-General, and all of Korea’s army was disbanded except one battalion of palace guards.

Korean newspapers led public opinion against the treaty. The Capital Gazette published the emotional editorial “Today We Cry Out in Lamentation,” and to avoid censorship the newspaper was free and delivered to houses. Ernest T. Bethell had founded the bilingual Korea Daily News that year, which was protected from censorship because he was English; but he was deported. Missionaries generally opposed the Japanese, and in 1906 Homer B. Hulbert began publishing the Corea Review. Yi Chun and Yang Han-nuk had organized the Society for the Study of Constitutional Government, and in 1906 it became the Korea Self-Strengthening Society.

The second Tonghak patriarch Ch’oe Si-hyong had been arrested and executed in 1898, and he was succeeded by Son Pyong-hui. In 1901 Son went to Japan, visited Shanghai, and returned to Japan with 64 students. He wrote about the doctrines of the church, including personal hygiene in 1904. That summer their political organization, the Unity Association, became the Neutral Association, and they called for political reforms and independence under the King. In December 1905 Son Pyong-hui appeared in public and announced that Tonghak was renamed Ch’ondogyo (Religion of the Heavenly Way). In September 1906 Son excommunicated the collaborator Yi Yong-gu, and that year they began publishing the Independence News. Most of the Ch’ondogyo were anti-Japanese, and they claimed 310,000 believers by 1910.

In February 1906 King Kojong sent a letter to a newspaper to announce that he had not agreed to the treaty with Japan. The next year he secretly sent Yi Sang-sol, Yi Chun, and Yi Wi-jong to the second world peace conference at The Hague. Their credentials were not accepted by the conference even though they explained that Korea had not agreed to the treaty. However, Yi Wi-jong spoke at a meeting sponsored by the International Press Club, and Korea gained worldwide publicity. The Japanese blamed Kojong and forced him to abdicate in favor of his son Sunjong on July 19, 1907. An angry Korean mob destroyed the building of the Ilchinhoe newspaper. The Japanese were attacked and reacted with military force. The Japanese Resident-General formally took control of the Korean government and appointed Japanese vice-ministers in every department, replacing the “government by advisors.”

Japanese money-lenders took over the farms of poor Koreans, and by 1907 there were 7,745 Japanese land-owners in Korea. The Japanese population in Korea increased from 20,000 that year to 170,000 in 1910. Japan had 2,000 officials in the government in 1909. The Government borrowed from Japanese banks, and by 1910 Korea’s debt reached 45 million yen. The Association for the Redemption of the National Debt had begun in 1907 and tried to raise money by getting men to stop smoking and women and girls to sell their hairpins and jewelry. Yang Ki-tak’s Korea Daily News sponsored the campaign, and he was arrested on false charges of embezzlement. In 1907 he and An Ch’ang-ho formed the New People’s Association to work for independence. They openly promoted Korean industry, education, and bookstores while secretly preparing for an armed uprising. In 1909 the Korea Association began publishing the Korea People’s Press to counter the Ilchinhoe.

Yi In-jik published the first “new novel” Tears of Blood (Hyol ui nu) in 1906 about a family in P’yongyang that suffers during the Sino-Japanese War. Ongnyon is separated from her family but finds a path to enlightenment while the Japanese impose colonial rule. In Peony Peak she returns to her family in Korea, and they try to marry her to an idle rich man. Yi In-jik’s Silvery World (1908) portrays the political corruption during the reforms of 1894. He persuaded Emperor Kojong to sponsor a National Theater, where his play Plum Tree in the Snow was performed in 1909. Yi Hae-jo translated many Western novels, and his 1908 novel Snow on the Temple Hair wrestles with the moral issues involving a wife and a concubine. In 1911 he wrote The Peony Screen in which a daughter is sold to a swindler and has to be rescued from prostitution.

New novels were usually published in the han’gul alphabet and the vernacular language, and they often emphasized modern education and sexual equality. They reached a height in 1917 with Yi Kwang-su’s Heartless (Mujong), which urged readers to reconstruct their own lives before turning to politics. The orphan Yi Hyong-sik becomes a teacher and challenges Confucian traditions to work for more modern education. He leaves his childhood sweetheart Yongch’ae, who has become an entertainer, in order to marry Sonhyong, the daughter of a wealthy diplomat. He wants a marriage based on mutual love and loves her, but he is not sure that she loves him or whether she is merely obeying her father. The rejected Yongch’ae is planning to drown herself, but the feminist Pyonguk persuades her that a child’s life is more than the will of her parents and a wife’s life more than the will of her husband. She may choose the roles of daughter, wife, and mother, but she also may find her own life in society, religion, science, or the arts. In the conclusion Yi Hyong-sik and Pyonguk persuade Yongch’ae and Sonhyong that they should all work to strengthen and enlighten themselves and others. Yi Kwang-su wanted people to adopt Christianity and western ways in order to surpass the Japanese.

Ch’angga songs were often based on Western melodies but with patriotic lyrics that expressed independence and the new education and culture. The People’s News was pro-Japanese, but in 1909 the Korean People’s News was founded. Korea had 3,000 private schools by 1910, but the Japanese controlled the curricula, and all government schools had Japanese teachers.

The Korean army had only 8,800 soldiers in Seoul, and these were disbanded. The commander Pak Song-hwan killed himself, and many officers and men took up arms against the Japanese. After they had expended their ammunition, they joined the guerrillas in the countryside. Yi In-yong was active in Kangwan province. Min Chong-sik controlled Hongson in Ch’ungch’ong province; Ch’oe Ik-hyon and Im Pyong-ch’an led the uprising in Cholla province; and Sin Tol-sok led guerrillas in Kyongsang province. In 1907 Yi In-yong and Ho Wi led ten thousand men against the Residency-General headquarters.

An Chung-gun assassinated Ito Hirobumi in the Harbin railway station on October 26, 1909. According to Japanese records the number of guerrillas they fought increased from 44,116 in 1907 to 69,832 in 1908 but decreased to 15,763 in 1909. By 1910 only 1,891 were still fighting. The total number of guerrillas killed was estimated at 17,600, but the historian Pak Un-sik calculated that over the previous fifteen years 50,000 Koreans had been killed. Refugees went to Sikhote Alin in the Russian Maritime Territory and conducted raids into Hamgyong province from there. Others went to Manchuria, where Kando had a Korean population of 100,000 by 1910. The next year they opened the Military School of the New Rising there. In 1912 Im Pyong-ch’an organized the Righteous Army for Korean Independence; in 1913 Ch’ae Ki-jung formed the Restoration Association; in 1914 Yi Sang-sol and Yi Tong-hwi set up the Government of the Korean Restoration Army in the Russian Maritime Territory; and in 1915 So Sang-il founded the Society for the Restoration of Korean National Sovereignty. Teachers and students of the Sungsil Girls’ School in P’yongyang organized the Pine and Plum Society in 1913.

General Terauchi Masatake became Resident-General in May 1910, and 2,000 more Japanese police arrived in Seoul before him. He closed the Korean newspapers and arranged the annexation on August 22 with the prime minister Yi Wan-yong. Yi’s house had already been burned down in protest of his accepting the abdication, and in December 1909 he had been wounded by the independence activist Yi Chae-myong. On August 29 Sunjong proclaimed that he had yielded Korea to Japan. Terauche became Governor-General and repressed resistance. The Government-General published the Daily News, and Koreans had to try to get the banned New Korea People’s Press from the United States or the Mainstream that was published in Vladivostok for less biased news. Syngman Rhee (Yi Sung-man) founded the Korean National Association in Hawaii in 1909 and then moved on to the United States. Sin Kyu-sik, who founded the native Taejonggyo religion, organized the Mutual Assistance Society in Shanghai in 1912 and joined with Sun Yat-sen’s United League. At Shanghai in 1915 Pak Un-sik, Yi Sang-sol, and Sin Kyu-sik organized the New Korean Revolutionary Party to unite the militants in Manchuria and Siberia. Pak Un-sik published his Tragic History of Korea in 1915 and The Bloody History of the Korean Independence Movement in 1920.

The Japanese regime organized the Korean government in the five ministries of Foreign Affairs, Home Affairs, Finance, Justice, and Agriculture-Commerce-Industry with nine bureaus that included the Governor-General’s Secretariat, Police, Investigation, Courts of Justice, Railways, Monopolies, and the Temporary Land Survey. The number of military police stations increased to 528 while the civilian police stations dropped from 640 to 108. The number of policemen increased from 7,712 in 1910 to 14,391 in 1919, plus about 3,000 spies who aided them. The Japanese tried to neutralize influential Koreans by giving them titles of nobility and pensions; 76 accepted titles, and 9,000 yangban Confucians received pensions or gifts.

The Land Survey required owners to register their land, and many Koreans did not do this and lost their ancestral land. The Government also seized common land and uncultivated lands. Less than a hundred farms had been expropriated in 1912 for non-payment of taxes, but by 1918 more than 40,000 delinquent farmers had lost their land. The Land Survey was completed in 1918 and cost 20,500,000 won. The land was sold at low prices to the Oriental Development Company and other Japanese companies and individuals.

By 1911 Korea had 7,749 military police and 6,222 regular police, and more than half of these were Korean recruits. After An Myong-gun tried to kill Terauchi in December, more than six hundred prominent Koreans were arrested; 105 were tried for conspiracy, but only six were convicted. In 1912 more than 50,000 Koreans were arrested, and in 1918 the number had grown to over 140,000. All Japanese officials and school teachers wore uniforms and carried swords. Political meetings were prohibited, and censorship was imposed. The top officials were Japanese, and the Central Council was appointed by them. The Council was given the job of studying Korean customs so that the Japanese could learn about them. The 1911 Temple Act required Buddhist temples and monasteries to be used only for strictly religious purposes so that they would not gain wealth.

Han Yong-un published On the Revitalization of Korean Buddhism in 1913. From the Buddha’s doctrine that all human beings have the Buddha nature he inferred the idea of human equality and freedom. Being ignorant of this human equality leads to the oppression of others. Han also emphasized the Buddha’s teaching of universal salvation for all sentient beings. He recommended a balance of meditative practice and doctrinal study. He urged Buddhists to move from the mountains into the villages and cities, and he advocated that monks be permitted to marry.

During the European War the mining production in Korea owned by the Japanese increased rapidly from 1,783,577 yen in 1914 to 24,673,745 yen in 1918 while those owned by Koreans decreased from 1,042,284 yen in 1916 to 299,110 yen in 1918. The Japanese Government-General operated all the railways, harbors, communications, and airports, and they monopolized ginseng, salt, tobacco, and opium. In 1917 the 605 Korean-owned industries had 1,882,793 yen in capital while the 736 Japanese industries had 33,660,359 yen and ten times as much production as the Koreans. Taxes were collected from Koreans to pay off the national debt to the Japanese banks.

Education was much more available to the Japanese. In 1916 Korea had only 447 primary schools, 74 vocational schools, three high schools, and four colleges. In 1919 of the 336,812 Japanese residents 42,767 children were in school, but of the twenty million Koreans only 84,036 were students.

March First Movement 1919-20

Koreans wanting independence were encouraged by Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points that included self-determination for nations. Article 4 promised a “free, open-minded, and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims.” Ch’ondogyo leaders Ch’oe In, Kwon Tongji, and O Sech’ang read about this in November 1918, and Son Pyong-hui ordered his two million followers to hold devotional services for 49 days starting on January 5, 1919 to prepare for a movement demanding Korean self-determination. In December 1918 the Korean National Association met in San Francisco and decided to send Syngman Rhee and two others to the Paris peace conference, but they were refused passports by the US State Department.

The sudden death of the ex-emperor Kojong on January 21, 1919 led to rumors that he was murdered or committed suicide. Some believed that he had refused to sign a petition for the peace conference affirming that the Korean people were grateful to Japan, and so Yi Wanyong had him poisoned. Others thought that he committed suicide to stop the marriage of the crown prince Kon to the Japanese princess Nashimoto Masako on January 25. Prince Kon had been engaged to a Korean girl, and her father was murdered at the same time. Many planned to attend Kojong’s funeral on March 3, and they set the demonstrations for March 1.

In January 1919 the New Korean Youth Association was organized in Shanghai. Ch’oe In asked the historian Ch’oe Nam-son to write an independence declaration, and he agreed on the condition that his name was not revealed. The Buddhist monk Han Yong-un was concerned that someone apolitical was writing this sacred document; he suggested three covenants emphasizing nonviolence, and they were added at the end. The Declaration of Independence is quoted here in full, followed by the three added agreements.

We hereby declare that Korea is an independent state
and that Koreans are a self-governing people.
We proclaim it to the nations of the world
in affirmation of the principle of the equality of all nations,
and we proclaim it to our posterity,
preserving in perpetuity the right of national survival.
We make this declaration
on the strength of five thousand years of history
as an expression of the devotion
and loyalty of twenty million people.
We claim independence in the interest of
the eternal and free development of our people
and in accordance with
the great movement for world reform
based upon the awakening conscience of mankind.
This is the clear command of heaven,
the course of our times,
and a legitimate manifestation of the right of all nations
to coexist and live in harmony.
Nothing in the world can suppress or block it.
  For the first time in several thousand years,
we have suffered the agony
of alien suppression for a decade,
becoming a victim of the policies of aggression and coercion,
which are relics from a bygone era.
How long have we been deprived of our right to exist?
How long has our spiritual development been hampered?
How long have the opportunities
to contribute our creative vitality
to the development of world culture been denied us?
  Alas! In order to rectify past grievances,
free ourselves from present hardships,
eliminate future threats, stimulate and enhance
the weakened conscience of our people,
eradicate the shame that befell our nation,
ensure proper development of human dignity,
avoid leaving humiliating legacies to our children,
and usher in lasting and complete happiness
for our posterity,
the most urgent task is
to firmly establish national independence.
Today when human nature and conscience
are placing the forces of justice and humanity on our side,
if everyone of our twenty million people
arms himself for battle,
whom could we not defeat
and what could we not accomplish?
  We do not intend to accuse Japan of infidelity
for its violation of various solemn treaty obligations
since the Treaty of Amity of 1876.
Japan’s scholars and officials,
indulging in a conqueror’s exuberance,
have denigrated the accomplishments of our ancestors
and treated our civilized people like barbarians.
Despite their disregard for the ancient origins
of our society and the brilliant spirit of our people,
we shall not blame Japan;
we must first blame ourselves
before finding fault with others.
Because of the urgent need for remedies
for the problems of today,
we cannot afford the time
for recriminations over past wrongs.
  Our task today is to build up our own strength,
not to destroy others.
We must chart a new course for ourselves
in accord with the solemn dictates of conscience,
not malign and reject others
for reasons of past enmity or momentary passion.
In order to restore natural and just conditions,
we must remedy the unnatural and unjust conditions
brought about by the leaders of Japan,
who are chained to old ideas and old forces
and victimized by their obsession with glory.
  From the outset the union of the two countries
did not emanate from the wishes of the people,
and its outcome has been oppressive coercion,
discriminatory injustice, and fabrication of statistical data,
thereby deepening the eternally irreconcilable chasm
of ill will between the two nations.
To correct past mistakes and open a new phase of friendship
based upon genuine understanding and sympathy—
is this not the easiest way
to avoid disaster and invite blessing?
The enslavement of twenty million resentful people by force
does not contribute to lasting peace in the East.
It deepens the fear and suspicion of Japan
by the four hundred million Chinese
who constitute the main axis for stability in the East,
and it will lead to the tragic downfall
of all nations in our region.
Independence for Korea today shall not only enable Koreans
to lead a normal, prosperous life, as is their due,
it will also guide Japan to leave its evil path
and perform its great task of
supporting the cause of the East,
liberating China from a gnawing uneasiness and fear
and helping the cause of world peace
and happiness for mankind,
which depend greatly on peace in the East.
How can this be considered
a trivial issue of mere sentiment?
  Behold! A new world is before our eyes.
The days of force are gone,
and the days of morality are here.
The spirit of humanity, nurtured through the past century,
has begun casting its rays of new civilization
upon human history.
A new spring has arrived
prompting the myriad forms of life to come to life again.
The past was a time of freezing ice and snow,
stifling the breath of life;
the present is a time of mild breezes and warm sunshine,
reinvigorating the spirit.
Facing the return of the universal cycle,
we set forth on the changing tide of the world.
Nothing can make us hesitate or fear.
 We shall safeguard our inherent right of freedom
and enjoy a life of prosperity;
we shall also make use of our creativity,
enabling our national essence
to blossom in the vernal warmth.
We have arisen now.
Conscience is on our side, and truth guides our way.
All of us, men and women, young and old,
having firmly left behind the old nest of darkness and gloom
and head for joyful resurrection
together with the myriad living things.
The spirits of thousands of generations
of our ancestors protect us;
the rising tide of world consciousness shall assist us.
Once started, we shall surely succeed.
With this hope we march forward.3

The three agreements indicate their peaceful approach.

This work of ours is on behalf of truth, justice, and life,
undertaken at the request of our people,
in order to make known their desire for liberty.
1. Let no violence be done to anyone.
2. Let those who follow us show every hour
  with gladness this same spirit.
3. Let all things be done with singleness of purpose,
  so that our behavior to the very end
  may be honorable and upright.4

Christians did not want a bold declaration, and they circulated a petition instead but got only about fifty people to sign. When Ch’oe In promised that Ch’ondogyo would contribute 5,000 yen to the Christians’ expenses, they agreed to the declaration. Ch’oe P’ar-yong and 600 Korean students in the Korean Youth Independence Corps met at the Tokyo YMCA on February 8 to pass resolutions, and they tried to give the Japanese government their petition for Korean independence. In late February the Independence Declaration was signed by 33 national representatives (15 Ch’ondogyo, 16 Christians, and 2 Buddhists), and the Ch’ondogyo organization printed 21,000 copies for distribution. Han Yong-an and a dozen Christians and Ch’ondogyo members each took thousands of copies to various places in Korea. It was also sent to the Paris Peace Conference, the President of the United States, and the Japanese government.

The night before the demonstrations 29 signers (4 Christians were still in the country) met at a restaurant in Seoul to sign and proclaim the Declaration. The Ch’ondogyo and Christians argued over the order of signing; but Ch’oe Nam-son suggested that Son Pyong-hui sign first. The Presbyterian elder Yi Sung-hun proposed that Rev. Kil Son-chu sign second, and the Methodists had Rev. Yi P’il-chu sign third. The Buddhist poet Han Yong-un had the Resident-Master of the Haein-sa Paek Yong Song sign fourth, and the rest signed in alphabetical order. At the end of the meeting they called the Japanese police to announce their plans, and they were arrested.

On first day of March students gathered at Pagoda Park in Seoul, and they were joined by farmers, workers, shopkeepers, and other citizens. The news gradually spread throughout Korea, and protests continued into April. March 2 was Sunday and was quiet, but on March 3 some Koreans attacked police stations and the homes and shops of Japanese. The next day armed bands killed some Japanese gendarmes. Yet most of the organized demonstrations were peaceful. On March 6 at Maengsan in South P’yong’an 76 shots killed 54 and wounded 13. On March 9 shopkeepers in Seoul announced they would not resume business until all the arrested students were released; shops in other cities also closed.

On April 8 the Japanese War Ministry announced that six battalions of infantry with machine guns were being sent to quell the disturbances. One week later a law went into effect that could give demonstrators ten years of penal servitude. Brutal suppression greatly reduced the number of open demonstrations, which stopped by the end of April. An estimated two million people participated in 1,542 demonstrations in all but seven of Korea’s 218 counties. In more than a hundred incidents the Japanese police and military fired into unarmed crowds. According to their records 7,645 people were killed, and 45,562 were wounded. The police arrested 46,811 people, and at least 11,000 were flogged; some were tortured. About 10,000 were tried and convicted, but most received light sentences. A bomb-thrower was executed. Son Pyong-hui and seven other leaders were sentenced to three years penal servitude. Han Yong-un was imprisoned for three years and wrote “A Discourse on the Independence of Korea” advocating that the independence of Korea was essential to peace in Asia. He believed that both freedom and peace are essential to human well-being.

In April the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea was established in Shanghai, and individuals were assigned to be liaisons in every county and town. Their constitution called for a democratic republic with a provisional legislative council; equality for citizens regardless of class, sex, or wealth; “freedoms of speech, writing, publishing, association, assembly, and dwelling;” the right to vote and be elected; “compulsory education, taxation, and military conscription;” joining the League of Nations; treating the former imperial family well; abolishing the death penalty, corporal punishment, and prostitution; and convening a national assembly within a year.

They sent Kim Kyu-sik to appeal for Korean independence at the peace conference in Paris. Yo Un-hyong went to the Soviet Union, and Chang Tok-su traveled to Japan. Syngman Rhee and Philip Jaisohn organized the First Korean Congress at Independence Hall in Philadelphia from April 14-16. An Ch’angho came to Shanghai from America on May 25 with funds and became acting premier. A Korean representative attended the International Socialist Party Congress in Switzerland in August, and they passed a resolution calling for Korean independence. The legislative council organized a cabinet with Syngman Rhee as president. He stayed in the United States and came to Shanghai in December 1920. Rhee was criticized for having proposed that Korea be under a League of Nations mandate, and he had to share the leadership with the more radical General Yi Tong-hwi.

The Korean Socialist Party had been founded at Khabarovsk on June 26, 1918 with help from the Bolsheviks. Yi Tong-hwi in Siberia trained and mobilized patriots to sabotage and assassinate Japanese officials. He came to Shanghai on August 30 to be premier of the Provisional Government, but he kept 400,000 rubles from the Bolsheviks for use by militant groups in Manchuria. Yi founded a Korean Communist Party there in 1920. In June 1921 the Korean Communists held their first conference at Irkutsk in Siberia. The Provisional Government had internal conflicts between Communists and nationalists, but at times they had the united front advised by the Comintern. The independence fighters in Manchuria and the Russian Maritime Territory were united by the General Headquarters of the Restoration Army in An-tung, Manchuria. In 1919 about 45,000 Koreans migrated to Manchuria. In the summer of 1919 Kim Tsang-suk went to Guangzhou (Canton), and the Guangzhou Military Government helped him raise 200,000 yuan for a Korean independence army, but the funds were stolen. In October the French concession in Shanghai ordered the provisional government closed there, and they had to go underground and move. In 1920 an officers training school was established in Shanghai.

Hong Pom-do led the Korean Independence Army in Manchuria and joined with Ch’oe Tong-jin’s Military Directorate to attack the Japanese army, killing 160 in the battle at Feng-wu-tung. Kim Cha-jin led the Northern Route Command that killed more than a thousand Japanese soldiers at Ch’ing-sha-li. The Japanese army reacted by attacking Korean villages in Manchuria, burning houses and slaughtering young Korean men in what was called the “1920 massacre.” Most of the Korean resistance moved into Russian territory. Later the General Staff Headquarters was set up in southern Manchuria. The New People’s Government was active in northern Manchuria, but in 1921 Soviet Koreans and Bolsheviks attacked Korean nationalists.

Bomb incidents occurred in various places in Korea in September 1920. The major terrorist groups were the Righteous Brotherhood led by Kim Won-hong and the Patriots Corps of Kim Ku. The cultural group was led by An Chang-ho and Yo Un-hyong (known as Lyuh Woon-heung in the US), and they emphasized educating the masses through newspapers and magazines.

On August 12, 1919 Tokyo replaced Governor-General Hasegawa with Admiral Saito Makoto, who arrived on September 2 but was not injured by a bomb that exploded in the railway station. Saito changed the military administration to a more liberal policy, and he met with provincial governors in October to discuss reforms. Salaries of Korean officials were made the same as for the Japanese, and Korean judges were given similar power. Civilian officials no longer wore uniforms or carried swords. The police force was demilitarized, but their numbers increased to 20,083 by 1921 with 2,354 police stations. Flogging was finally banned in April 1920, and the marriage of Prince Kon to Princess Nashimoto was celebrated on April 29 by releasing some political prisoners.

In January 1920 permission was granted for three Korean daily newspapers in Seoul to publish for the first time since the annexation, but censorship involved deletions, confiscating editions, fines, arrest of reporters, and suspension of publication. The literary magazine Creation had been started in 1919, followed by Ruins in 1920 and White Tide in 1922. In October 1920 the Government announced that village, school, municipal, and provincial councils would be formed to give advice, and the first elections were on November 20. Education was made more available to Koreans, and the number of students increased from 94,149 in 1917 to 222,601 in 1921. Koreans began raising funds for a private university in 1920, but instead the Keijo Imperial University opened in Seoul in May 1924 for mostly Japanese students. Studies of those involved in the March First Movement showed that 58% were farmers, 11% students, and 10% merchants. About 60% had little religious faith or were traditional Confucians; 16% were Presbyterians; 15% were Ch’ondogyo; and 5% were Methodists.

Colonial Korea under Japan 1921-45

In 1920 Japan began spending 168,000,000 yen to increase the production of Korean rice. The costs of the irrigation systems made more Korean farmers poor. The amount of rice exported to Japan quadrupled in the 1920s and doubled again in the 1930s. The Korean population increased by 3.7 million, and the Korean per capita consumption of rice dropped to less than half of Japan’s. Koreans had to import millet, kaoliang, soybeans, and barley from Manchuria to survive. Most Korean farmers became tenants and had to give half their crop to the landlord, and they also had to pay for fertilizer, irrigation, harvest transportation, and land tax. Most of them ended each year owing more money. In 1930 more than three quarters of the farmers were tenants, though 31% were owner-tenants. By then the Japanese Government held 40% of all the land in Korea. The number of “fire-field people” who burned uninhabited land to plant and move on increased from 697,088 in 1927 to more than 1,500,000 in 1936. Korean emigration to Manchuria increased from 560,000 in 1927 to 1,450,000 in 1940, and the number of Koreans in Japan went from 419,000 in 1930 to 1,469,000 in 1941.

In 1919 Korea was exporting 85% of its raw materials to Japan, but this decreased as Korea began manufacturing more products for export, especially in the 1930s. In 1931 about 95% of all Korean exports were going to Japan, and 80% of Korea’s imports came from Japan. Korean workers were paid half as much as Japanese workers and worked ten to twelve hours a day. The number of Korean industrial workers went from 50,000 in 1911 to 250,000 in 1933 and to 1,500,000 in 1945. Japan’s largest investor Noguchi Jun financed the Chosen Hydroelectric Power Company in 1926 on the Pujon River, and this enabled him to develop his Chosen Nitrogenous Fertilizer Company at Hungnam the next year. The Japanese developed munitions factories in Korea, and these expanded as the wars became worse. In 1938 the Japanese had seven times as much capital invested in Korean industry as Koreans. Mining went from 24,650,000 yen in 1930 to 110,430,000 yen in 1936 and to 445,420,000 yen in 1942. In the 1930s gold dominated the mining to pay for industrialization; but in the war years the minerals iron, tungsten, graphite, magnesite, and molybdenum accelerated drastically while gold mining fell from 22 tons in 1940 to 0.6 tons in 1944. In 1945 the Japanese held about 95% of the investments in Korean mining.

In 1922 Kim Yak-su led the North Wind Association, and Kim Sa-kuk and Lee Yong organized four hundred groups with 50,000 members into the Seoul Youth Association. Park Hyun-yong led the Tuesday Club made up of five hundred groups and 60,000 members. Cho Man-sik founded the Korean Products Promotion Society in 1922 and set an example of frugality and self-sufficiency. In 1923 the Society for the Encouragement of Native Products led the movement to “buy Korean” to aid Korean businesses and industry. Some Communists used terrorist tactics, and Pak Yol tried to assassinate the Japanese emperor in 1923. In 1924 the League of Korean Labor and Agriculture was formed out of 180 groups, and the League of the Korean Youth combined 220 groups. Labor disputes increased from 36 cases involving 3,403 workers in 1921 to 205 cases and 21,180 workers in 1931. Most disputes were for higher wages or the right to bargain and the eight-hour day. The Red Peasant Union was active in the 1930s; their peak year was 1932 when 4,381 people were arrested, and 1,011 were prosecuted.

In 1925 the Provisional Government impeached Syngman Rhee and replaced him with Kim Ku, who was supported by Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek). The Choson Communist Party was founded on April 17, 1925 and tried to use labor unrest to grow. On March 26, 1926 Chu Yo-sup and Koreans in Shanghai organized the Korean Youth Association to combine the efforts of the Communists and the nationalists. On February 15, 1927 the Communists and nationalists in Korea combined to form the Sin’ganhoe for the three aims to promote political and economic awakening, strengthen national solidarity, and disavow opportunism toward the ultimate goal of independence. They wanted to end Japanese exploitation, reduce Korean emigration, increase Korean education, and teach Marxist ideas. Despite Japanese surveillance they established more than a hundred branches with 30,000 members, and women formed the parallel Kunuhoe. In 1928 the Comintern officially dissolved the Korean Communist Party and ordered them to join the Japanese Communist Party.

The last Yi dynasty ruler Sunjong died on April 25, 1926, and left-wing activists planned massive demonstrations for June 10, the day of the state funeral. However, Japanese police seized leaflets as soon as they were printed and arrested all the leaders they could, especially the Communists. During the funeral march students shouted independence slogans, and more than two hundred were arrested; but the protests did not spread much beyond Seoul.

The Kwangju Student Movement began after three Japanese male students insulted three Korean female students who were waiting for a train. Korean and Japanese students clashed over this on November 3, 1929, and the conflict escalated into the streets of Kwangju. The Japanese police blamed the Korean students and arrested four hundred. The student movement set up a headquarters in Seoul and distributed 40,000 propaganda sheets on the Kwangju incident. Accounts spread, and demonstrations broke out all over Korea in 194 schools involving 54,000 students. Eventually 1,642 were arrested; 582 students were expelled, and 2,330 were suspended. Students organized other strikes, demanding reduced tuition, religious freedom, no prejudice, the right to criticize teachers and administrators, and freedom of assembly. About thirty student strikes occurred in 1930.

During the student demonstrations in Kwangju the Sin’ganhoe organized mass protest meetings; but the large number of arrests and the capture of 12,000 pages of records destroyed the organization. In 1930 a new leader tried to make the Sin’ganhoe more moderate to be legal, and in May 1931 the Communist wing had it dissolved along with the Kunuhoe. In October the Nong-jong Tenant Union and the Jong-pyong Farmers’ Union went on a sit-down strike, and 200 members were arrested. Police would not let the village night school open. On October 21 eighty union members led four groups in attacks on the county office, the police station, the railroad station, and the landlords, and they destroyed records. Many casualties resulted, and about 500 members were arrested.

In 1925 the Manchurian warlord Zhang Zuolin made an agreement with the Japanese and began turning over Korean independence fighters. In 1926 the Korean Communist Party (KCP) created the Manchurian General Bureau (MGB) which divided Manchuria into three regions. In December 1927 the Japanese and Chinese police in Manchuria arrested thirty Korean Communists, and in September 1928 Kim Tsol-san and forty more Communists were also arrested. They abandoned using radical names, and the new League of East Manchuria Youth claimed to have 100,000 members. In 1930 Kim Tsol-san was arrested again and sent to Seoul with 122 from the youth groups. On May 30 Korean Communists attacked the electric company in Nong-jong, the Tien-tao railroad warehouse, and the bridge over the Hai-lan River. Two thousand Communists were put on trial, and 22 died of ill treatment in prison. The Comintern accused them of being Trotskyites and dissolved the Korean Communist Party in Manchuria and its MGB, ordering them to join the Chinese Communists.

In 1931 eight Korean nationalist organizations in Manchuria formed the Korean Independence Party and declared war on the Japanese and the Communists. After the Japanese aggression in Manchuria in 1931 the Koreans joined with the Chinese in the Northeast Anti-Japanese United Army, and Kim Il Sung led a Korean contingent in its Second Army. Yi Pong-ch’ang of the Patriot Corps tried to assassinate the Japanese emperor with a hand grenade in 1932, and that year Yun Pong-gil killed and wounded Japanese leaders with a bomb in Shanghai.

In 1925 Governor-General Saito established the Korean History Compilation Bureau, but they presented a distorted version of Korea’s early history and took Korean cultural relics and art treasures to Japan. The Korean historians Pak Un-sik and Sin Ch’ae-ho were suppressed and had to work in exile. Kim Tongin edited the Creation magazine in Tokyo, and his 1925 story “Potato” realistically describes Pongnyo, who is married off to a lazy man, suffers poverty, and becomes a prostitute. White Tide authors Na Tohyang (1902-27) and Hyon Chingon also portrayed poverty. In “A Lucky Day” (1924) by Hyon a rickshaw puller gets a break, but his wife dies of hunger. The Buddhist Han Yong-un published his poetry in The Silence of Love in 1926, protesting world imperialism and symbolizing Korea’s lack of sovereignty as separation from the beloved. Ch’ondogyo’s Kaebyok magazine was suspended 32 times and finally was banned in 1926 along with New Woman and New Citizen during the Kwangju Student Movement. In 1928 Koreans began summer camps so that students could teach han’gul to peasants for wider literacy, but the Japanese closed these in 1935. Korean students usually had to leave the country to attend a university, and 3,639 were in Japan in 1931. That year there were 582 Japanese magazines but only 83 in Korean.

In the 1930s even more literature reflected the class struggle. Yi Kiyong portrayed peasants and their exploitation by landlords in his novels Flood (1930), Rat Fire (1933), and Hometown (1933-34). In Han Sorya’s Twilight (1936) the owner of a textile factory is subordinated under colonial rule; but a woman is the main character in the second half as the working class fights back. The larger sweep of Japanese imperialism in Korea over the years is surveyed in Three Generations (1931) by Yom Sangsop. The author follows a landowning family and expresses his ideas for moderate reforms as each generation changes. Kang Kyongae lived in Manchuria, and she serialized fiction. Her acclaimed story “Underground Village” (1936) showed how the proletariat was marginalized. Her 1934 novel Human Problems reveals how women suffered in colonial Korea’s family-centered society. Sim Hun based his novel Evergreen (1936) on a true story from 1931. During summer vacation Ch’ae Yongsin teaches children how to read in a church, but the Japanese police order her to reduce her students to eighty, a heart-rending task, and then she works hard to raise money for a new building. Ch’ae Man-sik satirized the moral degeneration of the landlords in his 1938 novel Peace under Heaven.

The modern Korean theater developed in the 20th century as it was influenced by Japanese, Chinese, and Western plays. Marxists founded the Koreana Artista Proleta Federation (KAPF) in 1925, and in 1930 they extended their activities from literature to the performing arts; but the Japanese were especially worried about drama groups and imprisoned the active members in July 1930. The Marxists used other names, and in June 1931 Yu Ch’i-jin (1905-74) and Hong He-song founded the Drama-Cinema Club and the next month the Society for Research in Dramatic Art. In November they started Experimental Stage.

Yu Ch’i-jin was influenced by the writings of Romain Rolland and the plays of Sean O’Casey. The Shack by Yu Ch’i-jin was produced on February 9, 1933. An ill husband Ch’oe and his wife survive with help from their daughter Kumnyo, who weaves straw mats. Samjo agrees to take a message to their son in Japan. Their poorer friends Booger and his wife are losing their house to foreclosure. The District Supervisor gives the Ch’oe couple an old newspaper that reports that their son was arrested for advocating independence. In the second act the Booger family moves into the Ch’oe kitchen and decides to leave on the same day that the Ch’oes receive the remains of their son from a postman. Yu Ch’i-jin also depicted the colonial oppression of the Koreans in The Scene from the  Willow Tree Village, The Slum, and The Ox (1935). Then he was arrested by police and changed to writing romances. After founding the Hyondae Theater in 1941, Yu capitulated in writing pro-Japanese plays. Later he felt guilty and destroyed those manuscripts. After the liberation in 1945 Yu wrote more hopeful plays such as The Fatherland and The Self-Beating Drum.

The ultra-nationalist Ugaki Kazushige was governor-general 1931-36 and worked on industrialization. General Minami Jiro (1936-42) replaced him and tried to assimilate Koreans by banning their national culture. All educational institutions were to use only Japanese. Meetings had to begin with an oath of allegiance to the Japanese emperor. In 1937 Korean students were required to worship a Shinto shrine on the first and fifteenth of each month. Students organized strikes, and police closed schools and colleges that disobeyed. In 1939 all Christians who refused to worship Shinto shrines were imprisoned. Koreans were compelled to adopt Japanese names. Also in 1939 the Japanese forced 2,616,900 Koreans to work in mines and factories, and 723,900 were sent abroad to do military construction.

Newspapers publishing in han’gul were shut down in 1940, and the same year the Korean Academic Society was dissolved. In October the Japanese required one member of each family to join the Korean League of the Mobilization of the National Spiritual Forces, and they used this huge organization to spread Japanese propaganda. In December the Council for Korean Theater was set up to censor plays, and playwrights were compelled to collaborate with the Japanese. In March 1941 dozens of British and American missionaries were arrested and interned in Kangwon province. Also in 1941 the last two Korean literary periodicals were suppressed. In 1942 leaders of the Korean Language Society, which had been founded in 1921, were arrested. Literary works had to be published in Japanese, which was the exclusive language in the schools.

The Provisional Government moved to Nanjing in 1932 and then to Jinjiang in 1935, to Changsha in 1937, and to Chongqing in 1940. In 1941 Yi Pom-sok commanded a military unit while other Koreans joined the Communists at Xi’an. Syngman Rhee published Japan Inside Out in 1941, warning that Japanese imperialism threatened the United States as well as Asia. After Pearl Harbor the Japanese imposed their Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere and had colonial authorities set up 3,245 youth organizations with 2,500,000 members. The Korean Provisional Government declared war on Japan on December 9. Korean farmers had to deliver their rice directly to the Government, and metal objects had to be turned in for the war effort. In 1942 Koreans were conscripted into the Japanese army, and those who refused were forced to work in coal mines. Many Korean soldiers deserted or escaped to the Allies. More than 100,000 young women were forced to serve as “comfort girls” for Japanese soldiers. In 1944 there were 1,911,307 Japanese living in Korea.

Korea Liberated and Divided 1945-49

The Provisional Government of Korea asked the United Nations for recognition and membership in April 1945. On December 1, 1943 Franklin Roosevelt of the United States, Winston Churchill of Britain, and Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek) of China had proclaimed in their Cairo Declaration that they were “mindful of the enslavement of the people of Korea” and that they were “determined that in due course Korea shall become free and independent.” In Potsdam, Germany on July 26, 1945 they reaffirmed this, and on August 9 Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union agreed. Japan surrendered to these Allies on August 15, and Korea was suddenly liberated from 41 years of Japanese domination including 35 years of tyrannical colonialism. On the same day US President Harry Truman cabled to Generalissimo Stalin a proposal that Japanese troops surrender to the Red Army north of the 38th parallel and to the American army south of that latitude line. Stalin sent back his message of acceptance the next day, and this was published in General Douglas MacArthur’s famous General Order Number One. The Americans believed that this was only temporary until a Korean government was elected.

The Soviet Union had declared war on Japan on August 9, 1945, and after the surrender they moved troops into northern Korea, occupying P’yongyang, Hamhung, and other cities. Governor-General Abe Nobuyuki asked the former editor Song Chin-u to head an interim government to maintain order and protect the Japanese, but he refused. Yo Un-hyong accepted the position but demanded the release of political prisoners. The Provisional Government’s Committee for the Establishment of Korean Independence had 145 People’s Committees in the south by the end of August. They were dominated by Communists, and An Chae-hong left the committee. The left-wing committee then formed the Korean People’s Republic in opposition to the nationalists in Chongqing.

The United States Eighth Army led by General John R. Hodges landed at Inch’on on September 8 and entered Seoul the next day, occupying the southern half of Korea. Governor-General Abe was dismissed, and General Archibald V. Arnold was appointed military governor. General MacArthur suggested an exchange of liaison officers between the Soviet and American commands in Korea, but the Russians ended the arrangement a month later. The Russians welcomed the Communist guerrilla Kim Il Sung to P’yongyang as a hero on October 14, and six days later Hodge gave the returning Syngman Rhee a hero’s welcome in Seoul.

The United States established a military government and refused to recognize either the People’s Republic in the north or the Provisional Government in Chongqing. The Americans knew little about Korea and could not meet people’s expectations. Hodge relied mostly on wealthy Koreans who knew English, and many of these were hated for having collaborated with the Japanese. Hodge defended Japanese private property but confiscated what had been claimed by the Japanese government. Free political activity was allowed, and about fifty groups formed. The largest were the Korean Democratic Party led by Song Chin-u, the Nationalist Party directed by An Chae-hong, the Choson People’s Party under Yo Un-hyong, and the Korean Communist Party of Pak Hon-yong.

The war economy the Japanese left behind resulted in economic chaos in Korea. Most of the heavy industries, such as steel, hydroelectric power, chemicals, and coal, were in the north while the south had more consumer goods, food, and machinery but lacked technical skill. The Japanese had issued 3.6 billion yen in bank notes before the US forces arrived, causing enormous inflation. The south had an influx of more than two million people that included Koreans returning from Japan, China, and other places occupied by Japan as well as refugees from the north.

On September 20 Stalin sent a directive to the Chief of Staff Marshal Aleksandr Vasilevskii of the Military Council ordering the troops not to “hinder the formation of anti-Japanese democratic organizations and parties” and to assist them, to protect the “private and social property of citizens of North Korea,” to encourage peaceful work and “safeguard normal functioning of the industrial, trade, municipal and other enterprises,” not to insult the people but behave correctly, and “not hinder the performance of religious rites and ceremonies” nor touch temples.5 One week later the 25th Army Command announced that all Japanese agencies were abolished, that the Soviet system would not be imposed, that the Soviet Union had no territorial ambitions in Korea, that a “bourgeois democratic revolution” would be allowed, that freedom of religion and speech were permitted, that land owned by the Japanese or pro-Japanese would be confiscated, and that tenant fees were to be 30% of the crop.

On October 19 the Bureau of Five Provinces in northern Korea was formed and led by the Presbyterian nationalist Cho Man-sik; but he objected to food being taken away from Koreans for the Soviet Army. On November 23 riots broke out in Sinuiju, and student demonstrators assaulted police stations and People’s Committee offices. The Soviet army and police opened fire, killing 23 and wounding 700. Kim Il Sung went and tried to pacify the city. Koreans also objected to reserving half the seats on the Bureau for Communists and to undisciplined behavior by Russian soldiers. Kim Il Sung was chosen to be first secretary of the North Korean Bureau for 4,530 Communist members in December. On February 9, 1946 the Soviets replaced the Bureau with the Provisional People’s Committee for North Korea. Those who did not want to live under Communist authorities moved to the south, 800,000 by the end of 1947.

In October 1945 the Allies announced that Korea would be governed by a trusteeship under the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, and China for up to five years. Many Koreans objected to this and formed the Committee for the Total National Mobilization Against Trusteeship under leaders of the Provisional Government. Stores and businesses in Seoul closed as demonstrations spread around the country. The foreign ministers of the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union met at Moscow from December 16 to the 26th and agreed on the trusteeship. Communist groups condemned it at first, but on January 2, 1946 they changed their position and began supporting the trusteeship, dividing the country. When Cho Man-sik continued to oppose the trusteeship, he resigned and was put under house arrest on January 5. Later he was transferred to a prison where he died in 1950. Kim Ku formed the right-wing Anti-Trusteeship Committee, and the moderate Kim Kyu-sik quit the Korean National Revolutionary Party for being too leftist. In February 1946 the Soviet Civil Administration had transferred its authority to the Provisional People’s Committee for North Korea in P’yongyang as a government, but it was still controlled by the Soviet military. Their enactments emphasized land reform.

The US-Soviet Joint Commission began meeting in March 1946, and the Soviets wanted to exclude those parties opposed to the trusteeship from the consultation to form a provisional government. The US delegates argued for free political expression and wanted to include them. Thus the Joint Commission could not agree and adjourned on May 8. The next day the US State Department ordered Ambassador Bedell Smith in Moscow to demand a consulate in P’yongyang, but this was deflected as a decision for the Korean government, which did not yet exist. As a result the Russians lost their consulate in Seoul in June. In the middle of 1946 the number of Soviet troops in Korea was reduced from 40,000 to 10,000. On August 10 a nationalization law was passed, and 1,034 companies controlled by the Soviet army were nationalized, making 90% of all industry in the north state property.

On February 14, 1946 the US Military Government set up the advisory Representative Democratic Council with Syngman Rhee as chairman. American authorities tried to control mines, reform farm rents, and prohibit the buying and selling of Japanese property. Rhee became the leader of the Korean Democratic Party and organized a National Headquarters for Unification in order to try to establish a Korean government. While he visited the United States, Kim Ku and the Korean Provisional Government organized a national assembly to oppose trusteeship and to try to unify the country. Kim Kyu-sik of the moderate right and Yo Un-hyong of the moderate left also tried to promote unity.

Meanwhile the leftist Democratic National Front, which combined several Communist parties in July, pushed the trusteeship campaign and wanted to reconvene the Joint Commission. The North Korean Workers Party was formed on August 23, and by the end of the year they had 600,000 members. On August 31 the Central Committee elected the New People’s Party leader Kim Tu-bong as chairman and Kim Il Sung as vice chairman. In February 1947 the People’s Assembly was elected, and “Provisional” was dropped from the name. They pushed for the simultaneous withdrawal of both the Soviet and US forces from Korea and trained Koreans for military service in the north.

Leftists tried to disrupt the economy and politics in the south, and in May 1946 the police caught the Korean Communist Party using a press to counterfeit large amounts of money. Communists also instigated a strike on September 23 by 8,000 railroad workers in Pusan over wages, rice rations, and housing. This spread into a general strike in South Korea, paralyzing the economy. On the first of October police killed a demonstrator in Taegu, and the strikes were replaced by rebellions. Martial law was declared, and American tanks patrolled the streets; but the fighting spread to other provinces as police stations and the houses of officials were set on fire. Telephone lines were cut; bridges were destroyed, and roads were blocked. Insurgents with guns fought with the police and soldiers. The American military with help from groups led by Rhee and Kim Ku suppressed the revolt by the end of the year. The Korean Communist Party was declared illegal; the US authorities ordered their leaders arrested, and the Communists in the south went underground.

The US Military Government formed the Interim Legislative Assembly in October 1946 by appointing 45 members and having 45 members elected. Syngman Rhee’s Korean Democratic Party won a majority of the elected seats, and most of those appointed were from the groups led by Kim Kyu-sik and Yo Un-hyong. For the first year the US Military Government had a dual system with an American and a Korean as heads of the departments, but then the Koreans were made advisors. In February 1947 the US Military appointed An Chae-hong the chief civil administrator; a Korean chief justice was also selected, and administrative authority was turned over to the South Korean Interim Government. The aged So Chae-p’il returned to Korea again and was a helpful advisor.

The US-Soviet Joint Commission reconvened in May 1947; but they remained deadlocked on the trusteeship issue during much more discussion over several months. The US proposed that the four foreign ministers of the US, USSR, UK, and China be consulted, but the Soviets rejected this. Then on September 17 the United States submitted a proposal for Korean independence to the United Nations with elections under UN supervision. US and Soviet troops would be withdrawn when a Korean government was established. A UN Temporary Commission on Korea (UNTCOK) would supervise the provisions. The United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly voted for this plan with minor revisions despite Soviet opposition. In February 1948 the UNTCOK authorized elections in areas that accepted the plan, but northern Korea excluded UNTCOK.

Korea’s first general election was held in the south on May 10, 1948. Those who favored direct talks between political leaders in the north and south boycotted the voting; but 86% of eligible voters registered, and 92% of those cast ballots. Koreans elected 198 representatives, and 100 seats representing the north were left empty. The first National Assembly met on May 31, and on July 12 they adopted a constitution that was promulgated five days later. On July 20 the National Assembly elected Syngman Rhee president, and the administration of the Republic of Korea (ROK) was established on August 15, 1948. In December the Republic of Korea was recognized by the United Nations General Assembly, the United States, and some fifty other nations.

The Korean People’s Council in P’yongyang announced a Korean National Constitution on May 1, 1948, and the Supreme People’s Assembly was elected in North Korea on August 25 from a single list of candidates. They claimed an election turn-out of 99% and that four representatives were elected from political parties in South Korea, but those representatives never returned to their constituencies. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) promulgated their constitution on September 8 as an independent government. On January 28, 1949 Premier Kim Il Sung addressed the second plenary session of the Supreme People’s Assembly and said that the People’s Economic Plan of 1948 was a “triumphant accomplishment.” Kim’s Democratic Front helped the South Korea Labor Party instigate an insurgency in the South. Between September 1948 and April 1949 the ROK arrested 80,710 Communist guerrillas and agitators, and the ROK Army dismissed a third of its officers suspected of Communist sympathies. In December 1948 the Soviet occupation troops left North Korea, leaving 150 advisors to train the North Korean military. On March 17, 1949 the Soviet-Korean Economic and Cultural Assistance agreement was signed that included the furnishing of heavy military equipment.

On June 29 the Americans withdrew their occupation forces except for 500 men in the US Military Advisory Group to train South Korean soldiers. On October 6 the United States granted South Korea $10,200,000 in military aid and $110,000,000 in economic aid for the next fiscal year. Both sides left behind much surplus military equipment, but the Soviets made the North Koreans pay for it with a 220-million ruble loan at two percent interest. Kim Il Sung overcame his rivals and effectively became a dictator with support from the Soviet Union.

Guerrilla fighting near the 38th parallel broke out on May 4, 1949 at Kaesong and was started by the South. In four days of fighting 400 North Koreans, 22 South Koreans, and more than a hundred civilians were killed. On May 16 Syngman Rhee released a press statement asking for the United States or a Pacific Pact to pledge that they would defend South Korea against Communist aggression. However, Premier Nehru of India opposed backing South Korea, and the United States sent small arms only on the condition that the South Koreans remained three miles south of the 38th parallel. The border battles continued sporadically until late December. The worst fighting was in early August when about 5,000 North Korean troops attacked South Korean units that had occupied a mountain north of the 38th parallel. The ROK Army was driven off the mountain and lost hundreds of men. President Rhee expanded his army but complained in October that their ROK Army of 100,000 was not properly equipped or armed because they did not receive support from the United States as North Korea did from the Soviet Union. Yet by then the South Korean Army had more men. By the end of 1949 both sides realized that the big powers behind them would not aid them militarily if they launched an unprovoked invasion.


1. Yoyudang chonso 1:10 by Chong Yagyong, tr. Fujiya Kawashima in Sourcebook of Korean Civilization ed. Peter H. Lee, Volume 2, p. 211-212.
2. The History of Korea by Han Woo-keun tr. Lee Kyung-shik, p. 424-425.
3. Sourcebook of Korean Civilization, Volume 2, p. 432-434.
4. Quoted in Korea: A Political History in Modern Times by Harold Hak-won Sunoo, p. 217.
5. The Relations of the Soviet Union with People’s Korea, 1945-1980 ed. S. L. Tikhvinskii et al quoted in Socialism in One Zone by Erik Van Ree, p. 100-101.

Copyright © 2007 by Sanderson Beck

This chapter has been published in the book EAST ASIA 1800-1949.
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Korea to 1800


Qing Decline 1799-1875
Qing Dynasty Fall 1875-1912
Republican China in Turmoil 1912-1926
Nationalist-Communist Civil War 1927-1937
China at War 1937-1949
Korea 1800-1949
Japan's Modernization 1800-1894
Imperial Japan 1894-1937
Japan's War and Defeat 1937-1949
Philippines to 1949
Pacific Islands to 1949
Summary and Evaluation


World Chronological Index
Chronology of Asia & Africa to 1800
Chronology of Asia & Africa 1800-1950
Chronology of East Asia to 1950

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