‘This physical pain does not compare to the pain of losing my nation’: How 2 schoolgirls helped fight for Korean independence

  • Two million Koreans took to the streets from March 1 to April in 1919 to protest Japanese colonial rule. By the end, over 7,500 people had died, 15,000 people had been injured and over 45,000 people had been arrested.
  • The protests were nonviolent and included participants as young as 12, many of them schoolchildren who handed out pamphlets to spread the news.
  • One of the most famous figures of the movement was 17-year-old schoolgirl Yu Gwan-sun; however, lesser known is her cousin, Yu Yeh Do, who smuggled a copy of Korea’s Declaration of Independence to their hometown alongside her cousin.
  • Yu Yeh Do escaped prison after being captured by the Japanese police, but she went into hiding for a decade until her marriage.
  • Yu Yeh Do did not speak publicly about her role in the independence movement until 1979 out of guilt over the deaths of her cousin, uncle and aunt.

March 1 marks the 103rd anniversary of the start of the Korean Independence Movement and commemorates the 2 million Koreans who took to the streets to protest the brutality of Japanese colonial rule. 

The Korean Independence Movement protests, also known as “Sam-il,” meaning three-one, began March 1 and lasted through April, with an estimated 2 million people participating – an impressive number considering the country had a total population of 20 million at the time. Due to rapid industrialization under Japanese colonial rule, Korea became heavily influenced by many Western ideals, and the call for independence was in part inspired by President Woodrow Wilson’s speech on a nation’s right to “self-determination.”

The protests resulted in over 7,500 people dead, 15,000 injured and 45,000 arrested.

Not only did men and women participate, girls and boys as young as 12 years old also took to the streets. One of the most widely recognized figures from the protests was 17-year-old Yu Gwan-Sun, who later died in prison due to injuries sustained from beatings and torture by Japanese guards. Her parents were among the first to be shot and killed by Japanese police.

Yu Gwan Sun
Picture courtesy of Dave Young Kim, a great nephew of Yu Gwan-Sun, renowned Independence fighter.

Yu, dressed in her hanbok, the traditional dress of Korea, is widely recognized as a symbol of Korean women’s contribution to the movement. 

In a prison diary, she wrote, “Even if my fingernails are torn out, my nose and ears are ripped apart, and my legs and arms are crushed, this physical pain does not compare to the pain of losing my nation… My only remorse is not being able to do more than dedicating my life to my country.” 

Yu Yeh-Do, cousin of Yu Gwan-Sun

Lesser known is Yu Gwan-Sun’s cousin, Yu Yeh-Do, who co-smuggled a copy of Korea’s Declaration of Independence to their hometown. According to Yu Yeh-Do’s great grandson, Yu spread word of the Movement from village to village and even helped orchestrate the Aunae marketplace demonstration. Unlike her cousin, Yu Yeh-Do was able to escape prison, but went on to live in hiding for over a decade. Her relatives arranged her marriage in hopes that the Japanese would not go searching for a married woman.

Yu Yeh Do
Pictured is Yu Yeh-Do with her husband and grandchildren.
Yu Yeh Do headshot
Courtesy of Dave Young Kim. His great-grandmother, Yu Yeh-Do, who organized protests alongside her cousin, Yu Gwan-Sun.
Award Ceremony
Courtesy of Dave Young Kim. Pictured is Yu Yeh-Do, head bowed in prayer, being honored for her role in the Independence Movement.

Yu did not publicly speak about her role in the Movement until 1979 out of guilt, feeling responsible for the deaths of her cousin, aunt and uncle. It was only when she was about to lose her house due to debt that she spoke to a reporter about her story, leading then President Park Chung-hee to personally pay off her bank loans. 

Women’s contributions

The stories of the Yu cousins – two brave, young schoolgirls – however, do not fully depict the extent of all women’s contributions to the Movement. The start of the 20th century marked the beginning of women’s formal education, and many Korean women of the elite class began to take interest in political activity. Teachers, missionaries, nurses and other well educated women played a vital role in the widespread impact of the protests. 

Prior to this time, many women had lived extremely confined lives mainly due to Confucianism. The word “Anae”, meaning “wife” in Korean, for example, literally translates to mean “inside.” As has been common in several cultures, including Confucian groups in China and Hindu groups throughout India, according to Oxford Reference, a woman’s worth was equated to her roles as mother and wife, and she was even praised for committing suicide after her husband’s death in a practice called “Yollyo,” a display of spousal loyalty. 

More recent attention has been brought to the contributions of women during this time, as we see with the box office hit film “Assassination” (2015), based on the true story of Nam Ja-hyeon, who was involved in an assassination plot to kill the Japanese governor-general of Korea, Makoto Saito. 

As of February 2019, just over 2% of people awarded for their contribution to the independence protests have been awarded to women. 

While the Korean Independence Movement did not result in Korea’s independence, it inspired a series of other protests, including the May Fourth Movement in China two months later and the “anti-imperialist resistance” of the Philippines and Egypt. The nonviolent marches of the Movement are also said to have influenced the nonviolent protests of India.

Korea was later liberated from Japanese colonial rule, 26 years after the initial protests, as a consequence of Imperial Japan’s defeat in World War II.

 

Featured image via Arirang TV

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