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[Robert J Fouser] The meaning of March 1

Tomorrow marks the 99th anniversary of the March 1 Movement during the darkest hours of Japanese colonial rule. On the afternoon of that day, 33 leaders of the independence movement gathered in Jongno in Seoul and proclaimed Korea’s independence from Japan. The movement quickly spread to cities and town across the peninsula. About 2 million people took part in the movement, making up 10 percent of the Korean population at the time. Overwhelmed by the size of protests, Japanese authorities used military troops to suppress the movement, resulting in thousands of deaths.

The movement led to the founding of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea in Shanghai. The provisional government did not achieve recognition from the major powers at the time, but it sponsored armed resistance to Japanese rule. Founded in 1948, the Republic of Korea draws on the Provisional Government for its legitimacy. Today, the anniversary of the movement is a national holiday in South Korea and most of the signers of the Korean Declaration of Independence are remembered as national heroes.

The March 1 Movement left other important legacies. In the long sweep of Korean history, it was the first nationwide popular rebellion against an authoritarian government. Previous rebellions were peasant uprisings that were often local and not organized into a nationwide movement. The Donghak Peasant Revolution from 1894-95 was a nationwide armed rebellion led by followers of the panentheistic Donghak religion, but it was closer to a guerrilla war than a popular rebellion.

The 1960 April Revolution, pro-democracy protests from 1979-80, and the candlelight protests of 2017 draw on the March 1 Movement for inspiration. The uniting idea is that people should take to the streets to oppose a repressive and unjust government. The candlelight protests of 2017 occurred 30 years after democratization began, so their focus was more on the weakening of democracy under former President Park Geun-hye. The tradition of taking to the streets to challenge the government enriches Korean democracy by creating a “citizens’ check” on government power.

Another important legacy of the March 1 Movement is Korean nationalism. The Donghak religion was based on Neo-Confucianism, but also drew on Shamanism and Buddhism. The main goal was to resist Christianity and foreign influences by turning Korea into a paradise on earth where people were free and equal. In 1905, Son Byong-hi, the third leader of the Donghak religion, codified the religion and changed its name to Cheondogyo, which continues to exist today. Son was a leader in the push for the Declaration of Independence, and 15 of the 33 signers were members of Cheondogyo.

A consistent element of Korean nationalism is resistance to foreign influence through an adherence to purity. After liberation, both Korean states adopted this ideology and appealed to Korean tradition for legitimacy. This streak is much stronger in North Korea and it informs much of North Korea’s state ideology and actions. It was strong in South Korea during the Park Chung-hee regime, but it has since faded as the country has transformed itself into a liberal democracy.

Still another important legacy of the March 1 Movement is unity and solidarity. In addition to Cheondogyo leaders, 16 protestant leaders, and two Buddhist leaders, including the famous poet monk Han Yong-un, signed the declaration of independence. Despite the sharp differences in religious beliefs, the leaders came together in solidarity for the cause of independence.

Since then, division and conflict have become the dominant narrative in Korea, and the current division into two antagonistic states continues to reinforce this narrative. In South Korea, unity of purpose propelled the two historical projects -- economic prosperity and democracy. Much of the success of the 1988 Seoul Olympics and the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics came from a unity that came from pride in hosting these events. Meanwhile, the two Korean states have on rare occasions come together for a show of unity, the most recent of which was marching together at the opening ceremony of the PyeongChang Olympics.

For most people, March 1 is just another day off even though the March 1 Movement is a seminal event in Korean history. It was the first popular nationalistic movement that asserted that only Korea had the right to define itself among nations. Today, this may seem obvious, but the division of Korea into two states and the tension that the division creates are reminders of the continued influence of outsiders. This explains why, despite its historical importance, March 1 remains a complex and unfulfilled celebration.

Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at -- Ed.