March 1, 1919 is one of the most important dates in modern Korean history and its spirit continues to live on every March 1st when the streets of Korea are filled with national flags.
삼일절 Samiljeol, which means “three-one,” signifying the third month, first day (삼 : three; 일 : day; 절 : refers to a festival day) is known as the Independence Movement Day. It’s a public holiday in Korea dedicated to commemorate the Independence Movement in 1919.
Brief history of Independence Movement Day in Korea
The Independence Movement was a turning point in Korean history as it triggered a nationwide civil protest against the Japanese colonial rule in Korea. It had ultimately led to the establishment of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea, but it was not without cost.
On March 1, 1919, a series of demonstrations took place across Korea rallying for independence from the Japanese ruling that began in 1910, depriving Koreans of many freedoms.
It began with thirty-three nationalists who formed the movement and met in Taehwagwan Restaurant in Seoul to read and sign the Declaration of Independence. Initially, they planned to assemble at Pagoda Park, but they decided to do it in a private location to prevent it from turning into a riot.
Massive crowds assembled in Pagoda Park waiting for the leaders, and the Declaration of Independence was then read publicly by a student for the first time at Pagoda Park (now known as Tapgol Park) instead of the leaders because they didn’t show up.
It was also read in many places around the country by activists of the movement, and Koreans’ long-suppressed feelings against Japanese colonials finally started to free.
The people took it to the streets marching and shouting 3 (Manse), which means “long live Korea”. It went on until the Japanese police weren’t able to control the crowd, so they called for their military and naval forces for aid.
During this time, a courageous 16-year-old girl, Yoo Gwan Sun handed out Korean flags to the people and organised demonstrations. As a result, she was arrested, imprisoned, and tortured to death. Up to this day, she is regarded as the national hero of Korea.
Before the movement was put down after 12 months, more than 1,500 demonstrations were held with the participation of approximately 2 million people. As a result, thousands of people were arrested, injured and killed. They were subjected to violence and even massacred.
A foreign journalist who witnessed the massacre described that the Japanese police herded the inhabitants of the Village of Jeam-ri and locked them up in a church and burnt it. While the church was burning, the Japanese police shot through the windows to ensure that no one made it out alive.
The people also lost properties, churches and a couple of school buildings were destroyed by fire. Those arrested were kept in the Seodaemun Prison without trial, where they were tortured and executed. Up until today, the prison still stands today as a reminder of Korea’s past, and is open for tours.
The movement became a catalyst for the establishment of the 1919 Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea in Shanghai. Many activists also held demonstrations in other countries to raise awareness about Korea’s struggle for independence.
The government continued to resist the Japanese occupation during the 1920s and 1930s, which resulted to the formation of Korean Liberation Army in 1940 and led the war against Japan. On August 15, 1945, Korea was finally liberated from Imperial Japanese colonial rule.
Finally, after the Korean War (May 24th, 1949) March 1st was designated as a national holiday in South Korea.
How Is Independence Movement Day Celebrated in Korea?
The commemoration of this day is not only filled with pride, but also thoughtful reflection for those who fought for freedom and sacrificed for their country.
This holiday is celebrated by a reading of the Korean Declaration of Independence from 1919, which takes place in Seoul’s Pagoda Park.
태극기 (Tae-geuk-ki), the Korean national flags, are also raised in homes, businesses, and institutions throughout the country. There are numerous parades, concerts, and exhibitions to commemorate the day.
Those who died fighting are honoured at a ceremonial ringing of the bell in Bosingak, Seoul. The Mayor of Seoul, other public figures and invited guests will toll the bell 11 times in three groups of four people to remember the 33 heroic Koreans who signed the Declaration of Independence in 1919.
So today, in honor of Korea and those who fought for its independence, we say, “만세!”