The Crack-Up: 1919 & the Birth of Modern Korea, with Kyung Moon Hwang

Mar 14, 2019

Could the shared historical memory of March 1 ever be a source of unity between North Koreans and South Koreans? In this fascinating episode of The Crack-Up series that explores how 1919 shaped the modern world, Professor Kyung Moon Hwang discusses the complex birth of Korean nationhood and explains how both North and South Korea owe their origins and their national history narratives to the events swirling around March 1, 1919.

TED WIDMER: This is Ted Widmer. You're listening to another episode of The Crack-Up, our occasional series of podcasts about the events of the year 1919.

We're really fortunate today to have Professor Kyung Moon Hwang, a professor of history at the University of Southern California (USC), who wrote a wonderful piece on the birth of Korean nationhood, how both North Korea and South Korea owe their origins and their national history narratives to the events swirling around March 1, 1919.

Kyung Moon, welcome to The Crack-Up. Great to have you on the show today.

KYUNG MOON HWANG: Thank you very much.

TED WIDMER: Can you tell us what was happening in downtown Seoul on March 1, 1919?

KYUNG MOON HWANG: People had been gathering for a while, knowing that there was going to be a funeral for their erstwhile monarch, the last legitimate monarch, in a sense, before the Japanese completely took over. He was forcefully removed, so he abdicated from the throne in 1907, and it turned out to be three years before the formal Japanese annexation of Korea as a colony.

By the time 1919 came, Korea had been a Japanese colony for nine years. The circumstances of the end of World War I led to Koreans in Northeast Asia, so both in and outside of Korea, to start gathering and organizing themselves to take advantage of the situation at the end of World War I to try to push for some kind of action to gain not only independence ultimately but for the moment to gain a greater awareness of the price for independence from Japanese rule.

There was a confluence of forces, intellectual, political, and otherwise, at the end of February and early March, and it was decided that on March 1, the leaders of this organized effort in Korea who had signed a declaration of independence—it actually had been composed by a famous poet—would read aloud the declaration on March 1 in a park in central Seoul. They were quickly arrested, which they knew in advance would happen, and then some of the leaders fanned out to lead demonstrations.

This pattern of reading aloud the declaration and then going out to march peacefully—at least initially, anyway—was repeated throughout the Peninsula thereafter for several weeks.

TED WIDMER: One wonderful aspect of your piece is it showed us how global this feeling is in the beginning of 1919. People around the world feel a moment of history has arrived and that it's time for their nation or their ethnicity or their geographical place to suddenly be more independent than it has been.

In Seoul and in Korea there are all these tensions. Japan has helped in the victory of World War I, and yet the Korean people feel rightly that it's their time and that they should be independent. To what extent were they conscious of the peace talks beginning in Paris and the rhetoric of Woodrow Wilson about self-determination?

KYUNG MOON HWANG: You can tell from the documents that have been accessed of various organizations both within and outside the Peninsula—and outside the Peninsula these are Korean national organizations, including one in California—that the leadership was very much aware of this ethos of self-determination on the part of smaller nations, and they were aware of the strategy behind using the Paris Peace Conference as a platform to voice their aspirations on a global stage.

I can't say that the average Korean was aware of this as a percolating idea around the world, but certainly the intellectuals, the social leaders, and educational leaders were aware of this. I think it proved to be a powerful, unifying force in 1919 in Korea as it was in many other places to try to break through and do something about this condition, which Koreans had experienced for nine years but before then in some ways had not experienced for six or seven centuries, since the Mongol domination of the 13th and 14th centuries.

Korea, unlike many other colonized peoples, actually was an independent nation-state—or at least an independent state, and you can debate as to whether it was a real nation—for over a millennium before the Japanese conquest of the early 20th century.

It probably was an even more acute feeling of grievance that the Koreans felt, although it's difficult of course to measure that or compare that to other people. But certainly it was a major point of grievance, and this was an opportunity that the leadership used to express that grievance.

TED WIDMER: Did they want independence right away, even back in 1910? Or was it that the unusual circumstances of 1919 really built into a more crystallized feeling?

KYUNG MOON HWANG: I think it was more the latter. You can't say that North Koreans in 1910 wanted Japanese colonization, of course. I would gather that most Koreans did not favor the Japanese annexation.

But it's a complicated story, as you might imagine. Koreans in both North and South Korea put forth this somewhat glossed historical view that all Koreans continued to struggle against Japanese domination and resisted imperialism and all that, but there is too much evidence for a wide spectrum of perspectives and actions on the part of Koreans, including many Koreans both elite and non-elite, who colluded with or desired or did other things to actually help the Japanese takeover.

That's an aspect of Korean history that in Korea is condemned, of course, and somewhat de-emphasized in this narrative of national resistance against foreign domination. But it is a reality.

TED WIDMER: Another aspect of your piece I really liked was that you reminded readers that the representatives of a nation do not always live inside the nation, so there are Koreans in Japan and in Manchuria and in Shanghai and in Los Angeles who were all part of this moment of national seeking of an identity in 1919. I thought that was so interesting.

KYUNG MOON HWANG: It's amazing. It's not only those places—it wasn't actually Los Angeles as much as Northern California at that moment, and then it quickly became Los Angeles as time went on after 1919.

There were Koreans in Mexico, there were Koreans in Hawaii, in other parts of East Asia, in Siberia. They had their individual characteristics and desires and communities, etc., but there were efforts to connect them all following March 1 in this network effort to bring about their desired outcome. So it's really extraordinary the extent to which the diaspora was already well widespread around the world.

TED WIDMER: How are they networking with each other? Are they sending telegrams or letters, or do they just all have the same feelings naturally wherever they are?

KYUNG MOON HWANG: I don't think they naturally had the same feelings, but it didn't take much to trigger that sense of Korean national collectivity. We see it in the documents. These documents included evidence of telegrams, of course, and letters. There is money moving between different places, overseas as well.

There are all these heroic, glorified independence figures working in some capacity or another with each other, sometimes working against each other, but the networking is quite extraordinary, and it's really amazing the extent to which this can be further researched given that more and more of these documents are coming to light.

TED WIDMER: You mentioned that, and as a former librarian I was interested to see that there was a big cache of documents that came out in the last 15 years.


TED WIDMER: Is that open access? Can anyone go use those?

KYUNG MOON HWANG: Between 14,000 and 16,000 documents. They were discovered in an attic, or rediscovered as the case might be, of the Korean National Association building in Los Angeles, just down the road from the USC campus, where I work.

They were kind enough after some negotiations to let our library, the Korean Heritage Library at USC, digitize those documents. The formal release of the first group of those digitized documents was held on March 1, a couple of weeks ago.

TED WIDMER: That's great.

KYUNG MOON HWANG: They are coming out more and more, so it's available to anyone in the world. The resolution is good enough that you can make out just about everything.

So those of you who are listening to this and who are high school students or college students and you aspire to do research on your own, you can do this just by accessing these digitized documents from anywhere in the world. It's amazing what these documents can show.

TED WIDMER: That's wonderful.

KYUNG MOON HWANG: A lot of them are in Korean, so for many they will not be accessible. But many of them are actually in English. It's a great educational tool as well.

TED WIDMER: What would the search terms be for anyone who wanted to find them?

KYUNG MOON HWANG: You can do a keyword search through all these digitized documents that are currently available. In my piece in The New York Times I had a link that already had some of the keywords, but anybody can start with that page, and then there is a little box where you can insert other keywords as well. Even starting with that page you can go through some of the most important documents.

TED WIDMER: Then your piece delivered a surprise of sorts when it told how the desire for independence didn't quite realize itself, that the Japanese did not confer independence upon young Koreans, but they did relax, and so there was a period of relative cultural autonomy that followed that was a victory of sorts.

KYUNG MOON HWANG: Yes, I think you can say that. It depends, of course, on whether you really have a more absolutist perspective on what constitutes victory or not.

If you believe that success more or less hinged upon gaining immediate independence, then of course the March 1 demonstrations and the efforts thereafter did not succeed. But if you look at this from the perspective not necessarily of national independence but rather of the forwarding of development of Korean society in different ways, then it certainly did bring about a major loosening of the major restrictions of Japanese colonial rule that had been in place for the first decade.

It's actually quite interesting. Historians look at this in a different way from the public, in Korea especially, even in South Korea. There is a very strong, almost nationalist mindset that has been cultivated—as you might expect as is often the case around the world—but the ensuing one-and-a-half decades after March 1 really was a period of liberalization, and it did result in tremendous developments in terms of modern Korean culture, to the extent that one can suggest that modern Korean culture was born at this time in so many ways.

Not to say that Koreans were not a nationality or an ethnic group or its own country beforehand; it was, for more than a thousand years. But in the sense of a modern Korean nationhood, in the way that we recognize it around the world, then the period of the 1920s to the early 1930s was a direct outcome from the March 1 demonstrations, a considerable period of liberalization and cultural activity as well as associational and social activity.

This is I think something historians, especially outside of Korea, have focused on to the detriment of their interest actually in the independence movement itself, which as you might expect takes the brunt of interest and occupies an enormous place in the historical perspective in both North and South Korea. But outside of the Peninsula, there is more of an interest in what happened within the Peninsula divorced from the independence movement during the ensuing decades.

TED WIDMER: Were they remembering March 1 throughout the 1920s and 1930s? Was it something they were allowed to celebrate?

KYUNG MOON HWANG: That's a good question. I don't think that there was a large organized effort to commemorate March 1 within the Peninsula, although there were occasional newspaper articles in the Korean language press and journals that looked back at that spring of 1919 as a turning point in many different ways. There's actually some more research to be done about the balance between the censorship system within the colonial society and the extent to which Koreans could express themselves in somewhat explicit ways, whether it's regarding commemorating March 1 or whether it's regarding the events themselves that were taking place mostly outside the Peninsula.

You'd be surprised looking back on these articles at that time the degree to which Koreans were allowed actually to express themselves in this way. They couldn't go so far as to call for the immediate independence of Korea or military action against Japan or the overthrowing of the Japanese emperor. That was taboo, you couldn't say that. But many other things you could do, and it's all in the published sources from that time.

TED WIDMER: Right. Then your article describes how all of those freedoms basically disappeared in the late 1930s as Japan mobilized for total war, first in China and then against the United States in the Pacific.

But then we come back to the period of real independence immediately after World War II, when two different Korean traditions both begin to emerge—more than emerge, to really become leaders of nation-states, and both identify strongly with March 1, but they don't identify with each other. Can you explain that part of the history?

KYUNG MOON HWANG: This is, of course, the most important period of modern Korean history. Many important events happened in the short period from liberation in August of 1945 to the outbreak or the entire period of the Korean War, from 1950 to 1953. That's when the national division emerged and was solidified thanks to the occupation of the Peninsula by the two superpowers, the Soviet Union in the North and the Americans in the South, and those two superpowers' occupations dictated more or less the native Korean political forces that would emerge on both sides of the Peninsula.

That in turn would represent the culmination of the ideological and political divisions that have developed over the course of the colonial period, including as in hindsight—and perhaps this is more because of the superpowers' occupation—it appears that the most rigid divisions between ideological or political camps was that between the communists and the anti-communists, or the non-communists if you want to call it that.

The combination of these various forces from the outside and from the inside as a legacy of the colonial system all combined to bring together what we now know today as the national division of the Peninsula, which began to be institutionalized as early as late 1945, within a few months after the liberation, and gradually became formalized through the establishment of both North and South Korea in 1948 as separate states.

Then there was an attempt in 1950 by the North Koreans to, of course, overcome that through force, which started the Korean War. Of course, the Korean War ended more or less the way it began with national division, and that's what we still have.

TED WIDMER: Could the shared historical memory of March 1 ever be a source of unity between North Koreans and South Koreans?

KYUNG MOON HWANG: Yes, I think so. The North Koreans, of course, welcome a celebration of March 1 to the extent that it shows a fierce national consciousness and resistance to Japan or imperialist forces and stuff. That is something that can be tapped into perhaps in an effort to bring about some kind of joint commemoration.

By the way, such a joint commemoration as I mentioned in the piece was announced in the summit between North and South Korea last year. That just fizzled.

In South Korea, the memory of March 1 and the connection to the provisional government that emerged in China thereafter, those are inscribed into the constitution, so there has always been identification with those events of 1919 and South Korea.

TED WIDMER: How do you think March 1 will be remembered in years to come on each side?

KYUNG MOON HWANG: I don't see things changing much in North Korea as far as how they commemorate March 1. It's done in a very simplistic way, of course, to ultimately legitimate the Northern regime. Everything more or less is done for that purpose.

In the South, it's an interesting question because divisions over history or divisions over historical memory are really strong, and they are expressed in politics and they're expressed in social and generational conflicts as well. The memory of March 1 itself, while not terribly controversial, has been connected to how South Koreans remember the founding of their state.

There are many South Koreans who object to the primacy of March 1 as shown in the constitution. They believe actually that the more important date came in 1948, when the South Korean state was formally established.

This is just one smaller example of much larger divisions in South Korea over history. And it continues today, in fact, because there is an ongoing controversy about how to remember the South Korean military dictatorship period, so it's quite the continuing source of controversy as we go forward in South Korea.

TED WIDMER: I want to thank you so much for the conversation and for the piece, which really helped all of us involved in this series. It gave us a more truly global perspective on a lot of history happening very fast in 1919, and it showed also I think something that's good for Americans to know, that words of presidents can have after-effects that cannot be controlled in any way by those presidents. So people need to be careful articulating concepts in the White House.

It was a wonderfully thoughtful piece, and I'm so grateful to you for writing it.

KYUNG MOON HWANG: Thank you. I really appreciate the opportunity to speak with you as well.

TED WIDMER: Thank you again, Kyung Moon.

This is Ted Widmer. I want to thank you again for listening to another episode of The Crack-Up.

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