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The Korean March First Movement Essay

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Updated: Oct 6th, 2019


The year 1919 holds historical significance in Korea since it was in that year that Koreans articulated their aspiration for independence from their colonial masters.

On March 1, 1919, Koreans declared their independence and virtually the entire population of the country rose up in what has subsequently become known as the March First Movement. The Japanese authorities quickly crushed this uprising.

The movement therefore failed in its endeavour to acquire independence for the country. However, this action had some profound impacts on the history of Korea. This paper will set out to describe how the movement started and proceed to highlight the significant impact it had.

The paper will demonstrate that the March First Movement served as a turning point in the Japanese colonial rule of Korea.

How the Movement Started

The March First Movement was born out of a desire for independence by the Koreans who were living under Japanese rule. After the annexation of Korea in 1910, the Japanese colonial government ruled Korea with an iron hand.

Lee (2002) reveals that Japan’s first ten-year of rule in Korea was marked by racial discrimination and the use of systematic terror against the wider Korean society.

The life of Koreans from 1910 was marked by political, social, and educational disqualification imposed by the colonial masters, making the living conditions of Koreans dire. For this reason, the period between 1910 and 1919 is referred to as the “Dark Period” of Korean history.

During this period, Korea was under direct Japanese military rule. The Japanese authorities adopted a policy of complete assimilation of Koreans into the Japanese nation and they suppressed all political and cultural activities (Dunwalke, 2007).

The harsh treatment of the Koreans by the Japanese rulers led to an intense hatred of colonialism by all Koreans.

The Koreans wanted to bring to an end the degrading rule by the harsh Japanese colonial rulers. In their rule, the Japanese made use of military police officers who crushed the traditional Korean voluntary units and executed their members.

Kenneth (1997) reveals that the Japanese rulers confiscated all firearms and tools that the Koreans could use as weapons against them.

Lee (1996) confirms that the widespread and intense antipathy against Japanese colonization was the single most important factor behind the March First Movement.

Organizing the Movement

A number of leaders organized the massive March First Independence Movement. While various independent organizations played a part in the movement, the Chondogyo, which was an influential nationalist group, deserves special notice.

This religious and political organization played a crucial role by providing financial resources and mobilizing the masses for the independence movement.

Kie-Chiang (1999) reveals that the Chondogyo supreme leader Son Pyong-hui was a man of considerable charisma and he played a major role in forging a coalition among nationalists for the movement.

Son Pyong-hui brought together religious leaders from Christian Churches and the Buddhist Temples in Korea. He went ahead to mediate the alliance among these religious leaders. The Chondogyo is the organization that played the most significant role in the movement.

Chondogyo believers participated and demonstrated in large numbers. Historians record that these followers accounted for 12% of those arrested by Japanese troops and police between March and December 1919 (Kie-Chiang, 1999).

The aim of the First March movement leaders was to establish a democratic republic of Korea. The leaders hoped to pressure the Japanese government into granting them independence. The post World War I speech by the American President Woodrow Wilson inspired the Korean leaders.

Lee (2000) declares that the doctrine of self-determination, articulated by Wilson as a critical part of the post World War I era, indirectly acted as a catalyst for the March First Movement.

To Korean nationalists outside the country, President Wilson’s Fourteen Point speech was a promise for the right of self-determination to colonized people everywhere. Lee (2000) observes that when the Koreans heard the speech through the radio they took it as a “clarion call to action”.

The speech also influenced the wordings of the Korean “Declaration of Independence”. Dunwalke (2007) notes that the declaration by the prominent religious and civil leaders adopted Wilson’s language to assert Korea’s right to liberty and equality within the world of nations.

They hoped to form a government that would govern the country in a democratic manner with freedom and equality for all.

For the movement to have the desired outcome, the leaders needed to mobilize a large number of participants. This was going to be a challenge since the lives of Koreans were under strict Japanese rule and mass mobilization was impossible.

The movement therefore took advantage of the death of King Kojong to mobilize people for the demonstrations. Following the death of Kojong on January 23, 1919, plans were made for him to be given a state funeral.

This funeral was expected to be attended by hundreds of thousands of Koreans from all over the country. The organizers of the funeral expected multitudes of people to converge on Seoul to take part in the monarch’s funeral, scheduled for March 3.

The organizers of the March First Movement therefore sought to take advantage of the presence of a multitude of people in Seoul to witness their declaration of independence.

Choong and Kim (1998) reveal that the declaration of independence was originally scheduled to coincide with the date of funeral rites for King Kojong. However, the representatives decided to take action two days earlier and the event therefore took place on March 1.

The March First Movement

Korean intellectuals drafted the March First Independence Declaration and thirty-three Korean leaders approved it. The thirty-three leaders declared themselves “national representatives” and signed the declaration at a restaurant in Seoul.

They then surrendered themselves to the Japanese authorities who promptly put them into custody. Son Pyonghui led the thirty-three signatories of the Korean Declaration of Independence for Chondogyo, Yi Sunghun for the Christian groups and Hand Yongun for the Buddhist.

The critical position that the Chondogyo leader Son Pyong-hui held can be seen from the fact that he was the first to sign and affix his seal on the “Declaration of Independence” (Kie-Chiang, 1999).

The declaration was presented to the masses in a rally at Seoul’s Pagoda Park where thousands of Koreans had gathered. Historians record that most of the Koreans who gathered in the park for the rally had come from the countryside for Kojong’s funeral.

At 2pm, a young man went to the stage and read the Declaration of Independence that had been signed by the thirty-three leaders. Lee (1996) asserts that this reading of the Independence Declaration was the signal of the start of the nationwide demonstration.

When the young man concluded reading, the crowd burst into cheers and shouted “Taehan Tongnip Mansei” which means, “Long live Korean Independence”. This euphoria spread from the rally and soon Koreans of all ages in the city were shouting “Mansei” (Hildi, 2005).

Demonstrations began to occur elsewhere in the city and in the country as people declared their freedom. In a matter of days, the movement had spread to all areas of the country including remote rural areas (Hildi, 2005).

For months following the demonstrations of March 1, millions of people across the peninsula participated in demonstrations and protests for independence.

The Japanese authorities in Korea were taken by surprise since the Koreans had not shown any indication of engaging in mass protest against Japanese rule.

In retaliation, Japanese soldiers and police engaged in a violent crackdown against the demonstrators and their leaders (Chong-sik, 1963).

The Japanese forces indiscriminately assaulted and shot at peaceful demonstrators leading to a violent uprising (Hildi, 2005).

To crush this uprising, Soldiers were sent from the Japanese mainland and they engaged in widespread reprisal of the demonstrators. By the end of the year, thousands had been killed and property had been destroyed.

Impact of the Match First Movement

While the Match First Movement failed to regain Korean independence, it served as a turning point in Japanese colonial rule.

In the March First Movement, Koreans of different backgrounds came together in large number to defy their colonizers and demonstrate to the world that they had a great desire for independence (Lee, 2000).

The Movement had the effect of galvanizing and uniting Koreans against their colonizers. Before the movement, the Koreans had been resigned to their fate as a colonized people. Most Koreans had accepted Japanese rule and they had gone about the assimilation process with little resistance.

After the March First demonstration, nationalistic fervour burned bright among many Koreans and they continued to aspire for independence (Wang & Yi, 2010).

The March First Movement inspired the spirit of independence and freedom among the Koreans who had up until then remained silent subjects of the Japanese.

To reinforce their commitment to attaining independence, the Koreans established a Korean Provisional Government in Shanghai, China. Lee (2000) asserts that the unity that arose from the movement was responsible for the foundation of this Korean Provisional Government in April 1919.

While the Western world refused to recognize this government and the aspirations of the Korean people, the Chinese Nationalist Government gave official recognition to the Korean government and regarded it as the legitimate administration in the country (Wang & Yi, 2010).

The provisional government formed and operated a Korean volunteer army known as the Korean Liberation Army in China. This army had its base in China and it received resources from Korean sympathizers and the Chinese government.

The March First Movement effectively demolished the propaganda perpetuated by Japan to the outside world that Koreans were content and well off under Japanese rule.

Since the official annexation of Korea, the Japanese administrators had engaged in a successful disinformation campaigned aimed at making the world believe that Koreans enjoyed Japanese rule (Chong-sik, 1963).

Through the March First Movement, the Koreans demonstrated to the world that they did not enjoy Japanese rule. They also took this opportunity to air their grievances concerning the harsh treatment they had endured from Japan for a decade.

Lee (2000) reveals that during the peaceful demonstration, the participants decried Japanese repression in Korea and demanded for their independence.

The March First Movement led to changes being made by the Japanese administration in Korea. The Japanese rulers relaxed their policies and engaged in measures to appease the Koreans. These changes were prompted by the public criticism directed at Japanese rule by the March First Movement leaders.

Lee (1996) reveals that Japan introduced a “cultural Policy” that was meant to allow greater freedom in the colony.

This policy resulted in greater use of the Korean language in public and freedom for more publishers. Nationalists used the Korean language newspapers to reach the masses and express patriotic rhetoric over the years.

The March First Movement of 1919 inspired the Koreans overseas to engage in action aimed at bringing about the independence of their motherland. Many activists had left Korea following the ban of nationalist activities within Korea by the Japanese authorities (Richard, 2006).

These activists had spurred the growth of patriotic organizations in Korean expatriate communities, especially in Russia and China. Before the movement, the organizations had engaged in actions aimed at bringing attention to the case of Koreans in the motherland.

However, these activities were not very vibrant. The March First Movement reignited the zeal of these expatriate communities and they increased their activities with the hope of bringing freedom to Korea.


This paper set out to discuss the most massive demonstration of nationalism in the modern history of Korea, the March First Movement of 1919, and the impacts that this event had on Korea’s history.

The paper has highlighted that the March First uprising was the culmination of years of oppression by the Japanese colonizers in Korea. The paper has shown that the March First Movement was met with violent retaliation by the Japanese.

The movement did not achieve its goals of bringing independence to the country. However, the movement sparked nationalistic sentiments in the country and it served as a turning point in Korea’s colonial history.


Chong-sik, L. (1963). The Politics of Korean Nationalism. Berkeley: Routledge.

Choong, S.K., & Kim, S. (1998). A Korean Nationalist Entrepreneur: A Life History of Kim Songsu, 1891-1955. New York: SUNY Press.

Dunwalke, M.E. (2007). The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anti-colonial Nationalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hildi, K. (2005). Under the Black Umbrella: Voices from Colonial Korea, 1910-1945. New York: Cornell University Press.

Kenneth, L. (1997). Korea and East Asia: the story of a Phoenix. New York: Greenwood Publishing Group.

Kie-Chiang, J. (1999). Korean politics: the quest for democratization and economic development. New York: Cornell University Press.

Kim, R. (2006). Inaugurating the American Century: The 1919 Philadelphia Korean Congress, Korean Diasporic Nationalism, and American Protestant Missionaries. Journal of American Ethnic History, 26(1), 50-76.

Lee, P. (1996). Sourcebook of Korean Civilization. Columbia: Columbia University Press.

Lee, T. (2000). A Political Factor in the Rise of Protestantism in Korea: Protestantism and the 1919 March First Movement. Church History, 69(1), 116-143.

Wang, L. & Yi, T. (2010). Research on Early Korean Independence Movement and the Patriotic Movement against Japan in Northeast China. Asian Social Science, 6(3), 30-33.

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