78 years ago today, the streets of Korea were packed with people screaming “대한독립만세!” (Korean independence forever!). On August 15th, 1945, Korea gained its freedom from colonial Japan. From 1910 through 1945, Korea was under Japanese occupation, and the country suffered decades of economic, political, and cultural oppression. During those 35 years, the Korean people lost their identity, becoming a tributary state to the Japanese empire which was one of the strongest nations in Asia during the time. When the Japanese emperor surrendered to the Allies on August 15th, 1945, this brought an end to World War 2, as well as Japan’s influence over Korea. This day is special for all generations of Koreans, as it marked the beginning of Korean independence and the freedoms they enjoy today.
Many people are familiar with the German Nazis' genocidal acts in Europe before and during World War 2. While Nazis were expanding throughout Europe, the Japanese Empire and soldiers were also advancing in Asia. At the center of Japan’s annexation, Korea would lie in the crosshairs.
Towards the end of the 19th century, Korea’s Joseon Dynasty had closed its borders, suffering from misguided leadership and chaos created by constant attacks from Western countries. Meanwhile, the Japanese empire welcomed Western nations, accepting their culture and new technology. Soon, Japan would develop into a nation well versed in international affairs and robust with technology and armory. The empire would become so powerful that the prospect of conquering Korea, in its fragile state, became increasingly of interest.
Japanese Invasion of Korea
Japan’s conquest of Korea began with the conclusion of the First Sino-Japanese War (청일전쟁) in 1895, which was fought on Korean soil and ended with a Japanese victory over China. This conflict would determine who would have the ability to take over the Korean peninsula. As Japan grew stronger with Western technology, and Korea had previously relied on the Qing Dynasty for international affairs, Japan’s victory left Korea very vulnerable. As the War of 1895 concluded, this presented a perfect environment for Japanese soldiers to stay on the Korean peninsula and marked the beginning of Japan’s influence on Korea.
In 1904, Russia and Japan went to war. At this point in history, King GoJong of the Joseon Dynasty was attempting to align Korea with Russia - after the defeat of Qing Dynasty by Japan, he hoped Russia would help keep Japan’s emerging influence and power in check. However, when Japan defeated Russia during the Russo-Japanese War (러일전쟁), this left Japan with no other rivals and a clear path to colonizing Korea.
Soon after the conclusion of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, Japan and Korea signed a treaty (을사조약) that would theoretically help Korea bolster international affairs since Japan had opened up its borders to Western countries long before. However, this agreement gave Japan rights to directly influence Korea’s diplomacy and would result in weakening Korea’s position internationally. Many people say this was an unfair, unofficial treaty because King GoJong did not actually sign the treaty - instead a group of Pro-Japanese politicians would execute the treaty with Japan.
The 1905 Treaty of Japan and Korea would result in the steady weakening of Korea’s national power. For the next five years, Japan pressured Korea to dismiss its independent army and authorize Japan to have ownership over their judicial branch. At its most vulnerable state, Korea and Japan would sign the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty in 1910 (한일병합조약) granting Japan full authority in running the army and the country. While the initial Treaty of 1905 only granted Japanese access to Korean foregin affair policy, the Treaty of 1910 enabled Japan to fully control Korea. Soon Japanese flags would line the front doors of the Gyeongbokgung Palace, which symbolized the heart of the Joseon Dynasty.
Devastated to see their country defeated and Japan controlling the entire peninsula, many Koreans thought this was the worst thing to happen in their nations history. Little did they know, their situation even got worse as time continued.
Japanese Colonial Rule: 1910-1945
Until the liberation of Korea in 1945, Koreans continuously fought for their nation’s freedom and independence. One of the most impactful, well-known independence movements is the 3.1 movement of 1919 (삼일운동). Following the death of King GoJong, citizens angry with the unfair alliance with Japan, flooded the streets yelling “대한독립만세!” (Korean independence forever!) and waving the Korean flag. More than 2 million people participated in this nationwide, peaceful protest, and even though it did not directly lead to the independence of Korea, it became a legacy that motivated Koreans during the darker days of occupation.
The 1919 movement also changed how the Japanese controlled the Korean peninsula. Before 1919, they limited Korea’s independent decisions outwardly, meaning that they restrained Korea’s ability to work with nations abroad. Post-1919, Japan realized that a growing patriotism in Korea was beginning a societal movement. The Japanese leaders decided to focus on restricting domestic behavior through cultural suffocation, along with implementing propaganda. Ancestors who lived through this period, and written records testify to the inhumane actions of Japan.
One of the most brutal actions the Japanese leaders implemented was the Extermination Act of People (민족말살정책). In the 1940s, Japanese soldiers prohibited the usage of the Korean language, Hangeul, and forced Koreans to use Japanese names rather than their already existing Korean names(창씨개명). One ancestor mentioned that before the liberation they did not know how to write Hangeul because the Japanese government forbid learning it in or out of school. This was meant to disrupt historical or cultural ties that generations of Koreans had carried. In this process Japan destroyed many historical documents and symbols of Korean culture, prohibited any religious activity, and arrested and tortured those who spoke, wrote, or read Korean language.
As Japan joined World War 2, the torment Koreans had to endure increased. Japan forced Korean men onto the battlefield as suicide bombers, and also plundered Korean crops and metals goods. One of the most dehumanizing actions Japan took during the war was the creation of Comfort Women. Organized to comfort Japanese soldiers, young Korean girls, along with other women from Asian colonies of Japan, were forced to become sex slaves for the satisfaction of the men fighting on the front lines. August 14th, the day before Korean independence day, is a day specifically dedicated to the memory of Comfort Women, so that people will not forget the pain and hardships they endured.
Despite Japan’s cultural oppression and torture, Koreans continued to voice their independence globally. Even before the Japanese occupation began, Korean nationals worked hard to protect its country’s strength as a nation. In 1907, under orders by King GoJong, freedom fighters traveled to The Hague in the Netherlands to proclaim Korea as an independent nation to the world, but were not allowed to present at the assembly by Japanese officials.
Two famous national leaders during the Japanese occupation were Kim Gu and Rhee Syngman, who supported individual freedom fighters and took part in building the Provisional Government of Republic of Korea in Shanghai. Here the idea of a Korean Democratic State would begin, and the movement towards an independent, self-sufficient nation became the foundation of today’s Korean democracy. Many other freedom fighters who served in Japan, Korea, and China, actively participated in taking down Japanese leaders. Both physically and ideologically, Koreans fought by bombing Japanese officials, battling Japanese soldiers, and publishing newspaper of Korean language.
Furthermore, other resistance efforts in the US raised funds for the provisional government and freedom fighters. Koreans in the US also joined the US Army to fight with allies against Japan. As the level of persecution amplified, Koreans’ eagerness for liberation grew stronger. While Japan ultimately surrendered to the Allies after the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima, Korean freedom fighters were a constant threat and source of fear to leaders of Japan, and played a significant role in weakening the Japanese political system. Without the efforts of these fearless ancestors, the liberation gained in 1945 would have been impossible.
Want to learn more?
To learn more about Korean Independence Day and the events leading up to August 15th, 1945, here are a collection of films that we recommend you watch:
Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet is based on the true story of Yun-Dong-Ju, a freedom fighter who expressed his thoughts through poetry. This movie shares the life story of Dongju and his friend Song Mong-Gyu, who both died in prison after writing resistance poetry in Korean. Filmed in black and white, the movie focuses on Dongju’s poems and his longingness for home.
Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video ( in-app purchase required)
Learn more about Yun-Dong-Ju here.
The title ‘Mal Mo E’ comes from the first Korean language dictionary that was compiled during the Japanese occupation. The movie is about a Hangeul (Korean writing) academy that was kept open and hidden from the Japanese during the cultural oppression period. This film shows how eager Koreans were of protecting and passing down their unique language.
Where to watch: Rakuten Viki
This movie is about the Bongo Dong Battle, which was a famous battle between underdog resistance soldiers of Korea and well-trained Japanese soldiers. Fought fearlessly, the Korean army wins the battle in Bongo Dong.
Where to watch: Tubi TV (Free)
Disclaimer: these films are recommended for the purpose to help better understand Korean history, and these movies may not be the most accurate representation of historical events. Use these films as aiding material, not as a textbook for Korean history.
The legacy continued
In the non-stop tempo of life, it is often easy to forget history and lose perspective of its impact and importance in the everyday. Nevertheless, we should never forget the past, but rather learn, reflect and honor it. We believe that our rich Korean cultural heritage and the freedoms we enjoy today are the product of decades of sacrifice and battles won and loss by our ancestors to protect our cultural authenticity.
We thank and honor all those who have worked hard to preserve and pass down Korean culture, language, and history. We do not take your sacrifices for granted.