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Korean Reunification Activists Identify 3 Lessons from the March First Movement

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By Keiko Seino

As each panelist spoke in turn at the One Korea International Forum in Seoul at the end of February this year, it became clear that any meaningful discussion on the future of the Korean peninsula required an understanding and appreciation of Korea’s past. The March First Movement, sparked by mass public demonstrations on March 1st, 1919, was a historic moment of immense pride for the Korean people where they stood in solidarity for a free, independent Korea. In honor of that significant milestone in Korean history, the Global Peace Foundation organized the 2019 Global Peace Convention to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the March First Movement, a timely reminder of what transpired in Korea’s journey towards independence and opportunity to understand what motivated the Korean people to take a stand. 

Jargalsaikhan Enkhsaikhan speaks on Mongolia's role in the movement
towards a unified Korea

Koreans and non-Koreans alike convened at the forum and reflected on the successes and challenges of the March First Movement as a way to inform a path forward to a unified Korea. The panel was comprised of representatives from many different nationalities, religions, political orientations, and fields of work discussing a strategic framework for a unified Korea. Throughout the two sessions, three recurring themes emerged as important lessons to bear in mind on the path toward One Korea. Though the 100th anniversary has come and gone, the inspiration behind the March First Movement continues to serve as a driving force behind the One Korea Global Campaign today.  

  1. Commitment to Peace and Public Order

The 20th century was characterized by many uprisings and rebellions around the world in pursuit of national independence, political and social reforms, and human rights and freedoms; but not all were peaceful in nature. Leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela were shining examples of transforming society through non-violent means. Predating these more well-known peaceful political transitions and social movements was the March First Movement of 1919. 

“The March First Independence Movement was not a struggle against or request to fight against Japan but rather was a movement demanding that Koreans have the right to enjoy freedom and a free society,” shared forum panelist Mr. Jin Shin, President for Institute of Peace Affairs.

Mr. Tong Kim, former Senior Korean language interpreter at the US State Department, identified “commitment to peace and public order” as one of the three characteristics of the March First Movement worth noting. On March 1st, 1919, Koreans read aloud the Declaration of Independence, an eloquent and poetic document expressing the aspirations of the Korean people. Mr. Kim pointed out that the 33 signers of the declaration, “did not want to blame the wrongs of the past.” Rather than find fault with their colonizers, Mr. Kim stated that their desire was to express “malice toward none,” quoting Abraham Lincoln’s famous words from his second inaugural address.

The Korean people’s desire to protest peacefully is reflected in the text of the Declaration of Independence:

“Our action today represents the demand of our people for justice, humanity, survival, and dignity. It manifests our spirit of freedom and should not engender antiforeign feelings…. All our actions should scrupulously uphold public order, and our demands and attitudes must be honorable and upright.” 

Remarkably, millions of Koreans participated in public demonstrations across the country, which remained largely peaceful in nature. 

Dr. Quansheng Zhao, Professor and Chair of Asian Studies Research Council at American University, shared,

“I would like to emphasize the peaceful, nonviolent approach to a unified Korea. And reform and openness - that is a model that we would like to see developed in a country and then move to the East Asia region and finally contribute to world stability and prosperity.”

  1. Shared Vision and Values

Leaders of the March First Movement were not seeking to go back to Korea’s feudal past nor were they merely seeking independence from colonial rule; they were envisioning and striving for a new nation.  Mr. Kim articulated this point,

“Although the movement failed to achieve independence from colonial rule, its proclamation or declaration shows that they were not simply demanding the restoration of the old dynasty but they were seeking to build a reformed model nation that could contribute to world culture for sustenance and peace.” 

“The March First Movement, the Samil Movement, had a big vision,” shared Charles Morrison, Senior Fellow and former President of the East-West Center. That big vision was the hope for a new nation built on democratic principles and respect for human rights and freedoms. That new nation would be strong and prosperous, and its source of strength would come not from military might, but from the moral and ethical character of its own citizens and government. The Korean people were striving to build an enlightened nation, not for its own sake, but for being a model for other nations to follow and for spreading peace throughout the region, and subsequently the world. 

Dr. Jai-Poong Ryu, Founder and President of the One Korea Foundation, talked about the importance of sharing a vision and articulating values that resonate within the broader population.

“Minjim is translated as people’s mind, or public spirit or public opinion…numerous people talk about how to draw people's mind to your cause. What do you need to do? You have to put forward the right values that people will share and believe with you. A vision that has the power to move a nation should tap into a culture’s most cherished aspirations and values.”

Tagging on to Dr. Ryu mentioning of the necessity of shared values, International President of the Global Peace Foundation Mr. James Flynn added, "We believe those shared values are first and foremost found for the Korean people in their deep cultural roots and shared history, and manifest very significantly in the ideals that motivated the Korean independence movement one hundred years ago.”

Mr. Kim pointed out one of those ideals, found in Korean heritage,

“Hongik Ingan, promoting ‘benefit to all humanity,’ is an inspiring ideological foundation for a unified Korea. I believe it will be a good starting point to apply this idea to rediscover traditional identity with Korean people and unite them to uphold a high standard of morality, human rights, and shared values of good against evil.” 

Mr. Kim was referring to an ideal articulated in the book Korean Dream: A vision for a Unified Korea by Dr. Hyun Jin Preston Moon, founder of the Global Peace Foundation. Hongik Ingan, meaning to broadly benefit humanity, is an ancient Korean philosophy that has inspired Koreans throughout their history. In 1919, the Korean people were striving to build a nation that would benefit the world. That higher calling had the motivating power to spark the mass demonstrations across the nation. 

One hundred years later and amidst uncertainty about the future of the divided peninsula, participants at the One Korea Forum began to understand that seeking reunification is not the end goal, but rather a crucial step in the right direction. Having a clear vision for that new, unified nation would be vital. Mr. John Everard, former British Ambassador to North Korea, asked a rhetorical question to make this very point, “What kind of a unified Korea are we working for?” 

  1. Importance of International Support

Mr. Morrison identified one of the key lessons from the March First Movement,

“What does the March First Movement tell us? There needs to be international buy in and support... In 1919, there were Korean representatives from my state of Hawaii that were in a conference in Europe. And they were not admitted to the conference and were not heard. And so, the world lost a chance to encourage a different direction for North East Asia, and the world paid a high price for that, not just Korea. So, while unification is obviously a matter for Koreans to lead and decide on, it deserves strong international support because it rectifies old wrongs and has potential for not just Korean benefit but for global benefit.”

Mr. Morrison was referring to the failed attempt of Korean-Americans at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 to draw international support for Korean independence. 

Similarly, Mr. Kim shared,

“Our efforts require the spirit of the March First Movement and they need to be carried out in a movement with total participation by all Koreans and support from the international community. The March First Movement failed because partly there was no support for that movement.”

Recognizing the important role of the international community, leaders from around the globe expressed their sincere support for Korean reunification at the forum.

“We are living in the 21st century where the problem does not know a boundary; it affects the whole world. And that’s why the international community has a role to play. If something good happens, it benefits everybody,” shared Markandey Rai, Senior Advisor at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme. He continued, “This whole world is a family, and ‘God is one’ means that we have to take care of our family whether we’re there or not. The Korean problem is our problem also. India believes that if there is a problem in Korea, we can’t remain unaffected.”

Punsalmaagiin Ochirbat, former President of Mongolia, expressed his support as well,

“Mongolia seeks to establish solid peace on the Korean peninsula and support and contribute to the development of North East Asia to become a sustainable and prosperous region. The Mongolian government as well as Mongolian citizens and civil society organizations are active in the field. The prime examples are Blue Banner, a nonprofit organization in Mongolia that supports Korea’s reunification. I believe there should be active engagement, especially from major countries like China, Russia, Japan, and other countries. In Mongolia, we are making active contributions at the civil society level.”   

Jargalsaikhan Enkhsaikhan, Chairman of Blue Banner, articulated why Mongolia is in a unique position to support reunification,

“Mongolia’s political advantage is that it has no territorial or other problems with its neighbors, nor a hidden political agenda regarding the peninsula and maintains good relations with both of the Koreas.”

Dr. Sachio Nakato, Professor of International Relations at Ritsumeikan University, shared why he believes Japan should support reunification,

“A unified Korea is good for Japan and Northeast Asia security. And a bigger market of a unified Korea may be good for Japan for business purposes as well. But more importantly, if the division of Korea is a legacy of the Cold War and Japanese colonization, Japan has a responsibility to support Korean unification. And Japan should support Korean unification not for the sake of Japanese business interests but for the sake of the Korean people.”

Mr. Jacob Oulanyah, Deputy Speaker of Parliament of Uganda, touched upon our common humanity as an even deeper reason for supporting Korean reunification,

“We came here today to dramatize a fact of life, that the rivers, mountains, and the oceans, and the ideologies that divide us are not deeper than the blood that connects us as human beings, as one family under God. So, we came here to celebrate simply that.”

Photo taken at One Korea International Forum in Seoul at the end of February.

Learn more about the One Korea Global Campaign and find out how you can be a part of the global peacebuilding movement.