INFLUENCE OF THE RUSSIAN REVOLUTION ON THE MARCH 1ST MOVEMENT IN KOREA (1917-1919)

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Abstract


This article seeks to address the question of how the influence of the October Revolution reached Korea and to what extent it affected the outcome of the March 1st Movement. The author analyzes the documents from the Diplomatic Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan and the articles of the official mouthpiece of the colonial government Maeil Sinbo from 1917 to the mid-1920s. Based on the analysis of the primary sources, the author reveals two main channels of receiving information of the revolutionary events in Russia. The first of them was the official newspaper of the Governor General. The main actions of the government of Soviet Russia covered by this newspaper aroused such great interest among the Korean public that in order to prevent an “incorrect interpretation” of these events, the Governor General had to repeatedly dedicate the front page of the newspaper to the articles directly or indirectly condemning the 1917 October Revolution. The second channel was the Korean labour migrants in Primorye. Coming to Russia in search of a better life, most “unnaturalized” migrants faced difficult economic and social conditions. The February Revolution of 1917 which opened the discussion of the future of the Korean population in the Far East became a prerequisite for the politicization of a large part of the labour migrants who witnessed the revolutionary changes in Russia. The author concludes that the ideas of the 1917 October Revolution found active response in the hearts and minds of the masses in Korea. The political and ethnic oppression intensified the social and political contradictions in the colonial Korea resulting in the nation-wide March 1st Movement of 1919 that became the turning point in the history of the world political anti-colonial movement in Asia. The national-bourgeois idea of “gaining independence through diplomacy” suffered a crushing defeat but it retained the spirit of the March 1st Movement in history and laid the foundation for a new generation of revolutionaries who played a crucial role in the events of 1945-1953.


Introduction. Most researchers see the March First Movement in Korea as the pivotal event in the history of the nation. It led to the rebirth of the anticolonial national liberation movement in Korea. It was not only the first nation-wide anti-Japanese demonstration since Korea was colonised by Japan, but it also gave new impetus to the antiJapanese struggle. Various social groups of Koreans both inside and outside their country took part in the movement. Its tragic conclusion made thousands of Korean activists turn to socialist ideas for preservation of the spirit and ideas of the national liberation movement. Nowadays, the March First Movement is commemorated in both North and South Korea (in the latter March 1 is a public holiday), but for different reasons. In North Korea, it is officially called the “March First People’s Uprising” (Samil inmin ponggi) and is perceived as a historically significant though failed attempt to achieve liberation that exposed the absence of unity among the nationalist leadership and its disconnection with the masses. In South Korea, the movement is generally interpreted as a cornerstone event for the foundation of the Provisional Government of Korea in Shanghai, which is considered a predecessor of the modern Republic of Korea. In contemporary Western historiography, the rise of the March First Movement is attributed to the famous “Fourteen Points” proclaimed by US President Woodrow Wilson in his 1918 speech before the United States Congress, and its outcomes are described as the “birth of modern Korean nationalism” [1, p. 12]. The same approach is followed by some South Korean historian, and even contemporary North Korean authors who have long since shifted from Marxist to Kim Il-sung-centred historiography, most of whom either ignore or minimise the influence of the Russian Revolution on the events in Korea. This by no means implies that attempts to link the October Revolution and the March First Movement have not been made. When describing Wilson’s Fourteen Points, Soviet historiography always emphasised the contrast between “declaring the people’s rights” and “their factual self-determination” [2, p. 37]. This approach with some modifications was continued in Russian historical literature. Korean history researchers S.O. Kurbanov [3] and V.M. Tikhonov [4] also admitted the influence of the October Revolution and communist ideas on the radicalisation of Korean youth. A direct connection between the October Revolution and the March First Movement in Korea was emphasised by Yu. V Vanin in his article “October Revolution and its connection with March First Rebellion in Korea” [5]. The main goal of this paper is to examine the channels through which the Russian Revolution exerted its influence on the rise and outcome of the March First Movement by using new documental evidence (mainly the Japanese archival sources published by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan in Gaimushö kiroku (外務省記録 ["Records of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs”]) containing secret reports written by Japanese intelligence officers and diplomats as well as articles from the official newspaper of colonial Korea, Maeil sinbo (§ 0 [“Daily Newspaper”]). First of all it is imperative to take a look at two main channels through which the news of the revolution was entering Korea. 1. October Revolution as the Context for the March First Movement When talking about the influence the October Revolution had on March First Movement in 1919 one must realise that the weak Soviet state fighting against various counter-revolutionary forces heavily backed by most major powers could do little to directly assist such a distant place as Korea in its struggle for independence against the Japanese Empire. There are few indications of communist involvement in the events that broke out on the Korean peninsula on March 1, 1919. The ‘33 national representatives’ who signed the main document of the movement - the ‘Declaration of Independence’ - were far from the ideas of Marx and Lenin, mostly being religious leaders and nationalist politicians. Having said that, one must also admit that a unified anti-colonial resistance in Korea of such a scale would be unimaginable without the background of an old world order crumbling not in a distant America or the European continent but several hundred kilometres away across the Tumen river. The wind of change was felt in Korea long before March of 1919. The general Korean public, including students and workers, who became the backbone of the protest, was aware of the developments in Russia both through the official media and through migrant labourers in the Russian Far East. 1.1. The official media reports on the Revolutionary events in Russia In the first days after the events of October - November 1917, colonial Korea’s media didn’t know how to react to the new revolution in Russia. On 11 November 1917, the first small article about the events in Petrograd appeared on the second page of an official state-run newspaper, Maeil Sinbo, titled “The Coup d’etat in Russia” (Roguk-ui chöngbyönу. In a couple of days, a new article titled “Lenin group’s Cabinet” appeared. All these articles provided basic information about the events in Russia and were written in a neutral tone. The first large pieces of information about the Revolution began to appear after the 17 November 1917 edition of Maeil Sinbo, on the second page of which were published such articles as “Siberia proclaims independence,” “Russian Prime Minister makes a speech,” and a large article named “The responsibility for Russia [should be given] to Japan” arguing that Japan should take Russia’s place in the ongoing First World War. The tone of colonial publications turned antagonistic towards Soviet Russia after Lenin’s government issued the famous “Declaration of the Rights of the Peoples of Russia” which contained ideas unacceptable to the empires of the world. The article “The Extremist council member’s proclamation” read: “a member of the extremist council had proclaimed that all peoples in Russia have the right to set up their own political entities as well as the right to form an independent state”178. This article was followed by another text titled “Small Russia [proclaims] independence” (So-rosöa tongnip). Despite the outspoken hostility towards the Soviet government, the colonial media reported most main events of the revolution. In December 1917, it even had to publicly refute rumours that Nicholas II was hiding in Harbin or that the Japan was planning an attack on Russian territory179. From the pages of the only official Korean newsletter, Koreans learned about the Decree on Peace, the complete dislodgement of the imperial system, and the growth and strengthening of the Soviet state. The local population’s interest in the Russian revolution was so great that in order to prevent ‘undesirable’ interpretations of this news, Japanese colonial authorities decided to publish a series of propaganda articles named “My country’s history and the national polity” (Aguksa-wa kukch’e) and “An opportunity to revitalise Asia” (Asea chinhüng-üi kiun) on the first page, which was usually reserved for news of national importance. The latter attacked the ‘destructive’ nature of the Russian revolution contrasting it with the “spiritual awakening of the Asian peoples” 181. Most anti-Soviet articles on the first pages chose arguments carefully to attack the influence of the Revolution on Korean people’s minds using the main card the Japanese thought they had - economic prosperity. For example, the article named “The immigrants in Russian territory” (Roryong-e izhuzha) spoke of the poverty and hardships that Koreans who moved to Russia had to endure every day, while the article “The fate of Lenin’s Government” (Renin chong-bu-üi unmyong) argued that left ideas have brought “terrible misery” to Russia1. Once the editors of Maeil Sinbo even printed a caricature depicting Russians as a poverty-stricken disabled person on crutches183. Though these articles were antiSoviet in nature, they contained a surprising amount of information about the Russian Revolution. It is hard to say what prompted pro-Japanese colonial media to publish news about parts of the Russian Empire proclaiming independence and even to report the main contents of the famous Soviet Decree inside Korea, which was notorious for its anti-Japanese sentiment. These news stories made such a great impression on the Korean masses that the colonial authorities had to devote many pages to strong anti-Soviet propaganda. The official colonial newspaper thus became the first channel through which news of the Russian Revolution officially infiltrated colonial Korea. 1.2. Labour migrants Unfortunately for pro-Japanese propagandists, the Korean economic prosperity that they believed in was not felt by the vast majority of Koreans. Socio-economic conditions in Korea forced many thousands of people to leave their homes and become economic migrants. The first decade of Japanese rule in Korea did not bring the modernisation promised by domestic pro-Japanese elites, but rather made common people’s lives even worse. Immediately after the establishment of the colonial regime in 1910, the Japanese launched the “land cadastre campaign” (t’oji chosa saop) which resulted in the redistribution of land to the Japanese or big land-owners and the loss of property rights for hundreds of thousands of traditional peasants’ families who were unable to pay draconian land taxes [6, p. 157]. By 1919 only 3.7% of Korean primary school-age children had access to education while Korean resource management was almost completely restructured to serve the interests of the industrialisation of Japan. The numerous mines of Northern Korea were monopolised by Japanese and Western capital from mid 1910s [6, pp. 206, 223]. Koreans were mostly used as a source of cheap labour in order to maximise the profits of the Japanese and domestic comprador bourgeoisie. But life in Russia did not prove to be better for the newcomers. On the contrary, it only intensified the socioeconomic conflicts in the Far Eastern Korean diaspora which began forming from as early as the second half of the 19th century. The well-established (kika- jin or ‘assimilated’ as they were called in Japanese secret reports) Koreans, most of whom had good command of Russian and even adopted Orthodox Christianity, looked down upon their far less fortunate ‘non-assimilated’ compatriots. The latter ones were left with no choice but to once again become a source of cheap labour mostly as tenant farmers who had to give up to 60% of their harvest [7, p. 53]. Social discrimination soon followed the economic one. Those belonging to the more privileged group began calling the others ‘ lebedi (swans) sneering at the poor workers who had to line up along the curved roads every day dressed in traditional Korean clothes of white colour. In their turn, the newcomers who had not yet lost their connection with their homeland created a derogatory term ‘er maozi (literally “secondary hairy people” i.e. second-rate Russians) [7, p. 54]. These factors did not help the process of political and social adaptation, on the contrary, it defined the temporary character of the labour migration. The news of the February Revolution (1917) was the harbinger of the politicisation of the ‘non-assimilated’ Koreans. Immediately after the creation of the Russian Provisional Government, the ‘assimilated’ Koreans decided to create their own representative organ, which they called ‘Ts. I. K. Koreiskih Natsional’nih Soyuzov’ (Central Executive Committee of the Korean National Assemblies; TsIK KNS). This organ, like many other Korean political organisations, fell victim to factional warfare when groups inside it failed to agree on such questions as whether they should support the Kerensky’s government’s course regarding the war or whether the ‘non-assimilated’ Koreans should be given the right to vote [7, pp. 56-57]. TsIK KNS, however, also played a positive role by opening political discourse on the future of Koreans in the Russian Far East encouraging formerly politically inactive Korean migrants to take an active political stance. After leaving TsIK. KNS, the ‘non-assimi-lated’ Koreans, together with some ‘assimilated’ ones, created a newspaper Hanin Sinbo, written in vernacular Korean which facilitated the spread of a revolutionary atmosphere. Its first publication announced in part: “With the god’s deep will and the blood of Slavic people [they] have overturned the terrible totalitarian regime of absolute imprisonment and oppression in one day, [they] have raised high the Red Banner and proclaimed the great freedom of being able to ... fulfil one’s debt to the state as a citizen and one’s mission towards Heaven” 186. Hanin Sinbo's direct influence on the socio-political life of Koreans reached as far as southern Manchuria. This is illustrated by the fact that in mid-1918 Japanese intelligence reported that a correspondent and distributor of the newspaper named Lim Ho was found in the Chinese town of Juzijie (nowadays Yanji, centre of Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in northeastern Jilin Province, People’s Republic of China) located near the Korean border [8]. By October 1917, it was perfectly clear that situation all over Russia was out of control. The political life of the ethnic minorities in the Russian Far East was boiling vigorously. In mid-October 1917, on the eve of the October Revolution, a group of Japanese intelligence officers in Vladivostok compiled a report titled “The influence of the Russian Revolution on Koreans.” This report began with the general characteristics of recent developments in Russia. According to the authors, the “feeling when [former] slaves could in one leap jump into the places of kings and counts” has brought a “sudden invigoration of [political] activity [among Koreans]”. After describing the enormous growth of political activism among Koreans - especially among the ‘non-assimilated’ ones - the authors summarised: “Our Empire ... must exercise great vigilance. Korea, our new territory, is separated from the Russian border by a mere strip of water of Tumen River and Manchuria. The peoples that inhabit the regions adjacent to the Russian border are freely communicating and are supplying each other’s needs”187. Finally, realising that the Russian Revolution is far from a conclusion, the report stressed the necessity to observe its progress and the influence it will have on Koreans. The fears of the Japanese intelligence officers were not groundless. The October Revolution brought a great change in the life of the local Korean population. After the civil war broke out in 1918, Japan officially broke its diplomatic ties with Russia and invaded the Russian Far East, forcing thousands of Koreans either to flee west or return to Korea. The waves of legal returnees numbered hundreds monthly reaching its peak in December 1918 when almost 2500 Korean workers legally returned to Korea188. These people were the living witnesses of the Russian Empire’s collapse and the Bolsheviks’ staunch resolve, demonstrated by bluntly rejecting the demands of other imperialist powers to continue Russia’s participation in the war. A rather extreme but still genuine sentiment of politically active ‘non-as-similated’ Koreans was shown by a Korean activist during a 1918 international demonstration in Petrograd. In particular, he said: “Korea once was the richest country in Asia <...>. Now we are ruined, pillaged, turned into the slaves of the Japanese. <...> Korean nobility is bought by the Japanese. Revolutionary organisations are crushed. <...> Yes, comrades, we have only one option left - terror. We use it and we will continue using it. <...> on your socialist teaching a new generation of Koreans is being raised. Without the connection with you, we do not have freedom. Your happiness is our happiness. Your death is our death. <...> This is felt by every one of twenty thousand of our workers in the Soviet Republic and by hundreds of thousands of our workers in Siberia” [9, p. 41-42]. Thus, the return of Korean migrants from the Russian Far East became the second important channel through which the information about the Russian Revolution and its ideas appeared on Korean soil. 2. The Past and the Future of the March First Movement The immediate effect of the combination of news coverage of the October Revolution and the return of migrant workers from the Far East on the Korean independence movement is perfectly reflected in a set of documents published by an organisation of Korean students in Japan on 8 February 1919. Along with a ‘Petition for Convocation of a [Korean] National Assembly’ they stated: “Looking from the standpoint of peace in East Asia, its foremost threat, Russia, has already abandoned its imperialist ambitions and is currently building a new state on the foundation of justice, equality and humanism. thus eliminating the biggest reason for the merging of Korea [with Japan]” f This statement along with information about the great changes in Russia, indicates that Korean activists felt the atmosphere of change which guaranteed a national scale of the protest. Japanese military intervention in Russia in 1918 brought sympathy for the Bolshevik’s cause in Korea proper. For many Koreans at home and abroad, the war that was raging in the Russian Far East began to resemble the old Uibyong movement, when armed remnants of anti-Japanese resistance in Korea made an unsuccessful attempt to restore national independence. It also paved the way for another much more far-reaching effect on the March First movement - the ideological turn of many thousands of Koreans towards socialism and the ideas of armed struggle, which would after the liberation of Korea bring forth a new generation of revolutionaries to participate in the fateful events of 1945-1950. At the very beginning of the March First Movement, there were several major ideological trends in the Korean national-liberation movement. The first and most influential among Korean intellectuals and political emigres residing in the West at that time was the so-called ‘diplomatic’ approach to the question of Korean independence, that they should seek help from the great powers. The people who officially launched the movement decided to rely on diplomacy rather than on armed struggle, and they tinent groups, Korean part, In the homeland]. 08.02.1919. Vol. 3 (In Japanese). used the movement to strengthen the negotiating position of a prominent emigre activist Kim Kyu-sik whose arrival in Paris for the Peace Conference of 1919 was timed to coincide with the demonstrations all over Korea. The failure of the diplomatic approach to solve the problem of Korean independence led to an ideological crisis in the Korean independence movement. It encouraged many activists to support the idea of ‘armed resistance’ both in Korea and in adjacent regions, which became closely connected with the socialist and communist movements for years to come. The change in the sentiments of Koreans was sharply felt by the Japanese right after the brutal suppression of the March First Movement. The number of Japanese secret reports concerning the interaction of Koreans with the ‘extremists’ rose hundredfold after 1 March 1919. These were not only reports on the activities of the armed anti-Japanese resistance waged by Koreans in Russia. Many were devoted to preventing the spreading of revolutionary ideas among Koreans who temporary resided abroad. For example, one of the reports prepared by Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary of Japan in China Obata Yükichi (小幡酉吉) in September 1919 tells about a Korean “extremist” (i.e. communist) named An Künsaeng (安根生) who was propagating communist ideas among students in China [10]. The reasons for the rise of communist activities in Korea are explicitly stated in a report compiled by the General Staff of the Korean Army (Chösengun Samböbu). It reads in part: “Impertinent Koreans (i.e. those with anti-Japanese sentiment - L.V.) who used to admire Wilson’s principle of self-determination of peoples have soon realised that so-called American help is nothing but mere written and oral support which would bring nothing in concrete matters. ... This made them gradually grow closer to the extremists” 191. Conclusion. The news of events in Russia infiltrated Korea through various channels. Among the most effective ones were the only Korean-language news agency in the Japanese colony Maeil Sinbo and the labour migrants in the Russian Far East, many of whom returned to Korea after the Japanese occupied Vladivostok. The rise of the March First Movement became one of the most important milestones of the anti-colonial movement in Asia. The mass protests that engulfed Korea became an important signal for all overseas Koreans, as well as Japanese oppressors who were forced to change their rapacious methods into a more civilised form they called “Cultural policy” (文化政治) The March First Movement also became an important event for all Asian anti-colonial activists. One of the future founders and the first Secretary of the Central Bureau of the Communist Party of China Chen Duxiu (陳獨秀) on 23 March 1919 published an article “Feelings about Korean Independence Movement” (朝鮮獨立運動之感想) in Meizhou Pinglun (每周評論) magazine in which he called the March First Movement “great, sincere, heroic and tragic, with correct ideas, using the will of the people without weapons, [the movement that] has opened a new era in the history of world revolution” [23]. The October Revolution in Russia provided important context for the Korean movement. The news of the collapse of an empire and its reconstruction into a new Soviet state based on the slogans of equality and freedom influenced the general mood in Korea, imbuing people with hope for a better, independent future. It acted as fertiliser for the Korean soil, without which the March First Movement would not have happened on such a large scale. The historical meaning of the March First Movement is that it exposed the necessity to look for alternative set of ideas that many Koreans found in the ideas of the October Revolution that posed a direct threat to the Japanese colonisers. This threat made them put persecution of Korean communists among their highest priorities. Thus, it can be said that while the speech of US President Woodrow Wilson helped igniting the protest movement in Korea suffering from colonial oppression, the influence of the October Revolution proved decisive for the March First Movement. It became a symbol of the anti-colonial movement in Asia, making sure that the March First Movement would not suffer the fate of the Tapani incident (1915) in Taiwan, which was a bright but last spark in the Han Chinese armed resistance to the Japanese colonisers [24]. In other words, while other factors provided the movement itself, the October Revolution provided its past and guaranteed its future.

Vasilii V Lebedev

Korea University

Author for correspondence.
Email: kutuzkin21@hanmail.net
145, Songbuk-gu, Anam-ro, Seoul, 02841, The Republic of Korea

Graduate student of the Department of History at Korea University

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