March First Movement in Korea


The March First Movement was started in Korea with the aim of gaining independence from Japan. The movement, which was characterized by a series of demonstrations, started on March 1, 1919. At first, the demonstrations were held in Seoul, the Korean capital, before spreading throughout the country. Unfortunately, the Japanese managed to suppress this movement one year later.

The movement led to massive political and social changes in the Korea society, with about two million Koreans participating in the demonstrations. About 7,000 people lost their lives while 16,000 were wounded. These casualties were caused mainly by Japanese soldiers and police. Moreover, fires destroyed many private houses, churches, and school buildings. Additionally, many people were arrested, tried, and convicted.

This paper discusses the March First Movement by examining how it started and how it spread across the Korean society. It also highlights the declared aims as well as how the movement mobilized popular support. The thesis adopted in this paper is that the March First Movement was a turning point in the Japanese colonial rule of Korea, even though it failed to regain the Korean independence.

How the March First Movement started

The movement was started by scores of Korean religious and cultural leaders who started by drawing up the “Proclamation of Independence of Korea”. These leaders engaged in these efforts after almost ten years of rule by Japan. The leaders then organized the first mass demonstration in March 1, 1919. This day was chosen because it was the commemoration day for Korea’s late emperor.

On this first day of demonstration, some 33 Korean leaders read and signed the proclamation during the mass demonstration in Seoul. They hoped that this would heap international pressure on  Japan to withdraw from Korea by ending her colonial rule in that Asian country. At the same time, the leaders had appointed coconspirators who read the proclamation in townships across the country. This triggered one great explosion of anti-Japanese sentiments by Koreans through mass demonstrations around the country. These demonstrations turned out to be the largest protest rallies against domination by colonialists in Korean history.

The movement played a very significant role in strengthening the national unity of the Korean people. These gains ultimately led to the birth of the Korean Provisional Government in Shanghai. It also drew worldwide attention to the plight of Koreas in the hands of Japanese colonial masters. The failure of the movement seems to have been a blessing in disguise given that it greatly contributed to the establishment of the Korean Communist Party. Today, both North and South Korea commemorate March 1 as a national holiday.

The spread of the movement

Even before the occurrence of the March First Movement, nationalist leaders had started arming forces. They started organizing Koreans living overseas in order to enhance the popularity of the independence movement. This was done mainly through the establishment of anti-Japanese organizations, training soldiers, and building military headquarters. Soon after the establishment of the March First movement, the nationalist leaders realized that there was an urgent need for efforts to be made to popularize the movement around the country.

The socialist ideology greatly contributed to the spread of the March First Movement and its transformation into a national organization. The tendency by Koreans to adopt this ideology was greatly influenced by the suppression they were being subjected to in the hands of Japanese colonialists. Younger intellectuals were particularly interested in embracing socialist ideas and actively spreading them to laborers, youths, and farmers.

One of the most problematic aspects of socialism is that it was difficult for the nationalist leaders to figure out how to adapt the ideology into the goals of the independence movement. This is mainly because the goals of socialism were more supra-national and very different from those of the independence struggle. It is worthwhile to note that the March First Movement was conceived at a time when Koreas were desperate for self-rule after many years of Japanese occupation. They were beginning to lose hope of their future as an independent nation. Although they had already experienced the futility of resistance to the colonialist’s army, their discontent did not change. It is on the basis of this disillusionment that they had started organizing Koreans, particularly those in the Diaspora, started following closely the events taking place in international relations.

By viewing the Korean problem from an international context, the country’s nationalist leaders were able to gain a lot of hope. They were also able to spread this hope to millions of Koreans across the country during the early days of the March First Movement. The enlightened section of Koreans, particularly the nationalist leaders and intellectuals in the Diaspora, were greatly motivated by US president Woodrow Wilson’s enunciation of the doctrine of self-determination in his statement famously known as Fourteen Points.


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