March First Movement

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March First Movement
Hangul 삼일 운동
Hanja 三一運動
Revised Romanization Samil Undong
McCune-Reischauer Samil Undong

The March First Movement, or the Samil Movement (in Korean, samil means "three-one" or "March 1") was one of the earliest manifestations of Korea's independence movement during the Japanese occupation of Korea. The name refers to an event that occurred on March 1, 1919, also referred to as the Mansei Demonstrations ("ten thousand years," in Korean).

The March First demonstrations established the high-water mark in Korea's struggle for independence from the Japanese colonial government. Although the nationwide demonstrations failed to accomplish the goal of effecting independence, they unified the Korean people in spirit as they awaited their eventual liberation from Japan.


Wilson's Fourteen Points. The March First Movement stemmed from the repressive policies of Japan under its military occupation and administration of Korea following 1905. It was inspired by the "Fourteen Points" outlining the right of national self-determination proclaimed by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson at the Paris Peace Conference on January 8, 1919. Wilson's fifth point was:

A free, open-minded, and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims, based upon a strict observance of the principle that in determining all such questions of sovereignty the interests of the populations concerned must have equal weight with the equitable claims of the government whose title is to be determined.

This actually referred to the colonies of the defeated powers, however, as was outlined in the other points of Wilson's document, such as (Belgium and other European nations and the liberated territories of the Ottoman Empire). Japan had been allied with the victors, not with Germany, but Korean activists at home and abroad hoped that the spirit of the times could also apply to their aspirations for freedom from the oppression they were suffering at Tokyo's hand.

Korean Nationalist Association

The first Korean group to respond was the Korean Nationalist Association based in Hawaii led by Rhee Syngman, who had emigrated there via China to head a Methodist school (he spelled his name Western-style, with family name last—Syngman Rhee). In April, Rhee was chosen as the first president of the Korean Provisional Government in Shanghai, and in 1948, he was elected South Korea's first president.

Members of the KNA met in San Francisco to decide on a petition to be sent to the ongoing Paris conference. Rhee and Chong Han-gyong (Henry) went to Washington, DC, but could not obtain passports because they had been classified as Japanese citizens. Because Washington had acquiesced to Japan's 1910 annexation of Korea, it would not grant them a passport for fear of angering Tokyo. Later, on March 17, the frustrated members took out an ad in the New York Times, that the KNA was petitioning President Wilson to propose Korean independence at the Paris conference, for Korea to be governed by a League of Nations trusteeship until it would be deemed "fit for self-government." The announcement mentioned Rhee and Chung as authorized representatives. Korean nationalists of the New Korea Youth Association in China sent Kim Kyu-sik to the Peace Conference to lobby for independence, with two copies of a petition: One to President Wilson and one to be submitted to the conference. In spite of all these efforts the issue of Korean independence was not tabled.

Korean king's death

Emperor Gojong died unexpectedly on January 22, 1919, attributed officially to cerebral anemia. Most Koreans blamed the Japanese for poisoning him because he refused to sign an oath opposing independence. The nation was beginning to despair of any hope to escape the Japanese grip and many felt that Korea would have no other choice but to accept its miserable fate. March 3 was set as the funeral date, and Koreans tended to see that not only as the end of the Joseon Dynasty but also as the disappearance of the last symbol of hope for an independent nation.

National Congress Manifesto in Tokyo

Loss of the Korean Legation in Japan due to the 1905 Eulsa Protectorate Treaty had spurred the Korean YMCA in Seoul to establish a branch in Tokyo, to assist the approximately 250 Koreans studying there. Lectures were provided on social issues, bulletins were posted, and sports sponsored. Cho Man-shik, Chang Duk-soo, Ahn Jae-hong, Paek Nam-hoon, Choi Rhin, Shin Ik-hee, Chun Young-taek, Lee Dong-in, Choo Yo-han, Lee Kwang-soo, Yoo Eok-kyum, Paek Kwan-soo, Kim Do-youn, Choi Pal-yong, Choi Seung-man, and Kim Joon-youn were among the young Koreans who were raised in nationalistic fervor and determination at the YMCA and who provided an important impetus to Korean independence figures in Seoul.

In December 1918, Korean students in Tokyo began meeting in secret, calling themselves the Korean Youth Independence Corps. Responding to Wilson's Fourteen Points, they drafted a "Petition for a Call of the National Congress" in Japanese and, in Korean, Japanese and English, a "Declaration of Independence" and a "Resolution." They also selected a leadership committee of ten, including Choi Pal-yong.

Song Ke-Baek was sent to Korea with the drafts and the message that the students in Japan would declare independence on February 8. This prodded the leadership in Korea to decide to move: As it came to be decided, two days before the emperor's funeral, when they felt the gravity of that event would be pounding most deeply in the hearts of the Korean people.

On February 8, copies were sent to Japanese cabinet members, members of the Diet and the Korean Governor-General, as well as to various newspapers and periodicals and to some scholars. The students held a meeting that afternoon and became rowdy as many gathered to join them. The police dispersed everyone, arresting 27 and imprisoning 9. Again, on February 23, the Youth Independence Corps demonstrated in Hibiya Park.


The news of the events in Japan inflamed leaders at home. They included Son Pyong-hui of Cheondogyo, a nationalist religious movement that stemmed from the Donghak peasant revolution of the Joseon Dynasty, Yi Sang-jae and Pak Hui-do, directors of the YMCA in Seoul, and Buddhist Han Yong-un who had been calling for independence and had responded to an offer of cooperation from Cheondogyo. Choe Nam-son and Kim Do-tae helped forge Cheondogyo-Christian ties. Confucian scholars in Korea did not join the March First Movement, as Japan's official acceptance of Confucianism[1] had them tacitly accepting the Japanese mandate of rule.[2]

Draft documents were finalized on February 26, and by midnight the next day 21,000 copies of the Declaration had been printed and collated. Im Kyu translated to Japanese and set off for Tokyo. A paper, titled The Independence News, was also printed and prepared for distribution at dawn on March 1, with copies of the Proclamation to Sonchon, Pyongyang, Wonsan, Yonghung, Pyongyang, Gimhwa, Haeju, Sariwon, Sohung, Su-an, Goksan, Gaeseong, Chongju, Daegu, Masan, Dongnae, Gunsan, Jonju, and Imsil, as well as around Seoul.

March 1 proclamation of independence

A Proclamation of Korean Independence was drawn up by the historian/writer Choe Namson and the poet Manhae, also known as Han Yongun, rallying his countrymen to the cause. During the morning hours of March 1, 1919, some 1,500 copies of fliers were distributed around the capital. Copies of the manifesto had been posted the night before at Jongno (Jong Street), the central business district.

The 33 nationalists who formed the core of the March First Movement had planned to meet at Tapgol Gongwon (Pagoda Park), less than a kilometer down Jongno from the intersection with the main avenue between the original palace of the Joseon Dynasty (Kyeongbok-gung), which had burned and become the seat of the Japanese governor-general, and the palace where the last several Korean kings had resided (Deoksu-gung). They convened instead at Taehwagwan Restaurant for fear they might incite a riot; the leaders fully intended a non-violent protest and were not interested in leading a large public demonstration which as the morning passed they began to fear might occur.

By noon, however, people were gathering anyway at Tapgol Gong-won (Pagoda Park), and the Korean flag was raised. By 2:00P.M., a very large crowd had formed. A student, Chung Jae-yong, read the declaration aloud, then shouted "Mansei!" The crowd responded, "Mansei," repeatedly, and became quite rowdy. They began to march down Jongno and confronted the Japanese police. One group marched south towards Deoksu-gung Palace, another north to the Japanese colonial capitol, and the other to the American and then French Embassies to read the declaration again. The police tried to block them and violence broke out; the Koreans were all unarmed but were beaten and many were arrested. They dispersed before nightfall for fear that the police would kill any they found still on the streets.

Meanwhile at the restaurant, the leaders signed the document, sent a copy to the Japanese Governor General, and telephoned the police to report what they had done. They were arrested. Protests continued throughout the country and by the next day had spread into new areas. In the cities, the Koreans were mostly non-violent. Their leadership had come basically from Christian and Buddhist background and they were under no illusion they would be able to effect changes through violence. In the countryside, however, farmers took up the protest in more violent ways. Demonstrations continued throughout most of the month.

Wide participation and heavy casualties

Around the nation, as well, delegates read copies of the independence proclamation from appointed places at 2 P.M. on March 1. The colonial authorities unleashed savage attacks on protesters, but the demonstrations spread. When the Japanese national and military police could not contain the crowds, the army and even the navy were called in. There were a great many reports of atrocities. In one notable instance, it was reported that Japanese police in the village of Je-am-ri herded protesters into a church, locked it, burned it to the ground, shooting anyone climbing out the windows.

Although Japanese officials declared that only 553 people were killed and about 12,000 arrested over the month of demonstrations that followed, Korean sources (and encyclopedia Britannica [3] argue more than 7,500 demonstrators were killed and some 16,000 wounded, and about 47,000 others were arrested. Over 700 houses and about 50 churches were destroyed. Japanese soldiers and policemen fired en masse at unarmed demonstrators in the streets. Political Science Professor Lee Chong-sik at University of Pennsylvania published [4]very detailed lists. of 19,525 Koreans arrested in connection with the March First Movement, by province or region, religious affiliation, educational level, age level, and occupation. These figures show a truly nationalistic movement that involved a wide and representative cross-section of society.

Before the Japanese finally suppressed the uprising 12 months later, approximately two million Koreans had participated in more than 1,500 demonstrations—due in part to the participation of religious groups, and support from merchants who closed their shops for several weeks in protest. The nationalists also made use of a prolific underground press. Students and teachers lent their support. Japanese statistics mentioned that among 133,557 students in Korea, 11,133 became involved in the protests. Most schools closed for the better part of March due to strikes.


The March First Movement failed to gain independence. Foreign governments did not respond at all against Japan or lend aid. The world, however, was informed of the Korean dissatisfaction with Japanese rule, which wounded Tokyo deeply by exposing the lie of a good-colonizer facade.[5]

The March First Movement triggered a sea change in Japanese imperial policy towards Korea. Japanese Governor-General Hasegawa Yoshimichi accepted responsibility for the loss of control and was replaced by Saito Makoto. Some aspects of Japanese rule considered most odious to Koreans were relaxed under a new "Cultural Policy." The military police were replaced by a civilian police force, and a degree of freedom of the press was permitted. (The Koreans' newfound "freedoms" disappeared by the early 1930s when Japan invaded China, attacked the United States, and World War II expanded to the Pacific.)

Besides serving as the base for a range of future independence activity against Japan, the March First Movement also triggered the establishment of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea in Shanghai, in April 1919. As substantial as anything else that the March First uprising produced was to stimulate some significant changes in attitude within Korean society. It had never been accepted, for example, that decent women should be seen much in public, not to mention be publicly active. Yet among 19,525 recorded arrests connected with the March First Movement, 471 were women. Some women, like Yu Gwansun, later became heroic freedom figures, based on the sacrifices made by those who stood together with the men on March 1, 1919.

Korea had for centuries been the Hermit Kingdom, almost closed to foreign visitors except from Japan and China. The emergence from the nineteenth century into the twentieth had begun to open doors, but the March First Movement galvanized the focus of Koreans from all walks of life to events elsewhere in the world. New, democratic forms of government had become prevalent throughout the West, but Koreans knew little of them; now they did.

More, Korea turned its face from Confucianist leadership, which had served the country for five hundred years under the Joseon Dynasty. True, there were major Confucianist figures among the leadership in future independence activity, at home and abroad especially in Manchuria, but it was Christians and Buddhists who had risked themselves most on March 1. While Confucianist independence fighters tended to hope for reestablishment of the monarchy and a return to Confucian-type rule, other Koreans, especially the youth, were looking more towards the modern, democratic institutions of the West.

On May 24, 1949, March 1 was designated a national holiday in South Korea; North Korea does not include March 1 among its public holidays, but does emphasize that Kim Il Sung's family in Pyongyang had been active against the Japanese from the beginning of their occupation of Korea (the late North Korean leader was born in 1912).


Proclamation of Korean Independence

This is the translated text, signed by Korean 33 patriots.[6] It was read on the morning of March 1, 1919, at Tapgol Park in Seoul, and in the afternoon at many other places throughout Korea.

We herewith proclaim the independence of Korea and the liberty of the Korean people. We tell it to the world in witness of the equality of all nations and we pass it on to our posterity as their inherent right.

We make this proclamation, having back of us 5,000 year of history, and 20,000,000 of a united loyal people. We take this step to insure to our children for all time to come, personal liberty in accord with the awakening consciousness of this new era. This is the clear leading of God, the moving principle of the present age, the whole human race's just claim. It is something that cannot be stamped out, or stifled, or gagged, or suppressed by any means.

Victims of an older age, when brute force and the spirit of plunder ruled, we have come after these long thousands of years to experience the agony of ten years of foreign oppression, with every loss to the right to live, every restriction of the freedom of thought, every damage done to the dignity of life, every opportunity lost for a share in the intelligent advance of the age in which we live.

Assumedly, if the defects of the past are to be rectified, if the agony of the present is to be unloosed, if the future oppression is to be avoided, if thought is to be set free, if right of action is to be given a place, if we are to attain to any way of progress, if we are to deliver our children from the painful, shameful heritage, if we are to leave blessing and happiness intact for those who succeed us, the first of all necessary things is the clear-cut independence of our people. What cannot our twenty millions do, every man with sword in heart, in this day when human nature and conscience are making a stand for truth and right?

What barrier can we not break, what purpose can we not accomplish?

We have no desire to accuse Japan of breaking many solemn treaties since 1836, nor to single out specially the teachers in the schools or government officials who treat the heritage of our ancestors as a colony of their own, and our people and their civilization as a nation of savages, finding delight only in beating us down and bringing us under their heel.

We have no wish to find special fault with Japan's lack of fairness or her contempt of our civilization and the principles on which her state rests; we, who have greater cause to reprimand ourselves, need not spend precious time in finding fault with others; neither need we, who require so urgently to build for the future, spend useless hours over what is past and gone. Our urgent need today is the settling up of this house or ours and not a discussion of who has broken it down, or what has caused its ruin. Our work is to clear the future of defeats in accord with the earnest dictates of conscience. Let us not be filled with bitterness or resentment over past agonies or past occasions for anger.

Our part is to influence the Japanese government, dominated as it is by the old idea of brute force which thinks to run counter to common and universal law, so that it will change, act honestly and in accord with the principles of right and truth. The result of annexation, brought about without any conference with the Korean people, is that the Japanese, indifferent to us, use every kind of partiality for their own, and by a false set of figures show a profit and loss account between us two peoples most untrue, digging a trench of everlasting resentment deeper and deeper the farther they go.

Ought not the way of enlightened courage to be to correct the evils of the past by ways that are sincere, and by true sympathy and friendly feeling make a new world in which the two peoples will be equally blessed?

To bind by force twenty millions of resentful Koreans will mean not only loss of pence forever for this part of the Far East, but also will increase the ever-growing suspicion of four hundred millions of Chinese-upon whom depends the danger or safety of the Far East-besides strengthening the hatred of Japan. From this all the rest of the East will suffer. Today Korean independence will mean not only daily life and happiness for us, but also it would mean Japan's departure from an evil way and exaltation to the place of true protector of the East, so that China, too, even in her dreams, would put all fear of Japan aside.

This thought comes from no minor resentment, but from a large hope for the future welfare and blessing of mankind. A new era wakes before our eyes, the old world of force is gone, and the new world of righteousness and truth is here. Out of the experience and travail of the old world arises this light on life's affairs. The insects stifled by the foe and snow of winter awake at this same time with the breezes of spring and the soft light of the sun upon them.

It is the day of the restoration of all things on the full tide of which we set forth, without delay or fear. We desire a full measure of satisfaction in the way of liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and an opportunity to develop what is in use for the glory of our people.

We awake now from the aid world with its darkened conditions in full determination and one heart and one mind, with right on our side, along with the forces of nature, to a new life. May all the ancestors to the thousands and ten thousand generations old us from within and all the force of the world aid us from without, and let the day we take hold be the day of our attainment. In this hope we go forward.

Three Items of Agreement

  1. This work of ours is in belief of truth, religion and life, undertaken at the request of our people, in order to make known their desire for liberty. Let no violence be done to any one.
  2. Let those who follow us, every man, all the time, every hour, show forth with gladness this same mind.
  3. Let all things be done decently and in order, so that our behavior to the very end may be honorable and upright."

The 4252nd year of the Kingdom of Korea 3d Month
Representatives of the people.
  • Son Pyung-Hi
  • Kil sun-Chu
  • Yi Pil-Chu
  • Paik Yong-Sung
  • Kim Won-Kyu
  • Kim Pyung-Cho
  • Kim Chang-Choon
  • Kwon Dong-Chin
  • Kwon Byung-Duk
  • Na Yong-Whan
  • Na In-Hup
  • Yang Chun-Paik
  • Yang Han-Mook
  • Lew Yer-Dai
  • Yi Kop-Sung
  • Yi Mung-Yong
  • Yi Seung-Hoon
  • Yi Chong-Hoon
  • Yi Chong-Il
  • Lim Yei-Whan
  • Pak Choon-Seung
  • Pak Hi-Do
  • Pak Tong-Wan
  • Sin Hong-Sik
  • Sin Suk-Ku
  • Oh Sei-Chang
  • Oh Wha-Young
  • Chung Choon-Su
  • Choi Sung-Mo
  • Choi In
  • Han Yong-Woon
  • Hong Byung-Ki
  • Hong Ki-Cho


National Congress Manifesto

This is the translated text of leaflets printed and posted the morning of March 1.[7]

Oh, our compatriots
The opportunity to take revenge against the enemy of the Royal Emperor and recover the national sovereignty has come. Rise in unanimity and help carry out the great deed.
January, thirteenth year of Yung-Hi.
Gukmin Daehoe

National Congress Manifesto

How miserable are our 20,000,000 compatriots. Do you know the reason for the sudden demise of His Majesty the Emperor? He has been always healthy and there was no news of his illness. But he has suddenly expired at midnight in his sleeping chamber. Would this be ordinary? As we advocated the national independence in the Paris Peace Conference, the cunning Japanese produced a certificate stating that "The Korean people are happy with Japanese rule and do not wish to separate from the Japanese," in order to cover the eyes and ears of the world. Yi Wan-Yong signed it as the representative of the nobility; Kim Yun-Sik signed it as the representative of the scholars; Yun Taek-Yong signed it as the representative of the royal relatives; Cho Chung-Ung and Song Byong-Jun signed it as social representatives; Shin Hung-U signed it as the representative of educational and religious fields. It was then submitted to His Majesty for his royal seal—the worst crime possible. His majesty was most enraged and reprimanded them. They did not know what to do, and fearing other incidents in the future, they finally decided to assassinate His Majesty. Yun Tok-Yong and Han Sang-Hak, two traitors, were made to serve His Majesty's dinner, and poison was secretly added to his food at night through the two waiting women.

The Royal Body was immediately torn by agony and soon the Emperor took his last breath. There is no way to describe the pain and agony in our hearts. The two women were also put to death by poison, immediately, so that the intrigue might not be leaked out. The hands of the brigands are becoming more obvious, and cruelty is running to extremes. We have not yet revenged the humiliation of the past (the murder of the queen). And yet another calamity is brought upon us. Ask the blue sky who is incurring these misfortunes. If our people still exist, how could we neglect to cleanse these humiliations? Since the American president proclaimed the Fourteen Points, the voice of national self-determination has swept the world, and twelve nations, including Poland, Ireland and Czechoslovakia, have obtained independence. How could we, the people of the great Korean nation, miss this opportunity? Our compatriots abroad are utilizing this opportunity to reform the world and recover us the ruined nation. If the entire nation rises in unity, we may recover our lost national rights and save the already ruined nation.

Also, in order to revenge the mortal foe of His Majesty and Her Highness, our twenty million compatriots, arise!

January, thirteenth year of Yung-Hi (1919).

(seal) Gukmin Daehoe


  1. Annual Report on Reforms and Progress in Chosen Since Annexation. (Keijo: Chosen Sotokufu, 1913), 210.
  2. David B. Kent, The Rise of Nationalism, and the Impact of the Sam-Il (3-1) Movement As A Living Symbol of Anti-Japanese Resistance. The Hermit Kingdom: Confucianist Advantages for the Japanese. Retrieved June 9, 2008.
  3. "March 1 Movement" Encyclopedia Britannica.
  4. The Hermit Kingdom: Confucianist Advantages for the Japanese. very detailed listsTokyo Towers. Retrieved September 22, 2008.
  5. Sakuzo Yoshino, "Chosen Bodo Zengosaku" (Our Policy in Korea Before and After the Uprising) in Chuo Koron, XXXIV: 4 (April 1919): 121-122.
  6. F.A. McKenzie. Korea's Fight for Freedom, 2nd edition (Seoul: Yonsei University Press, 1969).
  7. Chong-Sik Lee. Politics of Korean Nationalism. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963), 111-112.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Cumings, Bruce. 1997. Korea's Place in the Sun: A Modern History. New York: W.W. Norton. ISBN 9780393040111.
  • Han, U-gŭn, Kyŏng-sik Yi, and Grafton K. Mintz. 1970. The History of Korea. Honolulu: East-West Center Press.
  • Kim, Chun-gil. 2005. The History of Korea. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. ISBN 9780313332968.
  • Lee, Chong-Sik. 1963. The Politics of Korean Nationalism. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • McKenzie, F. A. Korea's Fight for Freedom, 2nd edition. Seoul: Yonsei University Press, 1969.
  • Yoshino, Sakuzo, "Chosen Bodo Zengosaku" (Our Policy in Korea Before and After the Uprising) in Chuo Koron XXXIV: 4 (April 1919): 121-122.


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