(19th and 20th Century Righteous Armies)
Historically, Japanese imperialism served as a very powerful catalyst for radical expressions of Korean nationalism. The issue of Korean sovereignty being violated by a foreign power long served as a rallying cry for Koreans to form organized national resistance in order to maintain their nation’s sovereignty. From the 1590s up through the 1940s, many Koreans often resisted their foreign aggressors. As this paper will show, Koreans have a long history of not backing down under threats from foreign powers. From this link between nationalism and imperialism within Korea, it will become clear that historically, imperialism has often been a vital tool for fostering the growth of nationalism in those oppressed underneath it.
One group that was a pivotal tool for the expression of Korean nationalism in the face of foreign imperialism was the Righteous Armies. Referred to as the uibyong in the Korean language, the Righteous Armies was a term first used to describe the private organizations of patriotic volunteers who took up arms in defense of the Korean nation. These Righteous Army date back to the 1590s when Japan invaded Korea (Robinson 34). Often only armed with weapons such as ancient matchlocks, rusty sporting guns, swords, and spears, these militia groups proved an annoyance to the Japanese time and time again when they violated Korea’s sovereignty (Lee , De Bary, Ch’oe 290-291).
In 1895, when Queen Min was assassinated and the Kabo Reforms were implemented by the pro-Japanese government officials who the Japanese placed in power, the Righteous Armies rose up in defense of their people’s sovereignty (Robinson 34). One of the Kabo reforms which really sparked their anger was the reform that Koreans had to cut their topknot on their head. This form of cultural imperialism, coupled with the killing of a queen who was beloved by the Korean people, enraged many Koreans. Consequently, many picked up weapons and fought in these Righteous Armies against the Japanese imperialist aggressors.
From 1905 up through 1907, there was a series of events undertaken by the Japanese which stirred up Korean nationalism and it’s expression through the Righteous Armies. In 1905, on November 17th and November 18th, the Protectorate Treaty was signed. This treaty placed the external affairs of Korea under Japanese direction and management (Lee , De Bary, Ch’oe 289-290). Japan, through this treaty, created a defacto colonial administration through setting up a Japanese man by the name of Ito Hirobumi as first Resident-general of Korea. Under Hirobumi, Japanese advisors were placed into numerous positions throughout Korea’s government (Robinson 33). Packing the government with these pro-Japanese officials was seen as a way for the Japanese to take over Korea’s government functions from diplomatic affairs to police, financial, judicial, and military affairs (Lee , De Bary, Ch’oe 290). In 1907, another violation of Korea’s sovereignty took place under Japanese control when the Resident-general disbanded Korea’s army (Robinson 34).
These events, combined with King Kojong no longer being in power, provided a catalyst for radical Korean nationalism in the manifestation of the Righteous Armies. The size of the Righteous Armies grew tremendously. In 1907, the Japanese estimated that there were nearly 70,000 irregulars who challenged Japanese forces in over 1,500 clashes. One of these clashes involved an army of as many as 10,000 people, which was turned back after heavy fighting eight miles from the heart of Seoul (Robinson 35). After that huge clash, guerilla warfare activity continued up through 1911, which was one year after Korea’s official annexation by the Japanese.
These events show that imperialism serves as a trigger for radical expressions of nationalism. Without the Japanese violating Korea’s sovereignty in such a way, there would not have been the catalyst for such armies to form. In the case of the Righteous Armies, it was Korea’s sovereignty being violated by Japanese imperialism that triggered their acts of radical nationalism.
One can see in the writings of people who took part in the events of this time period their inspirations for them taking up arms. One key figure in these events was Ch’oe Ikhyon. Ch’oe was a stalwart defender of Confucian orthodoxy and a former vice minister who, angered by the Japanese foreign aggressors, led perhaps a thousand Righteous Army men in Cholla province in 1906 against the Japanese (Lee , De Bary, Ch’oe 291). According to Ch’oe’s words, the Protectorate Treaty of 1905 was one of the chief motivations for him. Referring to the Japanese and those who sold the country out to Japanese imperialism, he mentions,
“”In the tenth month of last year, they perpetrated an unprecedented act; we were coerced into signing a piece of paper that ended overnight our five hundred year old dynasty. It astonished our gods and saddened the spirits of our ancestors. Our foreign minister Yi Chiyong and the others who sold the country to the enemy are incorrigible traitors to the nation; Ito Hirobumi, who killed the king in his own land and violated the prerogatives of the king of another country, deserves to be destroyed through a joint action of the nations of the world” (Lee , De Bary, Ch’oe 293).
As seen in his quote, foreign imperialism triggered his anger, provoking him to take up the armed nationalist struggle against the Japanese. This anger at the Japanese was so strong for him that when he was exiled to the Japanese island of Tsushima, he refused food provided by his captors and starved himself to death instead of continuing life under Japanese control (Lee , De Bary, Ch’oe 291).
The Righteous Armies were not the only tool used by the Korean people as a form of radical nationalism. Another tool used by the Korean people was the tool of mass protest. On March 1st, 1919, the event known as the March First Uprising took place. Many Koreans protested the Japanese in mass non-violent demonstrations. Groups ranging from student activists, including women, to Christian and Buddhist activists all took part in the event. The movements supporters represented a wide segment of Korean society. By summer 1919, the Japanese estimated that the movement grew to over a million people. The Japanese were surprised by the size and number of these demonstrations (Robinson 47-48).
The link of this radical expression of nationalism to Japanese imperialism can be seen quite clearly. The movement’s declaration, authored by Ch’oe Namson, evoked Korea’s natural right to nationhood by evoking Korea’s long history of political and cultural autonomy. The Korean people behind the movement believed that Korea should have the right to self-determination, which had been completely violated when Korea was annexed by Japan in 1910. Seeing the Japanese were violating this, it is clear that Japanese imperialism was a spark for this event.
This link to Japanese imperialism can be seen in the writings of individuals who were on the ground during the event. Kim Sunk, who was a citizen from Kyongi Province, showcases the feelings of many Korean people during the event. He mentions that he followed the grownups to Seoul, who stated that they wanted to get their country back. On his way, he saw hundreds of Koreans shouting, “Independence now”. In the front of the group, men walked holding Korean flags shouting, Mansei, which means, “May Korea live ten thousand years” (Kang 17-18). Actions on the ground during the event, such as these, highlight the feelings of nationalism that had been built up in the Korean people due to the Japanese occupation of their nation.
What set the stage for this event was the publication of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen points in January 1918 at the Versailles Peace Conference, which outlined the American agenda for the event. According to Wilson, all colonial powers would be respected based on principles of humanism, respect for the self determination of peoples, and international cooperation. This would be the basis for a new era of peace. This inspired many Asians, such as Koreans, living under colonial rule to believe that his speech applied to them, even though it was made in the context of the postwar disposition of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A month before the March First Uprising, Korean students returning from Tokyo had joined with students in Korea to plan a protest to appeal to the powers at Versailles (Robinson 47). Their wish was simply to try to get help to rid Korea of Japanese imperialism.
Disenchanted by the west and how it’s spoken ideals had not become a reality for Asian nations in cases such as this, a large number of leftist intellectuals and radical activists in the 1920s became attracted to social revolutionary thought. One option that provided a huge influence for them was the Bolshevik victory in the Russian Revolution and the ideology of Communism which included the doctrine of an Ant-Imperialist United Front. Many Koreans were influenced by radical leftists ideas such as these. Yi Tonghwi formed the Korean Socialist Party in 1918 in Khaborovsk. Nam Manch’un created a communist party in Irkutsk in 1919. In April 1925, the first official Korean Communist Party was formed (Robinson 69-70).
A battleground for the expression of this radical leftist national thought was Manchuria. Prior to 1937, partisan forces became a serious issue for the Japanese in Manchuria. Radical Korean nationalists, allied with Chinese nationalists operating in the region, believed that if they defeated the Japanese imperialist war machine there, it would result in the removal of Japans imperialist control over Asia. Hence, a protracted guerilla war was waged. Between 1931 and 1935, it was estimated that over 200,000 guerillas were active in the region. Koreans represented the largest percentage of guerillas in proportion to the population compared to any other ethnic group, which shows just how strong Korean nationalism was in response to Japanese imperialism (Robinson 86-87).
Perhaps the most important individual associated with this struggle was the Korean nationalist and communist Kim Il Sung. In 1932, he began to get himself involved in guerilla warfare activities against the Japanese when he joined the fight under the Northeast Anti-Japanese United Army (Suh 14). On numerous occasions, he led bands of Koreans into Korea to attack the symbols of Japanese imperialism in the Japanese outposts located in remote northern villages (Suh 4). One such raid was the Raid on Poch’onbo, which was a Korean town just over the Manchurian border. Here, Kim’s 6th Division of the 2nd Army of the First Route Army, which consisted of nearly 200 guerillas, attacked the town on June 4th, 1937. They destroyed local government offices, and set fire to a Japanese police box, post office, and elementary school. The guerillas ends up occupying the town for a day before they retreated into Manchuria where they defeated the Japanese police force that followed them, killing 7 police officers in the process (Suh 34). His radical nationalist actions, inspired by his desire to see Korea liberated, among many other guerillas, shows that Japanese imperialism was definitely a catalyst for radical expressions of nationalism.
However, despite these links of imperialism to radical nationalism, one issue with the argument is the lack of prolonged warfare within Korea during the time period of forced assimilation from 1937-1945 when Japanese imperialism manifested itself most brutally in Korea in various forms. If imperialism is supposed to be a catalyst for radical expression of nationalism, one would have expected to see particularly strong resistance within Korea during this time period.
During this time period, it is clear that Japanese cultural imperialism was strengthened within Korea. In 1938, the Japanese language became the language of instruction for all subjects in the colonial schools. In 1942, Korean language study was removed officially from the curriculum (Robinson 95). This can be seen reflected in the life of a boy in Richard Kim’s Book, Lost Names, who starting in 3rd grade, had all their school lessons conducted in the Japanese language. They were not taught the Korean language anymore in school from that point on (Kim 72). Along with the cultural language imperialism, on February 11th, 1940, Koreans were forced to give up their Korean names and adopt Japanese names. Within six months of this, over 3.17 million households or 75% of the population had registered new names (Robinson 95-96). This can be seen reflected in Lost Names as well when the main characters family changes their name to a Japanese name, Iwamoto (Kim 105).
Along with cultural imperialism, there was also forced assimilation through armed service in the Japanese military. In February 1938, the “Laws Concerning Army Special Volunteers”, created a system to recruit more Koreans into the military (Robinson 96). The idea of service being voluntary comes into question in Kim’s book through the experiences of a boy’s brother. The boy’s brother had gotten drunk one day and had gotten into an argument with a Korean detective working for the Japanese police where he wound up beating him and a Japanese policeman. After that event, he received a notice which stated that his application to volunteer for the army had been approved. When he tried to run away, he was hunted down and shipped to China. Many people like him were never heard from again (Kim 69). In 1943, with general conscription then becoming a fact, many Koreans were forced into the Korean army. Over 200,000 Koreans would end up in the army and over 20,000 in the imperial navy (Robinson 96).
Out of all the brutal policies that came about during this period of Japanese imperialism, the most brutal was the Japanese use of comfort women. Between 100,000 and 200,000 women, most of whom were Korean, were recruited either by deception or force into units termed the “comfort corps”. These women, some of whom were only twelve years old, were sent all over the Japanese empire to serve the sexual needs of Japanese soldiers where they endured horrible conditions. Many became permanently disfigured and rendered infertile. Many of them died (Robinson 97). Seeing nations have historically been represented by women, the argument can be made that Japanese imperialism cut pretty deeply into the fabric of Korean society.
Considering the imperialist oppression cut more deeply during this time period, one would have expected to see a more radical national response within Korea’s borders, seeing there was one between the years of 1905 and 1911 with the Righteous Armies when Japanese imperialism had not cut so deeply. Seeing there was not, one can come to the conclusion that in cases, imperialism does not always lead to very strong expressions of radical nationalism.
However, despite that issue, one can see with the events of 1895, 1905-1907, 1919, and the 1920s and 1930s, a definite link between Japanese imperialism and radical expressions of Korean nationalism. Japanese imperialism repeatedly provided a catalyst for Korean nationalism. While it did not serve such a strong catalyst within Korea during the late 1930s up through the early 1940s, one can definitely make a historical analysis that imperialism frequently does serve as a catalyst for radical expressions of nationalism. There is a definite link between imperialism and radical nationalism within Korea’s history.
Robinson, Michael Edson. Korea’s Twentieth-century Odyssey: A Short History. Honolulu, T.H.: University of Hawai’i, 2007. Print
Lee, Peter H., Bary William Theodore De, and Yŏng-ho Chʻoe. Sources of Korean Tradition. New York: Columbia UP, 2000. Print.
Kim. Richard E. Lost Names; Scenes from a Korean Boyhood. London: University of California Press, 1998. Print.
Kang, Hildi. Under the Black Umbrella: Voices from Colonial Korea, 1910-1945. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2001. Print.
Suh, Dae-Sook. Kim Il Sung: The North Korean Leader. New York: Columbia UP, 1988. Print.