Saturday, October 11, 2014

Korea and the Great War

Dear Korean,

Since the centennial anniversary of the First World War (1914-2014) is upon us, it would be worthwhile to ask: (1) How did the First World War affect Korea? (2) Is the "War to End All Wars" studied in any detail by Korean students today?


For the centennial anniversary of World War I, TK recommends everyone to visit Kansas City, Missouri, a deeply underrated city in his opinion. There, after having some of the world's finest barbecue, visit the National World War I Museum, which houses a relatively small but all-around-awesome collection related to the Great War. Fans of history and military equipment can easily spend an entire day there. TK had a wonderful time visiting.

National World War I Museum at Kansas City

But enough gratuitous plugging. How did the First World War affect Korea? Short answer:  it didn't. Speaking of World War I is a bit like speaking of the World Series--we all know what the terms are trying to say, but they do not really mean what they say. The supposed "World" War barely grazed East Asia. Sure, Australia and New Zealand engaged in some land battles in the then-German Samoa, and the Japanese laid siege to the German base in Tsingtao, China. (Fortunately, the Germans stuck around just long enough to teach the locals how to make proper beer.) But in East Asia, World War I was never an all-out war that affected the daily lives of most people. This was true in Korea as well.

The aftermath of World War I, however, did play a significant role in Korea. On January 8,1918, toward the end of the war, President Woodrow Wilson gave the famous Fourteen Points speech, in which he advocated for (among other things) national self-determination, i.e. the right of the colonized people to free themselves from imperialism and form their own national government. 

(More after the jump.)

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To be sure, Wilson's version of national self-determination did not directly pertain to Imperial Japan--which was, at the time, part of the Allied Powers along with the United States. The Korea Independence Movement activists who hoped to make a case for Korean independence at the Paris Peace Conference (which took place shortly after the Fourteen Points speech) were shut out from the meetings. Wilson promptly ignored the petition suing for Korean independence that Syngman Rhee (who would later become South Korea's first president) sent to the White House as the representative of the Korea Independence Movement.

Regardless, the grand vision of national self-determination served as great inspiration for the colonized Korean people. The result was the March First Movement, the largest mass independence movement in the colonial period. Every major Independence Movement activist, located not simply within Korea but in Japan, China and the United States, collaborated to promulgate the Declaration of Independence. 

March 1st Movement near Gwanghwamun [광화문].
On March 1, 1919, the 33 Independence Movement leaders read the Declaration aloud in Seoul, which marked the beginning of a massive protest that lasted for months. Depending on the sources, between a million and two million Koreans marched for independence. In the following crackdown by Imperial Japan, thousands died. Until the colonial rule ended in 1945, March 1 Movement would mark the largest mass movement for independence.

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  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. And as everyone smart realizes by now, Southern redneck racist Wilson only meant self-determination for Europeans. Not Koreans taken over by Japan or Vietnamese taken over by France. And it came back to haunt the US later in the Vietnam War!

    1. Not for Ireland, though, as Wilson refused to support Ireland's uprising against British occupation.

  3. The irony is Woodrow Wilson and Syngman Rhee were formerly friends(one head of university and the other phd candidate), before Wilson became President Wilson.
    I remember reading a snippet in Korean newspaper where Rhee was invited to Wilson's home (along with other phd candidates) during US holidays.


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