Yu Gwan-sun, icon of Korea’s fight for independence
“Even if my fingernails are torn out, my nose and ears are ripped apart, and my legs and arms are crushed, this physical pain does not compare to the pain of losing my nation,” Yu Gwan-sun wrote while in prison. “My only remorse is not being able to do more than dedicating my life to my country.”
Yu became known as Korea’s Joan D’Arc after she was tortured to death at age 17 for opposing Japanese colonialism a century ago.
The Korean Peninsula came under Japanese military rule in 1905, three years after Yu was born, and was formally annexed in 1910.
The young Yu was a student at Ewha Haktang in Seoul, the first modern educational institution for women in Korea, when peaceful protests against the Japanese rule started on March 1, 1919. On that day, Yu and her classmates joined thousands of people on the streets, shouting “Long Live Korea!”
Inspired by US president Wilson’s right of national self-determination speech at the Paris Conference a few months earlier, the uprising began with the Declaration of Independence, read by Korea’s 33 national leaders at the Taehwagwan restaurant in downtown Seoul. It declared “the independence of Korea and the liberty of the Korean people” and proclaimed the illegality of Japan’s 1910 annexation of the country.
Mass demonstrations took place across the country, starting what became known as the March 1st movement. The colonial government, in response, ordered all schools to be closed on March 10. Yu returned to her hometown Cheonan – about 53 miles south of Seoul in South Chungcheong Province – spreading word of the independence movement and inspiring others to join.
On April 1, Yu was attending a peaceful protest at Aunae Marketplace, in her hometown, when the Japanese military police fired at the crowd, killing 19 people, including her parents. She was captured and incarcerated at the notorious Seodaemun Prison in northern Seoul. There, she continued to express her support for Korea’s independence, speaking against the Japanese government and organising a rally in the prison to commemorate the first anniversary of the March 1st movement.
She was eventually transferred to an underground cell where she was brutally tortured and beaten. “Japan will fall,” she wrote shortly before dying on September 28, 1920, of the severe injuries she sustained.
The independence movement was crushed by Japan a year after it started. Although it didn’t result in Korea’s independence – which would come in 1945 – the March 1st movement remains the first and largest national protest rally against foreign domination in Korean history. In the year it lasted, up to 2 million Koreans had participated in demonstrations around the country.
In 2019, the government honoured freedom fighter Yu Gwan-sun with the country’s highest distinction, the Republic of Korea Medal, in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the movement.