Korea's Journey: From Isolation to Japan's Control

March First Movement: Korean Struggle for Independence

The March 1st Movement, also known as the Sam-il Movement, was a major protest in 1919 by Koreans against Japanese rule and cultural assimilation. Led by 33 cultural leaders, supported by thousands in Seoul and other cities, it demanded independence from Imperial Japan. Over 1,000 demonstrations occurred but were brutally suppressed, resulting in thousands killed, wounded, and arrested. Although Korea gained independence after World War II, the movement is celebrated as a catalyst for future independence efforts. Today, March 1st is a national holiday in South Korea.

Provisional Government of Korea in China
Image Source: Google, Provisional Government of Korea in China

Moreover, the movement's legacy endured beyond its immediate goals. It led to the establishment of the Korean Provisional Government in Shanghai, signaling the continued fight for independence on the global stage. Additionally, the failure of the movement contributed to the rise of the Korean communist party, shaping the trajectory of Korean politics in the years to come. In light of the March First Movement, this article delves into Korea's political history in terms of its geopolitical repercussions.

In this article, we delve into the key events and dynamics that shaped this transformative period in Korean history, with a focus on the profound impact of the March Movement—a pivotal moment in Korea's quest for independence and self-determination.

đź’» Table of Contents:

  1. Korea: From Hermit Kingdom to Japan’s Occupation
  2. Wilson's Legacy: Inspiring Korean Independence Amidst Japanese Colonialism
  3. Korean Provisional Government: Beacon of Independence
  4. International Reaction to Korea's March First Movement

Korea: From Hermit Kingdom to Japan’s Occupation

In 1392, Korea witnessed a pivotal moment as General Yi Song-gye took power from the Koryo king and started the Choson dynasty after the legendary Korean kingdom.  Spanning from 1392 to 1910, the Choson dynasty marked a period of remarkable stability, enduring over 250 years of internal peace and steadfast borders in East Asia. However, by the mid-19th century, as European powers sought to expand their influence across East and Southeast Asia, Korea's policy of isolation earned it the nickname "Hermit Kingdom."

The term "hermit" typically refers to someone who lives in seclusion or isolation, often away from society. In the case of Korea, the term "Hermit Kingdom" was applied to describe its closed-off nature and its resistance to foreign influence or interaction. Despite the increasing pressures from European powers seeking trade, diplomatic relations, and colonial conquest in East and Southeast Asia during the 19th century, Korea maintained strict isolationist policies, limiting contact with foreign powers and tightly controlling access to its territory.

People welcoming President Syngman Rhee
Image Source: Google, People welcoming President Syngman Rhee

Korea's seclusion was enforced through policies such as the "closed-door" (sakoku) policy, which restricted foreign trade and contact, and the strict regulation of diplomatic relations with neighboring countries. It reflects the perception of Korea as a reclusive and mysterious nation that remained largely unknown to the outside world during this period of history.

For many centuries, Korea stayed independent in East Asia, where China was the main power. Korean kings gained their authority by being acknowledged by the Chinese emperor and sent gifts to his palace. During this time, Korea was mostly left alone to manage its own affairs. Additionally, from 1895 to 1905 was marked by the rivalry between Russia and Japan for influence in Korea.

The Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905 marked a turning point in Japan's influence over Korea. With the outbreak of war, Japanese forces swiftly entered Seoul and effectively forceed the Korean government into compliance with Tokyo's demands. 

The situation was getting ready for difficult times, and it ended in 1910 with Japan taking control of Korea. To solidify its hold over the newly acquired territory, the Empire of Japan launched an all-out war on Korean culture and Korea remained under Japanese rule until 1945.

Wilson's Legacy: Inspiring Korean Independence Amidst Japanese Colonialism

Woodrow Wilson's "Fourteen Points," outlined in a speech to the United States Congress on January 8, 1918, had a significant influence on various movements for self-determination and independence around the world, including those in Korea against Japanese rule.

Red Cross pamphlet on March 1st Movement
Image Source: Google, Red Cross pamphlet on March 1st Movement

One of the key principles of Wilson's Fourteen Points was the idea of self-determination, emphasizing that people should have the right to choose their own form of government. This principle resonated strongly with Koreans who had long suffered under Japanese colonial rule. They saw Wilson's support for self-determination as a validation of their aspirations for independence.

Wilson's speech garnered significant international attention and set a precedent for addressing colonialism and imperialism on a global scale. Koreans, who had been seeking international support for their struggle against Japanese oppression, found hope in Wilson's commitment to principles such as open diplomacy, free trade, and the reduction of armaments.

In April 1919, Philip Jaisohn, the first Korean-American citizen, organized a meeting in Philadelphia. Over 200 delegates, including Rhee Syngman, aimed to rally Korean expatriates and gain American support for Korean independence.

While the immediate impact on Korean independence was limited, Wilson's speech galvanized Korean nationalism, increased international pressure on Japan, and contributed to the broader discourse on colonialism and imperialism in the early 20th century.

Korean Provisional Government: Beacon of Independence

After the Qing Dynasty's defeat in 1842, Shanghai became open to foreign powers, leading to the establishment of concessional districts (specific areas in Shanghai ) where countries like England, the USA, and France had administrative rights and extraterritoriality. These districts became centers for revolutionary movements in China and independence movements across Asia. The Waitan Harbor on the Huangpu River (Shanghai), served as a significant arrival point for Korean independence fighters during their exile to Shanghai.

The Korean Provisional Government was formed in Shanghai, China, in 1919 by Korean independence activists. They established it as a democratic republic following the March 1st Independence Movement, with Rhee Syngman appointed as Prime Minister on April 11, 1919. It served as a central organization in the Korean independence movement, established with a vision of a democratic republic where the people would have sovereignty. 

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The March First Movement began in 1919 when 33 Korean leaders drafted a Declaration of Independence and organized a mass protest in Seoul on March 1, the late emperor's commemoration day. The Japanese brutally suppressed the protests, but the desire for independence spread across Korea. Underground groups like the Party of Three Thousand emerged, comprising students resisting Japanese military conscription during World War II. Koreans also resisted quietly, refusing to speak Japanese or change their names, with some adopting names reflecting their family history or subtly resisting Japanese policies.

Seoul under Japanese occupation
Image Source: Google, Seoul under Japanese Occupation

While it did not achieve immediate independence, the movement strengthened national unity, led to the establishment of the Korean Provisional Government in Shanghai, and garnered international attention. Its failure also contributed to the rise of the Korean communist party. 

International Reaction to Korea's March First Movement

Despite widespread protests and reports of atrocities, international response to Korea's March First Movement was limited. While some newspapers in the United States and Canada highlighted Korea's demands for independence, official diplomatic support was lacking. The Japanese government denied the legitimacy of the movement and attempted to sway British opinion by drawing parallels with Ireland's struggle for independence. Ultimately, the world's reluctance to intervene allowed Japan to suppress the movement, resulting in significant casualties and dashed hopes for Korean independence.


The March First Movement stands as a pivotal moment in Korean history, symbolizing the nation's enduring struggle for independence and self-determination against Japanese colonialism. Despite facing brutal suppression, the movement sparked a wave of national unity and resistance that reverberated across Korea and beyond. 

While its immediate goals were not fully realized, the movement's legacy endured, contributing to the establishment of the Korean Provisional Government and shaping the trajectory of Korean politics. The international reaction to the movement underscored the challenges faced by Korea in garnering support for its quest for independence on the global stage.