March 1st Independence Day Heroine Yu Gwan-sun
On March 1st, 1919, a group of 33 patriotic leaders read the Declaration of Korean Independence, proclaiming to the world that Korea is a free and independent nation. With the historic declaration, Korean people under the Japanese colonial rule shouted “Long live Korean independence” nationwide, from Mt. Baekdu to Mt. Halla, from Seoul to remote mountain villages. Their shouts resounded throughout the Korean Peninsula and the flames of freedom blazed fiercely.
There were 1,542 mass demonstrations at the time, in which a total of over 2 million people participated. Among countless independence fighters who cried out for national independence 93 years ago, it is female student activist Yu Gwan-sun who is remembered in the minds of Korean people first.
Born in a Family with Lofty National Spirit
Yu Gwan-sun was born in Cheonan, South Chungcheong Province on November 17th, 1902. She was able to develop a deep devotion to God and the proud national spirit from childhood, thanks to her father Yu Jung-gwon, who was a reform-minded Methodist and enlightenment thinker.
Yu was such an intelligent child that she could memorize Bible passages upon hearing them just once. She was admitted to Ewha Girls’ School in 1918 as a scholarship student. Witnessing the brutal Japanese military rule, the tall, energetic and broad-minded girl was determined to become a great woman who would save her nation like the French heroine Joan of Arc.
King Go-jong died in 1919 amidst rumors that he had been poisoned by the Japanese. Many people flocked to Seoul ahead of the king’s funeral, and mass demonstrations were staged on March 1st to declare independence from Japan. Yu and her six classmates organized a band to take part in the rally at Tapgol Park that day. On March 5th, Yu and her band participated in a student demonstration in front of Namdaemun(South Gate) and were arrested by police. But they were later released at the request of foreign missionaries at Ewha Girls’ School.
The Japanese Government General of Korea temporarily closed middle schools and higher learning institutes on March 10th and Yu returned to her hometown. But the closing of the school prompted Yu to devote herself to the independence movement.
Shouts of Independence Resound through Aunae Market
Yu came home with her cousin Yu Ye-do on March 13th, 1919, secretly bringing the document of the Declaration of Independence with her. She traveled from village to village to inform local residents of the March 1st movement in Seoul and encouraged them to join in the drive. She also visited church schools and Confucian scholars in adjacent areas to urge them to participate in the planned demonstration on March 1st by the lunar calendar, which happened to fall on April 1st.
From early in the morning on April 1st, more than 3,000 people swarmed to the Aunae(아우내) market in Cheonan. Yu gave them the national flag of Taegeukgi, which she had made herself, and addressed the crowd before shouting Korea’s independence. They began to stage rallies, waving the national flags.
The Japanese military police wielded guns and swords to suppress the demonstrators, killing 19 people, including Yu’s parents, and injuring 30 innocent residents. Yu was arrested.
Indomitable Spirit against Injustice
Yu lost her parents before her very eyes and was severely tortured by the Japanese police. But she thundered at the police, claiming that she led the rallies from beginning to end and asking the police to release other innocent people.
At two rounds of trial, Yu was sentenced to five years and three years in prison, respectively, before being transferred to Seodaemun prison in Seoul. There, she shouted Korea’s independence day and night and prepared a massive demonstration with her fellow inmates to mark the first anniversary of the independence movement on March 1st, 1920.
She was taken to an underground prison and died of harsh torture there on September 28th, 1920, at the young age of 18. During her short life, she never hesitated to act on what she believed was right. Yu is forever remembered as a dedicated woman with unflinching resolve in the minds of Korean people.