[Paik Nak-chung] ‘March the First’ and Nation Building Korean-Style
The following paper was presented in Korean at the International Conference in Commemoration of the 100th Anniversary of the March 1st Movement, 25 February 2019, Lotte Hotel Seoul, organized by the Christian Institute for the Study of Justice and Development. It was translated into English and slightly edited by the author for inclusion in the conference pack; many of the original footnotes were omitted in the English version, while some new ones have been added to indicate or elucidate Korean terms. That version with minimum corrections is posted below.
Professor Emeritus, Seoul National University; Editor Emeritus, The Changbi Quarterly
“March the First Movement and Nation Building Korean-Style” was the title I originally submitted, but at that time I chose the familiar term ’movement’ without seriously pondering the question whether to apply the word ‘movement’ or ‘revolution’ to March the First. Having since tilted somewhat toward ‘March 1 Revolution’, though admittedly not after sufficient study and reflection, I have opted to use in my title the more neutral term ‘3/1 [samil]’ or ‘March the First’ (with inverted commas). As someone who has maintained that South Korea’s Candlelight Revolution does amount to a revolution, I ought all the more seriously entertain the notion of ‘March 1 Revolution’. Of course, there is no logical necessity that requires ‘March the First’ to be a revolution just because the ‘Candlelight Revolution’ was one. At any rate, the question calls for more thorough scrutiny.
Perusing the results, though a small enough portion, of research accumulated over the years, I have acquired a stronger sense that March the First, going beyond a simple independence movement, represented a great historical event including a revolutionary mass movement for democracy. But rather than attempting a presentation on March the First as such, I will address the problem of nation building that its participants dreamed of, while noting the fact that “March the First was literally all-national and thus could summon a broad revolutionary influence, but regrettably that kind of truly all-national movement was never again re-enacted to this day.”[1. Lim Hyung-taek (임형택), “Questioning Again the March First Movement in Korea’s Modern History,” The Changbi Quarterly (Ch’angjakkwapip’yŏng), Spring 2019, 16.]
March 1 Revolution and establishing a state
In contemporary South Korea the main controversy regarding kŏn’guk or state-building[2. Kŏn’guk literally means establishment of a state, but could also indicate nation building in a larger sense. Nara mandŭlgi, which I have used in the title, is closer to the latter, though the two terms are often used interchangeably.] centers around whether 1) to consider the Republic of Korea to have been founded in 1919 (as affirmed in the preamble of the present Constitution citing its lineage from the Shanghai Provisional Government), thus reaching the 100th anniversary this year, or 2) the launching of the Korean government on August 15, 1948 marks the true founding of the state. The latter view was promoted by the Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye governments, which went to the length of attempting to promulgate August the 15th as ‘National Foundation Day’ (Kŏn’gukjŏl).On the other hand, the present government, having taken power on the strength of the Candlelight Revolution, is preparing large-scale celebrations of the 100th anniversary of March the First and the Provisional Government.
The attempt to establish the‘National Foundation Day’ not only went against the constitutional stipulation regarding the Provisional Government but had the political motivation to denigrate March the First and all the subsequent anti-Japanese struggles and turn at one stroke into ‘meritorious contributors to state-founding’ those who had promoted the separate Southernregime and many of whom later collaborated with dictatorships. The notion therefore hardly deserves serious scholarly attention. But the very dichotomy of ‘either the Provisional Government or August 1948’ also unduly narrows the debate. As a matter of fact, if we understand kŏn’guk to mean building a nation worth its name, it is difficult to specify when kŏn’guk as envisaged in March the First took place, indeed whether it has happened even to this day. On the other hand, it cannot be denied, either, that in the process of nation building the formation of the South Korean government signified an important milestone.
The Independence Declaration of 1919 itself was dated ‘March 1 in the 4252th year of the founding of Korea (chosŏn)’, that is, it traced the country’s origin back to Tan’gun and adopted the tan’gi(or Era of Tan’gun) calendar. The ‘Provisional Charter of the Republic of Korea’, proclaimed by the Shanghai Provisional Government in April 1919, also stipulated in Article 7: “The Republic of Korea, in order to display to the world the spirit of its founding in accordance with divine will and further to contribute to humanity’s culture and peace, will join the League of Nations.” It is not clear what exactly is meant by ‘divine will’, but presumably the intention of Tan’gun, son of the god Hwanung, in opening the ‘divine city’, that is, the idea of ‘widely benefiting humankind’. In other words, the Provisional Charter, too, posits the founding time in that ancient past.
In contrast, Syngman Rhee (Yi Sŭngman), the first South Korean president, spoke of ‘Year 30 of the Republic’ even after taking office and saw 1919 as the founding year. This makes an interesting contrast to the advocates of ‘National Foundation Day’, most of them strong supporters of the late dictator. Rhee, however, did not claim the lineage of Shanghai Provisional Government.[3. Regarding Rhee’s somewhat idiosyncratic valorizing of the ephemeral ‘Hansŏng (Seoul) Provisional Government’ over the more substantial Shanghai Government, see SŏHŭigyŏng (서희경), “Perceptions of ‘March 1 Movement’ after Liberation and National Identity,” in Papers of the Academic Conference to Commemorate the 95th Anniversary of the March 1 Revolution, compiled by the Preparation Committee for the 100th Anniversary of the March 1 Revolution, Seoul, 2014, 112-13.] For the acknowledge leader of that government at the time was Kim Ku, who opposed the establishment of a separate regime and refused to participate in the May 10 general elections for the Constitutional Assembly. As we know, the Provisional Government was cited in the preamble only in the Constitution of 1987.
Returning to the Shanghai government, the ‘Principles of Nation Building of the Republic of Korea’, proclaimed on November 11, 1941 envisioned nation building in three stages: declaration of independence, recovery of national territory, and kŏn’guk or establishment of a full-fledged state. In other words, it understood nation building as a phased process and an unfinished task. As a matter of fact, it is not rare for nation building in a phased process. The United States of America was established some thirteen years after the Declaration of Independence in July 1776, and it celebrates the 4th of July as ‘Independence Day’ without any special mention of a National Foundation Day. In France, too, the First Republic was established in 1792, three years after the storming of Bastille on July 14, 1789, and it took almost a hundred years to build a republic free from dangers of reverting to monarchy or imperial rule. The Kim Dae-jung government (1998-2003) also virtually acknowledged the concept of phased nation building: it carried out a ‘second kŏn’guk movement’, positing 1948 as the time of first kŏn’guk, though in a very different spirit from the later advocates of ‘National Foundation Day’. Merits of that endeavor may be subject to debate, but at least in theory it opened the possibility of a third or fourth nation building project.
However revolutionary a change within South Korea cannot be acknowledged to have risen to the expectation of March the First as an all-national (or peninsula-wide) movement. The Shanghai Provisional Government for its part, though it did not manage to include all anti-Japanese movements, never contemplated anything less than a government ruling the entire peninsula. But in reality not only were two separate governments established, but North Korea, ascribing an almost exclusive importance to Kim IlSung’s anti-Japanese struggles, even adopted (in 1997) the ‘Juche Calendar’, with 1912 (the year of Kim’s birth) as its inaugural year. Whether one agrees with it or not, however, one must seriously address the question of how to overcome the limits of the emphasis on the Shanghai Provisional Government that is accepted only in the South, and must beware of using the ‘lineage of the Provisional Government’ as an argument to exclude the peninsula’s northern half.
Modernity’s double project and the March 1 Revolution
Lim Hyung-taek, who characterizes March the First as an all-national revolutionary movement, also submits that “March the First marks the point of the full-scale start of Korea’s modernity.” (Ibid. 16)Since ‘modernity’ is a concept pertaining to global history, the proposition that March the First was not only ‘all-national’ but marked the ‘full-scale start of modernity’ would reinforce the movement’s claim to revolutionary status. While the term ‘full-scale’ needs also to be defined, the meaning of ‘modernity’ represents a more essential question. I myself have argued that kŭndae (or modernity as a historical period) should be defined as the age of capitalism, for otherwise one could easily get mired in endless debate regarding modernity in the sense of particular features of the modern period. If modernity means the age of capitalism, the ‘start’ of Korea’s modernity should go back to the compulsorily imposed Korea-Japan Treaty of 1876 that opened the country’s ports to Japan and to the world market. Naturally this was a heteronomous turn to modernity, quite different from an autonomous modernization process. Thus forcibly enlisted into modernity, Koreans greatly suffered from maladaptation, even ending up with loss of national sovereignty in 1910. If 1919 marks the ‘full-scale start of modernity’, it should mean that from March the First on, Korean people began in earnest their endeavor to adapt themselves to modernity.
That endeavor, however, should be considered in historical perspective, in the context of various other endeavors at autonomous adaptation both before and after March the First. One autonomous move was to reject modernity altogether—the line of ‘Defending the Right Way and Rejectingthe Evil Way’—which was bound to fail because so out of touch with larger historical trends. Yet the courage of those who put down their lives on the line against the prevailing forces of the day should not be disregarded, and moreover, one must note that while representing strong nationalistic sentiments, they propounded a kind of Confucian universalism rather than chauvinism. At another end, there was the line of ‘Enlightenment’, which aimed at autonomous adaptation to modernity and build a normal modern state even though modernity had initially been imposed on Korea from outside. This group may be divided into ‘radial enlighteners’ who in 1884 attempted to hasten autonomous modernization through a coup d’état; and ‘moderate enlighteners’ who after the former’s failure led the Kabo Reforms of 1894. These also played a major role in the Patriotic Enlightenment Movement of 1905-10. But their endeavor, too, failed to prevent the country’s colonization in 1910. But since Japan the colonizing power was a model student in modernization and Westernization, we may say the Enlightenment party in one variation or another have gone on increasing their influence.
One must not forget, however, there was another major autonomous endeavor in the final days of Chosun Dynasty, namely, the Tonghak Peasants’ War of 1894. Back in the 1980s when radical student movements had considerable influence on intellectual discourse, the Peasants’ War would be deemed the most important in the three-part scheme of ‘Rejecting Evil, Enlightenment, and Peasants’ War’—though the emphasis fell on ‘peasants war’ rather than on Tonghak (the new religious teaching by Ch’oeChe-u, 1824-1864, that inspired the peasants in the war). But such discourse virtually disappeared with the decline of the radical movements of the ‘80s, leaving enlighteners predominating over the rejectionists. Only in recent years have we seen new attempts “to break the convention of confining the history of Korea’s turn to modernity within the scheme of either enlightenment or rejection, and to reconstitute the party of Great Opening [kaebyŏkp’a] as the crucial agents of this period.”[4. Hwang Jung-a(황정아), “The Bold Interpellation of Kaebyŏk,”The Changbi Quarterly, Spring 2019, 457. Kaebyŏk’, a hardly translatable term that I have rendered as ‘Great Opening’ in conformity with Chŭngsan-do and Won-Buddhist practice, indicates a radical transformation amounting almost to creation, but not creation ex nihilo as in the Book of Genesis. Among contemporary versions of ‘Enlighteners’, advocates of modernization, with many ties to pro-Japanese modernizers in the colonial days, seem to hold predominant sway, but their socialist opponents who advocate the overcoming of capitalism are mostly another variety of ‘Enlighteners’, showing affinities with the radical wing of the group in the late nineteenth century.]
If one appraise the various movements in terms of what I have called ‘the double project of at once adapting to and overcoming modernity’,[5. See Paik Nak-chung, "The Double Project of Modernity," New Left Review 95, September/October 2015. 65-79.] kaebyŏkp’a proves the only one among the three major groups that in the final days of Yi Dynasty had some sense of the ‘double project’ and considerable practical energy in that direction.[6. See the presentation by Pak Maengsu (215-18) and subsequent discussion (242-43) in Paik Nak-chung et al., Studying a Great Turn in Civilization, Changbi Publishers 2018.For my own view of Won-Buddhism, see Paik Nak-chung, “Won-Buddhism and a Great Turning in Civiliation,” Cross-Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review No. 22, March 2017, https://cross-currents.berkeley.edu/e-journal/issue-22/paik.] Seen in this light, the importance of Tonghak in the Tonghak Peasants’ War must be recognized anew. For an understanding of March the First itself, not only do we need to remember the large contribution by the leadership and adherents of Ch’ŏndogyo(Religion of Heaven’s Way, successor to Tonghak), but must realize that massive popular mobilization was possible because Koreans had experienced Tonghak and the Tonghak Peasants’ War, and that the shift to the idea of a democratic republic and the vision of world peace were that much easier because of Tonghak’s doctrine of a Great Opening. In addition, the advanced nature of the 1919 ‘Provisional Charter’ in granting women’s political rights[7. The granting of equal political rights for women in articles 3 and 5 was not the first in the world, but in advance of the United States (1925) and the United Kingdom (1928). Yi Chunsik (이준식) in his research article, “The Ideological Aims of the Republic of Korea Provisional Government,” Inmunkwahakyŏngu(Studies in Human Sciences) 24 speculatesthat this could only be explained as a particular intervention by Cho Soang, a main player in drafting the Charter (p. 72). Cho’s intervention must have been essential, but one must recognize that gender equality was proclaimed as an essential doctrine and put into practice already in the inaugural year (1860) of Tonghak, well before the opening to world market or the advent of Protestant missionaries.] should also be traced to the idea and practice of gender equality in Tonghak and Chŭngsan-do.
In that case the proposition that March the First marks ‘the full-scale start of modernity in Korea’ must be taken to mean that Korea’s ‘double project’, in preparation since before 1876, went into full gear with March the First, and that this implied a full-scale endeavor at adaption in accordance with the principle that only an effort for adaptation which simultaneously includes efforts to overcome modernity could expect success in the long run. Hence, in subsequent developments too, those thinkers and activists who chose the middle way—in fact, ‘transformative middle way’ [pyŏnhyŏjŏkchungdochuŭi] because it aimed at transforming the colonial rule into a different system—between the extremes of ameliorationabandoning efforts for independence and dogmatic Marxism and Communism must be acknowledged to have found the optimal course even by the criterion of adapting to modernity. As a matter of fact, the 1919 Independence Declaration was the joint work of Ch’ŏndogyo, Protestant, and Buddhist leaders, and in subsequent liberation efforts we find numerous personages who may be called precursors of the ‘transformative middle way’. Tosan An Ch’angho (1878-1938), Manhae Han Yongun (1879-1944) who advocated Buddhist socialism, MongyangYŏUnhyŏng (1886-1947), Cho Soang (1887-1958), Pyŏkch’o Hong Myŏnghŭi (1888-1968) are all giants whose peers we do not easily meet in later generations. However, they were unable to form a unified force, and An Ch’angho’s praise of Sot’aesan Pak Chungbin (1891-1945), the founder of Won-Buddhism,for his wisdom may show An’s recognition that the religious order Pakheaded was practically the only organization within Korea equipped with both theory and considerable substance.
The record of their meeting has been incorporated into aWon-Buddhist scripture:
TosanAnCh’angho came to visit the Founding Master. The Master greeted him warmly and consoled him for the hardships he had gone through on behalf of the Korean nation. Tosan said, “What I am doing is small in scope and short in skill, bringing little benefit to the nation, and even leading to the persecution of many of my comrades by the colonial police. But what you, sir, are doing is vast in scope and proficient in its expediencies. While inwardly making great contributions to the multitude of our compatriots, you are not directly oppressed and intimidated much. Your ability, sir, is truly magnificent!”[8. The Scripture of the Founding Master, chapter 12, section 45, in The Doctrinal Books of Won-Buddhism, Department of International Affairs of Won-Buddhist Headquarters, Iksan, Korea, 2016, 45-46.]
In a sense this occasion may be characterized as agetting together of a leading Enlightenerwho was responsive to Great Opening and the head of a religious order propoundingaGreat Opening but also embracing modernization.
At any rate, it is important to apply the consistent criterion of ‘modernity’s double project’ in assessing various lines and forces that the reality of deepening left-right division after 1919—a reality not without elements of progress and advance in the very division—produced. This will not only make it easier to discern ways of new unity but lead to revaluation of those persons and movements that contributed to unity.
The Candlelight Revolution and the March 1 Revolution
There is as yet no consensus on whether we should give the name of revolution to the massive peaceful demonstrations of 2016-17 and the ensuing changes in Korean society. The ‘Candlelight Revolution’ not only diverges considerably from the ‘classical’ or textbook notion of revolution, but even in South Korea’s history, it falls short in some aspects from April 19 (1960) or the June uprising (1987), which not only brought about a change of regime but swiftly produced a new constitution.[9. For all that, I have consistently arguedin favor of the term ‘Candlelight Revolution’, beginning with the article (in Korean) “The Making of a New World by ‘the Candles’ and the Inter-Korean Relations,” The Changbi Quarterly, Spring 2017, and including a recent posting for English-speaking readers:Nak-chung Paik, “South Korea’s Candlelight Revolution and the Future of the Korean Peninsula,” The Asia-Pacific Journal Vol. 16 No. 3 (December 1, 2018, https://apjjf.org/2018/23/Paik.html).]
How would it compare with March the First? Whereas the latter failed to put an end to Japanese colonial rule, the candles removed the incumbent President and, in a sense, for the first time in the Republic’s history opened the way to actually practice democratic republican rule. On the other hand, as pointed out before, the Candlelight Revolution (like the April Revolution and the June Uprising) was an event confined to the peninsula’s southern half and thus could not be placed on a par with the ‘all-national’ March 1 Revolution.
However, if the candlelight demonstrations of 2016-17 represent only the first phase of an on-going revolution, there still remains a possibility that the revolution may yet proceed to accomplish a radical change in the peninsula-wide division system. For the dramatic changes that occurred in 2018 in inter-Korean relations and the beginning of DPRK-USA rapprochement in June of the same year have raised hopes of a change both in the peninsula and the world of a different dimension thanwhat was accomplished by the ‘all-national resistance’ of 1919. But then, the reason March the First is recognized as the ‘full-scale start of adaptation to modernity’, despite its failure to build an independent modern state except in the form of a provisional government in exile, is because it brought about essential changes over a whole range of people’s daily lives and a big increase in the real capabilities of the Korean people. The numerous anti-systemic movements of 1968, including the May events in France, rarely succeeded in seizing state power, either, but are often termed the ‘1968 Revolutions’ precisely because they brought about a radical change in thought and culture across the globe and substantial increase in grass roots initiatives.
Accordingly, if the change of regime in South Korea as a result of the candlelight demonstrations leads to a radical improvement of inter-Korean relations and a marked increase in popular initiatives throughout the peninsula, the ‘candles’ would indeed deserve the name of revolution. Thus, the Candlelight Revolution will at last “repay the debt modern Korean history owes to March the First.” (Lim., op. cit., 36) Indeed, such a repayment after a hundred years’ delay is bound to open up horizons not anticipated by the March 1 Revolution.
One of them concerns the nature of the state. The all-national wish for a unified nation state is not only hardly feasible even after the Candlelight Revolution, but could well represent an outmoded idea when judged by the standards of a new world projected by candlelight citizens. Now is the time to design not immediate full unification but a gradual, phased, and innovative process of reintegration for the peninsula. The immediate agenda of denuclearizing Korean peninsula requires, too, the mutual recognition and peaceful coexistence of the two Korean states rather than speedy reunification, but at the same time—in the words of the North-South Basic Agreement (1991)—“a relation not between country and country but a special relationship temporarily formed in the process of aiming at reunification.” The Basic Treaty between the two Germanies in 1972 included no such provision, and considering that the two Koreas had just joined the United Nations as full member states, it amounts to a truly innovative way of promoting a very special confederation or union of states.
Such a course made further concrete advances with the June 15 Joint Declaration (of Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong Il in 2000) and the October 4 Declaration (in the 2007 Roh Muhyun-Kim Jong Il summit), but suffered reverses under Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye. The process was dramatically reopened through the Candlelight Revolution and the Panmunjom Declaration (of Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un, April 27, 2018), September Pyongyang Declaration and numerous attendant measures. In my view even a loose association of North and South Korean states, given the nation’s particular historical context, will amount to the ‘first stage’ of peninsular reintegration.[10. See the above-cited “South Korea’s Candlelight Revolution and the Future of the Korean Peninsula,” particularly the last section, ‘Toward an Association of Korean States’.] It will also mean the next stage in ‘nation building Korean-style’. It won’t be the last, but one needn’t posit in advance the establishment of a unitary nation state as the final goal. Not only is a gradual, phased procedure unavoidable under the circumstances, but such a process will be the way to maximize democratic participation, and popular power and wisdom thus expanded will manage to find the form and level of reintegration best suited to the peninsula in the era of the Great Opening, attaining to heights of global significance well beyond even the March 1 Revolution.