March 1, 2024


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. My only remorse is not being able to do more than dedicating my life to my country. – Yu Gwan-sun

Korean Heroes: a short introduction series, part 1

I believe that everyone interested in Korea is aware of the fact that it has been colonized by Japan for decades (1910 – 1945). In 1919, Korean Emperor Gojong suddenly died. Korean students in Tokyo issued a Declaration of Independence in February and inspired the people back in their homeland to do the same not so long after. The Declaration of Independence was read in Tapgol Park in Seoul. It sparked peaceful unarmed protests all over the country. Japanese government answered with force.

According to Korean records, over a year of demonstrations, 46,948 were arrested, 7,509 killed and 15,961 were wounded. One of these was a Yu Gwan-sun. And this young woman is someone I want to talk about today.

Yu Gwan-Sun was born in the countryside but for her academical drive, she, as one of a very few women that time, was given a full scholarship at the Ewha Hakdang (Now: Ewha Women’s University). It was at the Ewha Girls’ High School where she met the freedom fighters. In 1919.

She participated in the protests in Seoul and continued supporting the movement in her province, once the Japanese government ruled that all Korean schools are to be closed and she had to return back home. She spent her days spreading the word about organized demonstration taking place soon. The demonstration, also known as 만새운동 (Manse Undong) took place on April 1st 1919 (March 1st of the Lunar calendar).

Aproximantelly 3000 unarmed demonstrators got together at the Aunae Market at around 9am. By 1pm Japanese army started to fire their weapons and at least 19 people were killed on spot. Gwan-Sun’s parents included.

She was taken into prison. Her trial was “overseen” by a Japanese judge. She was sentenced to 5 years in the Seodaemun Prison in Seoul ( the prison that was barely a decade ago built by the Japanese specifically to house the fighters for independence).

Now, I would love to tell you that she survived her sentence and was released after 5 years . That didn’t happen.

She organized a large-scale protest within the walls of the prison to mark the first anniversary of the original demonstration. After that, she was put into isolation where she died of her injuries after being tortured repeatedly over the year and more so after the riot.

At the time of her death, she was 17 years old.

PS: Watch a movie from 2019 called “1919 유관순”

About the Author

Lenka Kim was born and raised in Prague, the fairytale-like capital of the Czech Republic. She has a BA degree in Korean Language and Literature and spent time as an exchange student at SunKyunKwan University. She wrote her thesis on Korean movies and how they reflect changes in current Korean society. She was accepted to the MA course but she couldn't resist Korea calling her back, so she decided to move to Korea instead. Now she lives in Korea with her husband and son, enjoying the rollercoaster ride of being a working mom in a multi-cultural family.

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