|Holding the national flag Taegeukgi, citizens shout, "Long live the independence of Korea," in front of Dongnimmun (Independence Gate) in Seoul, March 1, marking the 100th anniversary of the March 1 Independence Movement. /Yonhap|
By Richard Pennington
The air was bad in Seoul that day, but I would not be deterred. This old park (the 10-story stone pagoda dates from the 15th century) has seen a lot of history, and I have deep affection for it.
A bigger crowd than usual was present. While a program was to start later, I would see none of it; there was too much going on to just hang around. Banners and TV cameras abounded.
A number of white-clad people were playing harmonicas, and far more banged gongs and drums (a traditional musical form known as nongakdae) all around the park. They went up and down the sidewalk, and in circles.
|Residents re-enacts the March 1, 1919, Independence Movement in front of the birth home in Taean County, South Chungcheong Province, of the late Lee Jong-il, one of 33 Korean leaders who organized the movement. /Yonhap|
A man stood at the front gate and read the declaration in a loud and solemn manner: "We hereby declare that Korea is an independent state and that Koreans are a self-governing people. We proclaim it to the nations of the world in affirmation of the principle of the equality of all nations, and we proclaim it to our posterity preserving in perpetuity the right of national survival. We make this declaration on the strength of 5,000 years of history as an expression of the devotion and loyalty of 20 million people ..."
I walked a couple of blocks, turned left and made my way to an eight-story office building. There, exactly a century earlier, 33 bold and courageous men had gathered in the Taehwagwan (also known as Myeongwolgwan) restaurant to sign and promulgate the Declaration of Independence, refuting all that the colonizing Japanese had done since their extralegal annexation in 1910.
Knowing that a vigorous response would come, they emphasized that there was no feeling of enmity for the Japanese. The 33 marched to a nearby police station and turned themselves in just as a group of students read the Declaration aloud at Tapgol Park to a crowd that had gathered to mourn the recent death of King Gojong. As is well known, they answered with joyous cries of "long live independence!"
A short subway ride took me to Gwanghwamun Square where President Moon Jae-in was at the center of a large gathering to commemorate what had transpired 100 years ago. The Korean national flag, Taegeukgi, was everywhere, although I had brought my own just in case.
With the statues of King Sejong and Admiral Yi Sun-sin towering over the assembled multitude, I wandered all around this historic venue. The push-pull of Korean politics was evident even on such a day ― I saw one banner about eradicating communism and another that spoke warmly of "Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un."
|President Moon Jae-in, center, and first lady Kim Jung-sook wave the Korean flag Taegeukgi, at Gwanghwamun Square, Seoul, March 1 during the centennial celebration of the March 1 Independence Movement against Japanese colonial rule. /Korea Times photo by Ryu Hyo-jin|
Two days later, Sunday, I was back in that vicinity. At a nearby shop, I bought a cafe latte and a loaf of raisin bread. I consumed them while sitting on the chair next to Pyeonghwauisonyeosang, the bronze statue of a so-called comfort woman that has placidly faced the Japanese Embassy since 2011 (once-a-week demonstrations began in 1992).
Although I did not expect any dramatic revelations, I had come there to ponder and ruminate. I knew that starting in the late 19th century, the Japanese had been imbued with samurai spirit and found ways to justify taking economic, political and military control of their neighbor to the west.
The strong dominating the weak is a theme that goes back in history thousands of years. There is no need to recapitulate all the wrongs done by the Japanese to the Koreans, of which forcing women into sexual slavery during World War II is just an example.
I sat there looking at a construction site where the Japanese Embassy is being rebuilt; its temporary home is the nearby Twin Tree Mall. To what extent do contemporary Japanese feel guilt or remorse for all that happened during the colonial era of 1910 to 1945 (keeping in mind that the takeover process actually began with the unequal treaty of 1876)?
If I were of Japanese descent, I doubt I could blithely pass over such matters. I would strive to take stock of this history with clear eyes, abjuring nationalistic emotions. Many Japanese ― although not all ― have done so.
My friend Yoon Yong is old enough to have been born toward the end of the Japanese colonial era. Wasting no time with retrospection, he contends that all these issues were resolved by the 1965 treaty wherein diplomatic relations between Korea and Japan were re-established, and loans and grants totaling $800 million were made.
The late President Park Chung-hee, a man with an uncanny ability to make plans and implement them, used those funds to jump-start the modern Korean economy.
Richard Pennington (email@example.com), a native of Texas in the U.S., works as an editor at a law firm in southern Seoul. He has written 20 nonfiction books, including "Travels of an American-Korean, 2008-2013." He is the director of an NGO, the Committee to Bring Jikji Back to Korea.