Korean Empire (the Daehan Empire) was deprived of its diplomatic rights in 1905 when it forcibly signed the so-called “Eulsa Treaty” with Japan, followed by the complete loss of its sovereignty in 1910. The Japanese colonial era lasted until 1945.
The March 1st Movement of 1919, inspired by the “self-determination” speech in 1918, was a nationwide anti-colonial independence movement. A group of 33 national representatives gathered at the Taehwagwan restaurant downtown Seoul on the morning of March 1st, distributed 100 copies of the declaration of independence to the public and read it out loud before crying out “Long live the independent Korea” in one voice. At that moment, some 5,000 citizens and students gathered at Pagoda Park at the center of Seoul and staged a non-violent, peaceful protest calling for selfㆍdetermined independence of Korea.
A copy of the declaration of independence recited by the 33 national
representatives on March 1st, 1919
The March 1st Movement brought to light the need for a linchpin around which the independence campaign could be mounted in a more organized way. Thus, the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea (KPG) was launched in September 1919 by a consortium of key independence movement groups, including the Provisional Government in Shanghai, the Hansung (Seoul) Provisional Government, and the Korean National Assembly of the Russian Maritime Province. The Provisional Government adopted the presidential system and Syng-man Rhee assumed the first presidency.
It also set up Provisional Assembly, a legislative body as well as a judiciary body, launching the first democratic republic government with the three branches in Korean history. Since then, the KPG persistently undertook independence campaigns until the very day Korea restored national independence. It also formed a secret administrative body to support organized independence movement and issued its own newspaper “The Independent” to encourage Korean public to keep on fighting for national independence.
The Provisional Government-issued citizen ID card of Ahn Jaeㆍchang, a US-based benefactor of national independence movement (1924)
The anti-Japan independence campaigns, staged mainly in China, led to military activities including assistance to Heroic Corps and a number of different forces fighting for independence, and the foundation of the Korean Liberation Army. The most prominent figures who engaged in Heroic Corps’ activities include Lee Bong-chang and Yun Bong-gil. While Lee Bong-chang’s attempt in January 1932 to assassinate the emperor of Japan failed, but later that year in April, Yun Bong-gil successfully sent to Hades 20 senior military officers of the Japanese Imperial Army and key government officials at a ceremony held in Shanghai. These incidents triggered brutal retaliation by Japanese Empire and the Provisional Government was forced into exile, leaving Shanghai and wandering all around China from Hangzhou, Nanjing, Changsha, Guangzhou and Chijiang before eventually taking root in Chongqing. Amid the continued battle against Imperial Japan, the independence came upon them in August 1945, and key officials of the KPG set foot on Korean soil in November in their private apacity. The political turmoil and upheaval in the early days kept the KPG cabinet members and the policies they formulated from gaining a firm foothold in a newly established government Seoul, its liberal ideas and the principle of three equalities in particular survived and was enshrined in the 1948 Constitution of the Republic of Korea, laying the foundation of the country as we know it today.
An exhibition of modern and contemporary history often gives an impression of seriousness and graveness. A renovated, newly open Interactive Gallery, however, simply beats the expectations, presenting the modern history of Korea in such a way that help the audience understand and relate to the past while keeping them mused and intrigued. Also, it is carefully organized so that the audience can have a broader understanding of the contemporary history by sharing the experience and memory of the generations that came before and appreciate the difference between generations.
The modern and contemporary history as we see it today is a vast collection of the experiences of all walks of life. While it certainly matters to convey the history in a balanced, disinterested manner, a history museum can and should present the different layers of history by shedding light on those varying life stories. Thus, the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History has set up the Interactive Gallery in a way that the audience can immerse themselves into the different lives led by different individuals of the past.
Visitors are first given ‘Virtual ID Card’ before entering the gallery. The cards assign them to different generations, and each visitor gets to see different exhibitions accordingly. At a section titled ‘Let’s Walk the Square Together,’ the audience virtually experiences major events they would have been faced if they had been born in the era they were assigned to. At the end of the interactive gallery, they can see a comic strip of those historical events they have been through with their own faces on it.
While there are many fault lines among different groups in our society, the most prominent of them is the disagreement between generations. It is no exception when it comes to modern and contemporary history. When we learn to communicate and appreciate the difference, it will eventually enrich our understanding of history in general. We hope that the new interactive gallery can contribute to the effort by helping people pay attention to the difference between the generations that lived the modern history of Korea and thus share their thoughts and feelings with each other.
Taeguk-gi (The National Flag of Korea) used by the State Council of the Provisional
Government of the Republic of Korea (KPG)
Born in 1876 in Hwanghae Province, Kim Koo spent the better part of his life fighting against Imperial Japan ever since his homeland was occupied. After the March 1st Movement in 1919, he exiled himself to Shanghai, where he was appointed the first Police Minister of the the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea (KPG). Later in 1940, he swore in as President of the State Council.
The Provisional Constitution codifying provisions established by the KPG
The Declaration of the 36th Provisional Assembly held by the State Council, the legislative body of the KPG on April 20, 1944. The script shows the election results of the cabinet members, including the President (Kim Koo), Vice President (Kim Kyu-sik), and other ministers (Yi Si-yeong, Kim Boongㆍjun, Kim Won-bong, etc.).
While he led anti-Japanese campaigns before, he supervised covert operations more systematically once joining the KPG. While serving as the President, he formed the Korean Patriotic Corps in 1931, with a view to assassinating key figures of Japan. The two most noteworthy activities of the group were Lee Bong-chang’s failed attempt in January 1932 to assassinate Hirohito, then emperor of Japan, and Yun Bong-gil’s bombing attacks in the same year on military officers of the Japanese Imperial Army and key government officials at a ceremony held in Hongkew Park, Shanghai. Both attacks were orchestrated and led by Kim Koo. In 1940, he set up the Korean Liberation Army, the official armed forces of the KPG. As he was overseeing the training and military drills, long-awaited news was delivered on August 15, 1945: Korea was freed from the grip of Imperial Japan.
A post stamp bearing the image of Kim Koo, issued on June 10, 1986
The newly independent homeland, however, was far from the country he really longed for. The great powers, notably the U.S. and the Soviet Union, drew a line at the 38 parallel, splitting the peninsula into two different blocs. Kim Koo published an article “Pleading in Grief with the 30 Million Compatriots” in February 1948 as well as the famous manifesto titled “My Wishes,” making a strong case for a unified, fully independent government without trusteeship. At that time, South Korean public was divided between Syngman Rhee, who advocated setting up a unilateral government in Seoul, and Kim Koo calling for a unified government. In 1948, he visited Pyongyang with Kim Kyu-sik to have four-party talks to work out disagreements between the two Koreas as well as the U.S. and the Soviet Union, but to no avail. His endeavor for a unified country continued until his tragic assassination in 1949.
The articles of association and the account book (left) of Boingye, a private group formed by Kim Koo and joined by Yi Si-yeong and Cho sung-hwan in July 1947. This is a rare article documenting the previously little-known history of the organization and was first open to the public by the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History in 2018.
National Meseum of Korean Contemporary History Newsletter 2021-1, Vol.56
198 Sejong-daero, Jongro-gu, Seoul, 03141, Republic of Korea / 82-2-3703-9200 / www.much.go.kr
Editor: Park Sookhee, Kook Sungha, Hong Yeonju, Lee Soojin / Design: plus81studios
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