A Bit of History

My Father’s Stories: An intermission for a brief history lesson.

My father interrupts the story of his father to give us a short history of Korea around the time of his father’s birth – 1901 – up to the end of the Japanese occupation of Korea in 1945.

Archeological findings show that the Korean peninsula was occupied by the Lower Paleolithic period. Korean history begins with the founding of Gojosen in 2333 BC by the legendary Dan-Gun. We had three kingdoms before Silla unified Korea. Those were Goguryeo (north), Baekjae (middle) and Silla (south). Goguryeo Kingdom in the north extended to all of Manchuria, the south east part of Russia and part of the north-eastern region of China until Genghis Khan from Mongolia defeated Goguryeo back to the Korean peninsula. Because Goguryeo was significantly weakened, Silla from the south unified the three kingdoms in 668 AD. Following the unification of the three kingdoms, Korea went through the Goryeo Dynasty and Josen Dynasty (Lee Dynasty) as one nation until the end of the Korean empire in 1910, when Korea was annexed by Japan.

After Korea was annexed by Japan, Japan invaded China using Korea as a stepping stone, like a military transportation convenience. Japan was already semi-industrialized by the Emperor Meiji. They had more dominant fire power and a more organized army than China had. So, Japan was an enemy for both Korea and China. The soldiers of the Korean independence movement collaborated very well with the Chinese army. At that time, the Chinese premier was the famous Chiang, Kai-Shek and his wife Madam Song, Mi-Ryun. [This must be the Korean pronunciation of Soong, Mei-Ling.]

Now, I also have to talk a little bit about Japanese history before my father was born. A Japanese emperor called “Emperor Meiji” or “Meiji the great” revolutionized Japan. Until the mid 19th century, Japan was an isolated, pre-industrial, feudal country. There were numerous war lords fighting each other and finally Toyotomi Hideyosi unified the country into one. Then, the Tokugawa Shogunate started in which numerous (about 180) lords ruled the country for about 250 years. In those days, the Japanese Emperor was just a symbol; he never left his palace, never participated or was consulted in politics or national affairs. Then, one day, (1852?) during the Tokugawa Shogunate, a foreign ship, a so called “black ship” appeared in Tokyo Bay (at that time Tokyo was not a capital, the capital was Kyoto) and demanded that the country be opened for trade or suffer military consequences. Strangely, the powerful Tokugawa, upon hearing the news, consulted the Emperor about this black ship problem. The emperor, who was Meiji’s father at that time, answered back in writing that all foreigners are our friends too, please go ahead, open our door and trade with them. The point was that powerful Tokugawa listened to the powerless (at that time) emperor’s suggestion. Later, historians said that it was a lucky turning point for Japan.

Mean while, in Korea, there was also a strong movement for reform from feudal society. There were many groups among cabinet members such as a pro-Japanese group, pro-Soviet group, pro-Chinese group, etc. Among them, the most dominant group was the ultra-conservative group (close door group) and they accused others as traitors; falsely trapped people into treason plots against the King; and had them executed or given a death drink or removed from all official posts and sent into exile to remote places. Whenever foreign ships appeared in our waters (at that time, the port near Seoul was called “Jaemulpo,” now it is “Inchon”) Korean ordered them to leave or be destroyed in the name of the  emperor. However, the voices for reform became louder and louder. At last Korea opened its doors in 1876 to Japan, rapidly followed by US, China, Russia etc. Each country opened their consulate general and international politics began. Dr. Allen, the first north American missionary doctor, came to Korea in 1884, He opened a surgical clinic called “Jaejung-won” which was the origin of Severance Hospital.

In Japan, they opened their doors earlier and in a few decades’ time had undergone political, social and industrial revolution under Meiji emperor’s rule and suddenly emerged as a great power on the world stage. Luckily, Meiji emperor had a few brilliant advisors. They made the powerful Tokugawa into a powerless man and they made a central government which was able to control the whole country. They called that the ‘new’ Japan. They formed strong military forces with advanced fire power and looked outside to expand their country. In Korea, the pro-Japanese and pro-US groups were two strong groups. The Empress was pro-US because the Empress’s nephew studied in the US. The Empress advised the Emperor not to listen to the Japanese Counselor because they might eventually invade our country. The Japanese counselor decided to assassinate the Korean Empress with the help of their troops which were stationed in Korea to protect their embassy. Their code name for this operation at that time was “fox hunt.” Eventually, Myung Sung Empress was assassinated. (By the way, after World War II, after the Japanese surrender, a Korean musician made a musical opera “Myung Sung Empress” out of that sad story.) In the Korean Emperor’s cabinet, the  pro-Japanese power was growing day by day but what they didn’t know was that Japan was luring them. Japan invited the pro-Japanese leaders to Japan. They saw eye popping change in Japan. They saw buildings, street cars, even WC systems in bath rooms. The Japanese treated them nicely and promised them royal titles like Duke, etc. and that they would be treated as royal family. They said that Japanese and Koreans were the same people –  why not make one country together instead of two. So, those pro-Japanese members of the Korean cabinet were tricked and put their signatures on Japanese paper. Their representing leader’s name was “Lee, Wan-Yong.” Even now, we call him a traitor or a betrayer of Korea, who sold our country to Japan. That was the end of the Josen Dynasty (Lee Dynasty) of 500 years. The Japanese occupied  Korean land from 1910 to 1945, until the end of WWII. It was for 35 years but Koreans used to say 36 years using the Korean way of calculation.

We had heavy anti-Japanese sentiment in Korea, much of which stemmed from the period of Japanese occupation. During WWII, more than 100,000 Koreans, including college students, were forced to serve in the Imperial Japanese arm; Korean women were lured to the war front to serve the Imperial Japanese army as sex slaves called comfort women; Japanese politicians, including the Prime Minister, visited the Yasukuni shrine to honor Japanese war crimes against Korean civilians; Japanese textbooks were rewritten to  falsify Japanese acts during WII2; etc., and etc.

On March 1st, 1919 (9 years after the Japanese occupation), there was an independence declaration. It was a huge nation-wide uprising in every corner of the country. The text of the Independence declaration was read in Pagoda Park in Seoul and signed by 33 famous patriots. The Japanese used live ammunition. There were so many casualties and many were imprisoned. Many of them fled to other countries, mainly China, US, and France. (We commemorate March First every year and never forget about that day.) Patriots gathered in Shanghai, China. A provisional government was formed in Shanghai on April 1, 1919 a month after the March 1st declaration. The first President of the provisional government was Rhee, Sung-Man who fled to the US.

The liberation of Korea took place on 8/15/1945 (the end of WWII; the Japanese surrendered unconditionally).

A Korean government was proclaimed on 8/15/1948 (after three years of US military government). The first president was also Rhee, Sung-Man.

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