I’m sticking with this month’s theme today, forgetting about anniversaries and talking about a country that seems much more important now than it did during or after the War. Korea fits the bill nicely, and although it played no part in the First World War it was changed by the conflict in ways that resonated down the twentieth century.
Korea’s modern history before 1914 had, like that of Poland or Afghanistan, been dominated by its geographical position between powerful empires. Though hardly touched by European and American incursions during the late nineteenth century, when the long-term political and economic dominance of an enfeebled Chinese Empire was on the wane, Korea had been subject to strong Japanese influence since the mid-1890s. Increasing economic and military involvement by the neighbouring Russian Empire came to an end with the Russo-Japanese war of 1904–05, which transformed the regional balance of power and left the Japanese free to pursue long-held colonial ambitions in Korea. Japanese forces occupied the Korean peninsula in 1904, established an effective protectorate in 1905, deposed the monarchy two years later and unilaterally annexed the country in 1910.
The Japanese regime treated Korea much as the most brutal European powers treated their African colonies, imposing modernisation to suit Japan’s economic requirements, provoking famine by exporting food crops and forced labour to Japan, and exercising ruthless, often brutal socio-political control over the native population. It was not, needless to say, a popular regime, and occasional governmental attempts to mollify public opinion were generally undermined by an aggressively nationalist military. But although a small Korean National Association, based in Hawaii and given support when possible by Chinese authorities, was formed in 1909 to make the case for Korean independence, any organised internal resistance to the occupation existed only in the vacuum created by Japanese oppression and censorship. That changed in 1919.
Korea had not been spared the viral popular optimism spread across the world by US President Wilson’s sketchy outline of liberal principles for world peace, the Fourteen Points. Like so many others in search of independence and perceived freedoms, Korean nationalists clearly believed that Wilson’s programme was both believable and practicable, because by the end of 1918 activists were starting to come out of the woodwork.
Korean students in Tokyo published a manifesto demanding independence from Japan in December 1918, and launched a series of protests in the Japanese capital. The biggest rally, on 8 February 1919, was accompanied by a declaration of Korean independence, and although police quickly dispersed protesters, the gesture convinced nationalists inside Korea to plan something similar on a larger scale.
The decision was encouraged by an atmosphere of national grief and outrage surrounding the sudden death on 22 January of the last Korean monarch, Emperor Gojong. A consistent thorn in the side of the occupation since his removal from the throne in 1907, Gojong’s demise was attributed to natural causes by Japanese authorities, but most Koreans believed he had been poisoned. As the last of a Confucian dynasty that had ruled Korea since 1392, Gojong was a perfect symbol for national loss and became an instant martyr. Protests were planned to exploit the mood, timed for a Saturday, 1 March, two days before the start of the late Emperor’s funeral, a period of deep national mourning.
Posters, leaflets and copies of an independence manifesto were printed at secret presses and distributed in advance of what organisers expected to be a small and non-violent protest in Seoul on 1 March. On the day, a large crowd took to the streets and marched into a violent confrontation with Japanese police, while the original organisers signed a proclamation of Korean independence, made sure it was delivered to the Japanese governor-general and then gave themselves up for arrest. Similar proclamations were announced in towns and cities across Korea, with similar immediate results.
The First of March Movement had been born, and protests spread across the country during the next few days. The demonstrations were largely peaceful in urban areas under tight Japanese control, but the country’s peasant majority was more inclined to violence, as were the occupying authorities. Military units joined police in suppressing protests, and while Japanese records admit to 553 civilian deaths and some 12,000 arrests during the month, Korean figures of about 7,500 dead, 16,000 injured and almost 50,000 arrests are generally accepted as more reliable.
Protests had died down by the beginning of April, and had never remotely threatened Japanese control, but they had announced Korea’s case for independence to the world. That seems to have been the organisers’ basic aim, as a platform for an appeal to the Paris Peace Conference, where they hoped to claim independence on the basis of the Fourteen Points.
Meanwhile, in Paris, the First World War’s ‘winners’ were mired in the business of diluting hope. Thanks to the diplomatic clout of the ‘great powers’, and to a global outbreak of bandwagon jumping once the defeat of the Central Powers appeared likely, the winners’ enclosure included representatives of thirty-two nations or peoples with claims on national status – but every major decision around the peace process was arrived at by arrangement between the ‘Big Five’ of France, Britain, the United States, Italy and Japan.
In practice, the small Japanese delegation’s functions were to protect Japan’s considerable territorial and economic ambitions, to formally endorse the decisions of its allies, and to seal Japan’s acceptance as a major and reliable diplomatic force in the post-War world. As such it played little active part in the process, and most people referred to the decision-makers at Paris as the Big Four. Nobody mentioned it to Italian delegates – because international prestige mattered to the men running the young and troubled ’empire’ of Italy – but everyone knew that the Big Four was really the Big Three. France, Britain and the United States were all richer and more powerful than Italy, had all spent money and materiel bailing out Italy’s failing war effort, and all treated Italy as a junior partner to whom terms could be dictated.
Predictably and understandably, the three big players were using the peace conference to pursue their own agendas. Conventional wisdom has the French and British chasing old-school imperial ambitions, while the US was concerned with creating a world it could safely leave alone while becoming its economic master – but all three were also anxious to please outside audiences.
World opinion mattered to the Big Three, as it had never done before. This reflected the growth spurt in global communications promoted by new technologies (and hot-housed during the War), and the victorious allies’ desire to save face around the ruthless use they had made of global communications to present their enemies as devils and themselves as paragons of liberal virtue. But the Big Three’s big reason for caring about how the world viewed them was fear that the new creed of bolshevism, a contagion that evidently thrived on the fruits of mass communication, was about to spread around the planet and, from their point of view, wreck everything.
The same fear lay just beneath the surface of the Big Three’s concern to keep their home populations happy with the First World War’s final score. In France and Britain in particular, but also in the United States, ruling elites were braced for popular socialist uprising in 1919, and the power-brokers gathered in Paris were acutely aware of a need to show the existing geopolitical system in a positive light. Bottom line, they all needed to give their voters at least the illusion of what they wanted.
The liberal values sketched out in Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points ran contrary to Anglo-French imperial ambitions and offended a potent strand of US isolationism (at least where the League of Nations was concerned), but they were world record holders when it came to global mass approval. At the same time, the British government was coming off a general election in which the voting population had made perfectly clear its desire for revenge on the defeated Central Powers, and the French government stood firmly in line with its constituency’s overwhelming determination to both punish and cripple Germany. In other words, like many a Brexiteer today, British and French voters wanted to have their cake and eat it, a state of affairs that forced the peace negotiators into some very convoluted compromises.
A compromising attitude to liberal values was easy enough to slide past the watching world when applied to defeated enemies, so they could be fleeced dry to satisfy popular demands for revenge. Their former territories, along with those of the fallen Russian Empire, could meanwhile be parcelled out to independent authorities in line with popular Wilsonian principles. For the men making decisions in Paris, the latter process proved to be time-consuming, fiendishly complex and inclined to open up local cans of worms. It was also a nuisance to be ignored whenever it messed with Anglo-French imperial ambitions.
For all that French strategists glorified and protected their empire, the British were the world’s great imperialists in 1919. In some ways, albeit expensive ones, the War seemed to have been good for the British Empire, strengthening its cohesion through the bonds of shared struggle and offering opportunities for expansion into valuable territories. A tsunami of troubles rooted in the changes wrought by world war was on its way, but for now British imperial strategists were all about the war dividend, and although they were happy enough to hold onto a few former German colonies in Africa and the Far East, the big payoff was control of that oil-rich global hub, the Middle East.
The mandate system – by which the British (and their fellow travellers in the region, the French) took control of the Middle East, trampled on the well-developed aspirations of native peoples and still contrived to pay lip service to liberal values – matched any of the self-serving diplomatic and semantic contortions performed by the Paris negotiators for barefaced doublespeak. It also left the British and the French, a working majority in Big Three terms, in no position to publicly oppose any other empire’s pursuit of post-War security or expansion.
This wasn’t a problem in relation to most other empires. The Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires had ceased to exist, the United States was still pretending not to be empire and not openly interested in fighting like one, and Italy’s persistent demands for imperial expansion could be safely ignored on the grounds that debtors couldn’t be choosers. Only one empire in the world fell outside the Big Three’s control. Healthy, wealthy, powerful, aggressive and on the winning side – not to mention a very long way from Paris – Japan could do what it liked in 1919.
So it was that, while the Japanese prevented a nationalist delegation from leaving Korea, the Korean National Association set up a provisional independent government in Shanghai and sent a three-man delegation to Paris. When it arrived it met with instant and unambiguous rejection from the Big Three on the grounds that Korean affairs were Japan’s business. It left without achieving anything more than recognition that Wilson’s promise of ‘impartial adjustment’ of colonial claims according to popular wishes applied only to the colonies of defeated empires.
The sudden, noisy eruption of the First of March Movement has been credited with helping Korea emerge from the cultural isolation promoted by five centuries of Confucian rule, and with igniting a torch of organised, nationalist agitation that was never extinguished. It also persuaded post-War governments to relax some of Japan’s more Draconian control measures in Korea, but they were tightened again after the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1930 and the country would remain under strict colonial rule until the end of the Second World War.
By that time, with Japan finally out of the empire business and replaced in the region by a rather different US imperial model, the Chinese and Russian Empires were ready to resume their interests in Korea, albeit under different names. The various strands of Korean nationalism, germinated in 1919 but left to grow untended amid the compromises of Paris, had by then hardened into mutually hostile factions, each taking support from different imperial sponsors, and we’re still living with the legacy of their differences today.