“[H]istory has arrived at a point of balance where the Korean people can act decisively to determine the future direction of their nation. We can take our fate out of the hands of others and shape our own destiny. Through the creation of a new and unified Korean nation, founded upon the Korean Dream, we can substantively address all the risks and challenges facing us, on the peninsula and in the region.” Korean Dream: A Vision for a Unified Korea

March 1 is a national Korean holiday established in 1949. It commemorates the events of March 1, 1919 when an estimated 2 million Koreans stood together to demand for their independence and the dignity of self-rule.

Much is written about the founding documents as well as the outcomes of the movement, even while it would be another half-century before Korea gained independence, only to be plunged into a civil conflict and then divided into two separate states. What emerges in the studies surrounding March 1 is that it was an inter-religious effort undergirded by a consensus around fundamental values forged through dialogue and a shared ideal of an independent Korean nation.

“March 1 showed the outcome of several decades of schooling and civic discourse concerning enlightenment and social reform, which heightened the sense of national unity as well as the thirst for independence.”

The first 33 signers of the Korean Declaration of Independence presents simple evidence of the inter-religious make-up of the delegation. Represented were Methodists, Presbyterians, Buddhists and the indigenous Korean religion Chondogyo. Each religious community represented worked tirelessly for the cause of Korean independence.

The spiritual leaders recognized the historic, global awakening of consciousness taking place after World War I that acknowledged certain universal principles concerning the value of individual rights and freedoms. The founding authors of the Korean Declaration of Independence were inspired by President Wilson’s 14 Point Declaration written at the close of World War I. The call for independence as the “solemn will of heaven,” compelled the religious leaders to put aside their personal agendas, circumstances, and differences to stand with a higher vision and fulfill their duty to Korean people.

A page from a Red Cross pamphlet on the March 1st Movement

What is not often written about is that the process of writing the Declaration took years of dialogue and deliberation amongst leaders of the different faiths. Initial efforts were stifled by disagreements between Christians and those who followed Chondogyo. Yet, while there continued to be differences of opinion, religious leaders recognized that without a unified effort for independence the movement could not succeed. They met to identify common issues and shared values upon which they could create a plan together for the March 1 movement. From their shared commitment emerged a concerted, grassroots effort driven by the various religious communities that put in the time, resources and manpower to support the independence movement.

Rev. Soon Hyun, one of the original representative of thirty-three Korean leaders who signed the Declaration of Independence writes, “March 1 showed the outcome of several decades of schooling and civic discourse concerning enlightenment and social reform, which heightened the sense of national unity as well as the thirst for independence.” Much of the education took place within the religious communities who trained their leaders to become teachers who developed the “a strong collective consciousness and will” of the Korean people. The religious communities became a natural place to education and mobilize people. Chondogyo reports years of planning and training that occurred through their monastery and religious communities leading up to the March 1 demonstrations. The connections of the community were also used to raise resources that funded the independence efforts.

What is also important to note is the non-violent nature of the March 1 demonstrations. Even within the lists the grievances imposed on the Korean people, the declaration advocates an approach that does not “dwell on the sins of the past” but looks forward to empowering the Korean people to become a model nation for the world. Forgiveness does not come in the equation of justice. It takes spiritual fortitude to connect to the humanity of the perpetrator and let go of injustices in order to invest in the future. The moral authority of the religious leaders is obviously critical in ensuring that the demonstrations were rooted in a higher purpose and remained peaceful.

On March 1, 1919, the inter-religious delegation of 33 brave representatives of gathered in a small restaurant, Taehwagwan, in Seoul and signed the Korean Declaration of Independence. They presented the Declaration to the Japanese government and willingly were arrested.

Seoul, Korea’s Pagoda Park in the 1930’s

At the same time, in Pagoda Park, a reported 100,000 people gathered for a peaceful demonstration of support, including a public reading of the Declaration of Independence. The protests spread to over 1,500 locations, ultimately engaging about two million Koreans.

Although the movement was suppressed by strong military retaliation, leaving a reported 7,500 dead, and another 46,000 arrests, the demonstrations illuminated a vision in the heart of the Korean people to become a people who could serve the world. Their example would inspire Indian Nobel-prize winning laureate Rabindranath Tagore to compose a poem commemorating the movement and what it represented.

Although the dream of independence was never fully realized at that time, and the Korean people remain divided, there are lessons that we can learn from the example of the Korean independence movement. And in fact, it becomes critical to study this past to inform our reunification efforts today. We must ask, how can we replicate those efforts and define common agreements that cut across lines of identity? What is it that we ultimately want to build together? And what are the ideals that can bind us together?

The Korean Independence Movement offers insights into what could become a touchstone for our efforts today.