On Friday, the streets of South Korean cities filled with the clattering sounds of traditional percussion instruments and cries celebrating the country’s independence. Hundreds dressed in traditional garb to take part in government-organized gatherings to celebrate the centenary of the March 1 Movement, a citizens’ uprising against Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean peninsula.

On March 1, 1919, a group of activists gathered at a restaurant in Seoul where they read out a declaration of Korean independence from Japan. Korean media reports say that as many as two million people around the country took part in public demonstrations, in what is credited as the first mass mobilization for Korean independence.

The official Korean narrative has it that the Japanese colonial police cracked down harshly, leading to hundreds of deaths.

Though the movement did not lead directly to independence – Korea became independent when Japan agreed to relinquish its colonies as part of its surrender to end World War II – it is nowadays remembered as the starting point of an assertive Korean nation, leading to the formation of a provisional Korean government in Shanghai.

Organizers of the festivities in Seoul argue that the March 1 Movement is relevant today as an instructive example of cooperation amid hardship. Photo: Steven Borowiec

President Moon Jae-in appeared at the main event in Seoul’s Gwanghwamun Square where the elephant in the room was the previous day’s failed talks between North Korea and the United States in Hanoi. Moon is committed to continuing cooperation with the North, and said: “The order of the next 100 years is a new system on the Korean peninsula. We move toward a new era of peace, with North Korea.”

Silence in the North

At their summit in Pyongyang last September, the leaders of the two Koreas agreed to work toward holding a joint commemorative event this year. But those plans were called off last month when North Korea’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, its body that handles relations with the South, announced that a joint event was not feasible due to unspecified “scheduling” issues.

The anniversary is not a public holiday in North Korea, and the country’s constitution makes no mention of the movement, instead attributing the country’s independence to “energetic activities for the strengthening and development of the socialist movement” by founding leader Kim Il-sung.

The preamble to the South Korean constitution identifies the movement as a key part of the country’s inception, stating: “We, the people of Korea, proud of a resplendent history and traditions dating from time immemorial, upholding the cause of the Provisional Republic of Korea Government born of the March First Independence Movement of 1919.”

The North’s state media has also remained silent about the centennial. The reason for the disconnect between the two Koreas could be the South’s celebration of the 1919 provisional government, which North Korea does not recognize.

A piece entitled “South and North’s Different Memories of March 1,” published Friday on OhMyNews, a left-leaning South Korean newsite, argued that the bottom-up nature of the March 1 Movement, with emphasis on the prominent roles played by laborers and farmers, has led Pyongyang to play down its significance, instead preferring to draw attention to the anti-Japanese movement led by Kim Il-sung.

Unity in the South

The organizers of the festivities in Seoul argue that the March 1 Movement is relevant today as an instructive example of cooperation amid hardship.

“In this era, when South and North Korea are divided, and there are various domestic and overseas conflicts, the March 1 Movement is a source of wisdom and valuable lessons for how to overcome difficulties. Today is a day for all Koreans to make their own efforts to embody that wisdom and those lessons,” Chung Jaejung, a professor at the University of Seoul and an advisor of the Seoul Metropolitan Government, told Asia Times.

“In Korea, there is a Confucian tradition of primarily looking backwards to arrange the present.” Photo: Steven Borowiec

Despite the smiles on the city’s streets, the celebration is taking place against a backdrop of discord over how Korea’s history should be remembered. Last month, police announced an investigation into three lawmakers of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party over their comments regarding the 1980 anti-government uprising in the southeastern city of Gwangju.

The regime of military dictator Chun Doo-hwan ordered the military to fire on protesters, leading to a rash of injuries and deaths. Ever since, South Korea’s far right has made unsubstantiated claims that the protests in Gwangju were a North Korean operation.

While there is no credible evidence to support such claims, some on the right remain convinced that the harsh military action was necessary to protect South Korea’s national security.

To those on the right, the backlash the lawmakers have faced is the latest instance of conservative voices being pushed aside. Also on the streets of central Seoul on Friday was a rally by the right-wing Korea Patriots Party, members of whom hold regular gatherings to decry the current administration.

In recent months, President Moon’s once sky-high approval rate has been falling amid weak economic growth and a lack of tangible progress toward North Korea’s denuclearization. Conservatives have complained about being frozen out of mainstream media as the country veers to the left.

“We think that this government’s policies are all autocratic and socialist and they are all failing. If you look at the economic indicators, the unemployment rate is increasing drastically and everything is getting worse,” said Hanjin Lew, international spokesperson for the Korea Patriots Party.

“We have no way of getting this message out except to go out into the streets and go on YouTube,” Lew said.

Ongoing battle

The battle over how to remember history, and the contention that only one narrative is acceptable and anyone who disagrees should face punishment, is a persistent fixture of public discourse in South Korea.

“In Korea, there is a Confucian tradition of primarily looking backwards to arrange the present, of compiling history so as to make moral judgments on leaders, decisions and actions according to set Confucian traditions, while establishing ‘official’ moral judgments on past leaders, decisions and actions that everyone is expected to adhere to, with disagreement regarded as treason,” said David A Mason, a professor of Korean Cultural Tourism at Sejong University in Seoul.

“That rectification of history is actually impossible in the modern age, as there are too many facts to be compiled, and many of them contradict each other,” Mason said.

Chung, an historian and advisor, said the country should probe its own past in search of the truth.

“History is a constant process of confirming facts through hard work, and the characteristics of people and the era can be incorporated into how we evaluate and assess those facts. That way, history accumulates to become rich and diverse over time,” Chung said.