President Yoon Suk Yeol’s controversial speech on the 104th anniversary of the March 1 Independence Movement prompted me to watch two movies: “A Resistance” and “Anarchist from Colony.” Both are based on the heart-wrenching fate of courageous Koreans who as teenagers joined the massive anti-Japanese protests of March 1, 1919.
A presidential speech customarily marks the watershed event. Yoon, no stranger to delivering fuzzy logic, kept his first March 1 address so brief that he hardly appeared to acknowledge the historical meaning of the day.
Yoon has reiterated that mending diplomatic relations with Japan is a priority in his foreign policy. But if his equation for a like-minded partner includes only a fleeting glance on the deep scars of the past, there is little hope that his outreach will enjoy broad public approval.
In both films, the protagonists were born in 1902, when their country was a contested arena for hegemonic imperial powers. Their future is mercilessly cut short. One dies in prison of injuries from torture, at age 18. The other receives a life sentence. Japan’s surrender in World War II finally frees him from prison 22 years later.
“A Resistance” focuses on the last 15 months in the life of Yu Gwan-sun, one of the most famous and revered Korean independence activists, at Seodaemun Prison in colonial-era Seoul. The film begins with her arrival at the prison, barefoot and blindfolded, her face already severely swollen from torture. Flashbacks show her role in organizing and conducting anti-colonial rallies in her hometown, where she lost both of her parents.
Yu is confined in the squalor of a 100-square-foot cell, which is shared by over 20 female inmates, all serving their terms for participating in the street rallies, shouting “Manse!” or long live Korean independence. Days of torture and deprivation can’t strip her courage and dignity as a fierce freedom fighter. On March 1, 1920, on the first anniversary of the nationwide protests, she initiates a manse movement again in her cell, which quickly spreads throughout the prison with some 3,000 inmates joining.
“Anarchist from Colony” depicts the activities of Park Yeol, a self-proclaimed Korean revolutionary, in Japan in the early 1920s. Expelled from school for joining manse rallies in Seoul, he moved to Tokyo to continue his education. He organizes an anarchist group and plans to attack the imperial family but fails repeatedly to obtain explosives.
After the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 devastates Tokyo and surrounding prefectures, false rumors spread that Koreans are committing arson and robbery. It is a conspiracy by the Japanese government to turn people’s anger toward Koreans. Ethnic Koreans are randomly killed and the Japanese government hypes up the case of Park Yeol to cover up the massacre. Park and his Japanese partner and anarchist colleague, Fumiko Kaneko, are sentenced to death on charges of high treason.
The film highlights the relationship of Park and Kaneko, one of Japan’s earliest female political prisoners, their last remarks in their trial constituting a thought-provoking climax. Both clad in traditional Korean attire, as requested by Park through his lawyer, they each deliver their remarks, effectively seeking capital punishment, believing that it is their only opportunity to convey their messages beyond the courtroom.
Park says, “On the day (of the March 1 movement), the Japanese committed unspeakable crimes against Koreans and forbade them from uttering a word (about the atrocities). And, a while ago, Koreans were massacred by brutal methods. The Japanese are trying again to bury the truth. But they will fail to achieve their objective. The more they try, the more the truth will reveal itself. This is the flow of history.”
Kaneko says, “What made me what I am? While living in Korea I witnessed the manse movement of March 1. At the time I felt something surging in my heart, inspiring me to tell myself that I couldn’t take it as other people's affairs, and the spirit of rebellion against power started rising in me.”
Their death sentences were commuted to life imprisonment. They were transferred to separate prisons far apart and Kaneko died in suspicious circumstances in 1926. Her prison memoir was posthumously published, which served as the primary source for the film.
As Yoon noted in his speech, Koreans rose up on March 1, 1919, “to build a free, democratic nation where the people are the rightful owners.” But too many unarmed citizens met their deaths due to guns and swords. Over the following two months, the movement spread across Korea, resulting in some 7,500 deaths, 15,000 wounded and 47,000 arrested. In the wake of the Great Kanto Earthquake, some 6,600 ethnic Koreans were killed.
Yoon’s speech excluded the toll on Korean lives, effectively absolving Japan of its responsibility. The ongoing issue of reparations and apologies for victims of wartime forced labor also was not mentioned.
On March 6, Foreign Minister Park Jin announced a plan to compensate 15 Korean victims of World War II forced labor with funds donated by local companies instead of Japanese wartime employers to a Korean government-run foundation.
“The cup is now more than half-filled,” he said, hoping that Japan will perform its role to fill it up. But three days later, Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi crushed his hopes by denying the existence of wartime forced mobilization.
On Thursday, President Yoon sits with his Japanese counterpart, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, in Tokyo to discuss an array of bilateral issues. Next month, Yoon is scheduled to meet with US President Joe Biden. Will he go to Washington with a full cup attained in Tokyo, thereby paving the ground for smooth trilateral cooperation?
Yoon faces huge hurdles in and outside of the country. He is extending enormous generosity in his trips abroad, seemingly feeling it is necessary during what he calls a “global polycrisis.” Nevertheless, he also needs to open his ears at home and listen to his political opponents as well as victims of colonial crimes with a warm heart.
Lee Kyong-hee is a former editor-in-chief of The Korea Herald. -- Ed.