In 1904, Korea allied with Japan during the first Russo-Japanese war and lent its territory for Japan’s military operations. This was only a stepping stone to the Japanese occupation of Korea. They came and never left. This was the government’s plan to make Japan a world power. Tough luck for anyone in Korea that wasn’t fine with this plan.
On March 1, 1919, the Korean independence movement began. The so called March 1st Movement started with demonstrations mainly made up of students and Christians as all other political groups had been disbanded by the Japanese government. The rebels created a Declaration of Independence, which was signed by thirty-three representatives. Then they shouted out the Declaration of Independence then “Long live Korean Independence”. This went over about as well as can be expected.
One of the protesters was a young girl named Yu Gwan Sun. She was born in 1904 in little village near Ch’onan, in South Ch’ungch’ong. Not much is known about her early life, but she was sent to the Ewha Women’s University in Seoul as recommended by one of her teachers, Alice Sharp. Sharp was a western missionary and saw potential in Yu. Her father agreed to take the chance and sent Yu to school in 1916. She did well in her studies and contemporary accounts say she used her summer vacations to teach the local villagers what she was learning.
1919 was a turbulent year in Korea. On January 22, King Kojong, who had abdicated his throne in 1907 in favor of Japanese rule, died. Despite his abdication, the king was still quite popular and rumors went round that he had been poisoned by the Japanese. The mourning for the king fed into the Korean independence movement and helped fuel the March 1st Movement. Yu and other students joined the mass demonstrations in Pagoda Park in downtown Seoul. The authorities broke up the demonstrations and many students and teachers were arrested. Ewha University was temporarily closed by order of the Governor-General of Korea and Yu went home, but that did not end her career as a rebel.
Once home, she helped organize more protests working often until 3 or 4am. She handed out Korean flags to the villagers. The protest in the Awunae Marketplace grew to 2,000 demonstrators from four neighboring towns. They were all chanting “Long live Korean Independence” and holding up their hands crying “Mansei”. The police arrived and one thing led to another shots were fired. When the smoke cleared, Yu’s parents were killed along with several others demonstrators. Yu was arrested and taken to the detention center at the Japanese Military Police Station at Ch’onan. She was offered a lighter sentence because of her youth if she would admit guilt and cooperate with the police. Yu refused. The police went for more “persuasive” methods, and subjected the young girl to torture to give up the names of collaborators or safe houses. Yu held firm. She was transferred to Gongju police station and stood trial for sedition and security law violations. At the trial, she protested its unjustness saying, “Your country has invaded another country. You have no rights to judge our guilts.” She was convicted and sentenced to five years at Seodaemun Prison.
At Seodaemun Prison, she was one of the many women who had been imprisoned in the independence movement. Women were dragged away by soldiers knowing they would be stripped and tortured to death, but still they screamed for independence. Special cells were built to torture them, each approximately 3.3 meters square and too low to stand up in. These were given the name “Yu Guan Sun’s Cave”, in dubious honor of their most famous occupant. Records discovered in November 2011 found that of the 45,000 who were arrested at protests during this time, 7,500 of them died at the hands of the Japanese.
Sadly, Yu was one of the fatalities. Still advocating for Korean independence, she was brutally tortured and beaten at the hands of the Japanese. She died in prison on September 28, 1920 only one year into her sentence. Her last words were supposedly “Japan shall fall.” She was only sixteen years old. Even in death, she was not allowed dignity. The Japanese prison officials originally refused to release her body for burial, but were forced by the threats from the western principals of the Ewha Women’s University. Her body was released to the school in a Saucony Vacuum Company oil crate. Jeannette Walter, one of the principals of the Ewha Women’s University, is said to have described her funeral as follows, “Yu Gwan Sun died in prison at the young age of 16. We brought her body to our school. Students prepared her shroud with cotton cloth. However, we decided that she is our true hero and remade her shroud with silk. Japan only allowed her funeral in church quietly with only her class friends attending. The students demanded to go to her burial place also, but it was never permitted. The teachers consoled them. I, a student representative, and a homeroom teacher went to her burial place instead, but Yu Gwan Sun was never forgotten.”
Her grave was in Itaewon cemetery, which was destroyed at a later date. A shrine was built after Korean independence and many statues of her exist at universities and schools. Legend says on March 1, the statues of Yu Gwan Sun will march around screaming “Long Live Korean Independence” and if you say her name to one of the statues, the head will turn and she will look into your eyes.
Sources available on request