Yu Kwan-Sun, the soul of Korea

In 1920 and 1921, more than two million Koreans from all walks of life took to the streets to demand an end to Japanese colonial occupation and for Korean independence. Among those who risked their lives as part of the anti-colonial Samsil movement (also known as the Man Sei or “Long Live” movement, taking its name from the chant, “Long Live Korean independence!”) was a young Korean high school student, Yu Kwan-Sun.

Yu was among the thousands of Koreans who joined a mass demonstration on 1 March 1920, at which anti-colonial activists read aloud a Korean Declaration of Independence in Pagoda Park in Seoul. In the following year and a half of struggle more than 7,500 protesters were killed, and more than 46,000 arrested and tortured.

On 5 March, high school students in Seoul were expected to return to school after a holiday break. They refused, instead joining protests across the country.

Yu and her fellow classmates were arrested but later released after foreign missionaries at the Ewha Girls’ School appealed to the Japanese authorities. In the wake of the student protests, the Japanese occupying forces closed down all Korean schools and Yu returned to her home town Cheonan, secretly bringing with her a copy of the Declaration of Independence which had been read out at Pagoda Park. In Cheonan, she became one of the primary organisers of the Samsil/Man Sei movement, along with her father and brother.

In the weeks leading up to the first major demonstration in Cheonan, Yu toured the district surrounding her home town speaking with local villagers, schools and church groups, convincing them to join the rally and the movement for independence. The first Man Sei rally in Cheonan took place on 1 April at Aunae Marketplace and saw between 3,000 and 4,000 people mobilise in opposition to the Japanese occupation.

During the rally Japanese police open fired on the protest, killing nineteen – including Yu’s mother and father. Yu was arrested and imprisoned. Undaunted by the Japanese repression and the murder of her parents, Yu used her trial to continue to stage protests demanding Korean independence and an end to Japanese colonial rule.

Yu was incarcerated in Seodaemun prison, where she continued to organise. She was repeatedly beaten and tortured, eventually dying in late September 1921, just five weeks short of her eighteenth birthday. Her last words were defiant: her only regret was that she wished she could have done more.

While the movement did not succeed in winning independence, it laid the groundwork for later anti-colonial movements in Korea.

Today, Yu is recognised in both North and South Korea as one of the heroines of the Japanese anti-colonial struggle and the struggle for Korean independence. As it has done with other anti-colonial fighters, the ruling class has appropriated her legacy to push their own agendas. However, this should not detract from the fact that Yu was a young woman who courageously threw herself into a struggle she believed in. She defied not only the social expectations imposed on girls and women at the time, but also refused to be intimidated by the threats of the Japanese occupation powers.

Her story is an inspiration.