Christianity and the Korean Independence Movement, 1895-1945

Christianity and the Korean Independence Movement, 1895-1945
| Part II of a Korean Christian Series

The arrival and early growth of Christianity in Korea, described in Part I, coincided with the fall of Korea to the Empire of Japan and the emergence of a Korean independence movement. The first generation of Korean Christians became the main leaders of the independence movement, and they established a connection between Korean national identity and Christianity that has continued into the 21st Century.

Often called “the hermit kingdom” by Americans unfamiliar with the country, Korea in the late 19th Century was in reality reaching out to the United States and striving to follow American examples in order to modernize the country and preserve its independence against colonization by the Empire of Japan. The kingdom of Korea established its first modern diplomatic relationship with the United States in 1882, attempting to secure U.S. military and diplomatic support against threats to its sovereignty. The U.S. government declined to become involved, and Japan took over Korea in 1905 after successful wars against China in 1894-95 and Russia in 1904-05. As the kingdom fell apart, many Koreans embraced Christianity and American ideas as ways to bring their nation into the modern world and save it from extinction.

Statue of Philip Jaisohn outside of the Embassy of the Republic of Korea in Washington, DC
Statue of Philip Jaisohn outside of the Embassy of the Republic of Korea in Washington, DC

The pioneer of this movement was an aristocrat named Soh Jae Pil, also known by the Anglicized name Philip Jaisohn. Exiled after participating in an attempted coup against the monarchy in 1884—the same event that opened the door for the first American Christian missionary, Dr. Horace Allen—Jaisohn went to the United States, where he became the first Korean-born U.S. citizen in 1890 and the first Korean-born medical doctor in 1892, then married a niece of former President James Buchanan in 1894. In 1896, he returned to Korea, where he organized a group called the Independence Club that drew a large following of young Korean nationalists educated in the Christian schools founded by Americans since 1884. Again exiled as a threat to the monarchy in 1898, he left behind a movement of Korean nationalists who looked to democracy and modern science and education as the solutions to Korea’s existential crisis.

Two decades later, two events in 1919 set the course of the Korean independence movement and showed the predominance in it of Christians, primarily from northern Korea: the March First Movement in Korea and the founding of the Korean Provisional Government in exile. The March First Movement was a nonviolent revolution, a decade before Gandhi’s Salt March in India, that issued a Declaration of Independence and held nationwide demonstrations demanding an end to Japanese rule. Of the movement’s 33 organizers, 16 were Christians, at a time when fewer than 3 percent of Koreans were. Of the 16 Christians, 10 were from Pyongyang and northwestern Korea. When a Korean Provisional Government formed in Shanghai in April 1919, it called for the restoration of Korean independence under a democratically elected republic, and its leaders were again heavily Christian and from the north. They included two men from the city of Haeju just north of the 38th Parallel, from sharply different backgrounds, who each would serve as president of the government in exile: Syngman Rhee and Kim Ku.

Syngman Rhee and his Austrian-born wife Franziska Donner at the Korean Liberty Conference in Washington in February 1942
Syngman Rhee and his Austrian-born wife Franziska Donner at the Korean Liberty Conference in Washington in February 1942

Syngman Rhee, the first president of the Korean Provisional Government in 1919 and the first president of the Republic of Korea in 1948, was thoroughly tied to the United States. He had been educated at an American Methodist school in Seoul and joined Philip Jaisohn’s Independence Club. Imprisoned in the crackdown on Jaisohn and the Independence Club, he went to the United States after his release from prison in 1904, and from then until 1945 he lived mostly in America. After obtaining bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees from George Washington University, Harvard, and Princeton, he returned to Korea for two years in 1910-12, then went to Shanghai to serve as president of the Korean Provisional Government in 1919-25. He spent over 30 years in the United States as a representative of the Korean independence movement before returning to Korea after the Second World War.

Kim Ku (back row, without hat) as a farmer and teacher in a small town near Haeju, 1906
Kim Ku (back row, without hat) as a farmer and teacher in a small town near Haeju, 1906

Kim Ku, president of the Korean Provisional Government almost continuously from 1927 to 1945, had almost no connections to Americans before 1945, and his adherence to Christianity and American political principles shows the degree to which they had become practically universal among Korean nationalists. With no formal education, Kim Ku spent several years with guerilla bands, traditionalists opposed to foreign ideas in religion and politics, fighting Japanese encroachment in Korea. He embraced Christianity and western ideas while in prison in 1896-98 for killing a Japanese man. After escaping from prison and spending years as a fugitive, he spent 15 years attempting to live in peace as a farmer, teacher, and lay religious leader while supporting underground nationalist organizations, interrupted by repeated arrests by the Japanese authorities that included the mass arrests that implicated Reverend George McCune in 1911. He left Korea for the first time in 1919 to join the Korean Provisional Government, and he spent the ensuing 26 years in China until he returned to Korea in 1945.

Syngman Rhee and Kim Ku meeting Lieutenant General John Hodge, U.S. commanding general in Korea in 1945-48, in November 1945
Syngman Rhee and Kim Ku meeting Lieutenant General John Hodge, U.S. commanding general in Korea in 1945-48, in November 1945

Despite the obvious ideological affinity between the Korean Provisional Government and the United States, the U.S. government refused support or recognition from 1919 to the postwar U.S. administration of Korea in 1945-48. During the Second World War, American intelligence officers with the Office of Strategic Services urged the U.S. to cooperate with the Korean Provisional Government, and in postwar Korea, U.S. commanding general John Hodge attempted to persuade the State Department to install it as the government of liberated Korea. These efforts failed because of indifference from Washington, where the primary concern was not offending the Soviet Union, which was occupying northern Korea.

Sungshil Middle School, Union Christian College, in 1913.
Sungshil Middle School, Union Christian College, in 1913.

In Pyongyang under Soviet occupation, both the Soviet-installed regime and its opponents reflected the recent American Christian presence. Kim Il Sung was a son of Christian parents, his father a Presbyterian from a rural area near Pyongyang who had attended middle school at Union Christian College, his mother a daughter of a Presbyterian minister. He renounced the religion of his parents and embraced Communism, returning to Korea as a 33 year old junior officer in the Red Army. His main opponent, Cho Man Sik, was a Presbyterian convert who was further influenced by Gandhi’s concepts of nonviolent resistance and self-sufficiency. He had participated in the March First Movement in 1919 and for a quarter of a century led nonviolent resistance to Japanese rule in Pyongyang. Opposed to the imposition of Communism in Korea, he started his own nationalist political party, the Chosun Democratic Party, in November 1945. His anti-Communist opposition came to an end in January 1946 when Red Army soldiers placed him under arrest. He disappeared in 1950, reportedly executed with other political prisoners as U.N. forces approached Pyongyang in October 1950.

Almost completely unknown in the United States, where what little knowledge of Korea that exists begins with the Korean War of 1950-53, the significance of Christianity and American ideas in the history of Korea is a unique example of the influence of American Christians on the development of a nation of international significance in the 21st Century. The economically advanced and heavily Christian society of South Korea and the backward and militantly anti-Christian state of North Korea both have their intellectual roots in the missionary work of American Christians in Korea in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, long before any U.S. official involvement in Korea. It is a history worth remembering and studying further as part of a fuller understanding of both events on the Korean peninsula and the influence of religion on history and current events.

Robert S. Kim is a lawyer who served as Deputy Treasury Attaché in Iraq in 2009-10.

Photo Credit: Syngman Rhee and Kim Ku meeting Lieutenant General John Hodge, U.S. commanding general in Korea in 1945-48, in November 1945

Other Parts in the Series:

Part I: Jerusalem of the East: The American Christians of Pyongyang, 1895-1942

Part III and Part IV will come later in 2016.

The story of the American Christians of North Korea and their service as U.S. intelligence officers in the Second World War will be told in Robert Kim’s book Crusade in Asia, to be published by the University of Nebraska Press in spring 2017.

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