March 1 Commemorations in the DPRK

Given the documented backlash against their disastrous currency revaluation of November 30, 2009, one would imagine that the Korean Workers’ Party leadership in Pyongyang would want to avoid open mention, much less endorsement, of loosely organized mobs of citizens demanding freedom from tyranny.

Yet occasionally, the calendar imposes its own sort of tyranny, forcing the Party into contortions which, in the end, are better than damning silence:

March First Popular Uprising

Pyongyang, March 1 (KCNA) — Ninety-one years has elapsed since the March First Popular Uprising took place in Korea.

It was a nationwide patriotic struggle to achieve the liberation of the country from the Japanese imperialists’ rule and win the sovereignty of the nation.

After illegally occupying Korea early in the 20th century the Japanese imperialists had infringed upon the Korean nation’s dignity and sovereignty with a mediaeval military rule, turning the whole land of Korea into a large prison without bars.

The Korean people’s grudge and resentment against their heinous colonial rule finally burst into a nationwide uprising on March 1, Juche 8 (1919).

It started in Pyongyang. Patriotic students of Pyongyang Sungsil Middle School, turned into a strong base of the anti-Japanese independence movement by indomitable revolutionary Kim Hyong Jik, and thousands of people gathered in the playground of Sungdok Girls’ School at noon and listened to “Declaration of Independence” before taking to the streets to stage a fierce demonstration, chanting “Long live the independence of Korea!” and “Japanese and their army, out of Korea!”

The number of demonstrators multiplied soon into more than 100,000 in spite of the Japanese imperialists’ brutal crackdown.

The demonstration spread over not only the whole country but also Manchuria, Shanghai, Maritime Province, Hawaii, etc.

Korean people who had suffered a miserable lot of an enslaved nation took part in the uprising in all parts of the country irrespective of occupation and religious faith, age and sex.

Within three months since the start of the uprising, more than two million people of all social strata joined the uprising and demonstrations and riots totaled over 3,200 times till the end of the year.

The March First Popular Uprising was a historical event which demonstrated the Korean people’s independent and patriotic spirit of not tolerating outsiders’ rule.

I am reminded of the difficulties Kim Il Song faced as a new leader in 1946, when uncomfortable resonance around March 1 centered on the obvious fact that Korea remained occupied by foreign armies.  As Chuck Kraus and I wrote in our article on the Sinuiju Incident (Journal of Korean Studies, 2008):

The resonant anniversary of March 1, or Samil, was approaching. As with the American occupation regime in the south, the Soviets in the north were challenged greatly by how to handle the popular sentiments that the anniversary would stimulate. In spite of intense Korean Communist Party efforts to reinterpret March 1 as a Bolshevik-led movement, Christian and student rallies and cries for political representation culminated on March 1, 1946. Schools throughout P’yŏngyang on February 28 were practically empty, as many students refrained from school to voice their opposition to the staged Samil celebrations. After a number of students were forced to march during the Samil parade, a huge crowd of Christians assembled to protest at a P’yŏngyang Presbyterian Church. Under close watch of Soviet soldiers, the crowd lingered until March 3. Occupation leaders responded to these protests by closing schools for several days and to again hold private meetings with school principals. Even then, however, students issued statements ignoring Soviet orders.

And don’t forget that propaganda slogans can always be altered for seditious purposes, as in this recent example from inside the DPRK:

Heoryong City Concentrates on Arresting Political Offenders Responsible for Alteration of a Propaganda Phrase
From January 31, 8 p.m. to February 1, 6 a.m., the propaganda phrase on a bulletin board in a bookstore in Osan-Dong, Heoryong City, was altered, which can become a big social issue. On February 1, there was a large crowd of onlookers who stopped on their way to work to look at the altered bulletin board. This issue was reported to the Central Department of Propaganda and agitation (CDPA) because it happened it the hometown of Mother Kim Jong-Sook.

On February 3, the CDPA criticized the officials of the City Party, saying, “The Heoryong City Party officials failed to provide residents with well-planned political lectures.” The CDPA issued an internal order stating, “The officials who allowed this political issue to arise should be questioned and held responsible; however, at this time, we will focus our efforts on arresting the offender and intensifying the lectures for the residents in order to promote solidarity.” The original phrase on the bulletin board read, “Building a sound ethos of learning political ideology.” However, someone had altered the phrase to read, “Building a half-hearted ethos of learning political ideology” by changing the consonants. The national Security Agency, in cooperation with the City Security Agency, mobilized members of Labor Organization and Youth Union to specifically ask the residents about their whereabouts in order to locate the offender.

image from Enki Bilal's bande desinee (accessed in a precious "free speech" space in the Alliance Francaise Pekin)

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