Jan. 27, 2023
Kim Sang-ok Death Centenary
On January 27, KoreaPost will release its first issue of 2023 — a single stamp commemorating the 100th anniversary of the death of patriot Kim Sang-ok (金相玉), an independence activist who killed himself on January 22, 1923, ending a 10-day confrontation with the Japanese military police after throwing a bomb at the Jongno Police Station which was notorious for repression.
Born on January 5, 1889 in Hyoje-dong, Dongdaemun, Seoul, the second of four children born to his father Kim Gui-hyun and his wife Kim, Kim Sang-ok grew up to be a boy from a poor family who had to help make ends meet as a weaver in a factory at the age of 8 and a horseshoe weaver at the age of 14. At the age of 17, he became a Christian and showed a special passion for learning. He studied reading at the Shingun Night School which was affiliated with Dongdaemun Church. When the night school was closed due to financial difficulties, Sang-ok established the Dongheung Ya School.
In 1912, at the age of 23, he had the opportunity to broaden his horizons by traveling around Korea as a medicine peddler and soon began running the Yeongdeok Hardware Store. In 1913, Sang-ok organized a secret society, the Kwangbok Group, in North Gyeongsang with Chae Ki-jung, Yoo Chang-sun, and Han Hoon. Later, he founded the Horseshoe Hats Company and earned a great deal of money creating and selling horsehair hats. He used these profits to fund pro-independence activities by Korean people and students calling for independence from Japan and protesting forced assimilation into the Japanese way of life.
On March 1, 1919, thirty-three Korean cultural and religious leaders issued a proclamation, supported by thousands of students and civilians in Seoul. There were over 1000 demonstrations in cities throughout Korea. The demonstrators were brutally suppressed with Korean historian Park Eun-sik reporting about 7,500 killed and 16,000 wounded, and 46,000 arrested. These were among the earliest public displays of Korean resistance during the rule of Korea by Japan from 1910 to 1945. The event is called the “Three-One Movement” or “March First Movement” in Korean. It is also sometimes referred to as the Man-se Demonstrations.
On April 1 of the same year, at the home of Mrs. Pearson, an Englishman in Dongdaemun Church, Kim Sang-ok organized a secret society innovation group with his young comrades, including Park No-young, Yoon Ik-joong, Shin Hwa-so, Jeong Seon-seon, and Jeon Woo-jin. The first issue of the Innovation Gazette was published on April 17, providing news of the independence movement in various regions and editorials promoting independence ideas. Sang-ok’s group produced and distributed 1,000 underground newspapers until September 1919. They also sent a letter of intent to the Provisional Government Support Association and produced anti-Japanese leaflets to stimulate the enthusiasm of the independence movement. Sang-ok financed the newspaper production and worked at the forefront of the independence movement as a distribution director.
Due to financial difficulties and the seizure of printing facilities in Japan, the newspaper ceased publication in September. Kim Sang-ok was arrested but released due to insufficient evidence. From this time on, he realized the limitations of the peaceful method of independence movement and envisioned a way to achieve independence through armed struggle.
In early January 1920, he met Kim Dong-sun, who had been sent from the Northern Route Military Sentiment — an independent military group based in Manchuria — to discuss concrete measures for armed struggle. Soon, around April of the same year, together with Kim Dong-sun, Yoon Ik-jung, and Seo Dae-soon, Kim Sang-ok organized a secret society assassination squad. While trying to raise funds for the military, he planned a separate protest and sought a way to fight in conjunction with Han Hoon of the Liberation Unity Unit, who entered the country carrying 40 pistols and 3,000 rounds of ammunition. When the U.S. Delegation visited Korea on August 24, 1920, the plan was to arouse international public opinion by carrying out the killing of Japanese dignitaries, including the Governor-General of Korea, and the destruction of enemy organs.
However, on August 23, a day before the planned attack, Han Hoon and Kim Dong-sun were arrested and were unable to achieve their roles in the assassination. Kim Sang-ok went into hiding from Il-kyung’s pursuit, and with the help of his comrades’ funding, he defected to Shanghai, China, in October of that year. In Shanghai, Sang-ok broadened his perspective through the encouragement of the Provisional Government’s senior officers. He joined a group of volunteers similar in character to the activities of the previous Killing Corps and the Supreme Court. In July 1921, he returned to Korea temporarily to collect military funds to support the Provisional Government in Chungcheong and Jeolla Province, and later returned to Shanghai with his comrade Chang Kyu-dong.
Kim Sang-ok and his comrade Ahn Hong-han finally departed Shanghai at the end of November 1922, hiding four pistols, 800 rounds of ammunition, and anti-Japanese documents in a trunk-style wooden box, and returned to Seoul on December 1 with the plan in mind. His idea was to bomb the Jongno Police Station. At the time, this facility was a symbol of the Korean people’s resentment by suppressing and crushing many independence activists. He also wished to assassinate the Korean Governor-General Jae Deng-sil.
At about 8 p.m. on January 12, 1923, Kim Sang-ok threw a bomb from the corner of a house on the west side of the Jongno Police Station (near the current Chang’an Building) toward a window on the west side of the police station. He then hid himself in his brother-in-law’s house in Samphan-dong (now Huam-dong), Yongsan. This was close to Seoul Station — suitable for the next goal, the killing of Governor Jae-deung. The hiding place was detected by a informant of Cho Yong-su, a Korean martial artist in Dongdaemun, and at dawn on January 17, 14 armed police officers from the Jongno Police Station surrounded Gobong-geun’s house. Sang-ok shot and killed Jongno Police Station judo teacher Jeon Chon Janchil after a fierce battle with Il-kyung, severely wounded Geum-lō and Mae-jeon, escaped the encirclement, evaded Il-kyung’s relentless pursuit, and was able to climb the snow-capped Namsan Mountain barefoot and arrive at Lee Hye-su’s house in Hyoje-dong dressed in monk robes at Ahnjangsa Temple near Wangsimni.
While searching for an opportunity to assassinate Jae Deng-sil with his comrades, Il-kyung, who finally detected his hiding place, surrounded Lee Hye-su’s house at around 5 a.m. on January 22 with more than 400 armed police officers (also said to be about a thousand) drawn from four police stations in the city under the general command of the Gyeonggi Provincial Police Chief. As if foreboding that this would be the final battleground, Kim Sang-ok, with a pistol in each hand, climbed across the rooftops of five nearby houses and engaged in a skirmish with hundreds of police officers armed with pistols and long guns.
After more than three hours of fierce fighting, several police officers, including the police officer Yul Zhen Cheongjo of the Seodaemun Police Station, were killed, but Sang-ok’s bullets ran out. There was no choice but to surrender or be killed. After thinking for a while, Kim Sang-ok took his own life with the last bullet in his pistol. He was 34 years old.
When his family recovered his body, he was said to have eleven gunshot wounds on his body. The teacher was laid to rest in the Imun-dong country cemetery on January 26, 1923, amist the cry of his family and the students who came to the school to avoid the eyes of the Japanese police. The anti-Japanese movement and national spirit left by Kim Sang-ok passed from mouth to mouth and from heart to heart of the Korean people and continued like a ray of light even in the midst of Japanese oppression, becoming the foundation for the liberation of Korea.
In 1924, Zhao Xiaoang, head of the Foreign Affairs Department of the Shanghai Provisional Government, wrote and published a book about Kim Sang-ok. In honor of his service, the government honored him with the Presidential Medal of the Order of National Merit in 1962.
Partly due to Korean opposition to Japanese colonial policies, there was a brief relaxation of some of the harsh policies. The Korean crown prince married the Japanese princess Nashimoto. The ban on Korean newspapers was lifted, allowing publication of Choson Ilbo and The Dong-a Ilbo. Korean government workers received the same wages as Japanese officials, though the Japanese officials received bonuses the Koreans did not. Whippings were eliminated for minor offenses but not for others. Laws interfering with burial, slaughtering of animals, peasant markets, or traditional customs were removed or changed.
After the Peace Preservation Law of 1925, some freedoms were restricted. Then, in the lead up to the invasion of China and World War II, the harshness of Japanese rule increased again. China was adamantly opposed to Soviet influence in Korea after hearing about Soviet atrocities in Poland since its liberation. By the Cairo Conference in November 1943, the U.S. and China came to agree on Korean independence “in due course”, with China pressing for immediate recognition of the exile government and a tangible date for independence. After Soviet-American relations deteriorated, on August 10, 1945, the United States Department of War agreed that China should land troops in Pusan, Korea from which to prevent a Soviet takeover. However, this turnaround was too late to prevent the division of Korea, as the Red Army quickly occupied northern Korea that same month.
Although there were many separate movements against colonial rule, the main ideology or purpose of the movement was to free Korea from the Japanese military and political rule. Koreans were concerned with alien domination and Korea’s state as a colony. They desired to restore Korea’s independent political sovereignty after Japan invaded the weakened and partially modernized Korean Empire. This was the result of Japan’s political maneuvers to secure international approval for the annexation of treaty annexing Korea. During the independence movement, the rest of the world viewed what was occurring in Korea as an anti-imperialist, anti-militarist, and an anti-Japanese resistance movement. Koreans, however, saw the movement as a step to free Korea from the Japanese military rule.
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