A Talk by Alan MacSimoin to the Workers' Solidarity Movement, Dublin
Branch in September 1991
The Korean Anarchist Movement
In the 2,000 years of Korean history there arose movements fighting for
peasants rights and for national independence. Within these movements
there were tendencies that may be seen as forerunners of modern anarchism,
in the same way as we might view the Diggers in the English revolution.
In 1894 Japan invaded, under the pretext of protecting Korea from China. The
struggle for national independance became central to all radical political
The modern anarchist movement in Korea began to take form among the
exiles who fled to China after the 1919 independence struggle, and students
& workers who went to Japan. This struggle, the 3.1 Movement within which
anarchists were prominent, involved 2 million people; 1,500 demonstrations
were held; 7,500 were killed; 16,000 wounded and more than 700 homes and
47 churches destroyed.
In the period up to the close of World War II the Korean Anarchist
Federation has identified three stages.
The first stage covered the first half of the 1920s and is described by the KAF
as the gestation period.
In the early years of this century as the Japanese ruling class started their
imperialist drive into other Asian countries they also ruthlessly cracked
down on any opposition at home. Japanese anarchists were to the forefront
in anti-imperialist agitation. In 1910 Kotoku Shusui, a leading Japanese
anarchist, was executed for treason. The Commoners Newspaper was rallying
opposition to the Russia-Japan war and to the occupation of Korea. With the
Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917, the rice riot of 1918 and the mass
uprising in Korea in 1919, the Japanese ruling class was worried.
Following the bloody suppression of the 3.1 Movement and the rise in the
level of class struggle in Japan itself, the Japanese bosses blamed anarchists
and Koreans for the Tokyo earthquake of 1923. More than 6,000 Korean
workers in Japan were hunted down with clubs and bamboo spears. All
known Japanese and Korean anarchists were arrested. Park Yeol and his wife
Kaneko Fumiko, Korean anarchists, veterans of the independence struggle and
organisers of the Tokyo "Black Workers Society", were sentenced to death.
Many others were jailed. The charge of causing an earthquake may have
been a bit embarrassing to sections of the ruling class so the sentences were
commuted to life in prison. Kaneko died in jail and Park was not released
until the end of WWll. Many of the Koreans jailed in what became known as
"the High Treason case" went on to become leading activists in the anarchist
movement in their own country.
The Korean Anarchist Federation in China was formed in April 1924. and
published the "Korean Revolution Manifesto". It was militantly
anti-imperialist "we declare that the burglar politics of Japan is the enemy
for our nation's existence and that it is our proper right to overthrow the
imperialist Japan by a revolutionary means". It went on to stress the need to
do more than merely exchange rulers, pointing out the difference between a
political revolution and a social revolution. It had no doubts about the role of
anarchists; it laid emphasis on the leading role of the anarchists in a
revolutionary situation. The Federation began to produce papers like
Recapture and Justice Bulletin.
By 1928 the spread of libertarian politics allowed the Korean Anarchists to
organise the Eastern Anarchist Federation with comrades from China,
Vietnam, Taiwan and Japan - which published a bulletin, Dong- Bang (The
East). The "Manifesto" was adopted by the Eastern Federation as its formal
The second stage which covered the years 1925-30 was dominated by the
organisation of the movement. Armed with the theory of anarchist
revolution set out in the "Manifesto" and practical experiences drawn from
the 3.1 movement, the workers organisations in Japan and "the High Treason
case" groups were organised in Seoul, Taegu, Pyongyang and other areas. By
November 1929 there had been a huge growth and the Korean Anarchist
Communist Federation was formed as a national organisation. As part of the
anti Japanese resistance it was a totally underground body. This should not
lead anyone into thinking that it was small or lacking in widespread support.
To give some idea of how the movement had grown I want to look at how
things had progressed since the early 1920s. In Kiho province the daily
newspaper Dong-a Ilbo reported in October 1925 that ten members of the
League of Black Flag had been jailed for one year each. The following year
the same paper reported that five young workers were jailed for putting out
a manifesto very similar in style and content to the "Korean Revolution
Manifesto". In 1929 Dong -a Ilbo tells of a secret society of anarchists
organised by Lee Eun-Song which had one hundred members in the town of
Icheon in Kwangwon province. In that year it transpired that the entire
membership of the Chunju Artists Movement Society were all anarchists,
such were the names and fronts used to throw the Japanese police off the
scent. In response to this the death penalty was brought in for organising
societies with the aim of "changing the national structure".
In Taegu, a League of Truth and Fraternity was set up in 1925 by exiles who
returned from Japan. The Revolutionists League also came into being and
both were in regular contact with the Tokyo Black Youth Society. I have also
come across anarchist groups in Anui, Mesan, the Changwon Black Friend
League, the Jeju Island Mutual Aid group. The last mentioned used their
remoteness from central government to organise co-ops of farmers and
artisans, even a peasants' band. Needless to say, the organisers quickly found
they were not that remote and saw the inside of a prison cell.
In Kwanseo and Kwanbul province I have found mention of at least eight
more groups. Almost all the groups around the country were involved in a
mixture of producing leaflets & papers, oranising trade unions and engaging
in resistance to the occupation.
By this time we know that most areas could boast of an active group. There
were also organisations in Manchuria and amongst exiles in China and Japan.
The next stage was the fighting period which ran up to 1945.
Among the two million Koreans in Manchuria the KAF in Manchuria was able
to sink deep roots immediately after its formation in 1929. The Federation's
main organiser, Kim Jong-Jin, drew up a plan which he put to the
anti-Japanese guerillas. It covered voluntary collectives for farmers, free
education up to age 18 with adult education for those older and arms training
for all responsible adults. Discussions followed and eventually an anarchist
plan was agreed which was described as being "according to the free
federation principle based upon the spontaneous free will of man".
The difficulty that was not really addressed was how to deal with the
Stalinists who were also organising in this region and were slandering the
anarchists and others as "tyrants". The young anarchists around Yu- Rim
wanted to fight ideology with ideology and demonstrate the superiority of
their ideas. The older anti-Japanese guerillas around Kim Jwa-Jin (sometimes
called the Korean Makhno) thought it was enough to state their support for
anarchism but that they could ignore the Stalinists until national
independence was won because only then would real politics come to the
forefront. Not a lot different from the stages theory put forward by elements
in Sinn Fein!
By August 1929 the anarchists had formed an administration in Shinmin (one
of the three Manchurian provinces). Whether this was a government is still a
point of contention among anarchists. Organised as the Korean People's
Association in Manchuria it declared its aim as "an independent self-
governing cooperative system of the Korean people who assembled their full
power to save our nation by struggling against Japan". The structure was
federal going from village meetings to district and area conferences. The
general association was composed of delegates from the districts and areas.
The general association set up executive departments to deal with
agriculture, education, propaganda, finance, military affairs, social health,
youth and general affairs. The staff of the departments received no more
than the average wage.
We would expect that the organisation would start at village level and then
federate upwards. However the EAPM believed that the war situation made
this impossible to apply the principle immediately. In the interim they
appointed the staffs and appointed them from the top down. Organisation
and propaganda teams were then sent out to agitate for support and for the
creation of village assemblies and committees. In one village a rice mill
capable of milling over 1 million bushels was built to allow the local co-op to
break from reliance on merchants. Seemingly all these teams reported a
good response and were made welcome wherever they went.
The local administration of the anti- Japanese fighters in Shimin voluntarily
dissolved itself and lent its support to KAPM. As the anarchists grew in
numbers and support the Stalinists and the pro-Japanese elements in
manchuria felt their own power bases threatened.
On January 20th the anarchist general Kim Jwa-Jin was assassinated while
doing repair work on the rice mill I just mentioned. The killer escaped but his
handler was caught and executed.
At a meeting in June in Peking of the KAFC it was decided to divert all
resources outside Korea itself to Manchuria and most KAFC members moved
to the anarchist zone in northern Manchuria. It should be noted that women
comrades were active as agitators and arms smugglers.
From late 1930 onwards the Japanese were attacking in waves from the
South and the stalinists, supported by the USSR, from the North. In early
1931 the stalinists sent assassination and kidnapping teams into the
anarchist zone to murder leading activists. They believed that if they wiped
out the KAFM the KAPM would wither and die. By the summer of 1931 many
leading anarchists were dead and the war on two fronts was devastating the
region. It was decided to go underground. Anarchist Shimin was no more.
There is much more to be said about activity in China and Japan as well as in
Korea both in the years up to the close of the second world war, about their
attitude towards the partition of their country, and about their position
today. It would take too much time to deal with it all. What should be very
clear is that anarchism in Asia has a very real history. We need more
information to properly assess its political development, achievements and
failings. In the meantime we can draw strength from the knowledge that
anarchism was, and can be again, a major force in the region.
The main source I have used in Ha Ki-Rak's _A History of the Korean Anarchist
Movement_ which was published in 1986 by the Korean Anarchist Federation.
Apart from being poorly translated and chronologically confusing, it is
written from the perspective of the more nationalist and reformist tendency
in the Korean movement.
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