Women’s History Month | Korean Freedom Fighter Yu Gwan-sun

March 1, 2023

March 1st marks the beginning of Women’s History Month, an opportunity to celebrate the contributions women have made to culture and society through the ages. 

For Koreans, it’s also the anniversary of the March 1st Movement, or Sam-il (3-1) Undong. On this day in 1919, Koreans across the peninsula took a stand against Japanese colonial occupation. As peaceful protesters called for independence, an unlikely leader and activist emerged in 16 year old Yu Gwan-sun. As we honor her bravery as a symbol of Korea’s collective fight for freedom, we’re reminded of the North Korean women who are still fighting for free and full lives today.

Suh Se-Ok, The March 1st Independence Movement, painted in 1986

The Korean Independence Movement

The Sam-il movement began with a declaration of independence issued by thirty-three Korean cultural and religious leaders - many of whom were young adults. In the face of great risk, they laid out a Korean vision of equality, internationalism, human happiness and world peace that is still relevant today. These daring words galvanized the nation, and peaceful protests erupted across the country over the coming weeks, with peasants, tradespeople, housewives, and scholars marching alongside one another. An estimated 2 million Koreans participated in these first public displays of resistance, fostering a sense of national unity; an awareness that each individual was not alone in their desire for freedom.

Ordinary Korean women played a crucial role in the grassroots movement. While traditional Confucian culture and Japanese education policy relegated women to the domestic sphere, they emerged as leaders in the demonstrations following March 1st. Along with freedom for their country, they sought social awakening and an improvement in the status of women.

Female students marching in the Sam-il movement demonstrations, image via Korean Quarterly

Canadian journalist Frederick Arthur Mckenzie, who was working as a correspondent in Korea at the time, witnessed the historic culture shift. In his book, Korea’s Fight for Freedom, he recalls how “Female students were most active in Seoul. For instance, most of the people arrested in the morning of the 5th of March were girl students.”

Freedom Fighter Yu Gwan-sun

Yu Gwan-sun was one such student, a brilliant 16-year-old girl who attended Ewha Hakdang. There, she witnessed the beginnings of the Sam-il Movement and took part in the initial protests in Seoul. Yu and her classmates were detained by Japanese authorities, but missionaries from their school were able to negotiate their release.

Yu Gwan-sun’s Prisoner Identification Card

Following March 1st, schools were shut down in an attempt to stop students and activists from coordinating further protests. Yu returned to her hometown of Cheonan, but her conviction for a free Korea did not waver. She smuggled a copy of the declaration of independence and went from village to village, spreading word about the Sam-il Movement. On March 31st, Yu climbed to the top of Mount Maebong and lit a beacon fire, signaling to protestors that the time had come to make their stand.

The next day, 3,000 people gathered at Aunae marketplace in Cheonan shouting “Mansei!” and “Long live Korean independence!” Yu distributed homemade taegukgi, or Korean national flags, while rallying the villagers. When Japanese military police arrived to shut down the protest, they fired into the crowd and killed 19 people, including Yu’s parents.

March 1st demonstrators in Seoul, image via Korean Quarterly

The Sam-il Movement was eventually suppressed by Japanese authorities in mid-April. According to The Bloody History of the Korean Independence Movement by Park Eun-sik, there were an estimated 7,500 deaths, 16,000 injuries, and 46,000 arrests.

Yu Gwan-sun was arrested and convicted of sedition. She was sent to Seodaemun Prison but even then, she did not give up the fight for freedom. While incarcerated, she famously wrote:

“Even if my fingernails are torn out, my nose and ears are ripped apart, and my legs and arms are crushed, this physical pain does not compare to the pain of losing my nation. My only remorse is not being able to do more than dedicating my life to my country.”

On the one year anniversary of the Sam-il Movement, Yu organized a large-scale protest with her fellow inmates. They were brutally beaten and tortured for their defiance, and she was 

transferred to an isolated underground cell. On September 28th, 1920, at the age of 17, Yu died from the injuries she suffered.

Portrait of Yu Gwan-sun in Yu Gwan-Sun Memorial Hall

Yu never experienced a free Korea, yet she audaciously fought to see a different future in her lifetime. Twenty-five years after her passing, in August of 1945, Korea finally gained its independence from colonialism, but at the same time was split into North and South Korea. Today, Yu is remembered as Korea’s “Joan of Arc,” and the Sam-il Movement is celebrated annually as a national holiday in South Korea.

North Korea’s Fight For Freedom

As we honor the bravery of Yu Gwan-sun and other women in history, we’re also reminded of the millions of North Koreans still fighting for free and full lives. They’re engaging in everyday acts of resistance and transforming their country from the ground-up.

In North Korea, women are also the ones driving crucial engines of change. Grassroots market activity at the Jangmadang is primarily driven by women, shifting economic power away from the regime and into the hands of the people. Women are smuggling goods across the border, testing the limits of self-expression through fashion and beauty, and becoming breadwinners for their families. From outside of the country, resettled North Korean women are accelerating change as activists and entrepreneurs, sending money and information back home. 

While North Korean women still face many obstacles and human rights abuses, they’re challenging the status quo and striving towards freedom.

An outdoor market in North Korea

Liberty in North Korea

LiNK is helping North Korean refugees to reach freedom, begin new lives, and become agents of change on this issue. We’re so excited and grateful to announce that 8 North Korean women have recently reached freedom through LiNK’s rescue routes!

During the three years of heightened surveillance and lockdowns in China, our field team has worked tirelessly to establish new routes and expand our network. We’re excited to finally gain momentum in this area of our rescue work!

Like Yu Gwan-sun, these North Korean women never gave up in their pursuit of freedom. Many of them had crossed the North Korean border into China years ago, but were unable to complete the journey during the pandemic. Now they’ll be able to take full authorship of their lives.

“I tried multiple times to escape China but ended up getting caught and spending time in a Chinese prison. When I left home this time, I knew it would be my last attempt to reach freedom. If I failed, I had planned to drink pesticide and kill myself - if I were caught it would do so much harm to my family in China and even in North Korea. This time with the help of LiNK, I successfully made it to safety. I threw away the pesticide after the journey. I risked my life to come here, and I will live in freedom to the fullest.”

- Yi Hyun, reached freedom through LiNK’s networks in 2023

Thank you for making this possible with your steadfast support, especially through a tumultuous past few years. North Koreans have not given up, and they will not until they achieve their freedom. We can stand with them as they change history.

Fundraise or donate to help rescue more North Korean refugees today!

A North Korean Defector’s Nine Year Journey to Freedom | Eunju’s Story

September 19, 2023

I didn’t know I was hungry until I was eight years old. Growing up, I had no concept of whether my hometown was wealthy or poor. Then when the great famine struck in the mid-90s, more people died in our city than anywhere else in the country. 

That’s when I realized “Oh, this is the most difficult place to live in North Korea.”

I was born in the city of Eundok, North Hamgyong Province. Before that it was called Aoji, a destitute place infamous for its coal mines, where South Korean prisoners of war were sent to work.

In the middle of a long famine, people lose all sense of humanity. You couldn’t survive without dirtying your hands. My father was a kindhearted person, the type that was unable to hurt anyone. But towards the end, hunger drove him to steal from our own house.

On my first day of middle school, I couldn’t find my new backpack anywhere. It turns out that my dad had taken it to the Jangmadang, traded it for food, and eaten it by himself. In the end, he still died from starvation, and my mom, my sister, and I were left to fend for ourselves.

We heard that if we went to China, we could eat all the candy we wanted. With that one piece of information, my mom said she’d rather get shot crossing the Tumen river than starve in North Korea. 

It was mid-February in 1999, during the bitter cold winter. The water was frozen solid and stretched over 100 meters across. My mom went first, followed by my sister, and I was in the very back. Maybe it was because I was anxious, but my shoes felt so slippery and I kept falling over as they went farther and farther ahead. We heard that soldiers would shoot anyone who tried to cross the river. But this was our only chance at survival.

My mind was racing, “What if I’m left behind and get caught?” My mom and sister probably feared the same thing. 

We encountered a tributary that wasn’t frozen all the way, so my mom waited and had me go first because I was the lightest. A few steps in, the ice broke and I fell into the piercing cold water. None of us knew how to swim. At that moment, I really thought it was the end. But then my feet hit the ground. We had made it to the other side.

Not long after we had crossed into China, a Korean-speaking woman came up to us. She invited us to her house and gave us over a dozen boiled eggs, more food than we had seen in years. In North Korea, when my sister and I had a field trip for school, my mom would cut one boiled egg and give each of us half in our lunch box. To have this much at once was a true luxury. For the first time in a long while, we dared to have some hope.

But then my mom was sold off to a Chinese man. The fortunate thing was that even though my sister and I were 16 and 14 years old, we were so short that people asked if we were 7 or 8. They couldn’t sell us separately, so we were sent together with our mom.

We had been sold for 2000 yuan. When we wanted to leave, the man told us to pay him back. We worked in his house and on his farm but of course we never saw a penny. For three years, we lived in confinement, and my little brother was born.

On a quiet night before my brother was even a year old, Chinese police came to the house in the dark, knocked on the door, and arrested us.

When North Koreans get caught, sometimes they’ll roll up their money and eat it or hide it, but we didn’t have anything. We were taken back across the border with just our clothes. It’s well known that there’s a physical exam to look for hidden money. In a way, you shouldn’t even feel a basic sense of shame as a woman and as a human being. If you cry or plead for mercy, you’ll get beaten up. You cannot question them at all.

With so many people in North Korea dying of starvation, names were removed from the family register after three years without any news. We had already been declared dead. There were two minors and an adult, but our identities couldn’t be confirmed. At the time they couldn’t keep minors in prison without a ruling from the court, so we were entrusted to another person from our hometown. No one wanted extra mouths to feed, so he just let us go.

We went straight to the Tumen river and in 2002, we escaped again.

I had enough food when I was in China. Even dogs and pigs ate rice and corn. But we lived looking over our shoulders, in constant fear of the police. 

When we heard about life in South Korea, where our safety and identities would be guaranteed, we decided to defect once more. We were introduced to a broker, gave them some cash upfront, and traveled through Mongolia and the Gobi Desert.

On September 1st, 2006, I arrived at Incheon airport with my mom. My sister joined us in South Korea in 2008. Nine years after first crossing the Tumen River, we were finally together in freedom.

When I was in China, my only wish was that my mom, sister, and I could sleep together, eat together, and come home from work together. I dreamed that someday we could go to the supermarket and get a whole cart full of things to share. After coming to South Korea, we achieved not only that, but everything we’ve ever wanted.

I co-authored a book about my journey, A Thousand Miles to Freedom, with a foreign journalist named Sebastien Falletti. He interviewed several North Koreans, and I agreed to share my story with him out of a sense of duty. I never thought he’d choose me.

Compared to North Korean defectors who live special lives, I don’t actually dream of being a human rights activist. There are times when I don’t want to share anymore and I feel like I have to repeat myself.

But then I think about my best friend in North Korea. Her name is Sunhwa and I don’t think she’s here yet. I imagine that she would want to live like me — to attend college, pave her own way, and explore the vast world we live in. But she is still stuck in the darkness. Until Sunhwa can live a life of freedom, I feel a sense of responsibility to continue to share.

When I think of North Korea, the dark image of my hometown floods my memories. But I would still like to go back just once and visit my dad’s grave. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that he was also a victim of the North Korean regime. I have hope that in this lifetime, North Korea will open up. I’ll return with my mom and my sister, and together we’ll visit my dad’s resting place and prepare a huge meal for him.

For North Koreans to share their stories with audiences around the world, retelling and reliving some of the most harrowing experiences, is an act of exceptional courage. They’re working towards the day when others no longer have to go through the same painful experiences.

You can help rescue more North Korean refugees and support them as they begin their new lives in freedom.

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