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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 Father Risks Everything for Family | Doohyun’s Story

April 18, 2024

I lived in North Korea for over 20 years, and for much of that time, I believed my life was normal. I grew up in a big city by the river. When the wind blew, I could smell the water on the breeze, and on holidays, I played along the banks with my friends.

The river ran along the border between North Korea and China. I could see across the water into a different world–one where cars lined the streets, and buildings stretched high into the sky.

But I didn’t realize that life should be different, until the day they took my father away.

My father was a great businessman. He provided for our family despite being forcibly discharged from the military when his Minister of Defense was executed by Kim Il Sung. Labeled as a “traitor,” he was banned from decent jobs and opportunities. 

Still, my father was a clever man and found success within the private market system that many North Koreans rely on to survive. Until one day, the police came to investigate him.

Without reason or warning, my father was arrested and imprisoned. They tortured him for a year. When he was released, my father weighed only 66 pounds.

Even after surviving the unimaginable, he was defiant. He wrote 20 pages of complaints to the Central Party about the human rights abuses he endured. My family was terrified of the consequences, but we couldn’t stop him. He fought for his voice to be heard.

On a warm Spring day, a Mercedes-Benz, license plate number 216, arrived at our home. February 16th was Kim Jong Il’s birthday, and cars with this number were only given to his closest aides. My father spoke with the man for hours about his letter. The man apologized and promised something like this wouldn’t happen again. This gave us a bit of hope for the future – for the possibility of change.

But the man left for Pyongyang. And then the police returned. I never saw my father again.

For two years, my family and I lived in unknowing agony, receiving no news on my father. Eventually, we heard from my father’s friend, who was a police officer, that he had passed away in prison. 

At the very least, we wanted to send him off properly, so we asked that same friend how we could get my father’s body. Three days later, he returned. He told us they would not return my father’s body. My father had been sentenced to eight years in prison. He’d passed away after two. He still had six more years to serve – as a dead body. As a corpse.

For the first time I wondered whether this was the way normal people lived.

In 2009 I decided to escape from North Korea. Life had become near impossible for me after my father’s death, and I continued to face discrimination due to our family’s status in society.

By then, I had been married to my wife, Jiyeon, for two years. Most of our relationship before marriage was through the phone, because we lived far apart, and traveling in North Korea is difficult. So we called each other every night and talked for hours. 

Now, I didn’t know if I was going somewhere she would never be able to reach. I told her it was a business trip. Two weeks. I’ll just be gone for two weeks

She still cried at the train station, thinking about those two weeks. I couldn’t cry with her because then she would know the truth. So I boarded the train without a word, and watched it take me away from her.

From the moment I escaped North Korea, it felt like I was being chased by a grim reaper. There were multiple close-calls where I felt death breathing down my neck.

I was once hiding in a corn field near the Chinese border. Lying on my stomach, I watched soldiers patrol the area when suddenly, one of them walked towards me. It was too late to run or hide. 

I had brought poison with me in case something like this happened - I knew it would be better to kill myself rather than be captured. But as I prepared to take the poison, I thought of my wife. I thought about how she would never know what happened to me.

In that moment of sheer terror, I heard the sound of water. The soldier stood right beside me but he hadn’t seen me. He had only walked over to relieve himself. For the next few minutes, I couldn’t move. The soldier had left, but my body held onto the terror of that moment. I remained hunched and hurried for the rest of the journey.

Eventually, I made it safely to South Korea. I started working as soon as possible – 12 hour days to pay back the broker fee, and save up money for my wife’s escape. My schedule was just working and sleeping, working and sleeping. It was hard, but for the first time in a long time, I had hope.

I was able to find a broker who put me in contact with my wife. It had been ten months since I’d defected at that point – ten months of her not knowing whether I was dead or alive. The call couldn’t be made in the city because the signal could be intercepted, so my wife and the broker hiked to the top of a mountain.

When we heard each other’s voices again, all we could do was cry. But we didn’t have much time, and so I asked her, you’re coming, right

She said she was.

On December 27th, 2011, Jiyeon crossed the river to escape North Korea on the same route that I took.

As soon as my wife arrived in South Korea, I went to meet her. I was so excited. I couldn’t stop crying. When my wife came into the room, she was crying too – but do you know what’s the first thing she did when she saw me?

She punched me – crying, calling me a liar. And I deserved it.

We live in Utah now with our two beautiful sons. We go fishing, camping, and enjoy the outdoors together. Every time I see them, I realize I’m living in a different world, one where we can finally dream and decide our own future.

This is the life I’ve made for my children. This is the life my father envisioned for me and for all North Koreans when he made his act of defiance. My father died fighting for his voice to be heard – and now, finally, he’ll be heard by the world.

Doohyun risked everything to create a future where his family could live together in freedom. Their story isn’t unique - there are many more North Koreans waiting and hoping for the day when they can reunite with loved ones. Help make freedom part of every North Korean’s story.

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Since resettling in the United States, Doohyun has completed his undergraduate studies and now works for a North Korean human rights organization. He considers helping the North Korean people to be his life’s mission, continuing his father’s legacy.

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