A group of students salute the national flag in front of the building, which was used as headquarters of the Korean Provisional Government in Shanghai, China, to mark the 60th anniversary of the national independence in this 2005 file photo. / Korea Times
By Andrei Lankov
As every reader of books on modern Korean history can testify, a surprisingly large number of pivotal events which influenced the fate of Korea in the first half of the past century took place in Shanghai. It would be just a minor overstatement to say that between 1910 and 1940 more or less "everybody who was somebody" in Korean culture, arts, and politics spent at least some time of their life in the great Chinese city.
What made Shanghai that attractive for the Korean immigrants? First of all, it was the unique social, political, and legal situation that existed in the city in the early decades of the 20th century.
Shanghai was not merely the most important commercial and financial center of East Asia between 1900 and the start of the Pacific War in 1937. Its political situation was unique. The large city consisted of three parts: the International Settlement, the French concession and the Chinese city. When, in the mid-19th century, the Western imperialist powers imposed unequal treaties on China, the ex-pats' settlements were granted extraterritoriality rights which nowadays are available only for diplomatic missions.
This means that the foreign settlements, also known as "concessions", were off-limits to the Chinese police and authorities. The foreign history of Shanghai, with its beginnings near a small Chinese fort in 1843, came to have one of the largest foreign settlements and by far the richest one.
This peculiar legal status made Shanghai attractive to all kinds of political undesirables. In the last decades of the 19th and first decades of the 20th century, few cities had such a strange mix of population as Shanghai. It was an operation base for Soviet Comintern agents determined to set Asia ablaze for the sake of the worldwide Communist revolution. It was also the place where the Japanese spies quietly worked towards Tokyo's great scheme of an all-Asian Empire led by the Chrysanthemum Throne.
The Chinese Communists, the would-be "iron cogs of Chairman Mao", operated from the city as well. There were Vietnamese independence fighters, drug dealers, speculators and market brokers from around the globe, remnants of the Russian counter-revolutionary forces and many, many other foreigners who came to Shanghai in search of adventure, opportunities, and relative security. Indeed, to some extent such security was provided, since in the foreign settlements the authorities usually tolerated political activism as long as it did not adversely influence the immediate interests of the ex-pat community.
The Koreans formed a rather small part of this multinational community: in the early 1920s, when the city served as headquarters of the independence movement, it had only about 1,000 Korean residents. But a large number of them were politicians, revolutionaries, and activists who in April 1919 declared the foundation of the ROK Provisional Government in exile. Indeed, this was when the present-day official name of the South Korean state was first used.
The Provisional Government stayed in Shanghai until 1932. For all this time it remained aт inspiring institution for the independence fighters, even though it exercised almost no operational control over the movement (from the mid-1920s the government became a largely symbolical institution).
Shanghai was also one of the birthplaces of the Korean Communist movement. Young idealists and dreamers, usually recent graduates (or, more frequently, dropouts) of the foreign universities, fled there to establish the first Communist groups in the relative safety of the International and French settlements.
The founding father of Korean Communism, Yi Tong-hwi, then freshly arrived from Communist Russia, moved there to take up the position of a vice-minister in the Provisional Government. He soon quit, since the communists and nationalists had begun their long drift apart (their extensive and bloody quarrel would eventually kill far more Koreans then all actions of the Japanese occupiers), but he remained in Shanghai working with the aspiring leaders of the next generation. These younger Communists, like Y? Un-hy?ng and Cho Pong-am, spent much time in Shanghai during the 1920s and 1930s.
It was in Shanghai where one of the most prominent acts of the armed resistance took place. On April 29, 1932, a Korean independence activist threw a bomb at a group of the Japanese officials who were celebrating the Japanese Emperor's birthday in one of Shanghai's parks. A number of Japanese officials and generals were killed.
However, this attack led to a considerable deterioration in the independence fighters' situation in Shanghai. The Western powers began their slow-motion withdrawal from East Asia, so their ability to protect the exiles waned, while Japan was seen as increasingly powerful player, not to be trifled with. So, the local Chinese and international authorities increased surveillance and control.
Facing mounting pressure, the Korean exiles began to move out of the city.
The Communists opted for Yan'an, the "red capital" of China where the headquarters of Mao's Communist party had been located since the mid-30s. The right-wing activists followed the Provisional Government on its way to inner China, where it eventually settled down in Chongqing.
Meanwhile, in the early 1930s the nature of Korean community in Shanghai began to change. A new crop of the Korean migrants began to arrive. They were businessmen who followed the Japanese army, and their task was to make profits in the wartime confusion. Some of them did realize their dreams and amassed great wealth, but theirs is a different story…
Prof. Andrei Lankov was born in St.Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul.