Provisional Government in Shanghai Resisted Colonial Rule
By Robert Neff
Korea Times Columnist
This is the 13th in a 60-part series featuring 60 major events in Korea's modern history from 1884 till now. The project is part of the 60th
anniversary of The Korea Times, which falls on Nov. 1.
Many people are aware that following the March 1 Independence Movement, a Korean provisional government (KPG) was established in Shanghai, China, on April 13, 1919.
But there were actually three Korean provisional governments established.
The first was formed in Vladivostok on March 21 and the third in Seoul on April 21 of that same year.
It was through the efforts of Ahn Chang-ho, a successful Korean-American who has been described as "the most skilled conciliator and gifted institution-builder," that the three provisional governments were consolidated in Shanghai in August 1919.
In an effort to foster solidarity, Syngman Rhee was in absentia elected as president because of his close connections with the United States and was deemed essential to help alter that country's policies toward Japan and Korea.
Yi Tong-hwi, described as "the founding father of Korean communism," was elected premier because of his revolutionary influence amongst Koreans throughout the Far East.
The KPG's seat of government was located in a two-story building in the French section of Shanghai ― probably one of the most international cities in the Far East at the time.
The French Municipal Police in Shanghai were less than pleased and promptly ordered the KPG to cease operations and suspend its thrice-weekly newspaper (founded August 21).
Ahn, who had purchased the building, apparently managed to alleviate their fears. Ahn played a key role in the drafting of the Korean Constitution and dictating the KPG's early policies ― especially while awaiting Rhee's arrival.
Not only did Ahn serve as minister of labor but also acted as the KPG's press secretary. In a newspaper interview in February 1920, Ahn outlined the KPG's role:
"We represent the people. Our Cabinet members come from various parts of the world. Our Cabinet officers carry out their duties like other governments except that we are forced to function in a foreign land. The Korean people pay taxes and our authority and orders are recognized and respected. The Korean people recognize our government as the only government to which they owe allegiance; hence every one of our mandates is obeyed. There are many bands and groups that wish to throw bombs and kill the Japanese in Korea and who would stop at nothing in order to rid the country of their common enemies, but as the government has forbidden such acts they have, for the time being, refrained. How long they will remain pacified remains to be seen."
As proof, he presented the reporter with an order prohibiting Koreans from verbally insulting or physically assaulting the Japanese with fists or stones, claiming that "those are the acts of barbarians."
Soon, however, the resolve to peacefully achieve Korea's independence seemed to waiver.
In August 1920, Ahn met with an American congressman and informed him that the KPG was amply supported by two million Koreans living outside of Korea who were "determined never to cease the (peaceful) agitation for independence" until Japan was involved in a war with a "first class power" at which point the Koreans would rise up in arms or until the Japanese, tired of maintaining heavy garrisons in Korea, withdrew and granted Korea its independence.
A couple of months later, the Japanese claimed that there were two types of "Korean political malcontents" ― moderates "in favor of avoiding violent action and reaching their goal by a slow and steady process" and radicals who "opposed such a lukewarm policy and advocated a policy of having recourse to bombs for the consummation of their object."
The Japanese further asserted that the "administrative policy" of the KPG was to use bombs to kill the Japanese and destroy their buildings.
The KPG had raised bands of "determined men for the carrying out the administrative policy in and out of Korea" and had established their military headquarters at Antung, China, across the Yalu River, where Japanese authority could not reach.
This reference to the military headquarters at Antung is undoubtedly directed at George L. Shaw, an Irish merchant who "kept one of the upper rooms of his house at Antung as an asylum for Koreans plotting against the Japanese, and allowed Koreans to use his steamers as a means of flight and of communication with the Korean Provisional Government at Shanghai."
According to the Japanese, Shaw "used to declare his sympathy with the Korean malcontents … used his steamers for bringing bombs, pistols and inflammatory documents to Korea from Shanghai … (and his) house was known among the Korean outlaws as the 'invincible fortress of Antung.'" Shaw was eventually arrested when he strayed into Korea to meet his Japanese wife.
In a 2009 interview with The Korea Times, Professor Kim Hee-gon, a faculty member of the history department of Andong National University and described as one of Korea's "most active specialists on the issue of independence movements and the provision government, declared, "The provisional government rose above ideological differences among right and left factions and achieved a unified administration to work toward the nation's piece." (The article, "Provisional Legislative Council in Shanghai Launched Korea's Parliamentary Democracy," was published on April 12, 2009.)
This may have been true in the later years but in the early years the KPG was literally torn apart by ideological and personal differences.
Shortly after Rhee's arrival in Shanghai on Dec. 8, 1920, serious disputes developed between him and the other KPG leaders as to the best methods of achieving Korean independence.
Some, under Rhee, wanted to work closely with the West, particularly the United States, in gaining Korea's independence and recognition through diplomatic means. Others, under Yi Tong-whi, advocated military action with the support of the Soviets.
Yi clearly had a militaristic past. He had served as an officer in the Joseon military until the Japanese annexed Korea. He then went to Siberia where he raised a Korean army and fought alongside the communists in their battle against the Czarists.
In August 1920, he reportedly received about 600,000 rubles (approximately $300,000) from the Soviet Union to help finance Korea's independence movement with the apparent stipulation that the money should only be used by the communists.
This eventually led Rhee to accuse Yi of corruption and the abuse of power. Yi, in disgust, left the KPG on Jan. 26, 1921.
In May 1921, Yi's supporters in Beijing demanded that Rhee and his Cabinet resign and threatened to dispatch a "'Death Squad' of 20 men, armed with revolvers," if they refused. Their threat may have tipped the Chinese authorities to the existence of a communist cell in Beijing.
On Oct. 22, 1921, an English-language newspaper, the North China Herald, reported that a communist Korean group supported by the Soviet government to carry out propaganda among Koreans using Beijing as its base had been discovered.
It noted that one of the members not apprehended "was a disgruntled member of the former provisional Korean government in Shanghai who failed to agree with his colleagues and subsequently went to Siberia to find a fresh occupation and fresh thrills." Yi died in Vladivostok in 1924.
But Yi's departure did not guarantee cohesion and peace; there were others to contend with.
Park Yong-man, the minister of diplomacy or foreign affairs, was a true master at his art. He advocated doing everything possible to gain Korea's independence, including negotiating with the Japanese and the use of force.
His past clearly indicates his willingness to adapt. In 1904, he went to the United States as a student and later established Korean military schools in Nebraska and Hawaii.
In May 1919, he joined the American Expeditionary Forces in Siberia and acted as an agent for them ― spying upon his fellow Koreans who supported the communists.
Ironically, in April 1920, he allegedly helped negotiate a mutual defense pact with the Soviets ― perhaps with Yi.
More violently disposed was Kim Gu who strongly advocated the use of force to gain Korea's independence.
Kim's past was one of decisive action. In February 1896, Kim encountered and killed Lieut. Tsuchida Josuke at an inn in northern Korea.
He was convinced that Lieut. Tsuchida, who was disguised as a Korean and carrying a sword, was involved in the murder of Queen Min in October 1895.
Kim strangled him in his room and then either wrote his name on the wall in his victim's blood or left a note claiming that he had killed the man out of revenge for the murder of the queen.
He later masterminded several brazen attacks upon Japanese officials in Korea, China and Japan.
Rhee's own past and personality were not without flaws and greatly added to the disharmony of the KPG. Rhee and Park had once been close friends but became estranged in Nebraska due to "Rhee's malicious acts of humiliation, insult and subterfuge."
One contemporary noted that "Rhee repeatedly borrowed money from all his friends with no intention of paying it back."
Depending on the historian, Rhee's departure from Shanghai and the KPG on March 21, 1925 is either described as him gracefully resigning from his post and "leaving the government in the hands of more radical elements" or leaving in shame after Kim Gu expelled or impeached him for embezzlement.
Not all were as lucky as Rhee. Park's willingness to negotiate and work with the pro-Japanese raised suspicions amongst the more militant members of the PKG and ultimately led to his death.
On Oct. 17, 1928, Park Yong-man "was felled by a bullet from an ugly young hoodlum" in Beijing. His assassin was Lee Hae-bong, a young communist Korean who had been ordered to "execute" Park for his alleged espionage for the Japanese.