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!

North Korean Refugee Rescues: An Update from Our Field Manager

June 1, 2023

Over the past few years, the impact of COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on the day-to-day lives of North Korean people. Pandemic-related border lockdowns, increased surveillance, and unprecedented restrictions made it impossible for North Koreans to escape and reach freedom.

After a painstakingly long pause on rescues, at the end of 2022 we were finally able to start moving people safely again. Our field team has worked tirelessly to establish new, viable routes and adapt to circumstances on the ground. Navigating unprecedented restrictions and developing new routes has led to significantly higher and extremely volatile rescue costs, but our commitment is stronger than ever to help North Korean refugees reach freedom.

We recently sat down with our field manager, Jennifer* to hear directly about the current needs, challenges, and potential of this new era of rescues.

Could you give us a general overview of the situation in China? 

So much has changed since the start of the pandemic. Activists have been kicked out of the country; brokers no longer want to do this work because of the increased surveillance and restrictions. The number of underground rescue networks has shrunk significantly. Navigating these challenges puts us at higher risk, which means that we have to use more resources, including people on the ground, to guarantee that our groups move safely. Because of the increased costs, we soon might have to ask people to wait to be rescued and it’s agonizing, especially because timing is critical in the underground railroad. There are very few moments when everything aligns and it is safe to travel, but because we don’t have funds, North Korean refugees lose those rare, precious opportunities. The North Koreans I’ve been in communication with are living in constant fear because of the increased use of security technology by the state, such as facial recognition with AI. On top of that, domestic violence continues to be a serious issue for many North Korean women who were trafficked or forcibly married in China. 

Is there a risk of being sent back to North Korea right now?

Refugees who are caught in China are forcibly sent back to North Korea where they are severely punished. However, because of the pandemic, North Korea sealed its borders in January 2020 and has yet to reopen them. This means that repatriation hasn’t been possible yet, but we are hearing rumors that North Korea will start receiving people again soon. 

Many people who have tried to escape were arrested and we’ve heard that currently, there are a large number of North Korean refugees in Chinese prisons. 

What kind of situations are people escaping from in China?

It’s mostly North Korean women who were trafficked or forcibly married to Chinese men. Some have been living in China for several years and the pandemic left them stranded with no way to escape. We had heard that some of these women were facing even worse treatment from their Chinese husbands than before. The people who arrived in China in 2019 or early 2020 only had a very short period of time to learn the language, culture, and to adjust before having to quarantine. It has been much more difficult for these people to try to escape from China.

More recently, some of the refugees we’re in communication with have serious health issues. But they can’t go to the hospital because they’re not Chinese citizens and would risk being arrested and sent back to North Korea. They are hoping to make it to South Korea to get the healthcare they need. 

And what are some of the challenges that North Koreans in China face day-to-day? 

They can’t go outside. There was already a lack of freedom to travel and move around freely before the pandemic, but it has only gotten worse since then. When I speak with them, it feels like they’re losing hope. The reality of how difficult and expensive the journey has become is discouraging, especially because they hear about people who attempted the journey and were caught and arrested. So for people who were connected with us recently, many were shocked to hear about our work. They said it was almost surreal because they didn’t think it was possible to get to freedom at this time. 

What motivated these people to leave North Korea in the first place? 

It’s different depending on the person. There are usually personal circumstances that lead them to look for better opportunities in China or South Korea. Many people are tricked into human trafficking. Some women choose to live with a Chinese husband of their own will. They believe it’s better to live in China in this way rather than live in North Korea. 

What have been the biggest challenges for you?

While I'm very grateful that we've been able to resume rescues, it's a shame that we can only move a limited number of people due to increased costs and heightened security. I stay in close contact with refugees in China who are hoping to reach freedom, and some are in urgent situations. A woman who was 4 months pregnant had to make the journey before her belly got too big. Some refugees have health conditions that need immediate treatment, but they’re unable to go to the hospital. My hope is that we can rescue as many people as possible so they can experience freedom and live the full lives that they deserve.

Since restarting rescues last December, the significant increase in costs have depleted our rescue and resettlement funds, leaving many North Korean refugees waiting, once again, for an opportunity to escape. Your support is needed now more than ever. 

Throughout the month of June, all one time gifts made here will go 100% towards our rescue and resettlement efforts. In honor of World Refugee Day 2023 and the countless people waiting for their rare and precious opportunity to reach freedom, give a gift today. 

Give Today

*Jennifer is a pseudonym used to protect our field manager’s identity and avoid compromising this work.

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