Anarchism in Korea — Chapter 3 : Pushing the Limits in Colonial Korea

By Dongyoun Hwang

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Research Interests: Radicalism and Nationalism in Twentieth-Century Eastern Asia, The Guomindang Leftists in the 1920s, Wartime Collaboration in China during the Pacific War. (From:

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Chapter 3

3: Pushing the Limits in Colonial Korea

It is not an exaggeration to say that the anarchist movement in colonial Korea was launched largely by the returned Korean students from study-abroad in Japan. In the mid-1920s, they made many attempts within colonial Korea to form anarchist organizations and disseminate anarchist ideas. Their anarchist movements and activities within the Korean peninsula before 1945 were quite closely tied to those of Korean anarchists based in Japan. Their attempts, however, always met prompt and brutal suppression at their inception from the Japanese colonial police. As a result, while many anarchist or anarchism-oriented organizations, small and large, were established throughout colonial Korea in the 1920s and afterwards, all were short-lived or, in some cases, existed only on paper.

The situation became even harsher and worse once Japan invaded China in the early 1930s, because of Japan’s much tightened control and suppression of so-called dangerous ideas and rebellious Koreans. In dealing with the situation, anarchists in colonial Korea generally had limited options, and chose to go underground, remain silent, or be arrested for their audacity under Japan’s wartime repression. Attempts to publish anarchist press and materials continued even under the Japanese brutal suppression into the 1930s, but, if arrested and tried, it is said, no anarchist would be able to walk on his or her own two legs or even remain alive after having spent time in prison, due to brutal and repeated torture, malnutrition, and an unspeakable environment.[313]

Anarchists in colonial Korea maintained their relationship and contacts with Korean and Japanese anarchists in Japan, whose activities and understanding of and writings on anarchism had been exposed to and/or inspired them. As I examined in chapter 2, it is undeniable that the Japanese works on and understanding of anarchism had been widely influential, and thus the major source for Korean anarchists’ understanding of it and the social/labor problems of the world under capitalism. Although this does not mean that the Korean version of anarchism was a replica of Japanese anarchism, it is still arguable nevertheless that the role and part Japanese anarchism played in the rise of anarchism in colonial Korea were of significance in introducing to Koreans anarchist principles, languages, and ideals, and thus in helping them interpret and then apply to them Korea’s colonial condition and situation. In his book on cultural nationalism in colonial Korea in the 1920s, historian Michael Robinson notes that Korean radicals who returned to colonial Korea from abroad were a product of broad regional radical movements in China and Japan after 1919, as following shows:

“Radicals” describes loosely a group of nationalist intellectuals that came to prominence after 1919. The political universe of this group was shaped by the widespread fascination with social revolutionary thought after the Russian revolution. Nurtured in the political hothouses of Tokyo, Peking, and Shanghai, Korean students abroad had thrown themselves into the intellectual ferment of contending doctrines. Like their Chinese and Japanese counterparts in the post–World War I era, Korean students searched amid the whirl of ideas-political democracy, bolshevism, social democracy, syndicalism, guild socialism, anarchism, Fabianism, and national socialism—for a solution to the Korean national problem. … offering … more radical solutions for the dual problem of Japanese imperialism and Korean independence.[314]

Various activities, either publication or organization, by Korean anarchists in colonial Korea from the 1920s were by and large a product of this process of receiving, understanding, and applying “social revolutionary thought,” including anarchism, to colonial Korea. In other words, the intimate ties between Korean and Japanese anarchism, as well as Chinese anarchism, were quite obvious and conspicuous, although their relationship must not be understood in the context of one-way influence to Korean anarchists. There are ample evidence and examples, as I have demonstrated in the previous chapters, that show that Japanese anarchists too learned or became increasingly aware of the colonial conditions and situations and often some other related issues from Korean and Taiwanese comrades.

In addition, as noted above, there was a strong intellectual aura in colonial Korea that pointed to a tendency among intellectuals and radicals toward socialism, including anarchism, mainly due to anticolonial sentiments growing in Korea since the Russian Revolution of 1917, which had become much stronger especially after the nationwide mass movement on March 1, 1919. These served as an intellectual foundation in the 1920s for the reception and spread of anarchism in the peninsula when it was brought in and introduced directly by the Japanese works in flux on anarchism in Japanese texts or translation, but most importantly, by former Korean study-abroad students. Just like Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925) described the Chinese radials who had returned to China after finishing their education in Japan in early twentieth century, as the carriers of “the spark of revolution” (geming de huozhong),[315] many Korean students and radicals must have also returned to Korea from Japan after accepting anarchism with their own “spark” bent on anarchist ideals. In the case of Korea, the “spark” readily ignited the fire of anarchism because of the Japanese works that had already been widely known and available to Korean readers in colonial Korea; since 1910, many Korean students and radicals in colonial Korea had been able to obtain books on socialism and newspapers published in Japan by anarchists easily at the bookstores run by either Korean or Japanese owners. For example, Yi Hyeok (1907—?), who had been involved in various anarchist activities in Southern Hamgyeong Province, opened Twentieth Century Bookstore (Isipsegi seobang) in downtown Seoul, where he not only sold books on anarchism but distributed copies of the Japanese anarchist newspaper Free Alliance Newspaper (Jiyū rengō shimbun) and ran his own institute called Modern Thoughts Research Institute (Geundae sasang yeon-guso), to teach Esperanto to Koreans. Another role of his bookstore was to function as a communication place among Korean anarchists.[316] The “wind” of anarchism was blowing strongly in colonial Korea to set the fire of anarchism with the help of the “spark” the returning students had brought. And the fire certainly shook the peninsula intellectually and shaped the direction and character of anarchist movement in colonial Korea continuously, if not exclusively.

In a colony like Korea, however, it was almost impossible to witness a nationwide development of the anarchist movement largely due to the pressure of Japanese colonial police and their tight surveillance and suppression of radicals and radicalism, especially if it initially arose with nationalist aspirations. But, as described above, anarchist movement and organizations in colonial Korea were somewhat able to survive and continue to do so, if not grow, and, in fact, were quite “resilient” and remain relatively “active,” as historian Horiuchi Minoru assesses, particularly about anarchist activities in the northern part of Korea around the cities of Wonsan and Pyongyang.[317] Nevertheless, Korean anarchist movements usually went underground and their organizations sometimes existed briefly and/or only on paper. Of interest is that the anarchist organizations in colonial Korea, as I demonstrate below, didn’t take any terrorist or terror-oriented actions against Japanese colonial institutions and figures, nor did they strive for independence, at least on surface. They rather in general turned them into a kind of social movement to educate and organize peasants and workers, and so on regarding the protection of their rights, probably because of the Japanese police suppression and at the same time the influence from the Japanese anarchist movement via Korean anarchists returned from Japan.[318] In other words, under the colonial conditions the Korean anarchist movement was mainly conducted to make changes in society with collective awareness and actions of workers and peasants, but without any physical revolutionary actions that usually accompanied larger revolutionary organizations and massive physical protests. Many anarchist organizations and their activities were thus often sporadic, small-scale, and even disguised, in some cases, as a “legally acceptable” social and/or enlightenment movement. Given all constrains under the colonial condition, it may be possible to say that the anarchist organizations in colonial Korea were not able to exist long enough to launch and pursue any meaningful revolutionary actions against Japanese colonial rule.

Korean anarchists in colonial Korea generally left information and materials on their anarchist movements much less often or even not at all, due to the confidential nature of their underground activities plus the Japanese police confiscation. Materials on their activities are scarce and hard to come by, therefore. Compared to Korean anarchists in China and Japan, whose activities have been known from various, if fragmentary, pieces of information historians can still find from various sources, it has been extremely difficult to excavate materials on their activities in colonial Korea. Extreme scarcity of materials and information about Korean anarchists and their activities in colonial Korea prevents the construction of the whole picture of their movement and a vision of a society they endeavored to build. Japanese police reports that describe Korean anarchists and their activities through interrogation and investigation are not always trustworthy because of their frequent exaggerations and distortions of what Korean anarchists had done and envisioned. Regardless of the limits in constructing a story of their movements in colonial Korea, it is still quite possible to draw the general picture of them, thanks to some secondary sources and memoirs.

It is safe to say that serious attempts to form anarchist organizations with their subsequent activities in colonial Korea began around in 1925, a little later than their comrades in China and Japan did, and Korean anarchist movement in the Korean peninsula under Japanese colonialism was and continued to be, not surprisingly, much weaker than those in China and Japan, as the Japanese police reports also confirmed it.[319] Nevertheless, it was no doubt true that the general intellectual aura of colonial Korea was placed under the strong influence of socialist thoughts, including anarchism, affected by the “spark” the returning students brought in and the “wind” blowing from Japan from the 1910s to throughout the 1920s.

Japan, Anarchism, and Colonial Korea

The influence of various socialist thoughts including anarchism had already been conspicuous in the Korean peninsula through the introduction of various Japanese printed media, especially books on anarchism in Japanese original text or Japanese translation. For example, Yu Ja-myeong recalls that Japanese socialist newspapers and magazines such as Transformation (Kaijō), Liberation (Kaihō), and Criticism (Hihyō) were easily purchasable at Japanese bookstores in Manchuria, Shanghai, and Seoul around the time when the March First Movement occurred in 1919. He and other Korean radicals in China and Korea had been able to purchase them without any major obstacles and consequently studied socialism together.[320] In Yu’s case, he became particularly interested in anarchism after he heard about Japanese Professor Morito Tatsuo (1888–1984), who had been dismissed from Tokyo Imperial University in 1919 and subsequently arrested in 1920 for his writing on Kropotkin.[321] Indeed, anarchism was among the socialist thoughts flowing into the peninsula and was in fact the most popular socialist idea among Korean radicals in the late 1910s and early 1920s. Kim Seongsuk (1898–1969) spoke of popularity of anarchism in the early 1920s among Korean radicals as follows:

At that time [in early 1920s Korea], the books on socialism were almost all translations by Japanese socialists. I read the books by Sakai Toshihiko and Yamakawa Hitoshi. A book among others that still remains in my memory is Yamakawa’s The Apparatus of Capitalism published in 1923. … On the other hand, anarchism was the most popular one among all the isms. I think, all of the leftist ideas were infused in it [anarchism]. For anarchism, I read Kropotkin’s Confession [i.e., Memoirs of a Revolutionist]. This was a very good book for [the understanding of] socialism.[322]

Obviously confused at that time with socialism in general, Kim, a Marxist and independence activist, nevertheless testifies here to the popularity of anarchism among Koreans in the early 1920s, and the source of socialism: Japanese socialists who had provided their translated and/or original works on socialism. Indeed, upon his release from a colonial jail in Korea in April 1921, he found that Korean society was “filled with socialist ideas,” which he believed was due to the influence of Japanese books and translation.[323]

Jo Bong-am (1899–1959), then a study-abroad student in Tokyo and later a leader of the Progressive Party (Jinbo dang) in 1950s Korea, also witnessed the influence of socialism in the summer of 1922, in colonial Korea. When he returned in July of the year to Korea as a member of Korean students studying abroad in Japan, he traveled around Korea with an organized lecture group. And what he saw in Korea was of surprise: “socialist ideas” were “widely dispersed in the Korean society beyond what had been imagined in Tokyo, and numerous [socialist] societies and circles of youth had already been formed everywhere”[324] in the peninsula. Consequently, what was to emerge in colonial Korea by May 1927 was an intellectual environment in which socialism had become the subject of daily conversations among all Korean youth; if socialism were not spoken of among them, they themselves would feel anachronistic.[325]

In some cases the rise of national consciousness corresponded to the rapid development into social consciousness and the willingness of Korean youth to accept socialism, in particular anarchist ideas and principles. Some Korean youths, even in a small town like Anui in southern Korea, were easily introduced to anarchism and readily accepted it, since Kropotkin and his writings had already been popular and circulated even among them.[326] Additional evidence of the ongoing popularity of anarchism among Korean youth in the 1920s can also be found in the case of Lee Chong-Ha (1913–2007), a former member of the Korean Esperanto Association. He testifies that when he was a high school student in late 1920s in the city of Daegu, he found in a bookstore in the city books in Japanese on Esperanto, titled Lectures on Proletarian Esperanto (Puroretaria esperanto kōza) and A Shortcut to Esperanto (Esperanto shōkei). Instilled in the books were anarchist ideas, he realized. He then subsequently became aware later that there were many students in the area who had already learned Esperanto, and believed that anarchists used Esperanto to realize anarchism, for all the Esperantists he met at the time were theoretically equipped with anarchism.[327]

What we can see here are the influence of Japanese translations/works of socialism and the popularity of anarchism, and the works of Peter Kropotkin were the ones most translated in Korea (and East Asia too).[328] Shin Chaeho, while in China, wrote his “A Miscellaneous Writing of a Man of Nonsense and Emptiness on the Occasion of a New Year” article in celebration of the arrival of a new year and sent it to East Asia Daily (Dong-a Ilbo) in Korea, which carried it on its January 2, 1925 issue. In the article Shin suggested that Korean youth in colonial Korea “become baptized by Kropotkin’s ‘An Appeal to the Young,’” which he insisted was “the right prescription for a disease” then-Korean youth suffered from.[329] Shin’s suggestion must have been well received, effective, and worked well among Korean youth in colonial Korea.

The strong influence of socialism, including anarchism in colonial Korea by the early 1920s and the ongoing popularity of anarchism throughout the 1920s, did not mean that Koreans were ready to have their own anarchist organizations to advocate an anarchist revolution. It was the opposite; no major anarchist organizations were established easily on the peninsula, mainly because of the presence of Japanese colonial police. Korean anarchists in colonial Korea were in constant fear of being arrested and tortured, and would never have a chance any time soon to develop a nationally unified, active anarchist organization there. Even their local and small organizations usually were short-lived. Their movements and activities were thus normally sporadic, small scale in size, camouflaged as those of study circles, and/or conducted underground activities throughout the colonial period. Of course, one can never put aside the general trend of anarchists that they were not fond of having an organization with centralized and concentrated power or unity. It was in 1929 that the first and last attempt was finally undertaken by anarchists to organize a unified nationwide entity within Korea during the colonial period, as I explain below.

In general, anarchism was always the target of the Japanese suppression just because it was believed to be associated with terrorism and violence against the colonial government, although anarchist movements in colonial Korea were not terrorism-oriented in most cases. Their activities rather were labeled as “a thought movement” (sasang undong), rather than either an independence movement or a revolutionary movement, without any major involvements in labor movement or major violent protests against the colonial government.[330] To put it differently, anarchist movement in colonial Korea didn’t (or were not able to) openly propagate nationalism and/or violent anticolonial struggle, albeit it remained basically in line with the anarchist principle of direct action. Considering the constraints and limits in colonial Korea, Korean anarchists in colonial Korea, as I demonstrate below, largely adopted modest and local-based means and actions probably for the survival of themselves and for the continuation of their activities.[331] Despite the popularity of anarchism in colonial Korea and the continuous attempts to organize Korean anarchists under the anarchist wind from Japan, there seemed to be an internal division among them in terms of their strategy for their movements and activity, according to their location of activity. Their sources of anarchism might have been almost the same, but their application and practice seemed to vary and be very much place-based, as I turn below to the anarchist movements in colonial Korea in two different areas, northern and southern Korea.

Anarchists in Southern Korea

Before any organization that was anarchist in its character and vision was established in colonial Korea, there had been at least one anarchism-oriented organization in colonial Korea. It was the Association for Labor and Mutual Relief in Korea (Joseon nodong gongjehoe), established in April 1920 as the first labor association in Korea, in which Go Sunheum, a soon-to-be anarchist in Osaka in 1924, played a key role in penning its platform and charter. It is a moot question if we can call it an anarchist organization, but I think it is safe to say that it was a good example that demonstrates the popularity of anarchist ideas in colonial Korea, especially that of the mutual aid idea of Peter Kropotkin. The Association’s journal, Mutual Relief (Gongje), carried more articles on anarchism as a solution to then-labor issues in colonial Korea than on any other branches of socialism.[332] Another journal that often published articles on socialism, including anarchism, was New Life (Sin saenghwal), which carried many anarchism-related articles and possibly laid out an intellectual foundation for the flourishing of anarchist organizations in the ensuing years.[333]

Organizations we can identify as anarchist in character and vision began to appear in colonial Korea first in 1923, mostly in the southern part of Korea, albeit the first anarchist organization in colonial Korea was formed in the same year in Seoul. It was the Black Labor Society (Heungno hoe), which was organized in Seoul by Kim Junghan, Yi Yunhi, Yi Gangha, and Sin Gichang in early January of 1923, but was soon dissolved possibly by the order of Japanese colonial police. The Society was allegedly planned to be established when Tokyo-based anarchist Bak Yeol was paying his visit to Keijō (present-day Seoul) in September 1922, to give a report to Koreans on the massacre of Korean workers in Niigata Prefecture in the same year. During the visit, Bak could have discussed a possibility to organize an anarchist group in Korea with the above-mentioned radicals. Bak could have also wanted to get involved in organizing the Society while at the same time looking for a chance to obtain some bombs for his planned activity in Japan during his stay in Korea,[334] because of which he was to be arrested in 1923. It is at least likely that the Black Labor Society was established in 1923 as a result of Bak’s trip to Korea from Tokyo in 1922, even though it seemed to exist only on paper and soon disappeared.[335]

The failed Black Labor Society was replaced with the Black Flag League (Heukgi yeonmaeng) in 1925, which was ventured by Korean youth in Seoul and Chungju, including Sin Yeong-u, Seo Sanggyeong, and Hong Jin-u. Their plan was to establish the Black Flag League as “the successor to the Black Wave Society of Tokyo,”[336] but it was discovered prior to its inauguration on May 3, 1925 by the Japanese police. Among the founding members, Seo and Hong used to be members of the Rebellious Society (Futeisha) in Tokyo, when Bak Yeol, along with his Japanese lover and comrade Kaneko Fumiko, were arrested for their alleged conspiracy to kill the Japanese emperor in 1923. Seo and Hong were among those who had returned to Korea soon after being radicalized and accepted anarchism in Tokyo. All the listed members of the Black Flag League were arrested, tried, found guilty, and sentenced to one year in prison, respectively.[337] According to what the Black Flag League’s members testified at their trials, its mission was “the fundamental destruction of all absurd institutions that trample everybody’s happiness and undermine individual progress [ja-a hwakchung], and the thorough rejection of power-minded organizations.”[338] The Black Flag League proved to be another failed undertaking attempted by returned Korean students from Japan. One tragic thing about its members was that almost all of them died in prison, possibly from illness, or killed themselves after their release from prison after suffering from either physical or mental illness, as a result of tortures and/or malnutrition in prison. They all were still in their twenties, and their deaths must have been a strong message from Japanese police to other emerging anarchists in colonial Korea.

Nonetheless, a new attempt to set up an anarchist organization continued and was successfully processed several months later in the city of Daegu in September 1925. The new anarchist organization was named the True Friends League (Jin-u yeonmaeng), again led by those returned students from Japan. At least it existed and survived for about one year. Of interest is that the True Friends League avoided using the word black in its name, possibly in order to escape Japanese suppression due to the connotation of the word for anarchists, which could have been one of the reasons for its exceptional existence for a year. The leading figures of the League like Seo Dongseong (1895–1941), Bang Hansang (1900–1970), and Kim Jeonggeun (1909–1927) all used to be students in Tokyo. The League was to be suppressed and dissolved with Seo’s arrest a year later. In fact, Seo had been already arrested once in Tokyo in complicity of Bak Yeol’s “treason incident” in 1923 but had been released and returned to Korea. In the case of Bang, he traveled back to Japan in November of 1925, after the establishment of the League and met with many Korean and Japanese comrades in Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya, including Bak Yeol and Kaneko Fumiko in Ichigaya Prison.[339] Those involved in establishing this League were, again, all arrested by the Japanese police a year later for the charge of organizing a “violent group.” In the case of Kim Jeonggeun, he used to be a student at the Political Science Department at Waseda University in Tokyo and a member of the Black Friends Society also in Tokyo, who had believed that his liberation could be realized only through anarchism. Before gaining his individual liberation, unfortunately, however, he was arrested and prematurely died of pneumonia contracted after a hunger strike in prison.[340]

What draws our attention is Bak Yeol’s obvious involvement, either direct or indirect, in the establishment of the above-mentioned two anarchist leagues in colonial Korea, the Black Flag League and the True Friends League. The members of the anarchist groups in colonial Korea who had attempted to join or get involved in these two organizations, had been associated with the Bak Yeol’s “treason incident” and for the very reason had been categorized by Japanese police as “persons who must be under the most intensive observation” (koshu yōshisatsu jin)[341] for their allegedly “dangerous” thoughts as anarchists. This accounts for the place of Bak Yeol and the impact of his “treason incident” in the early Korean anarchist movement in Tokyo and colonial Korea. To put it bluntly, the two Leagues exemplify the close ties early anarchist movements in colonial Korea had with their counterparts in Japan, in particular those in Tokyo under Bak Yeol’s leadership.

In addition to Bak Yeol’s involvement in it, the True Friends League was of greater interest and significance because of the visible collaboration for the first time between Japanese and Korean anarchists in colonial Korea. When the Japanese police raided the League’s office in Daegu and arrested its members, they captured two unidentified Japanese anarchists there as well, who were then detained for longer than usual for unknown reasons. Given their presence in its office, the True Friends League could have possibly been a collaborative, transnational anarchist organization formed by Korean and Japanese anarchists in colonial Korea, possibly for the first time, albeit the details are unknown due to the lack of materials, in particular with regard to their activities and programs. Some evidence suggests, though, that the League was more committed to social or labor issues than Korea’s independence. At his trial Sin Jaemo, one of the League’s members, testified that “what we want is only a revolution in Korea,” which does not necessarily mean its abandonment of the national goal of Korea’s independence but, as the League probably attempted to penetrate into a labor organization in Daegu, it must have been focusing on organizing workers and envisioning a social revolution in the future.[342] The League’s members were all arrested, tried, and sentenced to two to five years in prison for their goal to build a new society bent on anarchism, albeit without clear evidence.[343]

In addition to Sin’s testimony, what was also noteworthy during the trials was the appointment of Japanese lawyer Fuze Tatsuji (1880–1953) as defending attorney for some of the arrested True Friends League members, possibly also for the unknown arrested Japanese anarchists, although he was not able to attend their trail in Daegu. Fuze, who was called “our lawyer” by Koreans at the time and a “socialist lawyer” in Japan for his role in many trials of Japanese and Korean anarchists in Japan, was obviously in sympathy with Korean independence and anarchist movements. Before his appointment for this trial case he had already been in Korea in July and August 1923, with a group of Korean radicals, mostly communists, from the North Star Society, which was organized separately out of the Black Wave Society in Tokyo. While in Korea, Fuze gave talks in many cities for about ten times along with other Japanese socialists like Kitahara Tatsuo (1892–?), then-editor of Advancing (Susume). Fuze stayed in the peninsula until August 12. Due to his personal popularity among Korean radicals in colonial Korea, he was given a special chance during his stay to deliver his own talk, titled “The Spirit of Propertyless Class” (Musan gyeguep ui jeongsin), all by himself in the city of Masan in August 1923, which anarchist Kim Hyeong-yun (1903–1973) from the city, attended and found to be a “great talk.”[344] Fuze’s talk must have had an immense impact on many in the city of Masan and its vicinity, as Masan became one of the centers of Korean anarchist activities in southern Korea.

Kim Hyeong-yun belonged to an anarchist group based in the cities of Masan and Changwon, both near Busan. Kim seemed to have spent some years in Tokyo and Osaka around in 1923 or 1924, where he supposedly met many anarchists and probably himself became one. He was known for his audacious anti-Japanese action in 1925, in the city of Miryang near Masan; he allegedly took out the eyeballs of a Japanese person during his fight, which in turn earned him the nickname of Mokbal (literally meaning “eyeballs taken out”). Later in the 1930s, Kim planned to establish with Jo Jungbok and Yi Jeonggyu, one of the Yi brothers in China, a publishing company named Freedom (jayu), named after the Freedom Press in England, but was unable to do so.[345] Another notable anarchist in the Masan and Changwon anarchist group was Kim San (1898–?, not to be confused with Kim San in SOA), who exiled to Shanghai in 1922 and studied theology at Jinling University (today’s Nanjing University) in Nanjing. During his stay in Nanjing, Kim became acquainted with Korean anarchists, including Yi Jeonggyu and Yi Eulgyu, and was convinced that the Bible contained an anarchist spirit. When he returned to Masan from China, he opened his own church, possibly to spread anarchist ideals as well as the God’s messages. It is believed that Kim received a request from Yi Jeonggyu in 1928 to send a representative of Korean anarchists in the city of Masan to attend the scheduled meeting of Eastern anarchists in Nanjing, to establish the Eastern Anarchist Federation in 1928. In response, Kim seemed to work with Kim Hyeong-yun and Kim Yongchan to select Yi Seokgyu, who was dispatched to Nanjing to attend the anarchist meeting as a representative of Korean anarchists in colonial Korea. Later in the 1930s, Kim San schemed to set up an ideal rural village in northern Korea, for which he was in and out of Japanese prison, since his activities involved some student movement and the Rural Village Society (Nongchon sa).[346]

Although Japanese colonial prosecutors at the trials of those Korean anarchists from the cities accounted for the Korean anarchist activities and organizations in Masan and Changwon as a “systematic” organizational movement, given the frequently attempted fabrications about those organizations by the Japanese police and prosecutors, the organizations in question were without visible activities and were in fact more like study groups for anarchist books of young people in the small cities,[347] rather than any systematically organized anarchist organization with any concrete program, and so forth. Until the return of Choe Gapryong and Yi Honggeun from Tokyo to colonial Korea in October 1927, there were no major visible, lasting, and active nationwide anarchist movement/organization in colonial Korea, as all the attempts I have described thus far were, as explained above, immediately suppressed and resolved, in most cases with fabricated or at least exaggerated stories about them as dangerous violent anarchist groups. Note that no above-mentioned anarchist groups put forward any terrorism-oriented agenda/goals or carried out terror-oriented actions.

On the other hand, it is also true that some anarchism-inspired youth audaciously continued to disperse anarchist ideals, also often propagating violence but only in vain. For example, Yu Uyeol and others, it is said, published and sent out the Declaration of the Nihilist Party (Heo-mu dang seoneon) in January 1926 to their compatriots in the peninsula. Yu, the leading person in writing and dissipating the declaration by regular mail, used to be in Tokyo for study, and had been associated with other Korean anarchists since 1923, in Seoul and Daegu. He was obviously inspired by Russian nihilists and the Declaration of Korean Revolution written by Shin Chaeho in 1923 for the Righteous Group in China. The declaration Yi sent out in 1926 emphasized a revolution that would inevitably take place in Korea, for the Korean masses through their direct action, including violent destruction, and the fundamental destruction of all institutions that bore power involving such things as politics and law. Propagating violence and destruction, Yu’s declaration was driven by nationalist aspiration in nature but nevertheless pointed to its social dimensions of the revolution in vision and direction.[348]

Anarchists in Industrializing Northern Korea

While almost all anarchists’ attempts to have their own organizations in southern Korea had failed as of 1925, the popularity of anarchism seemed to survive and continue to spread throughout colonial Korea. And the center of anarchist activities gradually moved northward from 1927. In fact, similar to the situation in southern Korea, several attempts to establish anarchism-oriented or anarchist organizations in northeastern Korea could have already been made after 1919, but their existence only became visible after 1927, with some substantial and visible activities there. On August 8, 1927, a secret society called the Icheon Free Society (Icheon jayuhoe) was allegedly planning to form in Icheon County (Gun) in the northern part of Gangwon Province. It is unknown if it was finally organized. The planned society’s goal was to build an anarcho-communist society by rejecting the state and private property. It seems that those working in rural villages were the society’s leading figures who in its inception wanted to promote rural culture and help rural youth receive education.[349]

Farther northeast, in the city of Wonsan in Southern Hamgyeong Province, a society called the League of the Men of Instincts (Bonneung-a yeonmaeng) was established on April 1, 1927, by Yi Hyang and Jo Siwon. The former’s career and concept he invented deserve our special attention. Yi was an anarchist literary figure and has been known for his role in the debate between anarchist and Bolshevik literary figures in the 1920s, but most importantly for his own concept of “destitute and humble [bincheon] class,” in place of the proletarian class.[350] He coined the term destitute and humble class after his reflections on the Korean situation. Simply speaking, he wanted to avoid using the term proletariat (musan gyegeup, literally propertyless class), since he thought that the proletarian class meant for him only the wage workers who sold their labor without actual production means. The concept of the proletarian class, however, he believed, could not include and embrace many Koreans who had been deprived of all production means whatsoever for their survival, and, therefore, they were the ones to be liberated from domination and oppression.[351] His concept of “destitute and humble class” meant to be a much broader term, to include the majority in Korea who, in his thinking, were not wage workers necessarily at the time. In his literary understanding, Yi also emphasized “the national reality” (minjokjeok hyeonsil), “the present” (hyeonjae), and “place-based-ness” (hyeonjang).[352] His concept seemed to have more appealing power to many and thus was widely accepted, gaining its popularity in northern Korea among anarchists, as it was used by many other anarchists in the north, which I demonstrate below. The League of the Men of Instincts Yi co-organized conducted its secret activities through a much larger organization called the Wonsan Youth Society (Wonsan cheongnyeon hoe), possibly an anarchism-oriented society, also formed in 1927 in the city of Wonsan, with its basic mission to cope with the communist activities in the area.[353]

Also established in the same year in northeastern Korea were the League of Free Workers in Wonsan (Wonsan jayu nodongja yeonmaeng), organized on September 8, 1927, and the Hamheung Society of the Youth Moving Forward (Hamheung jeongjin cheongnyeon hoe), organized on November 13, 1927, both of which were targeting workers and youths in the two cities, Wonsan and Hamheung in Northern Hamgyeong Province. In addition, a year later, in 1928, the Free Youth Society in Hamheung (Hamheung jayu so-nyeon hoe) was also established. Unfortunately, not much information is available about these organizations. Other than those in the cities of Wonsan and Hamheung, there was the Black Friends Society in Dancheon (Dancheon heuk-u hoe), organized on April 22, 1929 or in May 1929, in the city of Dancheon in Southern Hamgyeong Province. It is said that, the Black Friends Society in Dancheon, collaborating with various youth, workers, and tenant farmers’ organizations in the area, adopted and used the term destitute and humble class that Yi Hyang from Wonsan conceptualized, in order to realize its goal to “promote a liberation movement of the destitute and humble class, based upon the spirit of spontaneous alliance.”[354]

Following the activities in the northeastern part of colonial Korea Korean anarchists in the northwestern part of the Korean peninsula also began to organize themselves but only sporadically. At the time when Choe Gapryong and Yi Honggeun returned to Korea from Tokyo around in 1927, Korean anarchists in colonial Korea had been, as demonstrated above, quite active in the cities like Wonsan and Hamheung, possibly because many Korean anarchists in Japan had already been rushing back to Korea since July 1926.[355] It is not clear why many Japan-based anarchists were returning en masse to Korea suddenly from mid-1926. It is quite possible, though, that their homecoming from 1926 had something to do with the arrest and trial of Bak Yeol and his Japanese comrade and lover Kaneko Fumiko, in particular the latter’s death in prison in Utsunomiya in Tochigi Prefecture on July 23 1926. Their return to Korea might have had something to do with their fear of arrest and torture in Japan after witnessing Bak’s trial and Kaneko’s death in prison. Or they could have schemed Kaneko’s revenge in colonial Korea by reviving Korean anarchist activities in the Korean peninsula, particularly in northern Korea, after 1927, a year after Kaneko’s death in prison.

In addition, it is also plausible that those returned anarchists could have wanted to rebuild their movement after most attempts to build anarchist organizations in southern Korea, particularly in the cities of Daegu, Masan, and Changwon, let alone Seoul, had all been discovered in advance and crushed by Japanese police, resulting in the arrest and loss of many involved anarchists. These obvious failures in the south by 1925, too, could have prompted the return of Korean anarchists in Japan to colonial Korea, in order to renew their anarchist activities by expanding or building new anarchist organizations in the north, if not again in the south. Finally, the increased activities of the communists in colonial Korea by the mid-1920s could have been another factor for this rush of Korean anarchists in Japan back to Korea. Industrializing northern Korea must have appeared to them, just like to the communists, as a place with much more favorable conditions for their movement, in particular, with the presence of an increasing number of workers.

It was in this context that one of the biggest anarchist organizations in colonial Korea was established in northwestern Korea, in the city of Pyongyang. It was the Black Friends Society in Gwanseo Region (Gwanseo Heuk-u hoe), organized again by those who had returned to Korea since 1926, such as Yi Honggeun and Choe Gapryong. Yi and Choe were two leading figures in this new anarchist venture attempted on December 22, 1927, at Cheondogyo Hall in the city of Pyongyang. It is believed that the Society was first named the Like-Minded Friends Society in Gwanseo Region (Gwanseo dong-u hoe), possibly in an attempt to camouflage it as an apolitical ordinary fraternity organization to escape Japanese surveillance. Soon after, however, for unknown reasons, it was renamed the Black Friends Society in Gwanseo Region, disclosing its main anarchist identity, goals, and principles with the use of the word black. The Society placed its goals on the total liberation of labor class and the repudiation of “professional activists” (i.e., communists) and their “naked power-ism” (ganggwon juui), as well as the propagation of the spontaneous alliance principle. In other words, its main struggle took aim at liberating workers and peasants through spontaneous organizations and fighting the communists. The Society also opened and ran a branch office of another anarchist organization, the Black Front Society (Heuksaek jeonseon sa), at Choe’s home, possibly in the city of Pyongyang, to dissipate anarchist ideas in Korea, while continuing to launch other popular organizations, in particular labor unions in the area. The Black Friends Society in Gwanseo Region maintained its contacts with many other anarchists both at home and abroad through the branch office of the Black Front Society. Besides organizing workers into labor unions together, the relationship between the two societies is unknown. The Black Friends Society in Gwanseo Region was to host the first national convention of Korean anarchists in 1929, possibly utilizing the various contacts or the network it had maintained through its suborganization. The Black Front Society also opened later a Labor Night School (Nodong yahak) to promote the spirit of work-study and social consciousness among workers.[356]

The platform of the Black Friends Society in Gwanseo Region delineates its goals in great detail. In it the Society first mandated that its members (1) repudiate the idea of centralization (jung-ang jipgwon) and naked power-ism (ganggwon juui) and emphasize the idea of spontaneous alliance (jayu yeonhap), (2) pledge the complete liberation of the “destitute and humble class,” and finally (3) repudiate all kinds of idol worships. According to some South Korean scholars, the Society, “for the first time in colonial Korea,” intended to work “systematically” for the improvement of the rights of Korean peasants and workers, in particular, the latter’s working conditions.[357] In addition, of special interest is the Society’s seeming avoidance of mentioning independence, just like most anarchist organizations in colonial Korea in the 1920s; there was no mention of Korea’s independence or national liberation in the Society’s platform and/or declaration, albeit nationalism clearly was one of its moving forces in their activities.[358] The Society’s reference to the “destitute and humble class” in its platform, as historian Horiuchi Minoru posits, also indicates the popularity and influence of Yi Hyang’s concept, even in the northwestern area, which possibly suggests that its immediate goal was set with consideration of the local conditions where the liberation of the “destitute and humble class” from their hardship was of immediate importance. It also denotes that, given that Yi Hyang had mostly been active in the northeastern area and the city of Wonsan and its vicinity, and had stayed in the city of Pyongyang in northwestern area at the time only for about four months, Yi’s concept of the “destitute and humble class” must have been spread widely and received well by Korean anarchists throughout the northern part of Korea,[359] even by those who had returned from Japan, such as Yi Honggeun and Choe Gapryong. The concept must have been new to many anarchists returned from Japan, but their adoption and use of it clearly demonstrate their openness and willingness to meet the local conditions and use the local language in launching their movement.

As explained above, the term destitute and humble class seemed to be accepted and used widely to define and include those of the ruled and exploited in both urban and rural areas of northern Korea, who had no survival and production means whatsoever, unlike the proletariat who were, by definition, basically wage workers.[360] As mentioned, the popularity and acceptance of Yi’s concept can be explained in terms of the ongoing industrialization in northern Korea by Japanese colonial government. In comparison with agricultural southern Korea at the time, the immediate issue anarchists faced and wanted to tackle in the northern part of the peninsula, in other words, could have been some rural problems and labor-related issues at hand as a result of rapid industrialization and its consequences in the 1920s, rather than any seemingly distant national or transnational goal. Another possibility is the influence of Japan-based Korean anarchists whose understanding of anarchism had been influenced by Japanese anarchism; their goal in activity had possibly been placed more on social issues in league with the various trends of Japanese anarchist movement of the time, which made them more willing to consider such a placed-based term. Whatever the reason, the application of Yi Hyang’s concept to anarchist movements in northern Korea points to the emphasis Korean anarchists in the area put in their practice of anarchism on the social problems in the place they were, unlike most anarchists in southern Korea. In fact, local accommodations could have been a useful tactic for Korean anarchists to avoid temporarily or postpone their mentioning of independence, primarily in order to escape the intelligence network of and outright suppression by the Japanese police. Above all, however, Korean anarchists in colonial Korea seemed to be willing to meet the diverse demands and needs of the people, which usually sprang from different local conditions and situations, and practiced anarchism accordingly.

Always facing outright suppression, small anarchist groups nevertheless continued to emerge in northern Korea, albeit all short-lived without any good visible trace. In Anju of Southern Pyeong-an Province, An Bong-yeon, Kim Hansu, Yi Sunchang, Kim Yongho, and so on organized the Anju Black Friends Society (Anju heuk-u hoe) in April 1929, and were later joined by Yi Hyeok and An Yeonggeun, both of whom had been in Tokyo for study and had been involved in Korean anarchist activities there. Among its members, An Bong-yeon would die in the notorious West Gate (Seodaemun) Prison in Seoul after being arrested later in the same year for his participation in the Korean Anarcho-Communist Federation (see below). Years later in 1930, a secret society–like anarchist group, called the Cheolsan Black Friends Society (Cheolsan Huek-u hoe), was also organized in the county of Cheolsan in Northern Pyeong-an Province by a group of youths, led by Jeong Cheol, who had been interested in social issues from his high school years. Its members soon numbered about one hundred, but were all arrested. The Society, therefore, was soon dissolved.[361]

The last major attempt by Korean anarchists in the northern part of colonial Korea to organize themselves was the foiled undertaking to establish the Korean Anarcho-Communist Federation (KAF, Joseon gongsan mujeongbu juuija yeonmaeng) secretly on November 10, 1929, after the Japanese suppression of the aborted Convention of All Korea Black Movement Activists (Jeon joseon heuksaek sahoe undongja daehoe), originally scheduled to be held in Pyongyang from November 10 to 11, 1929. The central figures in these two undertakings were Yi Honggeun and Choe Gapryong, and the convener of the Convention was the Black Friends Society in Gwanseo Region of which both Yi and Choe were members. Choe presided over the preliminary meeting for the Convention on August 5 of the same year. The decision made at the meeting with attendance of some anarchists was regarding their plan to hold the first-ever national convention of all Korean anarchists from both colonial Korea and abroad. The audacious plan went smoothly only until the scheduled Convention drew attention from Japanese police. When the plan was finally discovered, those who had already arrived in the area on time for the Convention had to hide to escape any possible arrest, and those who were on their way to the area to attend it had to abort their trip. The Convention itself was therefore aborted. But many anarchists were already in custody of Japanese police in the name of so-called in-advance detention, or had been deported.

According to the plan made for the Convention at its preliminary meeting, anarchists from Japan and Manchuria in addition to those in colonial Korea were expected to be present at it. Yu Rim was among those who at the risk of potential arrest and even his life had come from Manchuria to attend the Convention. Yu had been active mostly in Manchuria but was not well known to the Japanese police at the time of it in 1929, so at first he escaped any police attention and arrest. Although eventually arrested, he was released and then deported to Manchuria, due to the lack of evidence for Japanese police to hold and prosecute him. Anarchists from Japan who were included on the list of attendants were deported to Japan as well. For example, when Yu Hyeontae arrived at Pyongyang Train Station to attend the first national convention of anarchists as a representative of the Tōko Labor Union in Tokyo, he was arrested at site and sent back to Japan. Almost all anarchists who came for the Convention were detained, arrested, deported, or fled and hid from the Japanese police.[362]

The idea to hold a national convention of all Korean anarchists both at home and abroad was probably bold but not realistic in the late 1920s. The holding of the first national convention of Korean anarchists would have to wait until 1946, as I demonstrate in chapter 5. The schedule for the ambitious national convention of Korean anarchists in 1929 evidently didn’t go as smoothly as planned, but it was the first attempt by Korean anarchists in and outside Korea to establish their own nationwide organization within colonial Korea, not in a foreign soil. It was a somewhat audacious but reckless attempt, given the unfavorable political climate of colonial Korea and the tightened Japanese police surveillance. As some scholars suggest, it could rather have been planned not only to organize all Korean anarchists but also to cope with the growing influence of the communists and their activities in colonial Korea at the time,[363] although it can’t be confirmed.

Even though failed, the Convention entailed as its fruit an extended effort to organize all Korean anarchists. Those anarchists who were in the area near Pyongyang for the convention but were not immediately caught, arrested, or detained by the Japanese police were able to secretly meet and establish the Korean Anarcho-Communist Federation (KAF) on the scheduled date of the convention. The KAF was a product of an extended, secret effort to set up an organization of all Korean anarchists, led mainly by five anarchists, including Choe Gapryong and Yu Rim. It is said that before their arrest they managed to have a chance to meet together and were able to announce formally the establishment of the KAF. Although the KAF was the outcome of the attempt to have a nationwide organization led by anarchists themselves in colonial Korea, it is quite doubtful, given the arrest or deportation of the leading anarchist like Choe and Yu, whether the KAF actually was able to function as such and exercise its role and responsibility to oversee or take the leadership role for all anarchist activities in Korea and possibly abroad as well.

It must be noted here that the KAF’s platform didn’t seem to include any concrete word about Korea’s independence or national liberation, either. This was not unusual for anarchist organizations at the time in colonial Korea, as I have demonstrated. Included in its platform rather were radical and revolutionary programs that aimed at a social revolution and thus were transnational in nature. For a new Korea, the platform stated, the KAF would strive for “the abolition of the existing state system and the transformation of it into a social organization that is founded on free alliance and commune as its principle unit”; “the abolition of the existing private property system and reform [national economic unit] into a decentralized industrial organization”; and “the abolition of the existing class and national discriminations and the attempt to construct a society for all mankind of freedom, equality, and fraternity.” The mention of abolishing “national discrimination” in the platform could possibly be geared toward the KAF’s both national and transnational goals to gain independence and to construct a genuine human society for all mankind.[364] Another interesting thing about the KAF is that it had its concrete, strict code of conduct for its members in their movement. The code prohibited its members from becoming engaged in a confrontational struggle with communists, possibly to avoid any wasteful, meaningless, unnecessary conflicts with communists. While encouraged to endeavor to advance the movement for peasantry, the code did not allow its members to join any other nationalist group, which is understandable if we consider anarchists’ critiques of nationalist movements at the time, especially those by the Japan-based anarchists, as narrowly focused political movements for incomplete liberation.[365]

The KAF could exist for a while but probably only in name without any major activities; it continued to be in hibernation until the Japanese police accidently found out about its existence in 1931. Besides arrest and continuous tight surveillance by Japanese police of its members, which were the very reasons why the KAF could have no chance to emerge as a nationwide organization with some notable activities, there were additional reasons for its long hibernation. Since its establishment in 1929, the family of its members in Korea seemed to suffer immensely as well from the hardships of life with economic distress and other problems, part of which was due to the Japanese police’s intended harsh and brutal treatment of them. In hindsight, it seems it was inevitable for many Korean anarchists, particularly those in colonial Korea, to give up their faith in anarchism or move away from their anarchist activities and remain silent, not only due to their personal hardships and, if arrested, potential torture, but due as well to the sufferings and hardships of their families deliberately caused by the Japanese police, which they had to painfully witness and probably found unendurable.[366]

With the discovery by the Japanese colonial police in 1931 of the existence (if not activities) of the KAF, the anarchist movement and activities in colonial Korea began to rapidly wane, or more precisely disappear,[367] and it never recovered even after 1945, at least not as a revolutionary movement for social transformation. However, as historian Oh Jang-Whan explains, various small-scale anarchist activities seemed to manage to survive and somehow continue until 1945, without any major intellectual or political impacts in colonial Korea. In other words, activities to disseminate anarchist ideas with the formation of circles and the publications on anarchism never ceased, although it is doubtful how influential they were. The anarchist publications obviously were still available in colonial Korea, at least, at Twentieth Century Bookstore, which as mentioned, opened in Seoul and was run by Yi Hyeok. Yi seemed to be involved also in the publication of a couple of other anarchist journals—New East Magazine (Sin dongbangji) and Black Whirlwind (Heuk seonpung). As examined earlier, Kim Hyeong-yun with Jo Jungbok and Yi Jeonggyu attempted together in September 1932 to open a Korean version of the Freedom Press of England, in order to publish anarchism-related books, which too were restricted by Japanese police. Some anarchists like Yi Jeonggyu, who was brought into Korea from China after his arrest in October 1928 in Shanghai, turned their eyes to the failed venture to organize a customer’s cooperative association (sobi johap undong) in 1934, which, according to historian Oh Jang-Whan, was an attempt to lay out a foundation for an anarchist society in the farming villages of colonial Korea. Some other anarchists formed the Pioneer Society for Reading Books (Seon-gu dokseo hoe) in 1938.[368] However we evaluate these endeavors after 1931, it is certain that, given all these accounts, anarchists like Yi in colonial Korea seemed to turn anarchism into a principle for social movement, not as a revolutionary movement, from the 1930s until 1945, if only to facilitate their survival under Japanese surveillance and suppression. To be sure, Korean anarchists in colonial Korea never discontinued their anarchist activities in the 1930s and ’40s but at the same time never wanted or were willing to get any attention from the Japanese colonial police. They had to endure during the long “combat period” in the history of Korean anarchism from the 1930s until 1945, without any actual ability and organization to fight Japan.[369]

Pushing the Limits

Despite that Korea was a colony of Japan, the anarchist movement in colonial Korea readily began to develop in the mid-1920s, albeit it only lasted for a half decade as a visible movement. At its outset, there were some favorable conditions in colonial Korea for acceptance and development of anarchism, which ironically came from the colonial conditions. The availability of Japanese anarchist publications and press contributed to the popularity and reception of anarchism, which was a byproduct of Korea being a colony of Japan and in geographical proximity to it. Korean anarchists who organized themselves and started their activities in the mid-1920s in colonial Korea were either former study-abroad students to Japan or those who had been in contact with anarchist works, in particular by Ōsugi Sakae and/or Peter Kropotkin, although anarchism had already been known to Koreans. Koreans under Japanese colonialism indeed had no other choice but to go to Japan for study abroad or for jobs. Their colonizer somehow provided Korean students with important nutrition for their radicalization, both at home and in Japan, and also offered abundant chances to work with Japanese anarchists with whom they often associated and took actions together. In many cases, the Japanese anarchists were not just their teachers of anarchism but comrades in activity as well. It was at the time that anarchism worldwide also began to retreat and wane in the wake of the rise of Bolshevism from the early 1920s, and colonial Korea was not an exception in this regard. To make things worse, any attempt to organize or disseminate anarchist groups or ideas suffered from outright, brutal suppression by Japanese police who reacted to anarchists out of their fear of terrorism and violence.

Those who began anarchist movements in colonial Korea were former Korean “poor work-study students,” who were constantly on the move to and from Japan. And they were mostly affiliated with Bak Yeol’s anarchist organizations in Tokyo and led the anarchist movement in southern Korea. And their various movements were characterized by their promotion of anarchist ideals, with little reference to Korea’s independence. In both Northern and Southern Gyeongsang Provinces of southern Korea in the 1920s, anarchists enjoyed their geographical proximity to Japan to bring in the “spark of revolution” directly from Japan through the returning students and to sow the seeds of anarchist movements, riding “the wind blowing from the East.” The general social trend in the two southern provinces, Northern and Southern Gyeongsang Provinces, were indeed “under the great influence of [the socialist trend in] Japan,”[370] and they were to become a home of Korean anarchists even after 1945, with a series of anarchist conventions held there, about which I will explain in chapter 5.

Unlike in southern Korea, where the anarchist movement began and flourished as a “thought movement” to propagate anarchism, the industrializing areas of Hamgyeong and Pyeong-an Provinces in northern Korea provided different grounds for Korean anarchists with abundant labor forces. Reflecting the composition and situation of the population in northern Korea, many anarchists willingly employed Yi Hyang’s new concept of “poor and humble class” in place of the proletarian class to describe the existential conditions and social relations there, where peasants as well as workers together faced the hardships and pains under the industrialization pursued by the Japanese colonial government. In addition, many Korean anarchist organizations in northern Korea in their labor-related activities began to use the term black again in the name of their organizations, while involved in various activities, as if they were no longer afraid of Japanese attention. In short, in northern Korea, anarchists were oriented and geared more toward the social and labor issues, which was a product of industrialization there, and their placed-based approach.

While the Korean anarchist movement in 1920s colonial Korea was generally driven by “pure anarchism,”[371] the labor union–related activities, including those for peasants, in northern Korea, in particular by Choe Gapryong, reveal evidence of the practice of anarcho-syndicalist ideas among Korean anarchists since Choe’s return to Korea in 1926. This is not to suggest that those anarchist activities in northern Korea were more advanced in theory or organized better systematically, but to indicate the differences in their understanding and practice of anarchism even within colonial Korea, which usually resulted from different local environments surrounding their reception and application of it. Simply put, anarchism was accepted, understood, and practiced diversely in correspondence with local demands and situation in colonial Korea. Usually crucial in defining the goal and determining the means and methods to achieve it in the Korean anarchist movement in colonial Korea were, I argue, the local differences. The differences were due to the fact that northern Korea was developed into an industrial area and its southern part remained largely agrarian under the Japanese colonial policy.

In addition, as the Choe Gapryong’s case demonstrates, it is quite obvious that early anarchist movements in colonial Korea had close ties with its counterparts abroad, in particular in Japan, through anarchists themselves in motion mainly between two places, Tokyo and the Korean peninsula.[372] Heavily dependent on “the wind from the East,” Korean anarchists in colonial Korea, however, were not insulated, even from their counterparts in China, including Manchuria. Yu Rim’s case in the late 1920s at the failed convention of Korean anarchists, among others, clearly demonstrates the existence of some kind of a network among them, which made them remain connected with many Koreans around the region. In addition, Yi Jeonggyu’s call from China for a representative from colonial Korea to attend the meeting of the Eastern anarchists in Nanjing in 1928 also demonstratesthe existence of a different kind of network among them. While extremely impossible to detail the existence and operation of the network of Korean anarchists, due mainly to its confidential nature and lack of evidence and supporting information, many sources and memoirs available today unanimously indicate a close relationship maintained throughout the 1920s to 1940s between many anarchists and their organizations in Korea and abroad. The relationship seemed to be built and then maintained in the forms of direct and/or secret personal contacts and sending and receiving their journals and other forms of printed materials including letters, and so forth.[373] No matter where they were, Korean anarchists continued to communicate with each other, not to mention that anarchists were always on the move from one to other places. The underlying issues in their communication must have been national liberation, sometimes explicitly and in other times implicitly, as well as social revolution.

Although imbued with nationalist aspiration for independence just like all Korean anarchists abroad, those in colonial Korea did not, were not able to, or even were not willing to put forward directly and openly the question of independence in their organizational and publication activities. The reasons for this seeming passivity in propagating anarchism for the cause of national liberation were possibly twofold. The first probable reason was to avoid the attention of Japanese police as much as possible by avoiding referring to their national aspiration. Once they attempted to propagate independence, they met with outright Japanese suppression, and thus witnessed the ultimate limits in their movement under colonialism. The increasing suppression and tightened control by Japanese colonial police must have deepened their frustration and sometimes despair. Accordingly, the question of independence must have been avoided as much as possible, albeit temporarily. Second, given the major roles played by those from Tokyo, it is quite possible that they were focusing on revolution than just on political independence itself, affected by the general trend in Japanese anarchism of the 1920s, which had no roots in national longing for independence. In short, they deliberately avoided referring to the question of independence for their own survival or strategy, and at the same time were predisposed to the cause of social revolution by their orientation.

It is true that Korean anarchists in colonial Korea had to deal with very limited, restricted ranges of activities. However, they left a long-lasting impression that their movement generally was for a “livelihood struggle” (as opposed to “ideological struggle”) against economic distress and hardships Koreans in the peninsula frequently underwent under the exploitive, discriminatory colonial rule. Without presenting an idea and vision to break down the hardships of life in colony, especially to the “destitute and humble class,” they might have thought it would be meaningless to propagate anarchism and would even undermine their noble goal for an ideal society, which was the case particularly in northern Korea. In reality, Korean anarchists faced other serious issues pertinent to the political and economic hardships their families, as well as they themselves, had to endure directly under the colonial control and suppression, which in many cases rendered some Korean anarchists unfaithful in the end to their anarchist belief and even caused some to give it up later in the 1930s. Some of them could have possibly have supported the Japanese colonial rule and the Japanese pan-Asian vision of the region during the Pacific War.[374]

Given the extremely fragmented and biased materials available on the Korean anarchist movement, it is almost impossible to create a comprehensive picture of it in colonial Korea. However, to place it in the broader context of Korean anarchist movement before 1945, I think a general picture can be made without risking distortion or overgeneralization. Korean anarchist activities in colonial Korea were generally sporadic and small in size, rather than organized and systematic. No single organization or group lasted a few years. Very weak and secret organizations, most anarchist organizations sometimes experienced outright dissolution even before they were established. As for the issue of independence, they seemed to be future-oriented by postponing it to the near future. Anarchist activities in colonial Korea were not commanded uniformly by a nationwide organization. They were locally concentrated and autonomous in their goals and direction, mainly because of the Japanese suppression but at the same time possibly because of their distaste for power concentration and their belief in spontaneity.[375]

Korean anarchists in colonial Korea posed no major threat to the colonial rule as part of a leading anticolonial/independence movement. Although they seemed to get involved in various activities, including labor union activities in northern Korea, they didn’t seem to be divided or in conflict over theoretical issues; rather in the end they attempted to set up a united organization in 1929. Historian Horiuchi even argues that there were no theoretical differences between Korean pure anarchists and syndicalists.[376] Indeed, the theoretical differences between pure anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism were quite commonplace and conspicuous among the Japanese anarchists in the 1920s. But the differences, if there were any, it seems, were not seriously taken among Korean anarchists and thus didn’t bother them throughout the colonial period, as long as they could work on their two goals: social revolution through “livelihood struggle” and national liberation. Or they might have no ideological attachments, just like their Japanese counterparts. As Crump suggests with regard to Japanese anarchists, Korean anarchists in colonial Korea had “little time” or even were not willing to consider theoretical differences, given their harsh environment and brutal suppression of their families as well as themselves under the direct colonial rule.[377] Neither were Korean anarchists in colonial Korea willing to nor able to consider some theoretical issues in anarchism. This doesn’t mean that there was no theoretical consideration at all by Korean anarchists in Korea. Indeed, they were more interested in accommodating their unfavorable environment and conditions in applying and practicing anarchism, as exemplified by the invention and popularity of the term destitute and humble class Yi Hyang coined. In fact, they might have not wanted to consider vexing theoretical considerations in their anarchist movement in colonial Korea, but they nevertheless willingly and flexibly localized anarchism in response to the demands and needs of the location they were situated in, if not just for their strategy and goals.

From :

Research Interests: Radicalism and Nationalism in Twentieth-Century Eastern Asia, The Guomindang Leftists in the 1920s, Wartime Collaboration in China during the Pacific War. (From:


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