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Doctors, medical students struggled for Korea’s independence from Japanese colonialists
  • By Lee Han-soo
  • Published 2019.03.01 07:36
  • Updated 2019.03.01 07:36
  • comments 0

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the March 1 Independence Movement, which took place in 1919 for Korea's independence from Japan's colonial rule.

Korea was under Japanese imperial rule from 1910 to 1945. Japan forced Korea to sign the Japan-Korea Treaty of 1910, annexing Korea and making this country its protectorate.

Many Koreans are aware of famous independence fighters and activists who participated in the March 1 Independence Movement but are unaware that there were doctors that endured the pain and suffering of Japanese colonial rule and resisted their oppression.

During the March 1 Independence Movement, there were a lot of medical students from Keijo Medical College, which later became Seoul National University College of Medicine, who shouted hurray for the independence of their country from the Japanese colonial rule.

A picture of Korean students who were members of Bandohoe, a secret Korean medical student group at Keijo Medical College, gathered for a photo at the school in 1942. (Source: Professor Lee Yong-gak’s book Gapjaseng Uisa)

When the colonialists detained medical students related to the movement, out of the 171 students that participated in the movement, 31 students were from Keijo Medical College.

“The student uprising as part of the independence movement was not impromptu but organized through a series of preparations,” said Professor Choi Kyu-jin of Inha University School of Medicine, an expert on independence movement involving medical students. “Kim Hyeong-gi and Han Wi-gon attended the preliminary meeting of the students held in January and February.”

These students attended the March 1 Independence Movement using Japanese language classes, separate from Japanese students, he added.

Keijo Medical College, which opened in April 1916, enrolled both Japanese and Korean students. As the school only hired Japanese professors, the school culture was naturally focused on Japanese students.

“Discrimination included increasing lecture time for teaching German, anatomy and histology lessons for Japanese students while increasing basic Japanese, mathematics and physics for Korean students,” Choi said. “Such discrimination was based on the thoughts of Japanese professors that Korean students had not received any basic training during their past education.”

Also, while Japanese graduates were qualified to practice in both Korea and Japan, Korean graduates were only allowed to practice in Korea, he added.

As a result, Korean students were discontent with the school authorities. As the discrimination reached the extreme, the students decided to participate in the March 1 Independence Movement secretly.

Many students, including Kim Tak-won, Baek In-je, Gil Young-hee, Na Chang-heon, and Lee Ui-kyung, were among the protesters in the front lines that day.

In particular, Lee Ik-jong emphasized the legitimacy of independence through a speech in front of the crowd gathered in what is now Jongno 4-ga, while Kang Gi-pal, a graduate of Keijo Medical College, led the March 1 Independence Movement at South Pyeongan Province.

“The participation from the medical students was so large that by the end of 1919, 79 out of the 141 students attending the university had been expelled,” Choi said. “After the March 1 Independence Movement, the Japanese colonialists changed their policies from military supremacy to literary exhortation.”

Even after the movement, discrimination remained at the school forcing the students to ask for having equal education with the Japanese students.

Such tension exploded when a Japanese professor made racial comments regarding an incident where a skull disappeared from the school. “A Joseon student surely committed this theft,” said the Japanese professor. “Koreans are anatomically close to barbarians.”

The comment sparked uproars from the students, and all 194 students refused to attend classes. The school expelled nine students and suspended the other 185.

Despite threats from the school, the governor, and interrogations from the police, the students kept a hard-line stance until the end and received an apology from the professor.

“Various records indicate that the students were also involved in other protests against the Japanese colonial rule,” Choi said.

In April 1908, all of the medical students refused to attend a welcoming ceremony of Hirobumi Ito, the Japanese governor-general of Korea.

Medical students also participated in the assassination of Yi Wan-yong, a pro-Japanese collaborator. Two former students -- Oh Bok-won and Kim Yong-moon -- of the Uihakgyo, the first modern medical school in Korea which later became Keijo Medical College, participated in the plot.

After their arrest, the Japanese imperial court sentenced Oh to a 10-year prison term for gathering military fund and purchasing weapons, while Kim received a seven-year sentence for spying on Yi Wan-yong’s whereabouts.

Some students who had their independent spirits awakened through the March 1 Independence Movement continued to work for Korea’s liberation after their graduation.

Na Chang-heon, who participated in the March 1 Independence Movement, joined Daedongdan, an independence fighters’ group, after he was imprisoned and tried to help Prince Yi Kang to escape to the Provisional Government of Korea in Shanghai, China, to support him as the new leader of Korea. Although Na was not arrested, the plan failed, and the Japanese troops detained most of the Daedongdan members and Prince Yi.

Na later finished his study at Shanghai Independent Hospital and set up Seum Hospital in China. Through the hospital, he financially supported the provisional government suffering from lack of funds, and continued to play a leading role in the government-in-exile.


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