My first impression of Daegu was disappointing. Architecturally, it has an high rise concrete aesthetic that I wasn’t expecting. Most South Korea cities are similar, their ancient buildings destroyed by conflict, ancient and recent. Traditional buildings were wooden, fire claimed many historic gems. Closer inspection revealed Daegu to be a town of youthful energy, with wonderful traditional markets and lovely parks. There is little in the way of mainstream tourist attractions, but wandering the absorbing and lively streets was great fun.
Modern history has not been kind to Korea. The very existence of Kim Jong-un, the latest and plumpest in a long line of the tyrannical dynasty that has ruled North Korea since the end of the Korean War in 1953, is proof of that. This throwback to the Cold War is only part of the story of modern Korea though. It’s a history that is as dramatic as any, but one I knew little of before coming face-to-face with it in Daegu, South Korea’s ‘colourful’ city.
When Korea was divided by Cold War realpolitik, World War II and the Korean War had bequeathed the nation utter destruction. The future course of the two Koreas propelled the south towards a progressive and prosperous future; the north retreated back into the Dark Ages. Samsung’s share of the global smartphone market holds an unflattering mirror to the posturing of Kim Jong-un, a man with a cheese fetish who presides over a nation that cannot provide its people with food or energy. Plenty of propaganda, but you can’t grow fat on propaganda, however hard you try.
Under the retrograde rule of his family, North Korea has brutally repressed, starved and murdered its people. It’s a terrible history, but one precipitated by a national disaster brought on by the conquest of Korea by Imperial Japan.
Close to my hotel in downtown Daegu was a lovely park with a brightly painted temple. I paid a visit and came away with some burning questions: Why didn’t I know Korea was a colony of Japan from 1905 to 1945? What is a National Debt Repayment Movement? And what the hell was The Hague Secret Emissary Affair all about? What I did know was that here, in the centre of Korea’s fourth largest city, was a connection with my current home in The Hague. A proper whodunnit?
Wedged between aggressive neighbours, Korea has been invaded repeatedly since the 16th Century. Japan went first, quickly followed by China. The 17th Century saw the arrival of Europeans, this didn’t improve things. Christianity and unfavourable trade concessions were unleashed on the country. In the mid-19th Century the French invaded, followed a few years later by an expansionist United States.
The Japanese invaded again in the 1890s, this time fighting alongside Korean allies against China and its Korean allies. Eventually Russia held sway until it was defeated by Japan in 1905. Unable to maintain its independence, or play others off against each other, Korea finally became a colony of Japan.
Japanese rule could largely be summarised as brutal, culminating in the forced enslavement of tens of thousands of Korean women as sex slaves during World War II. Japan’s refusal to acknowledge the true extent of its war crimes in Korea continues to sour relations to this day.
Japanese rule gave rise to both the National Debt Repayment Movement and the March 1st Movement. The former was an attempt by the Korean people to raise money to pay debts owed to Japan and reclaim Korean sovereignty. That’s right, in the early 20th Century, ordinary Korean citizens tried to buy their country back from Japan. The former home of Sang-Dong Seo, Daegu resident and founder of the National Debt Repayment Movement, can still be visited.
Beginning in 1919, the March 1st Movement was a national wave of resistance to Japanese colonialism. Demonstrations across the country were met by repression from Japanese authorities. In Daegu the marchers avoided Japanese police by using a secret path to gather and proclaim independence. As elsewhere, dozens were killed, hundreds wounded and thousands imprisoned. The path the demonstrators took is still there, today a national monument.
What about The Hague Secret Emissary Affair I hear you say? A failed attempt by Korea to legally overturn Japanese control of their country at the Second Peace Conference in The Hague in 1907. Their emissaries were denied entry to the conference, European powers and the United States (all of whom had their own colonies to protect) effectively handed Korea to Japan.