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Korean Progressive Movement in America

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작성자 선우학원 작성일14-01-17 13:19 댓글0건



Korean Progressive Movement in America

Harold W. Sunoo, Ph.D.


The Korean Progressive movement began in 1938 when Rev. Kyung-sun Lee arrived in Los Angeles from Korea.  Rev. Lee was a Methodist minister in Jinnam-po city and was a close associate of Mr. Ahn Chang-ho.  Rev. Lee was a member of Mr. Ahn’s organization – Suyang Dongu-hoi which was same as Hungsa-dan in America.  He was known as a Christian Socialist.

Rev. Lee met Mr. Kang Kim or “Diamond” Kim in Los Angeles.  Mr. Kim was waiting to return to Korea since he had finished his master’s degree in Engineering and his family was waiting for him in Seoul.   After a long discussion with Lee who was his classmate in Seoul, he decided to stay in America and joined the patriotic movement in America.

Rev. Lee and Mr. Kim organized a small group of young students who advocated a progressive patriotic movement.   Among them were Chang-hi Lee, Bong-yun Choi, Hak-won Sunoo, and Mr. Jun-ho Pyon.  Their political program called for both national independence and social revolution.

The aim of the first organization was to aid the Korean Voluntary Corps in China.  Later, it became the Korean National Revolutionary Party.  All of those groups operated in Los Angeles.

In the United States, Korean nationalists formed organizations promoting independence for Korea when Japan invoked Korea in 1905.   Those leaders were Ahn Chang-ho, Syngman Rhee, and Park Young-man.  Their political ideology derived from the early Korean enlightenment movement of the 1890s and 1900s.  The movement however, split into two major groups around Ahn Chang-ho and Syngman Rhee.

The 1919, March First “Mansei” movement of mass protests in Korea influenced the two groups in America to unite around the formation of the Korean provisional government in China.

Although numerically small, representatives from the American Korean community played a decisive role in the independence movement.  Syngman Rhee was elected president of the KPG, and Ahn became premier.  Rhee set up a diplomatic office in Washington, D. C., called the Korean Commission.  He defined diplomatic activities as the first priority for the overseas Korean exile movement.  However, others criticized his thinking as promoting foreign dependency.

In contrast to Rhee, Ahn tended to view the independence movement in long-range terms.  He focused on general mass education and the development of an economic program.  He founded the Hungsadan, or young Korean Academy, to train future leaders.

Attracted by the patriotism and charisma of the independence leaders, Korean immigrant laborers in the United States wholeheartedly backed the cause.  A majority contributed most of their earnings to the Kungminhoe, the umbrella organization which collected funds for the KPG, the Korean Commission, and other activities.

However, after 1921, the movement declined drastically, as supporters became disgusted by factional strife between the Kungminhoe and Syngman Rhee.  Moreover, hopes for Korean independence dimmed as a result of Japan’s inclusion as a major world power at the Washington Conference in 1921.  During the period from 1921 to 1937, the movement in America was unable to generate much popular support.  In 1931, Rhee returned to Washington, D. C. from Hawaii.   However he encountered a cold reception by U. S. Department of State officials.  Ahn remained in Shanghai but was arrested after a terrorist incident there and was sent back to Korea where he was seized by Japanese officials who represented the government occupying Korea at that time.

Thus, by the mid-1930s, the Korean independence movement in America and in China  was in shambles.  The movement was crippled by bureaucratic inertia and a lack of leadership.  In frustration, many activists dropped out.  For both the Kungminhoe and Dongjihoe – the organization of Rhee – the main leadership consisted of businessmen with capability of providing financial backing for activities.  Although their patriotism could not be questioned, they lacked leadership skills and organizational competence.  Most importantly, they lacked a strategic understanding of world developments. 

Meanwhile, standing outside the ranks of the leadership were many patriotic students and intellectuals.  In the mid-1930s they would bring activism into the independence movement, especially with the advent of the 1937 Sino-Japanese War.  Past research on the Korean independence movement in America has ignored the role of these “social revolutionaries”, focusing instead on the activities of nationalists such as Ahn and Rhee.

In 1938, a group of young Koreans in Los Angeles, who had been informally gathering at the Assembly Hall of the Kungminhoe, decided to meet each Friday to discuss the rapidly changing situation in Asia.  Their meetings came to be known as the “Friday Forum”.  The Shinhan Minbonewspaper described the forum as an effort “to arouse public awareness to the new political development, to hammer out more effective ways and means in the anti-Japanese campaign and to strengthen the organizational weakness of the Kungminhoe by allowing mass participation in policy discussions”.

The leaders of the forum were Pyun Choon-ho, Kin Kang and Lee Kyung-sun.  Active participants included Choy Nung-yik, Kim He-ran, Ahn Suk-jung, Kwak Lim-dae, Choy Young-soon, Choy Bong-youn and Sunoo Hakwon.

The forums rapidly developed a following among Korean intelligentsia in Los Angeles.  Functioning as a discussion circle, the forums brought together avant-gardeintellectuals interested in new perspectives for studying the “Korean problem”.  Synn Du-shik, Lee Kyung-syn, Pyun Choon-ho and Kim Kang emerged as the major theoreticians for the forums.

While there is no specific record of the discussions from the forums, an article by Kim Kang published in Shinhan Minbo on March 23, 1938 provides some sense of the character of the meetings.  Kim’s article focused on the significance of the March First Movement, the first nationwide, mass demonstration in Korea against Japanese colonialism.  Kim analyzed its significance:

The March First Movement is the firstly a protest movement by democratic forces against imperialism; secondly, a resistance movement by the proletariat against Japanese capitalism; and thirdly, the first organized mass people’s movement of its kind in our history.

 (Shinhan Minbo 3-3-38)


He further proposed his vision for a new Korea:

[The new Korea] we envision is not the state of the Yi Dynasty but a new state that guarantees the liberty and equality of the people and between nations.  It is not a country that serves one man’s interests but a country guaranteeing equal voting rights, public education for all under twenty-three years of age, protection of livelihood for all between the ages of twenty-three and fifty-three, and security in retirement for all over fifty-three.                                                                                               



Kim’s syncretic vision was a blend of utopianism and Marxism.  His early thinking reflected a mixture of patriotism, Christian humanism and socialism.  His views also reflected the prevailing ideology of the Friday Forum.  But Kim was more of a practical reformer than a theoretician.  His writings displayed a strong strategic sense, especially in assessing favorable opportunities.  This strategic sense is evident in his article, “Let Us Hoist Sail Before the Wind”, where he argued that “the Sino-Japanese War is our war”.

Dynamic in personality – though often lacking sophistication – and forceful rather than flexible, Kim became the driving force for the student group’s evolution from a discussion forum into “to Aid Korean Voluntary Corps in China”, and , finally, the Korean National Revolutionary Party of North America (KNRP), which published the progressive Korean-language newspaper, Tongnip Shinmun, or Korean Independence.  Kim served as the general secretary of the KNRP between 1942 and 1945 and the general manager of Tongnip Shinmun between 1943 and 1945 and later served as the president of the paper from 1945 until it ceased publication in 1952.

Short tempered yet deeply committed, Kim became a conscious revolutionary.  Nevertheless, his life was continually burdened by concerns for the financial support of his family and his organizational activities.  In 1938, he often worked at two or more full-time jobs.  Between 1938 and 1941, he was self-employed in the produce business.  From 1941 to 1948 he worked for the Berg Metal Corporation, Triplett & Barton Company, and Kaiser Steel Corporation.

Despite pressing financial problems, Kim’s main concern remained the political movement.  In the beginning, his primary focus was the reform of the mainstream Kungminhoe.  He undertook the reforms from within, as a loyal member of the organization.  At the Friday Forum and through the pages of the Shinhan minbo, he challenged the long stagnant leadership structure and urged reform.  The Friday Forum became characterized by new, radical and activist ideas, including proposals for street rallies, all-out propaganda efforts, and a national boycott of Japanese productions.  Students also proposed participating in the Sino-Japanese war by enlisting in the U. S. Army.  By doing so, they felt Koreans could gain a voice in negotiations in the postwar period.

In August 1939 the group held a rally at Long Beach Harbor where Japanese cargo ships were transporting U. S. scrap iron to Japan.  The rally attracted several hundred Chinese.  It also gained the support of the unionized longshoremen (International Longshoremen Workers Union), who delayed the Japanese cargo ship for two weeks.  The Shinhan Minbo newspaper reported the rally as a great success.

The activism gained momentum.  In August and October 1939 and March 1941 militant rallies were held in front of the Japanese consulate office on Broadway and 12thstreets.  At the 1939 rally, Pyun Choon-ho delivered a rousing speech, after which demonstrators burned a Japanese flag before a large crowd of onlookers, including newsmen.  A sudden rainstorm added to the drama.

The group manufactured anti-Japanese buttons, selling them to organizations in other ethnic communities.  The group also set up a speakers’ bureau and sponsored anti-Japanese public meetings.  In 1941 it organized a Korean Night at the Hollywood Veterans Hall.

The activism may have brought some successes, but the students found themselves questioning the real impact of their tactics.  Meanwhile, the Korean community had reacted to the militancy with frenzied opposition.  For example the Kungminhoe ousted the students from its Assembly Hall, forcing the group to relocate to a building located at 1441 W. Jefferson Blvd.

Moreover, the group found itself  increasingly at odds with other forces in the Korean independence movement.  It rejected the gradualist strategy advance by Ahn Chang-ho and the diplomatic approach of Syngman Rhee.  The group was especially critical of Syngman Rhee, who they criticized as relying on outside powers to achieve Korea’s independence.

Nevertheless, the group also recognized the limitations of its own strategy.  The students were learning painfully that a movement in exile was separated – geographically and financially – from the center of revolution.  Moreover, they were discovering that conditions in America were unfavorable for the development of an effective revolutionary base.  Their strategy had reached an impasse.

In August 1939, a New York Times article provided a new direction.  The article reported that an international volunteer army was being organized in China under the leadership of a Korean general, Kim Yak-san.  Group leaders discussed this development and sent an inquiry to Kim Kyu-shik, a widely respected scholar serving as a left-center member of the Korean Provisional Government based in Chungking.  Kim Kyu-shik not only confirmed the newspaper report but provided his assessment of the current situation in China.  He wrote that the time had come to step up armed struggle against Japan.  He evaluated the conditions for military action as favorable – for the first time in the course of the war.  Moreover, Kim mentioned that another Korean volunteer army had formed under Muchong (Kim Muchong) and was active in northern China and Manchuria.  Also, several independent Korean guerrilla groups were operating along the Korean-Manchurian border.  A letter reporting on these events was received by Hakwon Sunoo who responded to him with enthusiasm.

The letter aroused group members, prompting a week long policy discussion.  The group adopted a resolution, stating that military action was now the key to liberation.  All efforts would be concentrated toward supporting armed struggle in China.  Leader lined up behind Kim Yak-san, who stressed that the present period required the unity of all forces around armed struggle; ideological differences were to be viewed as secondary questions. 

The priority was fund-raising.  Money collected was sent to Kim Yak-san via the diplomatic puch of the Chinese consulate office in Los Angeles through an arrangement with a sympathetic vice-consul.   A former member of the Society recently recalled the fund-raising efforts.  “Without hesitation”, he said, “Most of the members contributed their earnings, setting aside only a bare minimum for their own livelihoods”.  Hak-won Sunoo was put in charge of the money, because as an instructor at the University of Washington, he was making more money than most of them.  Rev. Kyungsun Lee was his assistant at that time.  The two men were employed by the Army Specialized Training Program at the University of Washington and tasked with teaching Korean language and history to the American soldiers who were training to occupy Korea. 

Kim Kang was always among the top-ranking donors.  After 1938, he contributed virtually his entire earnings to the cause.  Moreover, a majority of Koreans residing in Los Angeles and other U. S. cities responded with enthusiasm to the project, reflecting increasing skepticism with the Kungminhoe’s backing of Kim Ku, the head of the Korean Provisional Government (KPG), who seemed to be more interested in factional strife than independence work.  During this period, the Society’s membership grew to sixty persons in Los Angeles.  Chapters were also organized in New York and Chicago.  The Society had become a national organization with its headquarters in Los Angeles.

Tongnip Shinmun (The Korean Independent)

            In late 1943, with the signing of the Cairo Declaration by the four powers, KNRP leaders felt the end of the war to be imminent.  The Cairo Declaration stated that “in due course Korea will become free and independent”.  Party leaders began to take up the question of the postwar Korean state.  Unlike the right wing nationalists, they viewed the question as a two-fold task: national liberation and social revolution.  While Syngman Rhee and other nationalists envisioned a republican state modeled after the United States, the KNRP called for more fundamental social reforms.  However, they recognized the need to conduct mass education on this program and thus, established a newspaper, Tongnip Shinmun , or The Korean Independent.

   On October 6, 1943, the Tongnip Shinmunpublished its first issue of eight pages, including a two-page section in English.  The political viewpoint of the newspaper had been toned down, partly to counteract criticisms of more moderate forces in the independence movement and partly to draw broader support for the KNRP efforts.  Kim Sung-kwon, a political neutral and revered figure in the community, was invited to serve as the paper’s first president.  Chang Key-hyung, a minister of the Korean Methodist Church in Los Angeles, was chosen as general manager, although Kim Kang replaced him two months later.  Park Sang-ryup, an experienced newspaperman, was invited to be the chief editor.

The weekly paper had a press run of 2,000 copies.  However, the paid subscribers numbered about 1,000.  The paper was mailed to in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, New York, Hawaii, Canada, Mexico, Cuba, China, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union.  Free copies were sent to the major U. S. libraries, members of the U. S. Congress and the State Department, and the governments of Allied nations.  Expenditures varied for the first five years of operation: $4,853 (three months in 1943), $10,014 (1944), $8,855 (1945), $7,025 (1946) and $7,660 (1947).

From the beginning, the newspaper’s focus on a discussion of a postwar program for the new Korean nation was a popular issue.  At this time, a new development took place.  The OSS (Office of Strategic Services) was recruiting young Korean patriots, to the group.  The young Korean men welcomed the opportunity to serve in the military.  12 men decided to enter the OSS. Among them were Kim Kang, Lee Kyung-sun, Lee Chang-hie, Sunoo Hakwon, Kim Dong-woo and Yu Il-han.

After taking basic training in Washington, D. C. and on Catalina Island off Long Beach, California, some of the men were sent to Sian, China.  For unspecified reasons, Kim Kang remained on Catalina until September 1945, when he was release from the OSS.  However, even those who were sent to China later stated that Japan’s surrender occurred during the last phase of their training.  Only Lee Kyung-sun managed to go to Chungking.  He met with Kim Kyu-shik and Kim Yak-san and exchanged views on the postwar Korea situation.

In early 1945, moderate forces took control of the KNRP.  However, Kim Kang was recalled to serve as president of the Tongnip Shinmun at the fourth annual board meeting on January 16, 1946.  Kim was then employed by Kaiser Steel Corporation.  He thus resumed a daily life between two different worlds.

Under a loose American Military Government structure, the political situation in South Korea was chaotic.  Political clashes and disturbances occurred frequently; the rift between right and left forces intensified.  The Tongnip Shinmun, which had reserved judgment on U. S. occupation policies, now began to voice disappointment.

The Moscow Agreement, establishing a five year period of trusteeship for Korea, divided political forces in Korea into “left” and “right” factions.  An editorial in Tongnip Shinmun praised the agreement as the only realistic course.  Radical positions returned to the front page of the newspaper.  The paper began to reprint dispatches of Haebang Ilbo, or Liberation News, organ of the Korean Communist Party. 

With the end of World War II, the anti-imperialism sentiment of the Korean independence movement, previously directed toward Japan, was redirected toward the United States.  In the repressive atmosphere of the cold war, the Korean movement pressed forward with rhetoric and action that found little support in the U.S. within the Korean American community.

Many activists left the United States went to North Korea.  Among them, two major leaders of the progressive movement, Rev. Kyung-sun Lee and Mr. Kim Kang and without dynamic leadership or broad support, the movement slowly died down during the post WWII years. 

In 1973, The Korean CIA kidnapped Mr. Kim Dae-jung (the vocal and popular opposition voice to the dictator Park Chung-hee) in Tokyo, Japan, and was ready to dump him into the ocean.  He was saved by “the International Association to save Kim Dae-jung” who contacted the US CIA for help.

The International Association to save Kim Dae-jung was organized by Dr. Channing Liem (chairman), Dr. Hak-won Sunoo, (vice-chairman), Rev. Syngman Rhee (general-secretary) in New York after learned about the kidnapping news.

The group began to campaign against the military dictator, Park Chung-hee, and became an active democratic organization.

In 1981, the movement for the reunification of Korea began in America.  The first event was the Symposium of the Unification of Two Koreas organized by Dr. Hak-won Sunoo.  The meeting  was held in Washington D. C. in April 1981.  The symposium was financed by  Dr. Sunoo and General Choi Duk-shin who each contributed $10,000 to cover expenses for this historical meeting. In addition, General Choi Hong-hei provided $1000 for the banquet expenses.

Two Korean Daily newspapers, Dong-A Daily and Chosun Daily reported that the symposium was financed by North Korea.  According to these articles, a man from the Chong-ryun (Pro-North Korea group) from Tokyo purportedly brought the money and attended the meeting.  As it turned out, those were fabricated stories.  No one came from Tokyo to attend the meeting , and no one donated from outside the group.  The two reporters who wrote the fabricated articles did not even attend the meeting and apparently made up the stories with the intent of undermining the credibility of the symposium.

Undeterred, four more symposiums rapidly followed.  Three meetings in Los Angeles and one in Washington D. C..   All the expenses were provided by Dr. Hak-won Sunoo with some supports from Mr. Choi Kyun-tai, a supporter of the movement in Tokyo.  Mr. Choi went on to organized the same symposium ten more times in Japan in the succeeding years.

In the following years,  many outstanding speakers participated in these symposia.  Among them were Ramsey Clark, former US Attorney, General,  Dr. John Swomley,  Prof. of Christian Ethics at the St. Paul Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Professor Bruce Cummings, a Korea expert from the University of Chicago, Professor Glenn Page from the University of Hawaii, as well as Korean scholars Prof. Park Sun-Kyung, Rev. Hong Kun-soo, Dr. Samuel Lee, Rev. Bopta, and others.  Each symposium was attended by over a hundred participants.

All the expenses were underwritten by Dr. Hak-won Sunoo, who had accumulated substantial earnings investing in stocks.  In later years, Sunoo contributed  ¼ million dollars to establish the Sunoo Korea Peace Foundation managed by the California Community Foundation.  Every year, the dividends from these investments are donated to local organizations which are actively engaged in the peaceful unification of Korea. 

            The gathering momentum of interest in Korean reunification partially stimulated by these ongoing reunification symposia created the impetus for an historical event in Vienna, December 1981.

This was the very first dialogue between overseas Korean Christians and North Koreans .

17 participants from America and Canada, 15 from Europe, and 15 from North Korea met in wintry Vienna for an historical two days conference with 4 lectures and much open discussion.  This event set the precedent for what became an annual event for 10 consecutive years.  Subsequent meetings were held in third countries such as Japan, Finland, Germany, etc.  Some of the meetings attracted more than 100 participants.

What were the results of these unique dialogues?  They accomplished much more than the organizers of the events originally expected.  Although it would be impossible to describe all the positive results of the decade-long informal ongoing dialogue on trust-building and understanding between overseas Koreans and North Koreans, several significant actions impressed the overseas Korean Christians.

  * Three churches were built in Pyongyang. 

*  North Korea  published the Bible for the church members in the DPRK

*  The definition of religion in the North Korean Social Encyclopedia was changed from “Religion is the opiate of the people” to “Religion can also help the social progress”. 

* A Department of Religion was established at the University of Kim Il-sung, and Rev. Hong Dong-kun taught about Christianity and the Bible for 10 years.  Rev. Hong’s expenses were paid by the United Presbyterian Church of the U. S. A.  Rev. Syngman Rhee made such arrangement.  Rev. Hong lectured there until he died in Pyong yang. 

* During the decade of these dialogues, Dr. Hak-won Sunoo met three times directly with President Kim Il-sung for one hour interviews and discussions about Korea’s future.  (For details, see Dr. Sunoo’s “Arirang, trail of compassion”- in Korean)  

Those overseas Koreans associated with the symposia and the dialogues were:  Gen. Duk-shin Choi, Mr. Kyng-tai Choi, Gen Hong-hei Choi, Dr. Ik-kwan Choe, Mr. Chung-lim Chun, Rev. Dong-kun Hong, Prof. Dong-soo Kim, Dr. Hannah Kim, Dr. Hyun-hwan Kim, Rev. Song-nak Kim, Rev. Wi-jo Kang, Prof. Anthony Kang, Rev. Eun-hong Kang, Rev. Syngman Rhee, Prof. Suk-chung Song,  Professor Sonia Sunoo, Dr. Eun-shik Yang, Rev. Kil Sang Yoon.

Today the unification movement continues in America.  Some of the most active ones include the “Korea Policy Institute” (Dr. Thomas Kim), “End the war in Korea now” (Rev. Syngman Rhee) and the “Korean-American National Coordinating Council” (Rev. Kil Sang Yoon) which has sponsored more than five thousands meetings of separated families, continues this  humanitarian work to the present day.

The Korean Christian community in the US reflects a broad political spectrum from conservatives to progressives, but the activity and progress of the Korean progressive movement continues to be healthy even after 75 years.

(For detail, see 100 years of Korean history in America)


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