Anarchism, accepted by Korean radicals in the early 1920s as an idea for independence from Japanese colonial rule since 1910, was one of the most important currents in the Korean independence movement. While their immediate goal was to “retake” independence through direct action, motivated by national consciousness, the ultimate goal of Korean anarchists was to achieve a social revolution bent on anarchist principles. Anarchism offered them an alternative to Bolshevism and social Darwinism with its promise of human progress through mutual aid, and hope for a new society with its universal messages of freedom, no compulsory power, and spontaneous alliance.

The circulations of anarchist ideas as well as anarchists themselves in East Asia were of significance in the rise of Korean anarchism in the 1920s, in the sense that it was basically a product of interactions among anarchists in the area, through which Korean anarchists were imbued with national consciousness and shared transnational concerns with other anarchists as a result of mutual influence and inspiration. Transnationalism, like nationalism, was a main force in the rise of Korean anarchism, which may explain why Korean anarchists preferred political independence to social revolution, without which, they believed, no significant political changes could even be made (Hwang 2007).

After 1920 anarchist groups and organizations appeared first among Korean exiles and/or study-abroad students in China and Japan, and then in Korea. In early 1920s China the Beijing Branch of the Black Youth Alliance and the Korean Anarchist Federation in China were successively established. The inaugural editorial of the latter’s organ, The Conquest (talhwan), published in 1928, clearly expressed its advocacy of social revolution for “the oppressed class,” while Shin Chaeho’s 1923 “Declaration of the Korean Revolution” justified mass violence against Japanese colonial government (Graham 2005: 373–6, 381–3). Of importance in the Korean reception of anarchism was support from Chinese anarchists and the role of Vasilij Eroshenko, a blind Russian poet and anarchist, who propagated in early 1920s China cosmopolitanism and anti-Bolshevism (Bak 2005: 26; Hwang 2007). Many Korean anarchists participated in such anarchist projects as the opening of the National Shanghai Labor University (1928), the Movement for Self-Defensive Rural Communities (1927–8) in Quanzhou, and educational experiments (1929–early 1930s) also in Quanzhou. After 1931 many engaged in armed struggles against Japan, in collaboration with some Chinese anarchists. Their goal, however, was still social revolution rather than political independence, as exemplified in the platform and declaration of the Alliance of Korean Youths in South China (Bak 2005: 161–8).

In Japan the first anarchism-oriented Black Wave Society appeared in 1921, but a group of Korean anarchists withdrew from it to establish the Black Friend Society and published Fat Korean (Hutoi senjin). Park Yeol was a leading figure in the organizations and journal until 1923, when he and his Japanese comrade Kaneko Fumiko were arrested for their alleged conspiracy to assassinate the Japanese emperor. Fat Korean and its successor, The Contemporary Society (Gen shakai), both published in 1923, made clear their national and transnational goals under the shackles of capitalism and colonialism (Hwang 2007). Park’s arrest was a setback to the Japan-based Korean anarchist movement which was revived briefly with the organization in 1926 of the Black Movement Society, which became a member of the Japanese Black Youth League. Obviously, many Japan-based Korean anarchists partook in the various publications and organizational activities of their Japanese counterparts, which was conducive to their survival under Japanese surveillance. Their activities used to be supported and even sponsored by Japanese anarchists such as Ōsugi Sakae, Hatta Shūzō, and Iwasa Sakutarō.

The Korean anarchist groups in Japan manifested their criticism of capitalism, colonialism, and the nationalist movement, and made poignant attacks on Bolsheviks as a “new privileged class.” Their movement, however, began to decline after 1930 due to tight control of “dangerous thoughts” in Japan after its invasion of China. One exception to this was the Black Newspaper (Heuksaek sinmun), published from 1930 until 1935 with funding from Korean anarchist unions and organizations in Japan, which interspersed a wide range of local, national, and global news of anarchist activities and propagated social revolution, cosmopolitan ideas, and intense interactions among all anarchists and the masses across boundaries, along with criticism of nationalism and patriotism in the independence camps (Hwang 2007).

The ups and downs of the anarchist movement in Korea were closely tied to the situation of Korean anarchists in Japan and China. Any attempts to set up an anarchist organization in Korea, however, always met with swift and brutal suppression from the Japanese colonial government. Attempts to establish the Black Flag Federation (1924), the Real Friend Federation (1925), and Choi Gabryong’s scheme to establish the Korean Anarcho-Communist Federation (1929) were all immediately crushed. Nevertheless, various anarchist groups and organizations continued to appear until the mid-1930s, albeit all short-lived. In the 1930s and 1940s anarchists in Korea were either arrested or forced underground to survive. Similar to their counterparts in China and Japan, their goal was not so much Korea’s independence as the realization of an anarchism-oriented society (Mujeongbu jueui undongsa pyeonchan wiweonhoi 1989: 189–274, 394–400).

In the 1930s the Korean anarchist movement began to be at the ebb both at home and abroad, from which it never recovered. The notion and idea of social revolution, however, was sustained at least until 1945, coexisting with its national goal of independence (Yi 1974: 11). It is in this sense that anarchism in Korea was accepted not just to be “utilized” only for independence, but rather with reference to a society free of the “social problems” prevalent under capitalism. Anarchism still seems alive in South Korea as an idea for “freedom for the twenty-first century” (Bak 1999).

References and Suggested Readings

Bak, H. (2005) Sikminji sidae hanin anakijeum undoongsa [A History of Korean Anarchism During the Colonial Period]. Seoul: Seonin.

Bak, Y. (1999) 21segi jayu, anakijeum! [Anarchism! Freedom for the Twenty-First Century]. Hankoreh21 279 (October 21). Available at http://www.hani.co.kr/h21/data/L991011/1paqab02. html (downloaded October 21, 1999).

Graham, R., (Ed.) (2005) Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. Vol. 1: From Anarchy to Anarchism (300 CE to 1939). Montreal: Black Rose Books.

Hwang, D. (2007) Beyond Independence: The Korean Anarchist Press in China and Japan in the 1920s–1930s. Asian Studies Review 31, 1 (March): 3–23.

Mujeongbu jueui undongsa pyeonchan wiweonhoi (Ed.) (1989) Han’guk anakijeum undongsa [A History of the Korean Anarchist Movement]. Seoul: Hyeongseol Chulpansa.

Oh, J. (1998) Han’guk anakijeum undongsa [A History of the Korean Anarchist Movement]. Seoul: Gukak jaryoweon.

Yi, C. (1974) Ugwan munjon [Collected Works of Li Chung-kyu]. Seoul: Samhwa insoe.

Yi, H. (2001) Hanguk eui anakijeum – sasang pyeon [Anarchism in Korea: Its Ideas]. Seoul: Jisik saneobsa.