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Fri, April 5, 2019 | 10:04
Unsung independence activist
Posted : 2019-04-04 16:57
Updated : 2019-04-05 09:18
By Choe Chong-dae
Seo Young-hae (1902-56) had been forgotten. He is more familiar to scholars who study French literature and history of diplomacy than to his fellow countrymen. His outstanding devotion to Korea’s independence movement came to light through a recent book titled “Seo Young-hae, Independence Activist in Paris” written by Jung Sang-chun, an official of the Presidential Committee on Balanced National Development.
Seo was an independence activist, novelist, journalist and diplomat who devoted himself to seeking restoration of Korean sovereignty against the Japanese colonial rule through remarkable diplomacy in Europe. Driven by patriotism, Seo participated in the March 1 Independence Movement in 1919 at the age of 17. In fear of being arrested by Japanese police, Seo exiled himself to China and joined the establishment of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea in Shanghai as its youngest member. He went to Paris in 1920 to pursue future studies. Graduating from Ecole Superieure de Journalisme de Paris, an institution of higher education, he established “Agence Korea” (News Agency) in 1929 and was appointed Representative of the Liaison Office of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea in Shanghai in 1936, later promoted to ambassador level in Paris.
During his 27-year stay in Paris, Seo made outstanding efforts for the restoration of Korea’s sovereignty and dedicated time to reporting and writing extensively on the brutal Japanese colonial rule to European media. Remarkably, Seo’s life was exposed to the world through his novel, “The Life of a Korean,” (Autour d’une Vie Coreeenne) published in French in 1929, followed by other novels that created a sensation. His first novel describes the oppression Koreans faced under Japanese imperialism as well as Korean history, culture and customs that helped raise awareness of Koreans’ plight and aspects to Europe.
Two years after Korea’s liberation, he finally returned to Korea in 1947. He was dispatched to Pyongyang with Kim Koo to join the South and North Korea conference in 1948. He was one of two symbolic figures who played a core role in seeking Korean independence abroad; one was Seo Young-hae in France, the other was Syngman Rhee in the U.S.
Although Seo held a close friendship with Rhee who became Korea’s first president in 1948, he opposed Rhee’s politics that wanted to create a separate state in the South, while supporting Kim Koo who wanted to establish one unified government for all of Korea. Consequently, his life in Korea was unstable. He worked at the affiliated school of the Korean Provisional Government for education of personality to Korean residents in Shanghai until 1956 without contacting his family in South Korea. After that, his footsteps are not known.
Seo’s remarkable diplomacy for Korea’s independence in Europe had a profound impact on my mind and reminds me of the quote “the pen is mightier than the sword.”
The author Jung Sang-chun compared him to Philippe Aries (1914-84), the French pioneering historian. He called himself a “Sunday historian,” proud of writing outside the university in his spare time. Jung devoted himself to studying on holidays to avoid official influence.
Jung went to Paris to study under state scholarship in 1994-96 and in 2000 while working at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade as a diplomat. While in Paris, he immersed himself in researching Seo who dreamed of Korean independence.
Coincidentally, Jung’s father Jung Il-yeong, a former journalist, served as an English teacher at Gyeongju High School in the early 1960s where he was in a close relationship with my family. Presently, Jung’s studies focus on research of Korea’s independence movement history with my brother Choe Chong-kan, a ceramic artist.
Seo’s extraordinary devotion to Korea’s independence movement as a pioneering diplomat in Paris would most likely have remained in the shadows if it were not for the outstanding research of Seo’s life by author Jung.
Choe Chong-dae ([email protected]) is a guest columnist of The Korea Times. He is president of Dae-kwang International Co., and director of the Korean-Swedish Association.