In May 1910, Japan forced Korea to sign the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty, effectively making Korea a subsidiary of Japan. Japan gained authority over Korean media, law, and even royal family. Between 1910 and 1919, the military police reigned supreme, coming down heavily on any murmur of resistance or rebellion. Of course, they did not realise that this was like pushing potatoes down into the dirt to stop them from growing. After Japan forced the Korean army to disband in 1907, anti-Japanese sentiment grew rapidly, and there were many attempts to orchestrate rebellions which all, ultimately, failed. This is the story of one of those less-than-Glorious Revolutions:
Honja breathed a sigh of relief as he felt the cool spring rain on his face. The manhole cover had felt horribly heavy after a night down in the sewers, combing through mud - and worse - in the hope of finding 10, 11, or even 12 Won (about 1 cent)! Compared to that, anything would feel good - even if it was little more than a puff of wind dispelling the odour of the city’s excrement. He quickly climbed out of the hole, glancing around for a police officer as he did so. After the occupation, the police had become a brutal tool of oppression, rather than the benevolent instrument of justice it was intended to be. As the rain went from a drizzle to a downpour, he hurried through the streets, hugging his precious findings to his chest.
He dodged and weaved through the convoluted alley system of Pyongyang, searching for the sign of a pawnshop. Honja always avoided using the same shop twice in one month, to make sure that he never got trapped inside a routine. The police did not approve of his sewer-searching occupation, so he was always careful to never return to a store often. There was always someone who could turn him in for the reward. That bounty had become the bane of his life ever since it was implemented. It was not much, just a few hundred Won, but people survived by taking all that they could find. He saw the sign that he was looking for - a pawnshop that he had never been to before. He darted inside, making sure to check the street for unwanted ‘passersby’ before he did so.
The inside of the store was fetid and cramped. There was a pot of something - these days, it wasn’t wise to guess what - bubbling in a corner. The shopkeeper, a small, wizened old man, had looked up sharply at the sound of the door. His hand was just retreating from something on the underside of his desk as Honja walked up to the counter. “Welcome to my shop. Do you have something you wish to sell?” For answer, Honja upended his sack on the counter; an action which revealed a variety of small objects of indiscriminate value. The old man sucked his teeth as he surveyed the haul. “Hmmmm… I’ll give you, say, 500 Won for the lot.” At this meager sum, Honja felt more annoyed than anything else. This old man obviously thought he was meek enough to simply accept whatever price was named. “500 Won for the entire bag? I wouldn’t accept that for one of these! This ring alone has to be worth at least a thousand!” The old man was unperturbed. “Why don’t you run your own pawnshop, if you’re so smart? I said five hundred, and five hundred’s what I’m prepared to give!” Honja decided to try a different angle. “Look, if you’re not going to give me a fair price, I’ll just go find someone with a firmer grasp of evaluation.” The old man blew out his cheeks and let out a theatrically loud sigh. “Look. We brokers have to make a living too, all right? You ask for more than a thousand, you might as well strangle me here and now. Tell you what...eight hundred and fifty is as high as I’ll go.”
Honja looked around, noting the man’s threadbare robe, the lack of decor, and the coating of grime on the floor. Oh, and that pot was unlikely to contain prime steak. The old man could well be telling the truth. Or he could have a room full of gold and jewels in the basement - it was possible. Pity, however, was not a survival trait on the streets. If he gave a little on this deal, he could be certain that every shopkeeper on this side of the city would know about it within a week. He couldn’t afford to show generosity. “Fine, I’ll just go to someone who’s got more Won.” He slowly and deliberately gathered his findings back into the sack, noting with satisfaction the twitch of the old man’s fingers as the put the ring back. He had this shopkeeper right where he wanted him.
He made as if to leave, and, sure enough, the shopkeep cracked. “All right, all right - 1500. That’s more than generous.” He had the voice of a man who knows that he is not about to come out ahead. Honja shook his head sharply and raised his finger. The shopkeeper flinched and hesitated, caught in some vicious internal struggle. “2000. That is final. You do realise that you’ve good as ruined me with this?” Honja relaxed and walked back to the counter. He took the proffered money, and reached into the bag. He withdrew the ring, and noted that the old man immediately began to breathe a little faster. However, the old man’s reaction was less pleasant when he realised that nothing else was forthcoming. “Where’s the rest? I’m not paying 2000 for one ring!” Honja sighed in exasperation. “What’s the problem? You know as well as I do that this is pure gold.” The old man, upon hearing this, realised that he had well and truly lost. With resignation, he counted out 2000 Won and tossed the wad over the counter. “You can find someone else to swindle for the rest. You’ve cleaned me out.”
Honja walked out of the store in high spirits - the encounter had gone better than he had dared hope. Usually, small storeowners were diamond-tipped when it came to negotiation, but that old man had been incredibly easy to read. Honja looked around, surreptitiously patted his pocket for the reassuring bulge of money, and set off for home. The sun was setting on the rooftops of Pyongyang as he wove through the masses of people thronging the city streets. The sunlight glinted off of one of the windows of the new ‘Oriental Development Company’ building as Honja looked up. This company was meant to ‘develop and administer to the colonies of Japan’, but everyone knew it was Japan’s tool of exploitation. Honja heard this on the streets every day, from strangers and from friends. He himself was ambivalent on this subject, feeling that if only everyone would keep their heads down, eventually Japan would allow Korea a degree of freedom.
As Honja looked back down to the streets, he felt a thrill of fear - a policeman was walking towards him! He was trapped. If he ran, the officer would surely give chase, but he couldn’t simply allow himself to be arrested. Honja tensed as the officer made his way through the crowd. As the policeman approached, his stomach turned somersaults, and he felt sick with fear and anticipation. He had heard stories of what officers would do to people like him - the grime of the streets, living on the edge of poverty. They didn’t need a permit, warrant, or even a charge. They simply dragged them away, whereupon they were never heard from again.
The officer seemed to be at once light-years away and unbearably close. His progress through the crowd was slow and inexorable, and Honja was both savouring each last moment of freedom and wishing the wait to be over. The important thing, however, was to not show fear. Policemen were like wolves for sniffing out the terror on a person. Honja looked straight ahead, a calm expression on his face, trying to cover the overwhelming terror of capture that was welling up inside him. The officer was closer now, close enough for Honja to see the whites of his eyes. Honja tried to control his breathing and steady himself. The officer was now even closer, so much so that Honja could hear his measured tread against the cobbles. He thought his heart would explode. The officer was barely a few feet away. Honja realised that his hands were shaking, and he quickly slipped them into his pockets. The policeman broke into a run, and Honja thought that he would have a heart attack. The officer swept past him and proceeded to run down a pickpocket that had ‘found’ a man’s wallet.
Honja emptied his pent-up breath into a massive sigh of relief. He was suddenly hit with the realisation that he, a (mostly) innocent Korean, had been in fear of his life, and inside the walls of his native city, too! From a police officer, one who was meant to keep people like him safe! Honja looked up at the Oriental Development building again, but saw it in a different light. Instead of an immovable feature of life that had to be simply weathered, he saw the offices of his country’s oppressors - targetable, vulnerable. Instead of simply a building, he saw a target. Faced with this revelation, Honja looked back down at the street, walked calmly around the corner into an alley, and ran faster than he ever had before back to Yasuo’s room.
Yasuo was a friend of his that managed to scrape together enough money to rent out an apartment in the shantytown of Pyongyang. He always had some revolutionary friends in there, talking about a ‘Korea freed from oppression’, which was not necessarily a bad thing in itself. However, these friends combined revolutionary fervor and heroic stupidity together in such massive amounts that they were always talking about storming the police station, or marching in the streets - methods of resistance that would lead to wholesale slaughter. Honja did feel that Korea should be a free nation, but he unfortunately had the wonderful instinct of self-preservation that made him ineligible for suicidal revolutions, so he usually avoided sleeping at Yasuo’s, preferring a stable or even a flea-ridden flophouse. However, this time was different. For the first time, Honja knew what it was like to be prepared to die for a cause, for your beliefs. He knew that he was prepared to give his final measure to see Korea a sovereign nation again. As he neared the flat, he rehearsed his plan in his head, assessing its risks, flaws, and possible points of failure. He sprinted down the street, sandals flapping on the concrete, burst through the door of the tenement, flew up the stairs, and entered Yasuo’s room.
Honja had slowed down enough to enter the apartment at a walk, to give himself time to assess the radicals, revolutionaries, and general hangers-on that always gathered at Yasuo’s . Today, there was just one group of people clustered around a table, what looked like another revolutionary cadre. Honja was in luck. All he needed to do was explain his plan. As he entered, Yasuo looked up sharply, but relaxed as soon as he saw it was Honja. “Yi, you didn’t lock the door? Anyone could have come in! You’re lucky it’s just Honja!” Honja reflected that that statement could either mean ‘Honja’s able to keep a secret’ or ‘It’s only Honja, we can take him’. Yi then continued, “Honja! You don’t usually show your face around here! What’s changed?” Stung, Honja replied, “What’s changed is that I’ve come up with a halfway decent plan, not just another suicide mission.” Yi rolled his eyes. “Raiding the police station is a great idea! You’re just jealous that you didn’t come up with it first!” Refusing to dignify that statement with even a reply, Honja walked up to the table. It was littered with maps of the city, with markers showing places such as the city hall and the police station.
Deciding to be bold, Honja looked at the map, took the police station marker, and moved it to the intersection where the Oriental Development Building poisoned the world with its existence. “Forget about the police station - that’s our target”. One of the people scoffed. “There’s nothing there. It’s just an office building.” Honja shook his head. “It’s the center of organization for Japanese oppression. It’s only lightly guarded - if we manage to occupy it, it will send a powerful message to Japan, and the world.” Yasuo nodded “If we manage it, the world will realise that we do not consent to this show of imperialism from Japan.” Honja nodded in full agreement, relief and excitement flowing through his veins. They had accepted his plan! “How about we attack it tomorrow, at 1:30. That’s when the lone guard on duty is eating lunch. Do you have any weapons?” Yasuo shrugged. “Just clubs and knives, but if no one in there is armed, that won’t matter. Honja grinned. “No one will be.” After the meeting, as the cadre dispersed to their various homes, no one noticed a small, cloaked figure slip silently from the room. The shadowy apparition ran through the city, ducking and dodging under people in its haste. It skidded around a corner, and dashed through the door of the police station.
It was a chilly morning. Wisps of mist played and danced around Honja’s feet as he left Yasuo’s apartment, where he had stayed the night. He was glad of the chill, because it would help to keep him awake. He hadn’t slept at all last night; he was too busy going over his plan in his mind. It was risky and had flaws, he knew. However, the potential rewards far outweighed the risks. Anyway, it was far better to die in revolution than to live in subjugation. If he was going to perish today, let him do so in fire and blood. Honja was sick of hiding, of letting things pass. Today would be remembered forever, one way or another.
His plan was simple: hide and wait in various alleys near the building - the fog would help - and once the guard left, stroll right in and raze the building to the ground. The effect would be twofold. Firstly, it would send a message to Japan and the world that civil unrest existed in force. Secondly, it would rally the populace, provide a focus, a springboard from which a revolution could be launched. Honja was excited just envisioning this: he would be a leader of the revolution, he would help to free his country. As he approached the square, he stuck to the edges of the streets, where the fog would be thickest. He then ducked into a side alley, and settled down to wait.
He passed the time by enacting the Korean Revolution in his head. Schemes, plots, and battle plans all unfolded inside the confines of his mind. He envisioned himself as a great leader, wise, important, loved by all and feared by many. In fact, should a future leader of the revolution be participating in a potentially dangerous raid? He couldn’t back out now, but he could certainly make sure that he wasn’t the first one in, couldn’t he…? Honja shook himself free of his reverie, and was himself again. He scolded himself for even thinking such a cowardly thought, but it did not only ashame him - it worried him. Was that stray thought part of who he was? Was he, at heart, a coward, one who would rather save himself than help another? Honja pondered this, then turned it aside, refusing to believe it. He vowed that he would be the first one to charge the building, and thelast one to leave it. In doing this, he hoped to convince himself - and Yasuo, for surely he was suspicious of Honja’s sudden change of opinion and questioned his courage - that he was no coward.
By the time that Honja had finished grappling with his inner demons, the sun had reached its zenith. He looked out across the square, and noted that everyone was in position. He looked out at the clock tower across the square. It was 1:25. The guard had left early, it seemed, so all was ready. Looking across at the building, Honja was reminded of his close brush with the policeman earlier yesterday. However, this time he was not the hunted - he was the hunter. The predator, not the prey. He slowly and deliberately set off across the square. Seeing him, his comrades also left their hiding places, and bore down on the building with the same sense of deliberation and purpose. Once he was a few meters from the door, Honja broke into a run, just as the officer had done. He gripped his club, burst through the doo-
Lieutenant Hatamoto had not had a pleasant morning. He had woken early and had been unable to get back to sleep. As he was getting dressed, he saw the fog through his window, and groaned. There were always more murders on foggy days - the fog made bodies easier to hide. He made his breakfast quietly, so as not to wake his wife, or his son. He knew that his wife worried about him being a policeman, having to confront murderers - and worse - every day. He was sure to be a little more careful on the job now that he had a child that needed caring for, but she still worried. He finished his meal, and left his plate on the side - although he did make sure that the food had been washed off, his wife hated that - and headed out into the fog. Once he arrived at the station, he knew that there was something wrong. Everyone was gathered around a table, talking in low voices. He entered the throng, and sidled up next to the Captain. “What’s going on, sir?”. The Captain grimaced. “Nothing good. We’ve gotten word that group of Korean nationalists are planning to attack the Development Building, and they’re insane. They’ve got clubs and knives. Clubs and knives!” Hatamoto knit his brow. “I see. When?” The Captain, for answer, pointed to the board, where ‘1:30 - Oriental Development Building’ had been written. Hatamoto bit his lip. “That’s soon. I’ll take a squad over there to reinforce the building.” The Captain nodded. “There’s quite a few of them - around 15 from what I’ve heard. Be careful.”
The Lieutenant and his squad stepped out into the morning chill, and set off at a smart trot towards the Development Building. Once they arrived, he set about explaining the situation to the head of security, who was grateful for the help. They decided it would be better to lie in wait inside, and to send all of the clerks home. As they did so, the Lieutenant kept an eye on the time. It was 1:00 when the last one left, and he told his men to get into position. At 1:10, they readied their rifles. At 1:15, they loaded them. They were told not to fire until the rioters entered the building, to limit the number of civilian casualties. Most of the men couldn’t care less if they hit a Korean, but Lieutenant Hatamoto adhered fiercely to his principles, and woe betide a man who crossed them. The Lieutenant looked out the window, and saw a man - or boy, it was hard to tell - leave an alley and start striding towards the building. He retreated from the window and signalled for his men to do the same. He could still see the boy - he looked about 18 - and suddenly he thought of his son, his pride and joy, and he thought of the father of this boy. Where was he now? Was he working, just as he was, thinking of his son? The Lieutenant looked at the boy again and felt his inner conviction dissolve into turmoil. How could he kill a mother’s son, a father’s pride? Then he saw the boy break into a run, raise his club. Any doubts he had vanished, to be replaced by self-preservation, not for himself, but for his wife, and his son, who needed him. As the rioter - he wasn’t a boy anymore - burst through the door, he raised his rifle, and fired once.
Honja felt something punch through his chest with incredible force. Impossibly, incredibly, he had been shot! They had known, they had been prepared, they had killed him. As he collapsed through the floor, he noted that, instead of the pain, he felt nothing. Nothing but the cold, the choking, pervasive chill as his lifeblood pooled out onto the tiled enamel floor. His mind started to wander, back to his childhood. He remembered his mother, a warm smile that was stolen away by the Japanese to be a ‘comfort woman’. He remembered his father, who was drafted into a Japanese army for their wars. He remembered being alone, on the streets, having to live by his wits, never feeling truly safe, never letting his guard down, not even for a moment. All of this was like leaves in the wind, blown away by a single bullet. Honja closed his eyes, seeing in his mind’s eye all of Korea under Japan’s heel. A Korea that he had failed to save. “I’m sorry.” He whispered. “I’m...sorry….”