March 1 Movement Day (삼일절) as a Foreign Exchange Student

When a sightseeing trip to buy a SIM card turned into a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

March 1, 2017 officially marked my third day in South Korea as an exchange student from Canada. At this point, I was just coming off some slight jet-lagged and definitely did not feel settled in yet. But, given the fact that March 1 was a national holiday in Korea, some of my new friends and I decided to visit Gwanghwamun (광화문) and purchase a SIM Card. We thought we would stop by the Olleh SK store near Gwanghwamun Station (광화문역) and then head to the gate.


A Bit of Background

March 1 marks the official first day Korea actively began resisting Japanese occupation in 1919. At that time, 33 Korean nationalists gathered together to read the Korean Declaration of Independence (독립선언문). This day is seen as the catalyst that spurred the Korean Independence Movement (독립운동). Over two million people participated in 1,500 demonstrations across the country. Although these acts were suppressed by the Japanese within a year, March 1 Movement Day (삼일절) remains a monumental day in Korean history.

Today, Koreans celebrate the day with a rereading of the Declaration of Independence in Tapgol Park (탑골공원) in Seoul, where it was initially read in 1919. The Korean flag, 태극기, is raised in homes, schools and businesses throughout the country, and re-enactments and parades recalling the events of that day take place all over Korea.


March 1, 2017

The moment my friends and I exited the station, we were surrounded by a bustling crowd of people and a sea of policed dressed in bright green. We were quickly ushered through a small pathway with many of the same people, not knowing exactly what was going on. Other exchange students in our KakaoTalk (카카오톡) group chat had mentioned there were parades in the area taking place that day, so we assumed that might have been the reason for all the police. What I hadn’t realized until a week after the event, was that Gwanghwamun Square (광화문광장) was the location for two different (but equally massive) rallies. One rally was in support of the impeachment of then-president Park Geun-hye (박근혜 전 대통령), demanding her to step down. The other rally was in opposition to the impeachment, with people seeking to have her reinstated. At the time, we had no idea what was going on.

A shaky shot from my camera of the initial crowds we saw and a group of police patrolling Gwanghwamun Square.

Supporters of impeached President Park Geun-hye, on the left side of a white line created by the row of police buses in the middle of the photo, hold a rally, while those opposing the president, on the right side of the police barricade, hold their own separate rally in Seoul’s Gwanghwamun area on March 1, 2017. (Yonhap)” Source:


As pictured above, the only thing separating the two rallies was a line of police buses down the middle of Gwanghwamun Square. My friends and I started off on the right rally where we carefully made our way through the crowd, trying not to draw attention to ourselves (which was difficult as foreigners). Some people stopped to take photos of us, and one little boy even gave me his balloon (carrying the balloon around did not make me any less conspicuous). We were able to watch a bit of both of the rallies as well. The crowds were large, but everyone was respectful and I didn’t sense as much tension as I was expecting.

The first rally we watched, on the pro-impeachment rally side of Gwanghwamun Square.

We used a small detour between all the police buses to get a better view of the entire square. We made it to the third floor of a Starbucks, then made our way down to watch a rally on the anti-impeachment side.


To be able to witness an event like this in-person was incredible. Regardless of the position and perspective that anyone in the square took, they were passionate and concerned about the future of their country. You could hear it in the voices of the people who joined in the cheers and you could see it in the faces of everyone who listened intently. There were Korean flags on both the left and right sides of the square. Seeing thousands of people in a different country gather together to drive change in their home was a moment that I don’t think many students will ever get the opportunity to say that they had.

Although our time in the square was brief (the crowds were calm, but we didn’t want to stick around in case things got more serious), it was a great experience. Once we had taken everything in everything that we wanted to in the square, we moved on to find a different store for my SIM card.




Article by Kevin from Canada

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