On August 15, 1945, Korea saw the end of 35 long years of Japanese occupation. As the Japanese Empire agreed to surrender World War II to the Allied powers, they also relinquished their control of the country as part of the surrender terms. This day is recognized and celebrated each year on the anniversary of that release, and to South Koreans it’s known as 광복절 (“Restoration of Light Day”). Similarly, the holiday is also recognized in North Korea, where it has been termed 조국해방의 날 (“Liberation of the Fatherland Day”). At this point, Liberation Day is the only holiday that both Koreas share.
Though liberation from an imperialist power is certainly something to celebrate, Korea would not emerge whole. Remnants from the war would carry over into two more wars, first as the U.S. and Russia engaged in the Cold War. Three years after Korea was liberated, the U.S. chose Syngman Rhee as the first President of South Korea, and Russia chose Kim Ilsung as North Korea’s leader, dividing the country along the 38th parallel. As both sides continued to claim sole sovereignty over the peninsula, tensions escalated and an agreement could not be reached. North Korea crossed the border on June 25, 1950, invading South Korea and instigating the Korean War, just two years after the establishment of both governments.
Even though liberation from the Japanese occupation eventually gave way to a divided country, Koreans still celebrate Liberation Day as an important part of their history. During Japanese rule, Koreans suffered greatly. The country was forced to turn over the legitimacy of its sovereign to the Emperor of Japan, Japan had control over laws and the media, and Koreans were not allowed to maintain their ethnic family names. Due to labor shortages in Japan, many Korean workers were forced to relocate to mainland Japan and made to work under perilous conditions. Sadly, many died. Women were taken to Japan to serve as sex slaves, an issue which still pops up in debates between the two countries today.
Modern Koreans remember this day as a way of showing thankful hearts to those who struggled or perished throughout this time period while fighting for Korea’s freedom. Though independence resistance movements were not successful, there were still many Koreans who fought for freedom. As a national holiday, there are various parades and ceremonies that take place each year. Businesses and schools are closed, and the president normally takes part in a celebration at Independence Hall, located in Cheonan.
It’s also customary for the 태극기, South Korea’s flag, to be displayed along streets or hung from homes and businesses. At celebrations, the “Gwangbokjeol” song is sung, and many museums remain open to the public so that citizens can visit to learn more about their history.
For a country that has been through so much turmoil in relatively recent history, South Korea has been very successful. Its economy is currently ranked 11th in the world, and its government is thriving and democratic (despite its more recent hiccups). South Korea used to be on the receiving end of foreign aid, but they’re now able to contribute to other countries and global financial efforts. They’ve exported their culture and entertainment around the world, touching lives in every imaginable place.
Remembering a nation’s history is important, even if the current state of affairs is not ideal. South Korea has a lot to be proud of, because despite other nations constantly trying to control them throughout the past, they have emerged strong, stable, and independent.