by Sunik Kim

Header Photo: Portrait of Alexandra Kim - Unknown author

This is a by no means exhaustive history of the birth of Korean communism in the Russian Far East through 1920. Told from the perspective of the class formation and divisions within the region’s Korean migrant community, this moment would decisively influence the trajectory of the 20th century Korean revolutionary movement. This story of Korean workers and peasants, and their struggle for land and liberation, is intertwined with the story of Alexandra Petrovna Kim, a naturalized Korean born in the Russian Far East in 1885 who is popularly considered to be the first Korean communist; she would join the Bolshevik Party in 1917, only a year before her death at the hands of the anti-Bolshevik White counter-revolutionaries and Japanese imperialists.

On the broadest level, this story of Kim and the first Korean communists unfolds amidst the chaotic and uneven disintegration of feudalism and the transition to industrial capitalism and its imperialist stage. This transition manifested in distinct but intertwined historical processes in Russia and Korea. In Russia, the proletariat and peasantry, led by the Bolshevik Party, successfully overthrew the tsarist autocracy and ushered in the era of the fight for socialism, with all of its attendant class struggles and contradictions. In Korea, Japan’s attempts at territorial expansion and regional dominance—which both fueled and resulted from its burgeoning industrial revolution—led to Korea’s colonial subjugation to Japan, sharpening the already violent contradictions within feudal Korean society between a largely destitute peasantry and the ruling yangban aristocracy.

Critical to this particular history is the geographical proximity of the two countries, with the Russian Far East accessible to Koreans by crossing the Tumen River. This proximity, and the relative ease of movement implied, led to a direct, material fusion between the new revolutionary struggles in both countries, largely fueled by mass migration of Koreans to Russia to escape feudal bondage and starvation. Finally, beyond the sheer violence and rapidity of these social, economic and political upheavals, their location at the nexus of contradictions brought about by the transition from feudalism to capitalism led to unprecedented shifts in class composition and relations in both Russia and Korea. These shifts primarily stemmed from the process of proletarianization that accompanied this transition between modes of production, and created new contradictions centered on the majority peasant populations of both countries, the relations between proletariat and peasantry, and class divisions within that peasantry.

Alexandra Petrovna Kim’s story directly embodies this complex process of class formation and differentiation. Her father escaped starvation in Korea and migrated to the Russian Far East in the mid-19th century, where he became a wealthy, landowning peasant who hired Korean laborers to work his land. Kim was born just as a Korean proletariat was being formed in Russia as a result of the development of capitalism, and would spend her short life rallying workers and peasants to the revolutionary cause. The story of Kim, the first Korean communists, and the workers and peasants of Korea and Russia is a deeply moving and woefully under-studied account of resistance, rebellion, and all of the attendant failures and setbacks that accompany early revolutionary struggle. The contradictions that define this particular historical moment—between the struggle for national liberation and the socialist revolution in the context of the imperialist phase of capitalism; between the communist party, the proletariat, and the peasantry; between theory and practice; and between geographically exiled revolutionaries and their occupied homelands—also pose many of the fundamental questions that countless revolutionaries across the world would struggle, often to the death, to answer. In that sense, this very particular history extends far beyond the boundaries of the Korean peninsula. There are no simple conclusions on offer here; my only hope is that this history can be of service to the ceaseless, global freedom struggle.[1]

The “Rice riots” in Japan; the end of the world war with its results—the Versailles peace conference and the League of Nations, on which our national patriots and, in part, elements of the right wing of our union built their illusions; the defeats of the Socialists in the newly-created states and the March Uprisings in Korea—all this gave a new meaning to our life, whose wheel turning with dizzying speed gave birth to new events and new questions, which demanded of society conscious answers.[2]

—Pak Chin-sun (1919)

The formation of the Korean proletariat and peasantry in Russia

From 1858 to 1860, the Russian Empire pounced on the embattled Qing Dynasty—the latter in a state of violent decline due to the Second Opium War and the Taiping Rebellion—and annexed 350,000 square miles of Chinese territory via the Treaties of Aigun and Peking, casting its net over the region now known as the Russian Far East.[3] The city of Vladivostok was officially founded there in 1860, and Korean peasants soon began crossing the Tumen River towards this newly Russified land, hoping to settle and make a living by selling crops and livestock to the area’s inhabitants.[4] Soon enough, this bloc of Korean farmers—who possessed unique expertise in rice production—became an integral part of the Russian social and economic system. Millet grown by Koreans sustained the soldiers of the Russian imperial army, while the Russian “military governors,” recognizing the potential economic benefits of a robust Korean agricultural labor force, began incentivizing Korean immigration, parceling out land to the new Korean peasant arrivals. In 1884, Russia and Korea officially established diplomatic relations, and, at the behest of the Korean monarchy, Russia agreed to begin restricting Korean immigration, dividing them into two groups: those who “volunteered to become Russian citizens,” with the attendant benefits, and those who ‘refused’ this offer. The latter were “given two years in which to finish their business and return to Korea.”[5] At this point, there were at least 16,000 Koreans in thirty villages across the Maritime and Amur Provinces of the Russian Far East.[6]

Economic and political turmoil at home is largely what pushed these Koreans to make their dangerous and often illegal journey between empires: feudal Korea under the Joseon Dynasty was under assault by numerous foreign powers—Japan, the United States, Great Britain, Germany and France—who sought to ‘open up’ Korea,[7] in the process sharpening social contradictions in Korean society.[8] These contradictions centered on the historical struggle of the Korean peasantry against the ruling yangban class—a class of aristocratic scholar-officials with ancestral ties to civil and military government administrators—and the brutal system of taxation and exploitation it employed to preserve its caste-like dominion over the Korean masses. This system centered on private yangban ownership of land worked by slaves and tenant farmers, with the latter exploited as sharecroppers rather than independent proprietors. Gradually, their deep, accumulated agricultural expertise allowed some to attain a “relatively independent status as freeborn commoners in the society in comparison to the lowborn or slaves”[9]—though they were still burdened by a steep land tax. This deadly combination of social, economic, political and physical exploitation—in addition to frequent droughts and natural disasters, notably the infamous 1869 famine that pushed at least 6,000 Koreans towards Russia[10]—led starving Koreans to look increasingly to the nearby territories of the Russian Far East for respite, whether as long-term settlers or seasonal laborers,[11] even though this was technically “punishable by death.”[12]

The struggle for political and economic control of Korea that led to the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895 only heightened the oppression and devastation of the Korean peasantry. The war would be fought exclusively on Korean soil: in 1894, the Japanese military occupied Seoul and attempted to establish a puppet government there.[13] Further north, Koreans fled Pyongyang amidst the fighting, allowing Japanese traders and merchants, guarded by the occupying Japanese military forces, to “move into empty houses to set up shop selling sake, tobacco, sugar, and other goods to the Japanese soldiers.”[14] The Treaty of Shimonoseki that concluded the Sino-Japanese War in 1895 nominally granted Korea independence, but in reality Korea had suffered “a complete loss of sovereignty”[15]—foreign capital was allowed free rein on the peninsula’s mines and forests, and the still-nascent anti-Japanese movement, which at this stage included elements ranging all the way from the ruling yangban class to the anti-feudal Tonghak peasant revolutionaries, was unable to decisively expel Japan from the peninsula. In these oppressive conditions, the Russian Far East—accessible by crossing the Tumen River—appeared to many Koreans as a “haven to escape starvation and heavy taxation.”[16]

Kim Du Suh was one such Korean, who, in 1869—the year of the great famine—left his home in South Hamgyong Province, crossed the Tumen River into Eastern Siberia, and set up a farm.[17] These early Korean migrant farmers were largely seasonal workers who were often at the mercy of roving bandits and Russian border guards. The Russian Empire quickly realized these Korean farmers had the potential to become an “economically worthy colonizing element,” and they were rapidly integrated into the Russian economic and agricultural system. Accordingly, some Korean migrants were given “identity documents” which “allowed them to live on the Russian soil,” and Koreans, like Kim, who were willing to convert to Orthodox Christianity, were allowed the additional benefits of “subjecthood,” though not citizenship. By the early 1870s, five hundred Korean migrant families on the Russian side of the Tumen River had formed a village called “Blagoslovenie,” receiving “100 desiatinas per household” and nominally “treated equally as Russian subjects.” These exiled farmers worked the land “in typical Korean fashion,” using ox-pulled carts to irrigate the fields in this notably arable land with its “huge reserves of clean water.”[18]

After citizenship rights began to be granted to Koreans in Russia in 1884, migration continued, though at a decreasing rate; Korean migrants “tended to enter by land and settle in nearby farming areas, hoping to cultivate and acquire lands which they could not own in Korea.” By 1902, there were “15,000 Chinese, 2,400 Japanese, [and] 2,300 Koreans” living in Vladivostok, and the Russian farms in the area were “highly dependent on Korean farmers.” In an observer’s words at the time: “the southern Maritime Province [was being fed] almost entirely by the hands of Korean foreigners.”[19]

By this point, Kim Du Suh—also known as Piotr Kim—had learned Russian and Chinese[20] and obtained a job as a translator and interpreter for the Eastern Manchurian Railway, a Russian construction project.[21] There, he would become close friends with Jozef Stankevich, a Russian railway technician of Polish descent.[22] Kim’s experience in Russia mirrored the ongoing process of class formation and differentiation of Korean migrants in the Russian Far East; Kim himself had become a representative of the naturalized Korean rural petty bourgeoisie with the benefits of Russian citizenship[23]—known as wonhoin—who employed a propertyless, passport-less, non-naturalized Korean rural proletariat—known as yeohoin—to work his land.[24] The wealthy wonhoin were largely contractors (podriadchik) who “were good at the Russian language and usually hired hundreds of thousands of Korean and Chinese workers for businesses contracted with the local Russian authorities.”[25] This class division would deeply inform the future trajectory of the Korean revolutionary struggle that was beginning to unfold in the Russian Far East: the exploited, landless workers would far more readily rally to the revolutionary cause, Russian or Korean, while their settled, wealthy kinfolk naturally “did not feel close to the insurgents’ struggle for Korean independence.”[26]

Kim’s entrance into the railway industry reflected another interlocking axis of Korean class formation in Russia: beginning in the 1880s, the wealthy wonhoin contractors “came to get more business opportunities in projects related to the construction of the Trans-Siberian and Eastern Chinese Railroads and increased Russian military activities during the Boxer Rebellion and the Russo-Japanese War.”[27] These large-scale industrial projects formed and shaped a burgeoning Korean industrial proletariat in the Russian Far East, which began to play significant roles in Russian capitalist industries like “gold and coal mining, lumberjacking” and railway construction. By 1906, the 5,000 Koreans working in Russian gold mines formed “one-third of the total mining force” of the Russian Far East. In 1900, the nascent Korean proletariat began forming “independent union-type groups” to defend its economic and political rights.[28] In the Amur Region, they would join their Russian compatriots in a strike—a stirring signal of future Korean participation in the great revolutionary storms of 1905 and 1917, and the guerrilla war against Japanese imperialism.[29]

The Korean anti-Japanese armed struggle

With China decisively defeated after the Sino-Japanese War in 1895—a turning point that led to the imperialist partition of China and neighboring countries—the primary rivalry in the region became that between Russia and Japan.[30] Their jockeying over territorial dominance in Korea and Manchuria—in which Russia seized the Liaotung Peninsula from China and established the Chinese Eastern Railway in Manchuria—would quickly lead to Japan’s decisive occupation of Korea in 1904, triggering the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. The occupying forces promptly declared martial law and established a “military governance system” supported by a vast network of colonial police.[31] After the official conclusion of the war, in which Russia was decisively routed, Japan and the US entered into the Taft-Katsura agreement, in which each nation agreed not to interfere in their respective imperialist activities in Korea and the Philippines. Japanese military units continued to occupy Korea with tacit Russian approval,[32] concretely advancing the process of colonization that would culminate in the formal Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910.[33]

The Russo-Japanese War would greatly accelerate two intertwined historical processes: the Russian revolutionary movement and the Korean independence movement. On the Russian front, a wave of militant fervor would sweep the Russian Empire—from the 1904 strike in the Baku oilfields to the 1905 armed struggle in Lodz—culminating in the failed 1905 Revolution that would lay the practical and theoretical groundwork for the successful revolutions of 1917. In Korea, the Russo-Japanese War and Japan’s colonial occupation led to mass anti-Japanese protests, both within Korean territory and among the Korean community of the Russian Far East. The latter would set up a “Korean People’s Association” in 1905, considered to be “the first organization for social and political activity formed by Koreans in Russia.”[34] Elsewhere, rising anger at Japanese encroachment led to the formation of “righteous armies” (uibyeong), units of Korean nationalist guerrillas who waged armed struggle against the Japanese military, police and settlers who had stolen and pillaged Korean land. The Korean struggle also often took on elements of terrorism, especially as the righteous armies began disintegrating in the face of the Japanese war machine. On October 26, 1909, An Jung-geun, a Korean from Vladivostok and leader of a guerrilla group in Manchuria, famously assassinated Prince Ito Hirobumi—the architect of Japan’s annexation of Korea[35]—at Manchuria’s Harbin station.[36] An’s final will and testament concluded: “When I hear the Hurrahs for Korea’s Independence from Heaven, I will dance and exclaim Hurrahs in Heaven.”[37] He was executed by Japanese police on March 26, 1910.

The righteous armies were drawn primarily from the yeohoin, those “27,000 newcomers of working-class, unskilled, cheap labor in Korean villages of transnational diasporas,” supplemented by “mountain rifle fighters, Korean soldiers from the recently-disbanded northern Chinese Army,” and “tiger hunters from southern Korea.”[38] They were primarily led by Yi Pom-yun, the former governor of Jiandao, with the financial support of Choi Ja-Hyeon, a rich wonhoin who had lived in Russia from the age of ten and was also known as Piotr Semenovich Tsoi.[39] The righteous armies led a vigorous and consistent struggle against the Japanese military from their base in the Russian Far East—centered on a Korean section of Vladivostok known as the “New Korean Village” (Shinhancheon) and Novokievskoe, a village near the Russian-Korean border—even advancing to Korea’s North Hamgyong Province in 1908 and fighting the Japanese forces stationed there.[40] As a result of these attacks, the Japanese government began focusing its attention on Vladivostok—now identified as the global hotbed of the Korean independence movement—sending military reinforcements to the Russian-Korean border and waging a direct anti-guerrilla operation against the Korean militants.[41] Yi Pom-yun and the other Korean militia leaders faced this escalation head-on, with the former even issuing a stern order directed to all Koreans in the Russian Far East:

The aim of this association is to restore the independence of Korea. I am addressing all our brothers resident in the Maritime Province to join us in the struggle for the liberation of our motherland. Remember that our grandfathers lie in the Korean mountains, and our brothers are also all Koreans by birth. It is impossible to forget our motherland, even if you reside in the foreign countries where you do not live in poverty and do not grieve. I appoint Hon Pom-do to be the commander of the guerrilla combat group and order him to collect donations and rifles. I order all Koreans who have acquired Russian citizenship to obey implicitly Hon Pom-do in supplying him with rifles and bullets. If anybody does not obey his orders, I will ask the Military Governor to punish him. I call on all Koreans resident in the Maritime Province to unite and achieve our aim. What would we not sacrifice for this? After we return to our motherland, those who have rendered especially great services in the salvation of our country will be honored. Remember that the yellow race will be the yellow race forever. However long you reside in foreign countries, you will never be treated as the white race.[42]

Yi’s renewed call for funds and arms stemmed from a shrinking stream of financial support from the ‘old’ naturalized wonhoin in the region; given this lack of steady support, Yi and the righteous army guerrillas began collecting donations from fellow Koreans as they traveled. This would be met with major resistance from the wonhoin, who “prospered in selling meat to the Russian army and other Russian clients” and were also threatened with a Japanese embargo if the anti-Japanese struggle continued. As a result, they reported Yi’s activities to the Russian police and even formed armed “self-defense units” that would attack the righteous army guerrillas head-on when the latter attempted to collect donations. Caught in a pincer between Russian police and armed wonhoin patrols, Yi would eventually be arrested in 1910 and—along with many other righteous army leaders—banished to Irkutsk in 1911.[43]

Other guerrilla leaders like Yoon Hee-Soon would take up the armed struggle after Yi’s banishment in 1911; that year, Yoon left Korea for Manchuria and established the Rohhakdang, a school for the training of Korean anti-Japanese militants.[44] By 1915, her school had successfully trained at least fifty activists who were politically and militarily equipped to contribute to the armed Korean independence struggle. The intensive Japanese anti-guerrilla mission would soon target the Rohhakdang, shutting it down and forcing Yoon to shift bases to Fengtian Province. There, she organized the Joseon Independence Corps and the Korean-Chinese Independence Corps—the latter a cross-national alliance united in resistance against Japanese imperialism—and would continue training guerrilla units, organizing historical and political lectures on the anti-Japanese struggle while conducting and participating in military training exercises in the nearby mountains.[45] She would also lead prison-break operations in Japanese camps, liberating Korean militants and hiding them in underground caves to avoid recapture.[46]

Yoon had already gained significant practical experience while engaging in the anti-Japanese resistance in Korea. After Empress Myeongseong—also known as Queen Min—was brutally assassinated by the Japanese occupation forces in 1895, Yoon plastered the streets in her neighborhood with posters bearing anti-Japanese slogans. As Japanese repression intensified and further encroached upon the daily lives of Koreans—the Japanese police would outlaw the traditional Korean topknot in 1896—the armed resistance began to grow in size and intensity, spreading across diverse provinces of Korea ranging from Gyeongi-do and Chungcheong-do to Gangwon-do.[47] Yoo Hong-seok, Yoon’s father-in-law and a reputable scholar, would soon leave home to join the righteous armies; while he was away, Yoon wrote acidic letters to Japanese military leaders and Korean collaborators who were serving as informants to the Japanese police.[48] Yoon would also famously compose battle songs for the righteous armies, including “Song of Women Militia,” “A Soldier’s Song,” and “A Battle Song of Militia,” and write essays including “Look, Japanese Commander!” The “Song of Women Militia” went:

However strong and prosperous

the Japanese may be,

If united, we can defeat them easily.

Let the world say we are mere women,

But how can we not know love for the country

Without a country, any use for man or woman?

Let us march out to join the righteous army,

Let us help our militia troops.

If they are seized by beasts,

Would the Japanese ever save them?

Let us help our militia troops.

Success for us, hurrah for our nation!

Ten thousand hurrahs for women![49]

In 1907, as the armed anti-Japanese struggle continued to intensify, Yoon would organize—against the wishes of Yoo Hong-seok, who told her that “The battlefield is not a place for women”—a righteous army made up of around thirty women, training them in practical and military affairs. Yoon would also politicize the other women in her village, pushing them to join and develop righteous army units and raise funds for the guerrillas. She would even establish an arms factory that supplied weapons to the righteous armies, collecting sulfur and other raw materials herself and with the help of the compatriots she brought into the movement.[50] In the summer of 1935, after decades of militant struggle, Yoon would die in Manchuria at the age of 76—eleven days after the capture and execution of her son, also a guerrilla, by the Japanese military.[51]

The life and death of Alexandra Petrovna Kim

On February 22, 1885, Kim Du Suh’s daughter, Alexandra Petrovna Kim, was born in Sinelnikovo, a Korean village near Nikol’sk-Ussurisk; in 1893, they would move to Harbin for Kim Du Suh’s new job as translator for the Korean and Chinese railway workers there.[52] Kim Du Suh would die only four years later in 1897, and Alexandra Petrovna Kim would be adopted by his co-worker and close friend Stankevich, who took care of her and enrolled her in a school in Vladivostok.[53] There, she would study the writings of Chernyshevsky, Herzen, Dobrolyubov, Plekhanov and other revolutionaries, as well as English, French and Japanese.[54] In 1908, Kim would marry Vasilii Vasile’vich O, a “second-generation Korean-Russian” and future revolutionary.[55]

With the outbreak of the inter-imperialist war for the redivision of the world in 1914, the Russian Empire mobilized its oppressed masses in service of the war effort;[56] thousands of Koreans would be drafted into the Russian army, resulting in many landless Koreans fleeing to Manchuria.[57] The demand for Korean labor accordingly multiplied: as part of the war effort, an infamous Korean wonhoin named Kim Byeong-hak—who had “accumulated wealth by constructing military facilities and houses”—would send thousands of Korean workers from Vladivostok to a logging site in the Ural region, where thousands of Chinese workers were also sent. The Korean workers, under the supervision of Russian and Korean bosses, were “required to work longer per day for lower wages than had been originally promised,” and their strikes were met with brutal repression. When Alexandra Petrovna Kim heard about this mission in 1914, she secured a job as an interpreter for those Korean and Chinese timber workers in Ural, and increasingly immersed herself in their struggle.[58]

Kim’s involvement in a similar industry as that of her father, beyond being a direct reflection of the ongoing process of industrialization and the attendant proletarianization and concentration of the Korean masses in Russia, was also a concrete manifestation of the relatively advanced process of class differentiation that had occurred within the Korean community in the Russian Far East since the mid-19th century—a differentiation that would continue to play a decisive role in the future trajectory of the Korean revolutionary movement. Her father had escaped destitution in Korea and become a wealthy, landowning and naturalized wonhoin who exploited Korean and Chinese laborers—quite realistically the direct forebears of those Korean and Chinese timber workers in Ural that Alexandra Kim would soon begin organizing in earnest—and she herself, as a result, was a naturalized Korean who had received the benefits of a Russian education and citizenship. However, Alexandra Kim would ultimately return to those origins—the poor Korean peasantry—from which her father had emerged in 1860, when feudal Korea was dissolving, Japanese colonization loomed on the horizon, and monopoly capitalism was only just beginning the transition to its imperialist stage. Those countless colonized Korean workers and peasants who had also, in one way or another, sustained her livelihood as a child—who had been absorbed, unrecognized and forgotten, into the fertile soil of Kim Du Suh’s farm—would, in turn, absorb Alexandra Kim, in life and in death, into their historic struggle for land and liberation.

The bourgeois-democratic February Revolution of 1917, in which the tsarist yoke was overthrown and dual power established between the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies and the bourgeois Provisional Government—formed by agreement between the Mensheviks, Socialist-Revolutionaries, the liberal and monarchist bourgeoisies, and the remnants of the tsarist autocracy—would directly affect the direction of Kim’s work in Ural.[59] Kim had joined the R.S.D.L.P.(B)—the Bolshevik Party—and in the slightly freer conditions post-February, she “made all underground programs legal, and organized party cells at factories.” This increased above-ground activity rapidly bolstered Kim’s popularity among the Korean and Chinese workers: more than 5,000 workers, many of whom could not understand Russian, “cast their ballots for her in various elections of the local soviets and party organizations.” This was no fluke: Kim decisively led the revolutionary struggle in Ural, organizing thousands of Korean and Chinese timber workers into what would become the Ural Labor Union, translating the program and rules of the Bolshevik Party as well as the Communist Manifesto from Russian into Korean and Chinese, and forming Bolshevik cells in different cities in the Russian Far East. She quickly gained a reputation in Ural, her hometown Vladivostok, and beyond, as a formidable organizer and militant, credited with liberating those thousands of Korean and Chinese timber workers from the grip of Kim Byeong-hak and the other bosses, solidifying Bolshevik organization and presence in the Russian Far East, and unwaveringly pushing the Korean revolutionary movement towards the struggle for communism.[60] The Hanin Shinbo, a Korean newspaper published in Vladivostok, would report on Kim’s visit to their office in 1917:

Alexandra Kim, who has liberated thousands of Korean and Chinese laborers from the terribly [sic] suffering at the wood-cutting factories, has come back from the Urals and visited our editors’ office. She is a Korean Bolshevik and braver than any man, and she is urging the Korean liberation movement to move forward to the socialist stage of political development.[61]

While the Korean workers’ movement in Russia was on the upsurge—in 1917, over 500 Korean workers would participate in a May Day demonstration in Vladivostok, raising serious concerns from Japan and the Provisional Government[62]—the majority of Koreans in Russia, many of whom were wealthy wonhoin, still sided with the Provisional Government; some would even join the White counter-revolutionary army in response to the victory of October.[63]

In early 1917, Kim would visit Moscow to meet with Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders;[64] in July 1917, Lenin would send Kim to Siberia to organize a Korean communist brigade among prisoners-of-war that could take part in the resistance against the ongoing imperialist counter-revolution.[65] Around this time, Kim heard about the plight of Yi Tong-hwi, a well-known Korean revolutionary and leader of a righteous army in Siberia. Yi had been expelled from Korea in 1912 as a result of the Seoncheon Incident, in which Yi and over 700 other members of a Korean independence group, the New People’s Association (Shinminhoe), were arrested by the Japanese police. The exiled Yi would journey across the Russian Far East, passing through Vladivostok and establishing a military academy in Jiandao, which was quickly targeted and shut down by the Japanese police. Yi and his army shifted bases to the Ural region as a result, and joined the Korean and Chinese workers that Alexandra Kim was beginning to organize, hoping to pool enough money to re-establish the shuttered military school.[66] These militants would eventually help Alexandra Kim build the Bolshevik-led Ural Labor Union, consolidating Korean and Chinese proletarian power in the region.[67]

In 1916, a Japanese “secret agency” would propagate rumors that Yi was a German spy plotting the destruction of the Chinese Eastern Railway.[68] These rumors, along with Japan’s direct request to Russia to target Korean revolutionaries,[69] led to Yi’s arrest at the beginning of 1917 by the new Provisional Government.[70] Kim and a broad array of Korean independence groups—acting with greater freedom after the victory of the February Revolution—would immediately protest for his release in a campaign that coalesced and consolidated the Korean revolutionary movement in the region. By this point, the Korean movement in Russia had two largely antagonistic fractions, centered on and named after their respective newspapers: the “Hanin Shinbo” group based in the New Korean Village in Vladivostok and led by Alexandra Kim’s new husband, among others, and the “Cheonggu Shinbo” group, a reactionary formation led by ‘old’ wonhoin who supported the bourgeois Provisional Government and largely dismissed the struggle of their poor yeohoin kin.[71] The immediate roots of the split between the two groups lay in the June 1917 First General Assembly of Korean Representatives, which communicated to the Petrograd Soviet their hope that “the principle of national self-determination put forward by the Russian democracy should also be applied to the oppressed nations of Asia.”[72] The radical fraction of the Assembly—what would become the Hanin Shinbo group—would eventually walk out in protest of the reactionary and conciliatory demands of the Cheonggu Shinbo group.

In December 1917, after the victory of October, the Third Far Eastern Congress of Soviets was held in Khabarovsk, in which the Bolsheviks and Left SRs held a majority. According to Pak Chin-sun, a future Korean delegate to the Comintern, “the majority of the Korean community in Russia adopted a wait-and-see policy” to the October revolution, though many Koreans fought for the Red Army under the leadership of former righteous army commanders like Hong Pom-do.[73] The Congress declared its goal of “abolishing of private property and establishing socialist democracy,”[74] and officially consolidated Soviet power in the Russian Far East, electing a new Far East Executive Committee of Soviets—later the Far Eastern Council of People’s Commissars.[75] Kim would be chosen as head of foreign affairs in January 1918, in addition to her duties as secretary of the Bolshevik branch in Khabarovsk.[76] Around this time, the campaign to free Yi Tong-hwi would finally succeed, and the Hanin Shinbo group would establish the “Aryeong Korean Association” in Khabarovsk with Bolshevik support, which attempted to rally Koreans across Russia to the revolution on a mass scale.

In February 1918, Kim and the newly freed Yi would convene a meeting of about forty Korean revolutionaries in Khabarovsk, with the support of the Far East Executive Committee, to discuss the status and trajectory of the Korean revolution.[77] The main point of debate was the relationship between the Korean independence movement and the Russian revolution; Yi and Kim advocated for the proletarian line, insisting on the inseparability of the Korean struggle for national liberation and the Russian struggle for socialism, while the liberal and nationalist fractions argued that Koreans should focus solely on the “pure” movement for independence.[78] No agreement was reached, and many of the nationalists would walk out of the conference—but this struggle established a clear demarcation between the proletarian and bourgeois lines on the question of Korean national liberation.

In April 1918, after “the failure of the Khabarovsk Conference,” the Bolshevik fraction would begin planning the organization of a Korean revolutionary party, an initiative led in part by “members of the Workers’ Union in the Urals,” which Kim and the Korean and Chinese workers had so painstakingly built over the preceding years. On May 13, 1918, a “preparatory committee” for the formation of a party met in Khabarovsk, attended by eighteen Korean communists including Kim and Yi. The majority of the revolutionaries had already agreed on the necessity of a Korean party, and a debate ensued over its name. Kim proposed the name “Korean Social-Democratic Workers’ Party,” which prompted a question from Kim Rip, who “asked for a definition of ‘Bolshevik,’” and, after Kim explained its meaning, successfully proposed that “since there is neither a majority nor a minority in the Korean party, ‘Bolshevik’ would not be included in the name.’”[79] This being settled, another comrade raised the following point:

Today’s situation of Koreans is different from the situation of Russia. Among the Korean population, the peasants compose the absolute majority. If the party is called the workers’ party, then there is a danger of losing the peasants. Therefore, I propose to call the party not “of workers,” but “of peasants.”[80]

After additional discussion, the group decided on the name “Korean Socialist Party” (Hanin Sahoedang), concluding that the Korean revolution must be a socialist one oriented towards the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, land reform, nationalization of industry, and the struggle for communism. The group also fleshed out a party structure involving organizational, military and propaganda departments. Finally, in electing a Central Committee, Alexandra Kim would reject Yi Tong-hwi’s recommendation that she take a leadership role, stating:

Anybody must be a member of one party, not of two parties at the same time. I am a member of the Russian Social Democratic Party(B) and the chief secretary of the city party. In order to be an executive member of the Korean Socialist Party, I have to leave the RSDP and work with you. However, considering the present situation, I should not do so. It is better for me to work at the Russian Party.[81]

These debates around the formation of the Korean Socialist Party illuminate the limitations of the Korean communist movement at this moment of 1918—limitations that would play out in different forms as the movement developed over the next several years. Their discussion of the term “Bolshevik” indicated that many of the Koreans “had not theoretically understood the political differences among Russian socialist parties, particularly the difference between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks”[82]—a bare minimum necessity for effective engagement in the ongoing revolutionary movement. In addition, the comment framing the majority peasant population of Korea as “different from the situation of Russia” was incorrect in that peasants also formed an absolute majority in Russia at the time. This discussion also outlined the latent, unresolved tension between the Russian and Korean revolutionary movements, and implicitly asked, but did not answer, the question of where Korean communist exiles in Russia should direct and prioritize their activity. The debate on leadership between Kim and Yi highlights this tension: Kim—undeniably more well-versed than Yi in both basic Marxist concepts and the concrete reality of the Russian revolution—perhaps implicitly argued that the Korean national liberation struggle was inseparable from the Russian socialist struggle by retaining membership in the Bolshevik Party. Kim’s decision also raises the question of what exactly the role of a ‘separate’ Korean party in Russia should be; Kim’s ultimate involvement in both groups indicates that this question remained largely unresolved in practice, to the detriment of the Korean movement’s overall focus.

More critically, the discussion of “workers and peasants” revealed the fundamental weakness of the movement at this stage. On one level, some participants seemed to believe that the mere naming of the party in one direction or another would automatically influence its class composition, betraying an idealist understanding of the revolutionary process; on another level, the discussion indicated a lack of a concrete understanding of the particular relationship between the proletariat and peasantry in the Russian revolutionary movement, the necessity of a worker-peasant alliance, and even which peasantry—Korean, Korean-Russian, Russian—and which sections of that peasantry—poor, middle, rich—they should work to establish ties with.

Fundamentally, these ideological misconceptions stemmed from material conditions of separation: primarily between party and peasantry and between the exiled Koreans and their occupied homeland. The fact that most members of the Korean Socialist Party were “political exiles [who] lacked a close relationship with the peasantry”[83] placed objective limitations on the scope and focus of their activity at this conjuncture. Given the largely agrarian population of Korea where they hoped to lead a revolution, that some party members raised the danger of “losing the peasants” demonstrates a real, but undeniably rudimentary, understanding of these limitations and the urgent necessity of resolving them. The geographical problem of exile, too, was a harsh reminder of the further limitations on their activity, which lacked a more intimate understanding of, and experience in, the class struggles and realities on the occupied peninsula. Finally, the largely antagonistic but still vacillating relationship between the communists and the wonhoin reflected the former’s as-yet partial and incomplete formulation of the peasant question. This was a consequence of the strong influence of Narodnik-esque[84] theory and practice in the early Korean revolutionary movement, as demonstrated by the popularity of terrorism and assassination tactics[85] and the significant ideological and political influence the Russian Socialist-Revolutionary Party still held over the Koreans in Russia.[86] The all-important question of land and peasantry would haunt the Korean movement as it accelerated and collapsed over the next several years and would remain, arguably, the single most important factor in its ideological, political and social development.

After its official founding, the Korean Socialist Party rapidly expanded its reach, establishing eight branches in the Russian Far East, absorbing organizations like the Korean Workers’ Association of Vladivostok and Kim’s Ural Labor Union, and founding a publication, Freedom Bell.[87] They would also establish military training schools across Manchuria. In June 1918, the armed wing of the Korean Socialist Party, the Korean Red Guards, was formed, consisting of about a hundred militants. Thousands of Koreans drafted into the Russian army would also return from the German front around this time, armed, trained and largely sympathetic to the Bolshevik cause.[88] In June 1918, the as-yet unresolved questions raised during the formation of the Korean Socialist Party would be brought to the foreground via the Second General Assembly of Korean Representatives—a follow-up to the heated and inconclusive First General Assembly in 1917. The meeting was held by the All-Russian Korean National Association, a broad independence coalition in the region formed via compromise between the Korean People’s Association and the Korean National Association.[89] At the Assembly, Krasnoshchekov, the chairman of the Far East Executive Committee, promised autonomy and equal rights to the Koreans,[90] stating:

What our party proposes to do is to relieve the poor and workers at the lower strata of society and to seize political power through their hands, to remove the oppression of the propertied and to eradicate imperialism. I think that among the Koreans present here there are some of the propertied class. However, if it is the case that Koreans, in general, are suffering under the oppression of the capitalists and imperialism, I believe firmly and do not doubt that Koreans will support the ism [sic] of our party. Now, in the Orient, only Japan is advocating imperialism and is committing tyranny. When Koreans support our principle and cooperate with us, it will not be difficult to overthrow Japanese imperialism and restore the independence of Korea.[91]

There is an inconclusive note to Krasnoshchekov’s attitude towards the “propertied” wonhoin Koreans and their place in the revolution; he folds them into the ‘general’ Korean ‘people’ united against Japanese imperialism without further investigating the class division internal to those ‘people’ that had so deeply affected the Korean movement in Russia over the past several years. Regardless, this class division would play out in real time as the Assembly proceeded: the majority of the wealthy wonhoin “supported the Constituent Assembly…and advocated revival of all levels of the local zemstvos and self-administrative bodies,” and were worried that “the Soviet government would solve the land issue by sacrificing them,” while the poor yeohoin “believed that only Soviet power could solve the question of land.”[92] Members of the Korean Socialist Party came out decisively in support of the dispossessed yeohoin, emphasizing, in somewhat muddled fashion:

the international character of the Russian revolution which made an assault on the stronghold of the [sic] international capital, with the aim of liberation of all working masses from the dual yoke of native and foreign exploiters, urging the congress to take its initiative of organizing the Korean revolutionary masses in Russia for the joint struggle for the idea of the proletariat.[93]

After a prolonged discussion, the Second General Assembly appeared to side conclusively with the revolution, collectively resolving:

The Second All-Russian Assembly of Korean Representatives proclaims that the attainment of the Russian Revolution should be advocated as the slogan of solidarity to achieve our national independent life on the basis of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Long live our freedom! Long live the Russian Revolution! Long live socialism![94]

However, as Ban Byung-yool points out, the resolution used a “careful choice of general but not specific words” and argues that the resolution actually took a position of “neutrality.” Further, “the majority of the representatives were still influenced by the Russian Socialist-Revolutionary Party” and chose “not to directly oppose Soviet power”—an unsurprising result given the class composition of the Koreans in Russia, the outsized influence of the wealthy wonhoin on Korean mass political activity in the region, and the aforementioned history of Korean Narodism. A Bolshevik, Ivan Gozhenskii, who was likely present at the assembly, criticized the resolution, arguing that “they stood for neutrality, hoping finally to side with the winning side, while subjugating themselves to the existing power.”[95]

This was not the end of heated debate at the Assembly; over the next few days, the delegates discussed the all-important land question. The resolution came to no decisive conclusions, focusing only on the wonhoin who had the legal rights of citizenship and excluding “many delegates from the poor section of the Korean population, particularly from tenants.” As a result, many yeohoin and Korean Socialist Party members would leave the congress in protest. Though their walk-out was admirable in principle, it resulted in the Korean Socialist Party surrendering the Central Executive Committee of the All-Russian Assembly of Korean Representatives to the wonhoin, limiting their ability to more deeply integrate with the Korean masses and push the debate on land in a revolutionary direction. Subsequent attempts to unify the wonhoin and yeohoin groupings would end in failure.[96]

Around this time in mid-1918, the civil war between the Bolsheviks and the imperialist-backed White counter-revolutionaries reached the Russian Far East, heralded by a Japanese landing in Vladivostok, a Czech military offensive that seized significant territory from the Bolsheviks along the Trans-Siberian Railway,[97] and a revolt of Czech prisoners of war against the Bolsheviks, also in Vladivostok, in late June 1918. These defeats would pave the way for a general counter-revolutionary assault in July by the major imperialist powers—Great Britain, France, the US and Japan—who declared Vladivostok a ‘multinational region,’ hoping to use it as a base for the counter-revolution.[98] The wonhoin-dominated All-Russian Assembly of Korean Representatives[99] even directly helped the Russian Whites, publishing a nationalist statement in a Socialist-Revolutionary newspaper that welcomed “the Czechs and the ‘Siberian People’s Army’ which had attacked the Soviets”.[100] Given these urgent developments, the Korean Socialist Party gathered in Khabarovsk to discuss their plan of action and decided to mobilize the Korean Red Guards—composed of workers, farmers and fishermen—in defense of the revolution. They would go on to fight the White army in the Battle of Ussuri, among other engagements, alongside the Bolshevik Red Army. With Bolshevik support, members of the Korean Socialist Party “were dispatched to Korean villages in the Primorye and Manchuria and gathered Korean volunteers,” and Alexandra Kim mobilized “international Red Guards composed of Austro-Hungarian POWs and other minor nationals such as Chinese, Koreans, Serbians, and Latvians who sympathized with Soviet Power.” In particular, most of the Korean volunteers were “recruited from the recent immigrants who expected improvements in their material and legal conditions from the Soviet government.”[101] Pak No-sun, a Korean originally from South Hamgyong Province who had been a port worker in Vladivostok and was by this point in 1918 a worker in Khabarovsk, detailed this torrent of activity:

The employer said ‘today’ or ‘tomorrow’ and did not pay wages for what our [sic] work during the whole summer. We therefore became restless and argued about the measures [for getting the wages]. Someone said that we could go to Alexandra Kim, the aide of Krasnoshchekov, the chairman of the Dalsovnarkom and she could make us get the wages. Kim was a commissar at that time and we, laborers, saw her carry two short guns. It was widely said that she was the woman who had liberated Korean and Chinese laborers who were on the way to be sold to the far inside place [Urals] Siberia. It was around August [of 1918]. The rumor was that America, England, Japan and other capitalist invading armies came to Vladivostok, joined with the Russian old Parties [Whites], attacked new party [Bolshevik] and accordingly the war began. At that time, the role of the Korean Socialist Party in Khabarovsk was great. The propagandists came and said frequently, ‘Koreans also joined the Russian Red faction-new party and went to the Ussuri war field and are fighting against the Russian old faction-white and Japanese. If the Russian red factions and the Koreans fight together to destroy the Japanese, Korea will be liberated. At that time, we six men who had worked together—Andrei Pak, Ch’oe In-uk, Pak Yong-sik, Pak Ki-su, Kim Ung-ryong, and Pak No-sun—gathered and agreed that we, like others, should join the Russian red faction and participate in the war for eradicating the Japanese army and white faction. At first, we departed to see Alexandra Kim and arrived at the city [Khabarovsk].[102]

About a hundred Koreans like Pak would fight the White armies “at Iman, Vyazemka and Krasnaya Rechka;”[103] over half of the Korean Red Guards would die on the battlefield.[104] A Korean Red Guard leader would later recall: “when we were forced to retreat with the Russian Red Guards to Krasnaya Rechka, only ten Koreans were alive.”[105]

In response to these devastating losses, the Korean Socialist Party decided in late August 1918 to disband their conventional military units and revert to guerrilla war, and directed all Party organizations to retreat from Khabarovsk to the Amur Region.[106] The Party and allied Bolsheviks decided to split into two groups, one of which was to travel by land and the other by boat, both with the goal of re-establishing contact with the Bolsheviks in Moscow. According to one account, a fraction of the Party argued for the detonation of the White army’s gunpowder warehouse and the destruction of the bridge on the Amur River after crossing it; Alexandra Kim disagreed with these plans, arguing that they were only temporarily retreating and that these acts might alienate and harm the people of Khabarovsk.[107] In early September, the White armies finally seized Khabarovsk and consolidated their control over the Russian Far East. Many Party leaders and militants, including Yi Tong-hwi, were able to flee, many in disguise, to China; Kim would board one of the last escape boats from the city, the Baron Korf, alongside about four hundred militants, including “leaders of the Korean Socialist Party and about twenty Korean partisans” under Kim’s leadership. The ship would be intercepted at the village of Ekaterin-Nikol’sk on the Amur River and turned over to the White army by none other than Trofim Pak, who was “former temporary chairman of the Central Executive Committee [of the wonhoin-dominated All-Russian Assembly of Korean Representatives].”[108] Kim would be arrested, detained in a nearby school building, transported to a prison in Khabarovsk along with about twelve other Korean revolutionaries—some of whom were able to escape by taking advantage of confusion between the White and Japanese police forces[109]—and put on trial. Kim ultimately refused to ‘repent’—she would be tortured and summarily executed on the banks of the Amur River on September 16, 1918.[110] According to Olga Vasilyevich Ogai, the eldest daughter of Kim’s second husband, Koreans in Khabarovsk refused to fish from the Amur River after her death.[111]

From the March 1st Movement to the Korean revolution

Only months later in Korea, the March 1st Movement erupted—a mass, popular, mostly nonviolent uprising against Japanese imperialism that would be brutally suppressed by the Japanese military and police. News of the uprising, brought by seasonal Korean workers, soon reached the Russian Far East, leading to solidarity demonstrations in Vladivostok:

March 17-18. Koreiskaia Slobodka in Vladivostok is decorated with national flags and red banners. Today is the Koreans’ holiday: the day of demonstration for the independence of Korea. Meetings are held. A manifestation of the Koreans moves from Koreiskaia Slobodka to the center of the city. Leaflets entitled “Declaration of Independence of Korea” are scattered on the street from running automobiles… A special delegation of the Koreans delivers to all consuls the “Declaration” printed in English, Russian, Chinese, and Korean. Japanese gendarmes keep a sharp watch, hovering about Korean houses, tearing leaflets away.[112]

The movement spread across the Russian Far East, leading to mass meetings and demonstrations in various cities that would be suppressed by the counter-revolutionary forces; new Korean nationalist organizations would also be born.[113] Koreans continued to wage armed struggle in the region, alongside the Bolsheviks, against the bourgeois counter-revolution and Japanese imperialism,[114] and by June 1919 there were at least two companies of Korean militants active in the area. The revolutionary struggle and resolve of the Koreans inspired Russian workers and peasants in the region to help improve the lot of their poor yeohoin neighbors who were oppressed by Russian and Korean landlords: in the First Congress of Toilers of the Olginsky District, held on June 27, 1919, it was decided that Koreans were “equal citizens in all points, including the right to cultivate land without rent on a general basis.”[115]

As the civil war finally neared its end—the US, Great Britain, and France would withdraw from Siberia by 1920,[116] and Japan by 1922[117]—the surviving leaders of the Korean Socialist Party, in April 1919, would meet with and absorb the Shinmindan, an underground Korean nationalist armed resistance group that was the successor to the Shinminhoe, of which Yi was formerly a prominent leader before his exile to Russia. By this point, the Shinmindan reportedly had 20,000 members; with the merger, the Korean Socialist Party had become a popular party with a significant mass base in the region. They would adopt a new program with four central points: that Korea must be freed from Japanese imperialism and capitalist exploitation; that the revolutionary groups in Korea and Japan should unite; that the proletariat and peasantry must be organized; and that the new Soviet government exemplified the ideal form through which to wage the revolutionary struggle.[118] On the international front, the new Party denounced the Paris Peace Conference, demanded that its members boycott the less militant Korean National Council—though they would ultimately send a handful of delegates to both—and sent representatives, most notably leading Korean communist theorist Pak Chin-sun, to meet with the brand-new Comintern.[119]

Pak’s remarks at the Second Congress of the Comintern on the status of the Korean communist movement, delivered on July 28, 1920 and later published under the title “The Revolutionary East and the Immediate Problems of the Communist International” in Petrograd Pravda and Communist International, accompanied by images of Pak “seated beside Lenin,”[120] are best summed up by the following excerpt:

A favorable basis for revolution was created in Asia by the sharp economic crisis inevitably associated with the transition from feudalism to capitalism and the barbarous colonial policies of the great imperialistic powers. These policies developed clear-cut nationalist tendencies in the East. Admitting that the first stage of the revolution in the East will be the victory of the liberal bourgeoisie and the nationalistic intelligentsia, we should nevertheless now prepare our forces for the next stage, drawing from the depths of the peasant masses enslaved by the feudal regime organized forces for an agrarian-social revolution in Asia as soon as possible. The industrial proletariat, if Japan is not taken into consideration, is too weak in Asia for us to cherish serious hopes of an early Communist revolution; but there is no doubt of the success of an agrarian revolution if we are able to grasp the immediate problems of the great bloody struggle. The Russian proletariat, standing as the vanguard of the world social revolution, could withstand a desperate three-year onslaught of the bourgeoisie of the whole world, only because it knew how to attract the poorest and middle classes of the peasantry to its side.[121]

Here, two years after the official formation of the Korean Socialist Party, there is a demonstrably deeper and more nuanced understanding of the necessary task of the Korean communists in relation to the Korean revolution, particularly regarding the role of the peasantry and the necessity of an “agrarian-social revolution.” At the same time, the vagueness and indecisiveness of Pak’s formulations—particularly the glaring lack of consideration given to the specific role of the Korean proletariat in that “agrarian-social revolution” or the concrete development of the Korean worker-peasant alliance—is merely a theoretical reflection of those fundamental material separations between Korean party and peasantry, exiles and homeland, that had, in these early years, set objective limitations on the development and scope of their activity. Five years later, after much internal and external “bloody struggle,” they would finally take a decisive step towards resolving the problem of exile: on April 17, 1925, a group of Korean communists would hold a secret meeting at Asowon, a Chinese restaurant in downtown Seoul, and officially establish the first Korean Communist Party on Korean soil.[122] However, the question of land, peasantry, and the worker-peasant alliance would remain unresolved; in 1928, when the fourth and, for the moment, final iteration of the Korean Communist Party would collapse under Japanese repression, the Comintern would issue its “December Theses,” its statement on the Korean communist movement at that conjuncture, in which it would state:

There can be no victorious national liberation struggle without an unfoldment of the agrarian revolution. It is precisely the almost complete absence of control [linkage] between the national-liberation struggle and the struggle for land that is responsible for the defeat of the revolutionary movement of recent years (1919-20). A victory over the imperialist yoke presupposes a revolutionary solution of the agrarian problem and the establishment of a democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasants [in the form of Soviets] through which the bourgeois-democratic revolution under the hegemony of the proletariat is transformed into a Socialist Revolution.[123] [emphasis mine]

It would take another eighteen years for the Korean agrarian question to be concretely addressed in practice, and the idea of “land to the tiller” granted material reality—with all of the attendant social, economic, and political consequences that would irrevocably shape the history of Korea, and the world. By this point, Yi Tong-hwi had died in political disgrace in 1935;[124] Pak Chin-sun had been tried and executed as a suspected Japanese spy in 1938;[125] and Alexandra Kim, as we know, had not even lived to see the birth of the first Korean Communist Party in her ancestral homeland. However, their efforts were not in vain; for all of their flaws, errors, and failures, these prototypical Korean communists decisively laid the practical and theoretical foundation for the coming tortuous ebbs and flows of the Korean freedom struggle, providing a wealth of experience through which future revolutionaries would more precisely orient their work. They, and the masses of Koreans who fought to the death for their liberation and the world socialist revolution, deserve to be far more than the mere footnote that they, for the most part, currently are.

On a broader scale, the struggles through 1920, as detailed above, stand as manifestations of the emergent contradictions rooted in the transition from feudalism to capitalism and the associated revolutionary upheavals. These struggles form the very beginnings of a process that would explode on an international scale in the coming decades, as the still-nascent imperialist phase of capitalism continued to develop, the Russian revolution consolidated its gains, and the era of international proletarian revolution began. In addition, this particular history, with its explicitly transnational character—spanning Russia, Korea, Japan, and China— puts forward a concrete example of internationalism and solidarity, a vision of unity built through struggle and sacrifice that revolutionaries today can aspire to. Finally, the extremely brief nature of this explosive moment in history, and the gap of decades between it and Korean communism’s first major revolutionary gains, is a reminder of the arduous, painstaking work—and failure—necessary to undertake the enormous task of demolishing and rebuilding human society and social relations, and the critical importance of learning from and synthesizing the experiences of past revolutionaries.

Death is not defeat

To this point, I will end with selections from Kim San’s Song of Ariran, in which Kim—a Korean communist who joined the Communist Party of China in the 1920s—details his revolutionary experience. Kim throws an extremely sobering light on the unfinished nature of both the Korean and world socialist revolution, as well as the infuriating tragedy of defeat, while just as soberly arguing that the future liberation of humanity will only emerge from and through these defeats themselves, however senseless and bloody—so long as those lucky few spared from the firing squads, armed with the experience of comrades living and dead, undertake the generations-long task of molding, remolding, shaping a concrete revolutionary consciousness and practice that is equal to the task of abolishing class society once and for all. In Kim’s words: “We can still hope that the last sacrifice will finish in victory. Korea still has strength to climb the last of the hills of Ariran and tear down her old gallows of death.”


I have seen Korea climb several hills of Ariran already in my short life, only to find death at the summit. I was born at the time she was being trampled by foreign armies during the Russo-Japanese War. I saw the Korean Army of 70,000 men demobilized and forced to retreat across the borders after their country became a Japanese protectorate in 1907. I saw the country become a colony in 1910, and year after year I saw over a million exiles driven across the Yalu River into Manchuria and Siberia and China. There are now over two million Korean exiles, one million in Manchuria, 800,000 in Siberia, 300,000 in Japan, and the others in China, Mexico, Hawaii, America, and elsewhere.

I saw the whole country turned into a prison after the Christian “peaceful demonstrations” during the March First Nationalist Movement in 1919—50,000 prisoners and 7,000 killed. I was one of three thousand Korean students in Japan in 1919, four years before a thousand of them and five thousand other Koreans were massacred during the earthquake in 1923, a pogrom to warn the Japanese population against a repetition of the great rice riots of 1918, for they were murmuring that “the gods were punishing” the corrupt ruling class. I lived the life of the exiles in Manchuria in 1920, a few weeks before over six thousand of them (including all my friends but one) were killed by Japanese troops in revenge for the activities of the Korean Army of Independence.

I met the young terrorists in Shanghai who tried to avenge these deaths by turning to desperate personal heroism, and mourned the tragic result—three hundred Yi Nul Tan members alone executed by the Japanese from 1919 to 1927.

Often we children heard news of interesting happenings on the near-by Manchurian border.

“A ten-man group came two days ago and killed six Japanese near Shingishu,” one of the boys would say. “Only one of our soldiers was shot, and the rest got away across the border.”

“My brother came home last week and stayed with us two days,” another would relate after pledging us all to absolute secrecy, “He came with five other soldiers, and they fired on the Japanese sentries near Phyöngyang. He had to hide in a paddy field for a whole day so they couldn’t catch him.”

Our eyes would grow big with hero worship, and we would decide anew to join the Korean Army of Independence in Manchuria when we were grown up and come back with the raiding bands into north Korea every month to ambush the Japanese invaders.

“There will be millions of us young men then,” we said. “The Japanese will all run away like chickens.”

And we would retell the stories of our boyhood hero, General Li Tung-hui—of how many Japanese he had killed and how many tigers he had stalked while hiding with his troops in the mountains. And we wondered how many new troops he was training in Siberia and Manchuria to come back and save their fatherland.

In the school dormitory on the long cold winter evenings, we would talk of how An Tung-kun had shot Prince Ito in Harbin as he stepped down from the train with a large entourage and of many, many other stories of those who had done deeds daring and bold for Korean independence.

In Russia and Siberia men and women were fighting and winning. They did not beg for freedom. They earned it by right of hard struggle. I wanted to go there to learn the secret of human emancipation; then I would return and lead two million exiles in Manchuria and Siberia to recapture their homeland.

I think millions of Koreans forgot to eat on March First.

One old white-haired man came out on the steps as we passed and shouted with a cracked voice, “Now I can see the independence of Korea before I die!”

A mass meeting was called in the city during the demonstrations, at which the new Declaration of Independence was read, patterned after the American document. I edged my way to the front of the vast throng and listened to it as if it contained the words of eternal destiny. It made the blood pound in my ears, especially the sentence, “If every Korean were to die for this sentiment, the last man would still demand independence.” As I look back on this now, it seems strange that there was so much idealistic hope in the world. `

This was my first awakening to political consciousness, and the power of mass movement shook me to the very roots of my being. I ran through the streets all day and joined every passing demonstration, shouting until my voice was too hoarse to be heard. At night I helped edit a school paper, where we feverishly repeated again and again the grand phrases that were on everybody’s lips and that burned into my very soul. I believed that I was an important part of a great world movement and that the millennium had come. The shock of the betrayal from Versailles that came a few weeks later was so great that I felt as though the heart had been torn out of me. What pathetic, naïve creatures we Koreans were then, believing in words!

Korea is a small country to lose so many men and to bear so much oppression and suffering. But the end is not yet. We can still hope that the last sacrifice will finish in victory. Korea still has strength to climb the last of the hills of Ariran and tear down her old gallows of death. I believe that the next “October” will be in Japan—and the Korean Revolution will either precede or follow in November.

As I survey these rugged contours of my life’s experience, I see only a succession of hard-won defeats, and the highest mountain lies wearily ahead. My life has not been a happy one. It has been lived close to history, and history does not dance to the piping of shepherds. It is moved only by the groans of the wounded and the sound of battle. To struggle is to live. All else is without meaning in my world.

For myself, I no longer condemn a man by asking what is good or what is bad, what is right or what is wrong, what is correct or what is mistaken. I ask what is value and what is waste, what is necessary and what is futile, what is important and what is secondary. Through many years of heartache and tears, I have learned that “mistakes” are necessary and therefore good. They are an integral part of the development of men and of the process of social change. Men are not so foolish as to believe in words; they learn wisdom only by experiment. This is their safeguard and their right. He knows not what is true who learns not what is false. The textbook of Marxism and Leninism is written not in ink but in blood and suffering. To lead men to death and failure is easy; to lead men to victory is hard.

Nearly all the friends and comrades of my youth are dead, hundreds of them: Nationalist, Christian, Anarchist, Terrorist, Communist. But they are alive to me. Where their graves should be, none ever cared. On the battle fields and execution grounds, on the streets of city and village, their warm revolutionary blood flowed proudly into the soil of Korea, Manchuria, Siberia, Japan, and China. They failed in the immediate thing, but history keeps a fine accounting.[126]


  1. The bulk of this historical overview is drawn from Byung Yool Ban, ‘Korean Nationalist Activities in the Russian Far East and Chientao (1905-1921)’ (University of Hawaii-Manoa, 1996); Hye Ok Park, ‘Arirang People: A Study of Koreans in Transnational Diasporas of the Russian Far East and Manchuria, 1895-1920’ (Claremont Graduate University, 2019); Koreans in the Soviet Union, ed. by Dae-sook Suh (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1987); Teruyuki Hara, ‘The Korean Movement in the Russian Maritime Province, 1905-1922’, in Koreans in the Soviet Union, ed. by Dae-Sook Suh (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1987), pp. 1–23; Haruki Wada, ‘Koreans in the Soviet Far East, 1917-1937’, in Koreans in the Soviet Union, ed. by Dae-Sook Suh (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1987), pp. 24–59; Youn-Cha Shin Chey, ‘Soviet Koreans and Their Culture in the USSR’, in Koreans in the Soviet Union, ed. by Dae-Sook Suh (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1987), pp. 60–84.
  2. Ban, p. 347.
  3. Chey, p. 62.
  4. Igor Saveliev, ‘Militant Diaspora: Korean Immigrants and Guerrillas in Early Twentieth Century Russia’, Forum of International Development Studies, 26 (2004), p. 148 <>.
  5. Dae-sook Suh, The Korean Communist Movement: 1918-1948 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967), p. 4.
  6. Saveliev, p. 148.
  7. M.N. Pak and Wayne Patterson, ‘Russian Policy toward Korea before and during the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95’, Journal of Korean Studies, 5.1 (1984), 109–19 (p. 109).
  8. Pak and Patterson, p. 114.
  9. Hye Ok Park, p. 36.
  10. Wada, p. 26.
  11. Jeanyoung Lee, ‘Migration, Ethnicity and Citizenship: Ethnic-Korean Returnees in the Russian Far East’, Asian Culture Forum, 19, 2006, 1–19 (p. 2).
  12. Hye Ok Park, p. 40.
  13. The war would also directly stimulate the development of Japan’s industrial revolution. See Kang Fan, An Economic History of the Major Capitalist Countries: A Chinese View, trans. by Uldis Kruze (Armonk, N.Y: Sharpe, 1992), p. 258.
  14. Hye Ok Park, pp. 47–48.Park, “Arirang People,” 47-48
  15. Pak and Patterson, p. 110.
  16. Hye Ok Park, p. 54.
  17. Young Sik Kim, ‘Who Were the Soviet Koreans?: The Left-Right Confrontation in Korea – Its Origin’, Association for Asia Research, 11, 2003 <http:/>.
  18. Hye Ok Park, pp. 51, 54, 57–59, 61–62, 63.
  19. Hye Ok Park, pp. 68–69.
  20. Andréi Lankov, ‘Iron Lady: How Korea’s 1st Communist Was Killed in Russia’, 2017 <>.
  21. Tobias Hübinette, ‘Comforting an Orphaned Nation: Representations of International Adoption and Adopted Koreans in Korean Popular Culture’ (Department of Oriental Languages, Stockholm University, 2005), p. 51 <>.
  22. Lankov.
  23. Ban, p. 274.
  24. Saveliev, p. 154.
  25. Ban, p. 69.
  26. Saveliev, p. 154.
  27. Ban, p. 69.
  28. Hye Ok Park, pp. 69, 71.
  29. Chey, p. 64.
  30. The war also hastened Japan’s transition to monopoly capitalism. See Fan, p. 258. For Russo-Japanese rivalry, see Pak and Patterson, p. 109.
  31. Min-kyo Seo, ‘Korea and Japan During the Russo-Japanese War - With a Special Focus on the Japanese Occupation Forces in Korea’, International Journal of Korean History, 7.1 (2005), 85–108 (pp. 87, 97).
  32. Hara, p. 2.
  33. Seo, p. 102.
  34. Hara, p. 1.
  35. Young Sik Kim.
  36. Hara, p. 3-4.
  37. Young Sik Kim.”
  38. Hye Ok Park, pp. 167, 169, 170.
  39. Saveliev, p. 148.
  40. Hara, p. 3.
  41. Hara, p. 4.
  42. Saveliev, p. 150.
  43. Saveliev, pp. 150–51, 153–54.
  44. Sae-Yoon Kim, ‘Yoon Hee-Soon: The First Female Commander of Militia against Japanese Military’, Kookmin University, 2020 <>.
  45. Sae-Yoon Kim.
  46. Bae-yong Lee, Women in Korean History, trans. by Kyong-hee Lee (Ewha Womans University Press, 2008), p. 196.
  47. Sae-Yoon Kim.
  48. Bae-yong Lee, p. 195.
  49. Bae-yong Lee, p. 194.
  50. Sae-Yoon Kim.
  51. Bae-yong Lee, p. 197.
  52. Ban, p. 274.
  53. Lankov.
  54. Moon-hee Nam, ‘Biography of Alexandra Kim (Part 1)’, Sisa Journal, 1993 <>; Moon-hee Nam, ‘Biography of Alexandra Kim (Part 2)’, Sisa Journal, 1993 <>; Ban, p. 275.
  55. Ban, p. 275.
  56. In entering the war, the Russian bourgeoisie hoped to improve its relative position by seizing more territory from the other imperialist powers, securing new markets, profiting from war contracts, and suppressing the increasingly militant revolutionary movement at home.
  57. Wada, p. 31.
  58. Nam, ‘Biography of Alexandra Kim (Part 1)’; Ban, p. 276.
  59. The Soviets were a form of revolutionary organization that had emerged over a decade prior in the 1905 Revolution.
  60. Ban, pp. 277–79; Nam, ‘Biography of Alexandra Kim (Part 1)’.
  61. Ban, p. 281. 1
  62. Hara, p. 7.
  63. Suh, The Korean Communist Movement: 1918-1948, p. 6.
  64. Ban, p. 278.
  65. The counter-revolution was led by figures such as Grigori Semenov, a warlord who, with backing from the Japanese Expeditionary Force, pillaged Siberia using the US military-controlled Trans-Siberian Railway to transport soldiers and supplies. See Young Sik Kim.
  66. Nam-il Park, ‘100th Anniversary of the First Korean Socialist Party in Khabarovsk’, Socialist, 2018 <>.
  67. Ban, p. 278.
  68. Hara, p. 5.
  69. Suh, The Korean Communist Movement: 1918-1948, p. 7.
  70. Hara, pp. 5–6; Nam-il Park.
  71. Nam-il Park.
  72. Hara, p. 6.
  73. Hara, p. 8; Chey, p. 64.
  74. Tanja Penter and Ivan Sablin, ‘Soviet Federalism from below: The Soviet Republics of Odessa and the Russian Far East, 1917–1918’, Journal of Eurasian Studies, 11.1 (2020), 40–52 (p. 5).
  75. Hara, p. 8.
  76. Nam-il Park; Nam, ‘Biography of Alexandra Kim (Part 1)’.
  77. Ban, p. 293.
  78. Nam-il Park.
  79. Ban, pp. 298–99.
  80. Ban, p. 299.
  81. Ban, p. 301.
  82. Ban, p. 300.
  83. Ban, p. 301.
  84. The Narodniks were the Russian agrarian socialists, active in the Russian revolutionary movement beginning in the mid-to-late 19th century. They believed the peasantry alone was the revolutionary class, and that this class needed to be spurred to action from without by individual acts of terrorism against the ruling class. The Russian Socialist-Revolutionary Party was directly influenced by Narodism.
  85. The Uiyeoldan, or “Heroic Corps,” founded in Korea in 1919, was an influential independence group whose activity centered on terrorism, bombings and assassinations.
  86. Ban, p. 305.
  87. Robert A. Scalapino and Chong-Sik Lee, Communism in Korea, The Movement (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), i, p. 8; Nam-il Park.
  88. Hara, p. 8.
  89. Hara, p. 9.
  90. Scalapino and Lee, i, p. 8; Nam-il Park.
  91. Ban, p. 304.
  92. Ban, p. 305.
  93. Ban, p. 305.
  94. Hara, p. 10.
  95. Ban, pp. 306–7.
  96. Ban, pp. 308, 310.
  97. ‘Korean Socialist Party’, Encyclopedia of Korean Culture <>.
  98. Nam-il Park.
  99. Ban Byung-yool fairly calls this “the supreme political organ of the Korean population in Russia” at this moment. See Ban, p. 311.
  100. Ban, pp. 311–12.
  101. Ban, p. 313.
  102. Ban, pp. 313–14.
  103. Ban, p. 314. 4
  104. ‘Korean Socialist Party’.
  105. Ban, pp. 314–15.
  106. Scalapino and Lee, i, p. 9.
  107. Nam, ‘Biography of Alexandra Kim (Part 2)’.
  108. Ban, pp. 315–16.
  109. Nam, ‘Biography of Alexandra Kim (Part 2)’.
  110. Nam-il Park.
  111. Nam, ‘Biography of Alexandra Kim (Part 2)’.
  112. Hara, p. 13.
  113. Hara, p. 13.
  114. Korean military activity centered on the village of Nikolaevka in Olginsky District, where Koreans had their own village Soviet. See Hara, p. 13.
  115. Hara, p. 14.
  116. Hara, p. 15; Mart Hart-Landsberg, Korea: Division, Reunification, and U.S. Foreign Policy (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1998), p. 30.
  117. Hara, p. 18.
  118. Nam-il Park.
  119. Scalapino and Lee, i, pp. 9–10.
  120. Ban, p. 436.
  121. ECCI, The 2nd Congress of the Communist International (Pravda), p. 135.
  122. Scalapino and Lee, i, p. 58.
  123. Scalapino and Lee, i, p. 107.
  124. Suh, The Korean Communist Movement: 1918-1948, p. 49.
  125. Vladimir Tikhonov, ‘“Korean Nationalism” Seen through the Comintern Prism, 1920s–30s’, Region: Regional Studies of Russia, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia, 6.2 (2017), 201–24 (pp. 221–24).
  126. Nym Wales and Kim San, Song of Ariran: Korean Communist in the Chinese Revolution (San Francisco: Ramparts Press, 1972), pp. 4, 7–10, 15–16, 22, 73, 215, 216.