Many Koreans are well aware of Zhou Enlai as a representative Chinese leader. Zhou (1898-1976) led the First and Second United Fronts during the Chinese Civil War. Not only that, he also displayed his leadership prowess in politics and diplomacy as the premier of the People’s Republic of China for 27 years since its establishment in 1949.
However, not many know of his comradeship with Korean independence activists during the Japanese colonial period and his support of the Korean independence movement. How did his ties to Korean independence activists begin?
First encounter with Korea
Zhou Enlai was born in March 1898, in the house of a poor lower-level official in Huaian, Jiangsu Province. Adopted by his father’s youngest brother, who was childless, he was orphaned at the age of 10 and followed his father’s elder brother to live in Shenyang. In 1917, at age 19, he left for Japan to further his studies. His connection to Korea began during his return trip to China from Japan in 1919, when the Korean Peninsula, then a colony of Japan, was gripped by the aftermath of massive public demonstrations later called the March 1st Movement. According to Zhou’s “Travels in Japan Diary,” he took the ferry from Shimonoseki, Japan, on July 29, 1919, and landed in Busan, the southern port city of Korea, at 9 a.m., July 30, arriving at Seoul that night and finally in Andong, (later renamed Dandong), China, after passing through Pyongyang (now in the North Korea) on July 31. During the two days and one night stay in Korea, Zhou had a great interest in the March 1st Movement.
Afterward, while studying at Nankai University in Tianjin, China, he contributed an article to the Tianjin Student Union Bulletin that said: “Korea’s March 1st Movement and the May 4th Movement (a similar display of public resistance against Japanese Imperialism by the Chinese that took place just two months after the Korean movement,) were both influenced by new worldwide trends, and were events in East Asian history that awakened both nations much more than any others.”
Meeting Koreans again at Whampoa
Zhou Enlai and Korean independence activists forged a direct relationship beginning with the First United Front, the alliance between the Kuomintang (KMT), the Chinese Nationalist Party, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) formed in 1923 to end warlordism in China.
It was at Whampoa Military Academy where Zhou met the Korean independence activists. The academy opened its doors on June 16, 1924, with the goal of training military personnel needed for the Chinese National Revolution. Its formal name was the Republic of China Military Academy, but it was called the Whampoa Military Academy due to its location. This academy was not merely a military training institute, but especially emphasized political education with the goal of equipping ‘revolutionary soldiers’ with a revolutionary consciousness to fight the warlords.
Zhou joined the academy in September 1924, first becoming deputy director of the Political Department, and then its director in November, guiding students as a political instructor and lecturing on politics and economics. Zhou’s joining invigorated the school and laid the foundation for the soldiers’ political ideology.
While Zhou was deputy director at Whampoa, young Koreans carried their dreams of independence for the homeland and assembled in Guangzhou, China. Guangzhou received attention as the center of the Chinese Revolution and anti-Japanese struggle for national liberation. Therefore, countless revolutionaries from the oppressed East Asian nations including not only China but Korea, Vietnam, and Taiwan gathered there. The Koreans in Guangzhou studied with young Chinese at Whampoa and Zhongshan University, developing their potential as independence activists. A total of 34 Koreans enrolled in Whampoa were confirmed starting from its third class in 1925 until its sixth class. Oh Seong-ryun, Yang Rim and Seon Du-hwan acted as instructors in the academy.
Zhou interacted with many young Koreans at the academy. One Korean revolutionary who worked directly with him was Yang Rim. Yang graduated from Sinheung Military Academy and was a military instructor at the Northern Route Military Command’s Officer Training School, and along with Yi Beom Seok, led the Koreans to victory in the Battle of Qingshanli in October 1920. After entering the 16th class of the Yunnan Military Training School in April 1921 and graduating from the artillery department in 1924, he began working as an instructor at Whampoa in 1925. When Zhou, as director of the political department, led military students at the academy along with the commandant Chiang Kai-shek to suppress the warlord Chen Jiongming’s clique in Guangzhou, Yang Rim, following Zhou, led one of the companies for the Eastern Expedition. Also, as a member of Young Revolutionary Soldiers’ League, Yang grew into a military commander over his long association with Zhou.
A like-minded comrade of Korean patriots
Comradely interaction between Chinese and Korean independence activists began again in the Second United Front between KMT and CCP, in which Zhou played a leading role. With the eruption of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937, Zhou was dispatched as a representative of the CCP to the KMT and formed the Second United Front. The alliance, a direct consequence of the Second Sino-Japanese War, also served as momentum for Korea and China to cooperate in a public and full-scale resistance against the Japanese. Zhou, who was appointed as deputy commissar of the First Corps Political Department by the KMT’s Military Committee, spared no effort in encouraging and supporting the Korean independence activists.
Zhou, actively supporting the organization of the Korean Volunteers Army (KVA) in Wuhan in 1938, the first Korean military corps formed in the land under the jurisdiction of Chinese authorities, took a seat in its founding assembly on Oct. 10 of that year, and then delivered a congratulatory address titled “The Oppressed East Asian Nations and Struggle for Liberation.” Its commissioned officers, starting with the commander in chief Kim Won-bong, were Whampoa graduates. When four of its members died in battle in the northern region of China in late 1941, Zhou sent arrangements for a memorial service in condolence and mourned their patriotic martyrdom.
After following the Nationalist government’s move to Chongqing, Zhou continued to actively work for the Korea-China alliance by participating in various events held by Korean independence organizations while busily engaged in his duties as the CCP’s central representative. Zhou, along with his wife Deng Yingchao, attended the founding ceremony of the General Headquarters of the Korean Independence Army in Chongqing’s Jialing Hotel in 1940 and congratulated the army’s founding. He also participated in the founding of the Chinese-Korean Culture Association in 1942, made up of over 400 Korean independence activists in Chongqing and Chinese resisting the Japanese for the purpose of promoting amity between the two nations, wherein he was made honorary president as well. He also attended the meeting in 1943 held by the organization where many people gave their speeches to memorialize the March 1st Movement reflecting on its historical significance.
Cherished memories in spite of cut ties
Zhou also recollected his ties with Korean independence activists. At a reception by the Chinese-Korean Culture Association on Nov. 10, 1942, he revealed that he “remembered the project undertaken by him and his Korean comrades in his school days, and his working days at Whampoa Academy and in the National Revolutionary Army.” The fact that over two hundred articles on the Korean independence activists in the Xinhua Daily, the CCP’s mouthpiece, were published under Zhou’s leadership in areas under the Nationalist control shows his interest and support of the Korean independence movement.
When the main figures of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea left Chongqing to return for their country in early September with the Japanese defeat, Zhou furnished a farewell banquet in the name of the Eight Route Army Office and invited Kim Koo, Kim Won-bong, and all the other cabinet members. After the founding of the Republic of Korea’s government in August 1948 and the People’s Republic of China in October 1949 respectively, Sino-Korean exchange was in reality difficult to carry out until 1992.
Yet, Zhou’s remark in 1971 that: “The punishment of It Hirobumi by Korea’s Ahn Jung-geun (referring to the 1909 assassination of Japan’s first prime minister by the Korea patriot) was a prelude to Korea’s support of China. Afterwards, when Sun Yat-sen led the Xinhai Revolution in 1911, Koreans also participated. Through five wars over 50 years since the CCP’s founding, our Korean comrades have always been there for us” shows that he did not forget the anti-Japanese struggles of the Korean revolutionaries. Although Zhou’s service was not recognized by the Korean government, he was one of the “Chinese who loved Korea,” sympathizing with the Korean independence movement during Japanese colonial rule and personally embodying the Korean-Chinese alliance through his active support.
By Cho Eun-kyung
Curator, Independence Hall of Korea