Kim Gu, originally Kim Changahm, was born on August 29th, 1879 in Haeju of what is now North Korea. The only son of a farmer, Kim studied Chinese classic texts at local private village schools or seodangs. At age 16, Kim applied for the Imperial Examination but failed after which he joined the Donghak Movement which rebelled against government and foreign oppressions. As the organization grew larger, Kim became appointed as the district leader of Palbong at the young age of 17. Under the leadership of Donghak, he commanded troops in a small number of skirmishes- including a turf war with another commander of the Donghak Movement. Kim’s command of troops under the Donghak Movement was ultimately ended after he was attacked by the Royal Army after being promised safe passage. He escaped the ordeal, just 20 years old at the time, and went into hiding.
Kim’s initial rise to prominence was after his killing of a Japanese man by the name of Tsuchida Josuke. While staying at an inn, Kim had encountered the man, becoming suspicious as the Japanese man was under the guise of being Korean. Kim made the decision to kill him, believing him to be involved in the assassination of Empress Min, and did so using the man’s own sword. Kim was immediately arrested, tortured, and sentenced to death. However, even with pressure from Japan, Emperor Gwangmu continually suspended his execution due to public sentiment. Kim eventually escaped from prison and entered a monastery, beginning a brief priesthood at Magoksa which lasted only a year before he left to return to his hometown, becoming a Christian and starting Yangsan School in 1907. Here, he worked to educate the Korean people.
In 1905, when the Eulsa Treaty was signed, declaring Korea an official protectorate of Japan, Kim joined the mass protests in Seoul and tried to urge Emperor Gwangmu to withdraw from the treaty. In 1908, Kim joined the New People’s Association or Shinminhoe, an organization dedicated to a non-violent Korean independence movement. However, when Ahn Myung-geun was arrested by the Japanese police in 1910 on charges of plotting to assassinate the governor-general, Kim, who was a close friend of Ahn, was arrested as well, believing to be a coconspirator. Under interrogation, Kim was brutally tortured and beaten, leaving to the disfigurement of his left ear. After serving a 3 year sentence and an attempt of suicide while in prison, Kim exiled himself to Shanghai, China, a decision that was heavily influenced by the violent putdown by Japanese police of the March 1st protests in 1919.
In China, Kim became a founding member of the Korean Provisional Government, even becoming its president for a short period in 1927. In 1931, Kim founded the Korean Patriotic Corps, an organization which is responsible for the bombing in Houkou Park in China, killing high-ranking Japanese officials while injuring several others, as well as a failed assassination attempt on Emperor Hirohito in Japan. On December 9th, 1941, Kim declared war on Japan and Germany when the Pacific War broke out as part of World War II. He committed his established Korean Liberation Army to the Allied side and participated in warfare in parts of China and Southeast Asia. Kim also prepared to move his troops into the Korean peninsula but just days before he could carry it out, World War II came to an official end.
In 1945, after 26 years of being in exile, Kim returned to Korea. He strongly opposed the US-Soviet trusteeship of Korea and tried to stop the continuous division of the country. Kim even travelled to Pyeongyang to hold talks with Kim Il-Sung. However, in 1948, the National Assembly of Korea held elections for their first president and Kim Il-Sung was appointed as the leader of North Korea shortly after. In the South Korean presidential election, Kim was put among the nominees but lost to Rhee Syng-man. However, Kim had no idea he was put in as a nominee and disapproved of the notion, refusing to take part in something that would further divide the nation and believed the nomination was also meant to discredit him. On June 26, 1949, while reading poetry in his office at night, Kim was assassinated by Ahn Do-hee who burst in and fired at him 4 shots. Upon arrest, Ahn claimed he believed Kim to be an agent of the Soviet Union. However in subsequent years, Ahn later claimed he had been ordered to carry out the assassination by Kim Chang-ryong who was head of national security under Rhee Syng-man.
Kim is revered both in South and North Korea as he was posthomosously awarded the Republic of Korea Medal of Order of Merit for National Foundation in South Korea and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s National Reunification Prize in North Korea. His autobiography, Beokbeomilji, was designated as a national treasure by the Korean government and has been translated into over 10 different languages. Kim is continually regarded as one of the greatest figures in Korean history and was voted in 2007 to become the face of the 100,000 won banknote, however the issuing of the notes became indefinitely postponed as of 2009. Kim’s most famous quote remains to be the words he wrote at the end of his autobiography Beokbeomilji:
If God asked me what was my wish, I would reply unhesitatingly, “Korean independence.”
If he asked me what was my second wish, I would again answer, “My country’s independence.”
If he asked me what was my third wish, I would reply in an even louder voice, “My wish is the complete independence of my country, Korea.”