Yun Bong-gil was born June 21st, 1908 in Yesan-county in a Japanese-occupied Korea. In his youth, Yun was recorded by his peers to be highly competitive and a tenacious child, earning the nickname “wildcat”. Starting at an early age, he began to attend the nearby Deoksan Elementary School but after the onset of the March 1st Movement that swept through the whole of Korea as protests against the Japanese occupation, the school was closed as a part of a nationwide shutdown. It soon reopened, however Yun decided not to return, refusing to take part in a Japanese-centric education. Instead, he started attending a village school or Ochi Seosuk for 7 years until 1928 where he excelled in his studies.
Growing up during Japanese-occupation, Yun became determined to help his people. However, instead of taking up arms, he believed the best way to help the Korean people rise was to educate them. Thus, Yun opened up a night school, teaching the people in his village, and also started the Buheungwon which was meant to increase agricultural production and promote joint marketing. He also established ‘Woljinhoe’, a working group that helped oversee these initiatives as well as improve the overall standard of living for farmers in the area. Through these initiatives, the rural area was able to see the growth. However, after being arrested, interrogated, and tortured by Japanese authorities for putting on a play “The Hare and the Fox” in which the Japanese were depicted as the scheming fox and later with the outbreak of the Gwangju Students Independence Movement, Yun made the decision to leave to China in order to take a new direction in resisting Japanese occupation and escape the suppression.
In the spring of 1930, Yun left his home, vowing to his family that “once a man leaves the house, he will not return alive until he fulfills his objective” and from there travelled northward through the peninsula and into China where he settled temporarily in Qingdao, landing work at a launderer. In August of 1931, Yun arrived in Shanghai, seeking to aid the Korean Provisional Government in a time when Japan had its ambitions to conquer Manchuria. He worked as a grocer in the city until he saw an opportunity he had been waiting for. Upon seeing in the newspaper of a victory day celebration in Hongkou Park which would be attended by several high-ranking Japanese military officials and figures, Yun went to seek Kim Gu, the leader of the Korean Provisional Government. Here, they planned a revolt at Hongkou Park and Yun was made a member of the Korean Patriotic Corp in order for his actions to be seen as on behalf of Korea. He was then handed 2 bombs disguised as a water canteen and as a lunch box- the two items guests were permitted to carry into the event.
On the day of, Yun was able to enter the event using his Japanese and chose a spot only a few meters from the dais and threw the water canteen at the platform. The resulting explosion instantly killed Kawabata Sadaji, government prime minister for Japanese residents in Shanghai and seriously injured the commander of the 9th Division of the Imperial Japanese Army Lieutenant General Kenkichi Ueda, Japanese Envoy in Shanghai Mamoru Shigemitsu, Japanese Consul-General in Shanghai, Kuramatsu Murai and General Yoshinori Shirakawa who died a month later from his injuries. The lunchbox bomb was supposed to be used by Yun to commit suicide right after but the bomb failed to detonate and Yun was captured and beaten by Japanese authorities.
After being captured, news of the incident spread like wildfire through domestic and foreign press alike. However, Yun’s sentencing was not handled right away and he was held in the basement of the Japanese consulate in Shanghai in hopes of luring Kim Gu to the consulate. Yun was later sentenced to death and extradited to Osaka, Japan. Here, he spent a month in a cell awaiting his sentence before being brought to Kanazawa where he was tied up, blindfolded, and executed by firing squad in a secluded area. His body was buried in the Nodoyama cemetery- a fact which was also kept under wraps as Japanese authorities feared it might serve as fuel for any anti-Japanese sentiment. In 1946, after Japan surrendered, bringing about the end to the war in the pacific, Koreans exhumed his body and brought Yun’s remains back to Korea, reburying him in the Korean National Cemetery where he still remains today.
Despite being captured, Yun succeeded in carrying out his goal at Hongkou Park. The following ripple effects included the Korean Provisional Government-which had previously been pretty unknown- gaining a more well-known presence. Notable figures such as Chang Kai-shek praised Yun in a statement saying “a young Korean patriot who has accomplished something tens of thousands of Chinese soldiers could not do”. Yun still remains a controversial figure to this day in countries such as Japan and has been referred to as a terrorist by several Western professors, proving it to be a sensitive topic. However in Korea and China he is hailed as a hero and an important freedom fighter who sacrificed his life at the young age of 25 for his country. In 1962, Yun was also posthumously awarded the Republic of Korean Cordon of the Order of Merit for National Foundation. There is a memorial to him in Lu Xun Park (formerly Hongkou Park where the incident took place) and the Yun Bong-gil Memorial Hall was erected in Seoul commemorating him.