Korean Independence League event in Philadelphia

Philadelphia Remembers the Centennial of the ‘First Korean Congress’


Recently in South Korea and other locations around the globe, the centennial anniversary of the March 1st Movement was commemorated. The movement was a series of non-violent protests against Japanese colonial rule in 1919 across the Korean Peninsula. In the United States, HR164 was introduced in Congress on February 28, 2019 to officially recognize the event.

Another lesser known, but related anniversary occurred last week: the 100th anniversary of the ‘First Korean Congress’. The congress was held from April 14th to 16th, 1919 at the Little Theatre located on 17th and Delancey Streets in Philadelphia, where a delegation of 150 Korean representatives and Americans gathered with support from the city. This included a reading of the ‘Korean Declaration of Independence’ at Independence Hall. The conference organizers sought to link the Korean peoples’ struggles for self-determination with the United States and thus chose to meet in Philadelphia, the city where independence was declared from England in 1776.

To commemorate the First Korean Congress, two Korean-Americans serving on the Philadelphia City Council: David Oh, a Republican elected in 2011 and Helen Gym, a Democrat elected in 2016, introduced a resolution on September 13, 2018. This resolution builds on deeply established links between South Korea and the greater Philadelphia region. On October 3, 1970, the Korean American Association of Greater Philadelphia opened a chapter to assist students in need. Currently, there are approximately 44,000 Koreans living in the Philadelphia Metropolitan area (out of a total population of about 1.8 million), making it the 8th largest of any metro region in the United States.

One of the participants in the First Korean Congress, Philip Jaisohn (Seo Jae-pil) made his home in Media, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. There he became the first naturalized Korean-American and conducted medical research at the University of Pennsylvania (UPENN). He lived in the region for several decades, passing away in 1951 in Norristown. His former home has been turned into a museum called the ‘Jaisohn Memorial House.’ A foundation was established in his name in 1975 to serve Philadelphia’s local community.

Michael Buckalew is a Pacific Forum Young Leader and a former East-West Center in Washington intern. He holds a masters’ degree in International Peace & Security from Korea University’s Graduate School of International Studies.