Photo: Children's Day festivities at the Changgyeonggung Palace, c. 1954. Credit: korea.kr.
May 5 in South Korea is Children’s Day 어린이날, originally established in 1923 during the colonial era. Bang Jeong-hwan 방정환, an independence fighter and civic activist, rediscovered the old Korean term for a child, eorini 어린이, whose literal translation “a young person,” in Bang’s view, indicated a greater respect for children as individuals. In the wake of the March 1 Movement 3.1 운동 in 1919 that featured a massive nationwide movement against the Japanese occupation, Bang and fellow believers in the Cheondogyo 천도교 faith - a minor nativist religion established in the late 19th century - declared May 1, 1922 to be Children’s Day. The choice of May Day was a deliberate one; Bang’s fellow activist Kim Gi-jeon 김기전 wrote: “We chose May 1 as the banner day for Korea’s youth movement, as it is not only the first day of the spring’s return, but also consistent with the Western tradition of May Day, which means both ‘a day to be freely enjoyed’ and ‘a day free from oppression.’”
South Korea recognizes May 1, 1923 as the official beginning of Children’s Day, as 1923 was the first time when the day was celebrated nationwide rather than within Cheondogyo only. The Declaration of Children 어린이선언, made on May 1, 1923, was among the world’s first articulations of the human rights of the children, pre-dating the 1924 Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child. The Declaration of Children established three principles: (1) a full respect for children as whole individuals; (2) no labor for children under 14, and; (3) family and social provisions for learning and playing. Following the independence from Imperial Japan, South Korea celebrated its first post-liberation Children’s Day on May 5 to wash out May 1’s socialist connection.