National Liberation Day of Korea (Gwangbokjeol) – Celebration of Independence

Last Updated on July 13, 2022 by 90 Day Korean
Girl pulling a giant Korean flag with a rope

National Liberation Day of Korea (also known as the Korean Independence Day) is probably one of the more important National holidays in South Korea.  It’s a holiday that’s marked with stories of perseverance, nationalism, and national pride.

Girl pulling a giant Korean flag with a rope

In Korea, National Liberation Day is called 광복절 (gwangbokjeol), which literally means “the restoration of light day.” The holiday celebrates the end of a dark time in Korean history when the Japanese occupied the entire Korean peninsula.

It’s a holiday with very inspiring history, and we’ll tell you all about it!

National Liberation Day | 광복절 (gwangbokjeol)

In Korea, National Liberation Day is called 광복절 (gwangbokjeol), which means “Restoration of Light Day.” Its name is made up of three Korean characters:

 광 (gwang) = meaning “light”

 복  (bok) = meaning “restoration”

 절  (jeol) = meaning “holiday”

The name 광복절 (gwangbokjeol) symbolizes the lifting of the shadow cast by Japanese rule over the Korean peninsula.

When is National Liberation Day of Korea Celebrated?  

National Liberation Day of Korea, sometimes known as Korean Independence day, is celebrated every year on the 15th of August.

Korean Independence Day

Despite the holiday being sometimes called Korean Independence day, the word “restoration” is used rather than the word for “independence”, which is 독립 (dongnip). This is to highlight how Korea has a long and proud history and how the Korean nation was “restored” in 1945, rather than “founded.”

Many Koreans call this day “Korean Liberation Day” or “National Liberation Day of Korea” when they translate “Gwangbokjeol” into English.

The History of the National Liberation Day of Korea

Korea has gone through a lot. The country has been invaded countless times and undergone many hardships. One of the worst periods in Korean history happened in the first half of the 20th century when Korea became a colony of Japan.

Korea Under Japanese Rule

Under Japanese rule, Koreans were forced to have Japanese names, and many Koreans were forcibly conscripted to provide labor for Japan. They were also forcibly drafted into the Japanese army towards the end of the Second World War. During Japanese oppression, many Koreans stood up against the Japanese and often paid for their defiance with their lives.

Samil Day

Samil Day, on March 1st, commemorates one of the most important uprisings of this period. On Samil Day, several Korean nationalists declared Korea independent; however, the struggle for independence would continue for another 25 years until Korea actually gained its freedom.

Korean Independence from the Japanese

Around 25 years after Samil Day, Korea finally threw off its Japanese rulers. In 1945, Korea was finally liberated from its occupation, and exactly three years later, on August 15th, 1948, the Republic of Korea was officially established.

August 15 Celebrations All Over The World

August 15th is celebrated by many countries as the day when Japan was defeated and the Second World War finally ended. Known as V-J Day, or Victory over Japan Day, this day marks Japan’s announcement of its surrender. With Japan’s surrender, Korea could finally gain its independence.

In the USA, V-J day is celebrated in September when the Japanese formally signed a declaration of surrender, rather than the day when Japan announced its surrender.

National Liberation Day (August 15) vs. Samil Day (March 1st) and National Foundation Day (October 3rd)

“National Liberation Day” is sometimes called “Korean Independence Day.”  The origins of these holidays, however, are actually more complicated than one might imagine.

For non-Koreans, it may be difficult to understand the difference between National Liberation Day (August 15), Samil Day (March 1st), and National Foundation Day (October 3rd). We’ll talk about their differences here.

Samil Day

On March 1st, Koreans commemorate Independence Movement Day or Samil Day (삼일절 | Samiljeol). On March 1, 1919, an important protest happened against Japanese rule. This important movement caused a series of events that eventually lead to Korea’s Liberation 25 years after.

National Foundation Day

On October 3rd, Koreans celebrate National Foundation Day, or 개천절 (gaecheonjeol) in Korean. This celebration centers around the founding of Korea and the myths about how the nation was created more than 4000 years ago.

The USA was founded at around the same time as it gained its independence. On the other hand, Korea has been a nation for thousands of years, 4,349+ years to be exact. National Foundation Day, in October, celebrates the founding of the Korean nation in 2333 B.C.

August 15th  is sometimes called Korean Independence day; however, Korea has already been an independent nation for thousands of years.  This is why there is an emphasis on the word “restoration” rather than the word “independence” when Koreans talk about the National Liberation Day of Korea.

By understanding the difference between these holidays, you can learn a lot about Korean culture and history.

How is the National Liberation Day Celebrated in South Korea?

Like many national holidays, National Liberation Day in South Korea is celebrated by both private citizens, businesses, and government agencies. Here are some of the things that happen during this August 15 holiday.

Flags on Government Buildings and Public Streets

If you are traveling around the Jamsil in South Korea, between the Olympic Stadium and Olympic Park, you are bound to notice the flags of different world countries hung in the middle of the road.

Every now and then, all of the flags are taken down and replaced with the national flag of South Korea. When this happens, then you know that there is a national holiday coming up. These Korean flags might be seen in the run-up to National Liberation Day of Korea.

During this time in South Korea, local governments hang the Korean flag on streetlights and outside public buildings.

Celebrations by Big Companies

In 2015, Lotte Group even put a huge flag of South Korea on the side of the under-construction Lotte Tower in Jamsil to commemorate the day. As well as companies and public buildings, Korean flags can be seen hanging from store windows and apartments around the country.

There are some fireworks displays on Gwangbokjeol, but the main fireworks displays in Korea are held on National Foundation Day in October instead.

Celebrations by Private Citizens

You can also see citizens hanging flags on their windows.  You may even see or hear announcements reminding people to hand their flag if your apartment has a particularly patriotic owner.

Koreans who are descendants of independence activists can visit museums and ride public transport for free on this day.

Official Ceremonies

The government holds an official ceremony on this day, and the day also has an official song. During one of these ceremonies, the mother of current Korean president Park Geun-Hye was killed during an assassination attempt on Park Geun-Hye’s father, President Park Chung-Hee.

The Korean government can also give special pardons to prisoners on this day. This special pardon was the theme for the 2002 comedy film “Jail Breakers” (광복절특사 | gwangbokjeolteuksa), where the main characters escape from prison, only to find out that they are due to be pardoned the very next day.

Liberation Day in North Korea

Both North and South Korea celebrate Liberation Day on August 15.  In fact, August 15 is one of the few holidays held simultaneously between North Korea and South Korea.

At this time, North Korea also celebrates the end of the Japanese Occupation. This special day is celebrated in North Korea through public ceremonies like Military Marches and parades.

Where to Learn More About the National Liberation Day?

korean independence day

If you want to learn more about National Liberation Day of Korea or 광복절 (gwangbokjeol),  there are several good places that you could visit.

Independence Hall of Korea,

The Independence Hall of Korea is located in Cheonan. Here you can learn about the Japanese occupation of Korea.

Seodaemun Prison

If Cheonan is too far to travel, then Seodaemun Prison in Seoul can help you learn about Korea’s struggle for independence.

It was at Seodaemun Prison that independence fighters were imprisoned and tortured. Outside the prison is “Independence Gate,” which, despite its misleading name, was built just before the Japanese occupation by the at-the-time pro-Japanese government.

It was supposed to symbolize Korea’s independence from China. However, at that time, Korea was more or less independent from China. The treaty that gave Korea its “independence” from China allowed Japan to make Korea into a Japanese colony just a few years later.

With relations between Korea and Japan always in the news, learning about Korea’s past can help visitors to Korea understand why so there is still so much antipathy between the two countries.

Other Museums

If visiting Seodaemun Prison or the Independence Hall of Korea isn’t the sort of thing that interests you, then there are plenty of other places you can visit instead, such as museums.

If you’re in Korea,  make the most of August 15th being a public holiday by going out and exploring somewhere new in Korea and learning something new about this fascinating country.

What do you do on National Liberation Day of Korea or 광복절 (gwangbokjeol)? Let us know in the comments below.

    13 replies to "National Liberation Day of Korea (Gwangbokjeol) – Celebration of Independence"

    • Avatar for Honghee Honghee

      Thank you for this useful article. Another place that people can visit in Seoul is Tapgol Park on Jongno. I know that this is more related to Sam-Il Jeol, but I found it very moving.

      One small update needed, though: Park Geun-hye is no longer the President of Korea.

      • Avatar for 90 Day Korean 90 Day Korean

        Great, thanks for sharing and for your suggestion! I am glad that the article has been valuable to you. ^^ If you want to have more Korean lessons, you can also check our blog and visit our YouTube channel for articles and videos with great Korean content.

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