This calligraphy with the stamp of a hand was known to be done by Ahn Jung-geun himself sometime in February 1910 in his prison cell. He was executed one month later. / Korea Times file
By Andrew Salmon
In an exchange between two characters in a Jack Higgins World War II novel, a Frenchman tells an Englishman, “You are fortunate that your country has not been occupied. It is not an experience I recommend.”
Indeed. While millions more Koreans were killed during the 1950-53 Korean War than during the 1910-1945 colonial period, it is the latter experience that Koreans consider the darkest period of their modern history. For this was a period in which there was, bar the brief flame of the March 1st movement of 1919, no real national resistance; a period in which collaboration with the foreign occupier was all too common. In short: A national humiliation.
Such humiliation is not, of course, unique to Korea. France, for example, has forged a legend of the resistance of the “Maquis” against Nazism ― but also suffered extraordinary agonies in the years since 1945 as it grappled with the reality that collaboration was common under the jackboot. Yet France was only occupied by Hitler’s Germany for five years. Korea, by way of contrast, suffered 30 years under the Japanese yoke ― 35 if you count the first five years of creeping Japanese control prior to outright annexation.
The colonial period and its painful preamble was a time in which heroes were in short supply, at least for post-1945 South Koreans. While Kim Il-sung and bands of communist guerillas had, in fact, battled the Japanese in the wilds of Manchuria and North Korea, this was less true of their non-communist, nationalist ilk.
Yet there is one shining hero in the modern national pantheon, a man whose actions during the dark era of Japanese hegemony have granted him almost saintly status in today’s South Korea. He is memorialized in an impressive structure perched above downtown Seoul in ― appropriately enough ― the location of a former Japanese Shinto shrine. He is also the subject of books and films and even a musical.
His name? Ahn Jung-geun.
Nationalist, Catholic, modernist
Ahn was born in Haeju, northern Korea, in 1879. A sleepy, uncertain and unprepared Korea was being forcibly prized out of her centuries-long seclusion for a tri-power game was underway between China, Russia and a rising Japan to control the strategic peninsula. As he grew up Ahn worked in the coal business, married and became a Christian. He was confirmed in the Catholic Church at age 16, taking the baptismal name Thomas from a French priest.
While it may not today be seen as a progressive force, the Catholic Church provided both a haven and possibilities for modern-minded Koreans of the day: It was one route to Western learning and Ahn would, prior to his most famous act, be active in education in both Korea and in the expatriate Korean communities in the Russian Far East, founding two schools. This is not to say he looked down upon traditional teachings. A skilled calligrapher, he was known for the saying, “Unless one reads every day, thorns grow in one’s mouth.”
While Ahn was growing up and being shaped by his environment, both China and Russia were falling before the arms of a vigorous new Asian power, one that had, in one of the most startling transformations in history, moved from feudal society to modern powerhouse in the space of a generation ― the Meiji Restoration.
It is perhaps the greatest irony of Ahn’s life that he would find much to praise in the modernized Japan and even its emperor, but would struggle against the nation itself as it closed its claws around Korea, extinguishing (under the guise of modernizing) Korea’s institutions one by one and restricting her policy freedoms.
This was both the fire in which modern Korean nationalism was forged and the blaze which lighted Ahn’s path to immortality.
He would not struggle alone. Various members of his family ― brother, cousins and nephews ― would undertake anti-Japanese acts. He also met with anti-Japanese figures who subsequently gained high profiles ― notably Kim Ku, who would later recall Ahn’s personal charisma.
In a day when cameras were rare, Ahn was photographed. He appears youthful and good looking, dressed in a contemporary Western style with a wispy mustache. But part of his ring finger is missing ― he had mutilated it as a pledge to fight Japan ― and he has the dreaming eyes commonly seen in revolutionaries.
It is worth pointing out that while Ahn is most commonly depicted as an “independence fighter” Korea was ― during his short lifetime ― de jure independent. Certainly, Japan was taking a very strong (and often violent) hand in the peninsula’s affairs, having made it a protectorate in 1905, but it would not actually annex the country until 22nd August, 1910 ― well after Ahn’s death on March 26.
And Ahn’s death is defining, for the act for which he earned fame (and infamy) would be his last.
Assassination and execution
On Oct. 26, 1909, Japan’s most noted statesmen, Maquis Ito Hirobumi, arrived at the rail station in Harbin, Manchuria for meetings with Russian officials.
One of the first Japanese to study in the West, Ito was a brilliant reformer, administrator and former prime minister. He had been one of the early advocates of Japanese influence over Korea, and a former resident general following the establishment of a protectorate in 1905. Yet by 1909, Ito, who opposed the outright annexation of the peninsula, was a moderate, on the defensive against more aggressive factions in the Japanese military.
For Ahn, however Ito was a symbol of Japan’s creeping control. As the Japanese delegation inspected a Russian honor guard on the platform, Ahn, dressed in civilian clothes, produced an automatic pistol and opened fire. Four members of the Japanese delegation were hit as Ahn rapid-fired. Ito went down with three bullets in his torso.
Ahn made no apparent attempt to escape. He was seized by Russian troops while his target lay mortally on the platform, bleeding his life out.
Japanese reports described the assassin as a “fanatic” a “reckless miscreant” and “a bloodthirsty heinous assassin.” Though Ito had been passing out of favor and influence as new, more aggressive forces and personalities moved to the forefront of policymaking, Japan recognized that one of their great men had passed.
At the height of the colonial era, most foreign press sided with Tokyo. Ito was cited as a “friend of Korea” a benign modernizer who was compared to the British administrators of colonial India. Little ink was spilled on the aggressive Japanese strategy toward Korea (nor, for that matter, on the exploitative nature of Britain’s colonial mission in India). Such was the nature of the times.
Ahn, meanwhile, had been transferred from Russian to Japanese custody. While his most famous deed was the shooting, in prison he would lay another claim on posterity, as, between court appearances, he wrote up his ideas for a pan-Asian resistance to Western encroachment, “On Peace in East Asia.” This unfinished document is striking (given Ahn’s recent act) in that it called for a union between China, Korea and Japan to resist encroaching Western powers.
It was an idealistic, forward-looking vision and was in sync with that of earlier Japanese thinkers such as Okakura Kakuzo, who had promoted similar ideas. But it was hardly a realistic one, given the policy mismatches and power competition between the three states.
Indeed, Asia would, two decades after Ahn’s death, plunge into the most destructive war in its long and bloody history as Japan ― in what many Japanese stridently continue to claim today was a legitimate response to Western aggression ― attempted to unite Asia under its own banner, the so-called “Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere.”
Today, while Southeast Asia has managed to forge a unified community (ASEAN) the big powers and industrial players of Northeast Asia ― Japan and China, with Korea sandwiched in the middle ― are enjoying increasing economic linkages. Political integration looks as far off as ever.
Ahn also laid out his 15 reasons for assassinating Ito. They make interesting reading, as a number of them ― for example, accusing Ito of being behind the assassination of Korea’s Queen Myeongseong, and of misleading Emperor Meiji on Korean matters ― were far off the mark. In jail, Ahn thought that most Japanese shared his hatred of the statesman, but this seems to be based largely on conversations he had with Japanese prisoners ― hardly a representative sampling of the populace.
Still, if Ahn’s naivety can be criticized, the reports we have of his behavior in jail ― including those of at least one Japanese guard - suggest that he was a prisoner of unusual charisma and dignity. Ahn identified himself as a general in the Korean army and argued for prisoner of war status.
It was not granted. He was executed on March 26, 1910.
Clearly, Ahn’s actions had no effect on the Japanese takeover of Korea: If anything, the nation suffered a more brutal annexation than would likely have been the case if Ito had remained alive and active. In this sense, Ahn can hardly be seen as an influencer of events. It is as an icon that his legacy lives on.
In the decades since his death, he has been elevated by both Koreas into a colossal figure of shining virtue, unparalleled courage and groundbreaking intellect. There are, however, some issues in recent Korean portrayals of Ahn. As regards to his philosophies, he is simultaneously lauded as both a pan-Asianist and a nationalist ― which are contradictory stances. Then there are the problematic issues of his actual act. South Korean writers frequently portray him as someone who strove for peace - yet his defining act was the assassination of a moderate.
Of course, a hero must have a monster to fight. Ito was hardly that ― though the Japan he served would soon grow into one ― but in today’s Korea, Ahn’s victim has been painted as a villain of almost satanic hue. This is due to some very slanted ― even disingenuous ― historical writings and the influence of popular culture.
Take a prize-winning essay on Ahn ― judged, moreover, by a prominent government-funded history association ― that was entered in a competition that took place as part of Ahn’s centennial commemorations. It is riddled with historical howlers, stating, among other things, that the killing of Ito “played an important role in the fall of Japan” ― i.e. the defeat of Japan by the Allies in 1945. The recent South Korean musical “Hero” even has Ito suggesting human experimentation ― a reference to the hideous biological warfare activities of the Imperial Japanese Army’s Unit 731, a unit that would not be active until 30 years after Ito was shot.
Still, neither widespread Korean slandering of Ito, nor unquestioning promotion of Ahn as a figure of almost limitless virtue, should detract from the real, unvarnished qualities of this tragic young man.
Japanese authorities seem to have sensed them. Despite expeditions mandated by the Lee Myung-bak administration to discover and recover Ahn’s remains from China on the 100th anniversary of his death, they have never been found. According to Japanese records, his grave was purposely not made public. This may well indicate that the Japanese authorities realized how representative Ahn would become for Koreans who yearned for the right to control their own national destiny.
Ahn’s most famed tangible legacy today is his widely admired calligraphy. Given that he was a writer himself, it might make sense to examine Ahn’s actions in the light of the religious tradition which he converted to.
Perhaps the most widely cited paean in the English language to selfless heroism originates in the gospel of St John: “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”
If we remove the word “friends” and replace it with “nation” then Ahn Jung-geun is, indeed, a hero.
Andrew Salmon is a reporter and the author of three works on modern Korean history — “U.S. Business and the Korean Miracle: U.S. Enterprises in Korea, 1866 — the Present,” “To the Last Round: The Epic British Stand on the Imjin River, Korea, 1951,” and “Scorched Earth, Black Snow: Britain and Australia in the Korean War, 1950.”