Why Did Ahn Jung-geun Kill Hirobumi Ito?
This is the seventh in a series of articles highlighting the life of Ahn Jung-geun on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of his assassination of the first Japanese resident-general of Korea, Hirobumi Ito, on Oct. 26, 1909, in China.
By Franklin Rausch
At first glance it is not clear why Ahn Jung-geun assassinated Hirobumi Ito. Ito was the framer of the Meiji constitution of 1889 which, though not without restrictions, guaranteed such basic rights as freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of religion. Ito was known as a moderating force within Japanese politics.
He tried to prevent the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895 and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 through diplomacy and compromise.
He stood against more aggressive forces within the Japanese government and prevented the annexation of Korea following Japan's victory in its war with Russia.
He lacked the racist anti-Korean opinions shared by many of his colleagues and believed ― at least for a time ― that Korea could modernize just as Japan had. He had a reputation for patriotism and financial honesty. Lastly, he was not even resident-general when Ahn shot him. So why then was he a target? What did Ahn hope to accomplish by killing him?
15 Crimes Ito Had Committed
Ahn was asked the same questions shortly after he was arrested. In response, Ahn gave a list of 15 "crimes" that Ito had committed. We can answer the above questions by examining a summary of this list.
Ahn stated that Ito had essentially destroyed Korea's sovereignty. Ito had forced the signing of the treaties of 1905 and 1907, pressured Korean Emperor Gojeong into abdicating in 1907, and disbanded the Korean army in that same year.
Furthermore, during Ito's reign as resident-general, Japan had taken increasing control over Korea's currency, natural resources, and infrastructure. Essentially, under Ito, the residency-general had taken control over every important state function.
This destruction of Korean independence had a heavy human cost and Ahn's list reflects this fact. Ahn accused Ito of causing the deaths of thousands of Koreans. He seems to have had those who had died as part of the righteous army movement in mind.
Ito's policies had destroyed Korean independence and when Koreans rose up and resisted the Japanese colonial state with force, Ito ordered the Japanese army to annihilate them. Ahn saw these deaths as arising from Ito's ambitions to rule Korea. Ahn also accused Ito of being responsible for the death of Queen Min.
We know now from historical records that it was the Japanese consul, Miura Goro, who masterminded the assassination of Queen Min.
However, because he had not been punished, Ahn thought he must have been acting under the orders of Ito, who was prime minister at that time. Ahn connected the loss of independence with human suffering. The colonial period would prove that he was right to do so.
Education plays a prominent role in Ahn's list of fifteen crimes. Ahn criticized Ito for hindering education in Korea.
Ito, as resident-general, required that private schools receive approval from the government. Most Korean-run non-missionary private schools had their applications for approval rejected.
This was largely because such schools sought to spread modern knowledge so that their students could build Korea's strength and regain their country's independence.
Textbooks that encouraged independence activism were confiscated by the Japanese resident-general and destroyed.
Ahn had helped support schools himself and knew that education was central to the recovery of Korean independence. Therefore, he saw Ito's actions as not only destroying Korean sovereignty but any hopes of its recovery.
It would seem then that Ahn shot Ito in part out of a desire to avenge the people who had died because of Ito's policies and to punish him for his crimes.
To Ahn, Ito was guilty of those crimes whether he was still resident-general or not. Furthermore, Ito, though no longer resident-general, was still a powerful political leader and so Ahn believed that he would likely do more harm in the future. Ahn stated under interrogation that he had killed Ito for this very reason.
What did Ahn hope to accomplish by assassinating Ito? In his list of 15 crimes, he made two more powerful accusations. He charged Ito with destroying peace in the East and tricking the Japanese emperor and the rest of the world into thinking that Koreans wanted to be a protectorate of Japan and that everything was going well in Korea.
By killing Ito, Ahn hoped to show that this was not true; that Koreans did not want their country to be a protectorate of Japan; and that the situation in Korea was terrible.
Ahn seems to have hoped that by making the Japanese emperor aware of the real situation in Korea, he would have changed Japan's policy.
At the same time, Ahn seems to have realized that this might not work and so he also hoped that his actions might lead to international intervention.
Ahn knew that Russia, France and Germany had united to force Japan to return the Liaodong Peninsula which it had obtained from China as part of the treaty ending the Sino-Japanese War.
Ahn likely hoped that something similar might have happened and Korea could have regained its independence. Unfortunately, Japan continued its policy in Korea and no countries intervened on Korea's behalf.
Ahn saw Ito's actions in Korea as destroying his country's sovereignty and the lives of the Korean people. Furthermore, he believed that Ito's actions in Korea had ramifications beyond the peninsula, threatening the peace of all of East Asia.
He assassinated Ito as punishment for what he had done and in hopes of restoring independence to Korea, and security and peace to East Asia.
The writer is a doctoral candidate at the University of British Columbia in the department of Asian studies where he focuses on Korean religious history. His research was supported in 2007-2008 by the Korea Foundation and in 2008-2009 by Fulbright Korea.