[Silver Prize] Advocate of World Citizenship
One hundred years after Ahn Jung-geun gained infamy for his assassination of Hirobumi Ito on a railway platform in Harbin, China, it seems an appropriate time for a reexamination of Ahn's place in modern East Asian history.
To Koreans, he remains the preeminent symbol of selfless resistance to a tragic and unjust colonial occupation.
For Japanese, he was long reviled for gunning down the country's first prime minister, the man who laid the foundations for the modern Japanese state with the creation of the Meiji Constitution.
Yet, each of these two views paints too simplistic a picture for a figure of Ahn's complexity and depth.
It is only with the benefit of hindsight that we may see Ahn's most important legacy, more so than the explosive act with which he remains forever associated, were the views expressed in his unfinished treatise, ``On Peace in East Asia,'' written shortly before his execution in 1910.
Ahn was one of the earliest proponents of economic and security integration in Asia, envisioning a collection of sovereign, independent nations acting in harmony to promote regional peace and resist Western encroachment, and outlined proposals which have only now begun to take root.
While Ahn is rightly known first and foremost as a Korean patriot and independence activist, his views on the inter-relations between East Asian nations have for too long been overshadowed by what occurred that day in Harbin on October 26, 1909.
This is unfortunate, because, as Professor Ippei Wakabayashi of Bunkyo University points out, ``Ahn might have been the first person who embodied the concept of world citizenship in Asia.''
His longing for the independence of his homeland was intertwined with a deep desire for peace in East Asia. Western colonialism ― or the ``white peril'' as he phrased it ― was a menace to all countries of the region, and only by working together as partners could the threat of imperialism be effectively countered.
Ahn saw Ito as an obstacle to this cooperative endeavor, stating at his trial that he killed Ito because ``he was a hindrance to Asia's peace and hampered relations between Japan and Korea.''
One of the misconceptions about Ahn is that he was anti-Japanese.
A reading of his autobiography, however, will dispel such notions ― indeed, Ahn possessed great respect for the country's rapid development in the late 19th century.
He bonded with his captors in prison, creating calligraphic works for them which have been preserved by Japanese families for generations.
He was also an admirer of Emperor Meiji, whom Ahn believed to be a firm supporter of both Korean independence and peace in Asia.
Ahn's request that his list of 15 accusations against Ito be delivered to the emperor clearly shows that he was viewed by Ahn as a sympathetic figure, someone capable of rallying the nations of East Asia together to fend off encroaching Western influence.
This idea, which became known as Pan-Asianism, was ironically the driving rationale behind Japan's aggressive colonization during the first part of the 20th century.
It goes without saying, however, that Ahn had a far different conception of what Pan-Asianism meant than did leading Japanese policy makers of the day.
Just what was Ahn's vision of Pan-Asianism? Though he was unable to fully develop his theories, Ahn laid out two important proposals in his treatise.
The first was to form a multinational peacekeeping force from Japan, Russia, China, and Korea to deploy in Lushun ― a region of northeast China that had been occupied by both the Russians and Japanese.
The idea was that by collectively maintaining peace and stability in this long-contested area, the four countries would be able to foster a sense of mutual trust and common purpose which could replace the prevailing suspicions and rivalries.
Due to the close economic and cultural links between China, Japan, and Korea, Ahn also advocated a joint currency for these three nations.
Ahn was perceptive enough to understand that Japan's territorial aggression stemmed partially from economic concerns, and he viewed the creation of such a currency as a possible solution toward alleviating this problem.
This so-called ``Asian Bank'' could also provide the necessary capital as China and Korea sought ways to finance their own burgeoning industries, and could be expanded to include other Asian nations in the future.
Unfortunately, Ahn's words fell on deaf ears as Imperial Japan continued to pursue an expansionist path that, coupled with similar policies of Nazi Germany in Europe, would eventually plunge the world into a devastating war during the 1930s and 1940s.
And yet, 100 years later, we can see that Asia is slowly moving in the direction that Ahn had envisioned.
In a sign of increasing economic interdependence, the Asian Development Bank recently established a $120 billion fund in order to assist Asian nations during the global financial crisis, with 80 percent of that money coming from China, Japan, and Korea.
This extraordinary development comes on the heels of China replacing the United States as the leading trade partner for both Japan and Korea, a clear indication of the deepening economic ties between these three countries.
Continuing on the theme of regional cooperation, newly elected Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, stated recently in a New York Times editorial that Asian countries, ``should aspire to move toward regional currency integration'' and ``must spare no effort to build the permanent security frameworks essential to underpinning'' this endeavor.
Such a statement could just as easily have been written by Ahn's own hand.
As the nations of Asia continue on their inevitable march toward further integration, historians can look back at Ahn and see one of the original purveyors of this vision.
It would seem that the views of the man whom even his prosecutor referred to as ``righteous'' have come into vogue in 2009.
The author has been teaching English in Korea since 2006 and plans to pursue a master's degree in international trade and finance at Yonsei University beginning next spring.