Korea Marks Centenary of His Patriotic Deed
This is the first 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.
A picture of Ahn Jung-geun taken after he was arrested in Harbin in 1909. The tip of his ring finger is missing.
By Do Je-hae
On Oct. 26, 1909, the first Japanese Resident General of Korea, Hirobumi Ito, was shot to death in Harbin by the Korean independence fighter, nationalist and pan-Asianist Ahn Jung-geun.
With the 100th anniversary of his deed approaching, Ahn has been gaining renewed attention for his dedication to safeguarding the nation from imperialist threats and advancing peace through Asian solidarity.
Historians at home and abroad are striving to rediscover Ahn's comprehensive achievements in the independence and enlightenment movements, as well as his ideas on Pan-Asianism.
Despite the efforts of Ahn and many other devoted activists, Japan annexed Korea in 1910. The Japanese colonial rule of Korea lasted until 1945.
Ito was killed on a railway platform in Harbin, northeastern China.
After firing upon Ito, Ahn is said to have yelled for Korean independence in Russian.
As he was being interrogated, he shouted, "Ura Korea!" When asked what language he had just spoken, he replied that the phrase could be understood in English, Russian and French. He also shouted "Long Live Korea."
He was arrested by Russian guards and turned over to the Japanese consul in Harbin.
In order to understand Ahn's motive, one must go back to 1905, when Korea became a protectorate of the Japanese Empire under the so-called Eulsa Treaty and consequently lost its diplomatic sovereignty.
A result of the Russo-Japanese War, the Eulsa Treaty laid the foundation for subsequent treaties that finally led to Japan's annexation of Korea in 1910.
Many Koreans resisted the treaty, with some high court officials even killing themselves in protest.
But in the wake of the Hague incident, Ito pressured Korean officials to force Emperor Gojong to abdicate, signed a new treaty that took away even more of Korea's sovereignty, and then disbanded the Korean army.
These events convinced Ahn that he had to act quickly or else Korea would be completely taken over.
It was then that An joined a righteous army. An refrained from the use of force until he felt that there was no other choice. Ito forced the Korean government with the threat of violence to accept the 1905 treaty.
According to his autobiography, Ahn left Korea because he was afraid that the Japanese colonial state would seek to kill those like him who wanted to restore the country's independence.
His intention was to work in China with other Koreans there to restore independence. However, he met a French Priest, Father Le Gac, who compared the Korean situation to the French loss of Alsace-Lorraine to the German Empire.
He told Ahn that if he left Korea that it would be very difficult for Koreans to build up their national strength and restore independence.
Many of the people in Alsace-Lorraine who wanted to remain under French control, rather than that of Germany, had left, weakening French influence there. Therefore, Father Le Gac advised Ahn to return to Korea and work to build up the nation so it could one day regain independence. Ahn returned, and began participating in the debt repayment movement and in educational work.
The Nation's Enemy
Following the signing of the treaty, Ito (1841-1909) was named the first resident general of Korea.
To many Koreans, he was the archenemy, as he was the key figure in the loss of Korean sovereignty to Japan.
"I killed Ito because he was a hindrance to Asia's peace and hampered relations between Korea and Japan. It was in my capacity as a lieutenant general of a Korean resistance army that I masterminded the assassination," he was quoted as saying during his trial.
"The undertaking was not based on a personal agenda ― it was for Korea's independence and peace in the East. It is a part of Korea's war of liberation," Ahn said, underlining that his action was not to be confused with murder, as the Japanese military intended.
At the trial, the Japanese prosecutor, Mizobuchi Takao, argued that Ahn killed Ito because he harbored a private grudge against him. So An, in his statement, was defending himself against that charge.
He was tried in a civilian court.
Ahn's Place in Asian History
Pan-Asianism was an ideology formed in opposition to the Western colonization of Asia. As a Pan-Asianist, Ahn wanted China, Korea and Japan to work together to counter colonial forces from the West and restore peace in East Asia.
"It is obvious that Asians must unite to withstand the West's increasing attacks of the East. Why is Japan severing ties with a country of the same race at such a time?" Ahn wrote in his essay "On Peace in East Asia," in reference to Japan's infringement on Korea's sovereignty.
He had still not finished the essay in prison when he was executed on March 26, 1910.
Ahn had hoped that Japan and Korea could become closer because of the many traditions that they shared. The essay contains his wish that this friendship, as well as friendly relations with China, would become a model for the world to follow.
An admired Japan's achievements and wanted it to help China and Korea reform in a way that would help them maintain their independence and work together to defend the region.
Ahn proposed that China, Japan and Korea build a framework to maintain peace in Asia and establish a joint development bank as well as a common currency.
Basically, he was suggesting a century ago an Asian version of today's European Union. "This is a testament to Ahn's exceptional foresight as someone dedicated to peace," wrote Kim Sam-woog, author of a recent biography on Ahn and former head of the Independence Hall of Korea, South Chungcheong Province.
Ahn was also a sincere patriot who composed such lines as, "A military officer's duty is to die for his country" and "Agonize with worry over the fate of the nation" in his famous works of calligraphy which he produced while in prison.
Korea has designated some of them as national treasures.
Sketchy Information on Ahn
Born in 1879 in Haeju, Hwanghae Province (now in North Korea), Ahn traveled alone to Shanghai in 1905. He then returned home and delved into his education work. However, in 1907, in the wake of the Hague incident, when Emperor Gojong was forced to abdicate, a new treaty was signed, and the Korean army was disbanded.
In 1908, Ahn traveled to a small village near Vladivostok, Russia, where he gathered with 11 fellow independence fighters and vowed to kill Hirobumi.
Most Koreans are well aware of how each in the group cut off a part of one of their fingers and wrote "Liberate Korea" in blood prior to the assassination.
This is about the extent of the general public's knowledge of Ahn, who was much more than an independence activist.
Given his unique place in Asian history, he has largely been under-appreciated for studies on his activities, which were scarce here until the 1980s.
Korean history books do not contain extensive information on Ahn's life and material available in bookstores is also limited.
Korea, China Remember Ahn
The centennial of the Harbin assassination is expected to expand the limited resources on Ahn and raise his profile here and abroad.
China is especially forthcoming about commemorative activities for him. Zhou Enlai, first premier of the People's Republic of China, once described Ahn's assassination of Ito as "an impetus for a joint struggle of the peoples of Korea and China against Japan."
Korea and China are simultaneously making plans to remember his legacy at the turn of the year.
To honor his sacrifice, a statue will be made in Harbin and sent to Seoul to be housed at the Kim Koo Museum in Seoul.
The museum honors Kim Koo (1876-1949), a leader of the Korean independence movement and one of the greatest figures in modern Korean history.
Kim, who served as the sixth, and later the last, president of Korea's Provisional Government, founded in Shanghai in 1919, held a high regard for Ahn and honored him in some of his poems and essays. Ahn's father also acted as a patron for Kim.
In addition, an exhibition will be held in Lushan, China, the site of Ahn's execution.
As the site of the assassination, Harbin is planning a series of events for the Korean community through academic conferences and essay contests, among other activities.
The Korean Consulate in Shenyang is also planning an official ceremony.