Posted : 2009-09-28 18:08
Updated : 2009-09-28 18:08

Ahn Jung-geun Hoped to Build Peaceful East Asia

This is the 12th and last 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

Korea, unable to defend its independence from predatory empires, was declared to be a danger to "peace in the East" in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

It was considered acceptable to destroy a country's sovereignty in the name of peace, even when that country itself had taken no aggressive actions, and so the Japanese empire colonized its peninsular neighbor.

Ahn Jung-guen disagreed. He saw the issues of peace and independence as being profoundly connected.

Ahn argued that only if the national sovereignty of China, Korea and Japan were respected would it be possible to have a true and lasting peace in East Asia.

As Ahn awaited execution in Lusun prison, he labored furiously on a work, entitled "A Treatise on Peace in the East" in which he planned to explain how true peace could be established.

Ahn began by describing the terrible situation East Asia was in.

He lamented the fact that people spent their energy inventing ever more power weapons, leading to the deaths of thousands of young people.

Ahn looked to the past in order to understand what must be done in the present.

He examined the history of relations between Europe and East Asia and stated that the nations of the former departed from moral principle and began to expand east, with Russia being the most hungry for Asian land.

Ahn described how Japan, because it "acted in accordance with the principles of heaven," was able to defeat Russia in the Russo-Japanese war (1904-1905).

He also argued that it was because China and Korea helped Japan that it was able to win.

Had China sought revenge for Japan's actions during the Boxer Rebellion, or Korea for the assassination of Queen Min, and joined the side of Russia, then it would have been Japan that would have suffered defeat.

While Ahn was somewhat off historically in the amount of help China and Korea gave to Japan, this does not obscure his overarching point: in order to maintain their independence and peace in the East, it was necessary for the three countries to stick together against the Western powers.

Unfortunately, Ahn argued, Japan had departed from this sound principle and used the Russo-Japanese War to gain control over Korea, rather than strengthen the country's independence as the Japanese emperor had promised in the declaration of war against Russia.

Koreans reacted against Japanese encroachment on Korean independence by fighting back.

Ahn was afraid that such fighting between Asians would allow the Western powers to expand into Asia.

The people of China, Korea and Japan, exhausted from fighting with each other, would not be able to resist the Western empires.

This sort of thinking was not unique to Ahn, but is rather from a school of thought called Pan-Asianism.

Pan-Asianists believed that Asians shared cultural, geographical and racial similarities that bound them together.

Thus, Ahn often stated in his Treatise that it was necessary for "yellow" people to unite to defend themselves against the "white" countries.

This may sound rather racist to us today but it is important to remember that at this time the large empires that had reduced many previously independent states to colonies were dominated by white people.

Pan-Asianism does seem to have caused something of a contradiction in Ahn's thought.

The day before he was executed, Ahn wrote a series of letters to his family and to Bishop Mutel and Father Wilhelm.

In them, he stated that he hoped that Korea would become a Catholic country.

And yet, the missionaries who led the Catholic Church in Korea were all white and there were very few Korean priests at the time.

Perhaps Ahn saw white people and empires dominated by white people differently.

In any case, he does not seem to have dealt with this seeming contradiction before his death.

Unfortunately, Ahn was executed before he was able to finish his Treatise.

He had asked for a stay of execution of two weeks in order to finish it but his request was denied.

Therefore, we only have the introduction and first chapter of what was meant to be a four-chapter work.

Fortunately, notes taken during an interview with a Japanese judge allow us to see how he hoped to build a peaceful East Asia in which the independence of China, Japan and Korea would be respected.

Ahn realized that the three all faced economic difficulties.

He therefore suggested that Japan return Lushun (then commonly referred to as Port Arthur) to China and that it be made into an international port, though Japan would be allowed to station a small naval force there, in deference to its own strategic concerns.

Then, an East Asian peace association would be formed.

Members would be drawn from each of the three countries and membership fees would be used to start a bank that would encourage trade between China, Korea and Japan and give them the economic resources they needed for further development.

Ahn had a rather novel idea in order to ensure the equality between the three countries.

He wanted the emperors of China, Korea and Japan to all be crowned by the Pope.

He also believed that Catholics, who he thought made up two-thirds of the world's population, would be impressed by this and that such an action would win their approval, strengthening Japan's position in the world.

Cooperation, not conquest, would bring true power.

Ahn argued that to establish true peace in East Asia, it was necessary to respect the independence of China, Korea and Japan.

If they fought among themselves, then they would fall victim to Western imperialism.

On the other hand, if they cooperated, they would remain independent and enjoy peace and growing economic prosperity.

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.
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