This is the third 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.
(Sept. 2, 1879 - March 26, 1910)
By Sunny Lee
Korea Times Correspondent
HARBIN, China ― Here in China's far-flung northeastern city, not far from Russia, Ahn Jung-geun, a Korean independence fighter and peace activist, is more than a hero as part of its own history.
The city is the place where Ahn gunned down Hirobumi Ito 100 years ago. It has Ahn's memorial center downtown. It has also produced books on him as well as an opera, and the city government is to make a documentary about him. ``People in this city have a great respect for Ahn,'' said Suh Myung-hoon, a long-time resident.
Ahn's act 100 years ago also touched the Chinese. A Chinese newspaper in Beijing at that time carried an article with the title: ``Don't Say Korea Doesn't Have People with Talents,'' calling on its people to learn from Ahn's patriotic act against the Japanese aggressors that was conducted on its land.
Chinese political leaders also used Ahn to edify its people. Chen Duxiu, a key figure of the May Fourth Movement in 1919, noting Ahn's case, wrote: ``Koreans are fighting for their independence from Japan without many arms. We should learn from their spirit.'' The widely beloved Chinese leader, premier Zhou Eunlai, is also said to have watched the play on Ahn in Tianjin, titled ``Hero: Ahn Jung-geun.''
In 2007, a group of Chinese historians even published the first comprehensive scholarly book on Ahn, edited by Hua Wengui, the head of the Lushun museum, which previously was the prison where he spent his last moments. ``Ahn is an important figure in the modern history of East Asia,'' Hua said.
But despite all the great respect on Ahn in both China and Korea, details on the circumstances 100 years ago when he assassinated Ito in the city's train station are murky.
For example, how far was Ahn from Ito before gunning him down? Chinese records say it was one meter. Some Japanese documents say two or three meters, while Korean records say eight to 10 ``steps.''
``I believe it was about five meters,'' said Suh, 78, the Harbin resident, who is arguably the most well-known Chinese expert on Ahn.
``At that time, the distance between the railway tracks to the main building of the station was 13.8 meters. Russian soldiers filled half of the space. There were security guards. And then there were two lines of honor guards. During the interrogation in prison by the Japanese, Ahn said the distance was about 10 steps.
``When I took consideration of all these available references, I reached the conclusion that it was about five meters,'' Suh said.
There are also some other details that people have long speculated. For example, a history textbook said Ahn triggered his pistol when Ito was getting out of his car. Another states completely the opposite, stating Ahn shot him when Ito was about to get into the car. Suh can tell you this and many other details with authority as a person who has been researching on Ahn, and Ahn only, for the last 20 years.
A Chinese national with Korean heritage, Suh graduated from the elite Central University of Nationalities in Beijing in the 1950s. After working for the Harbin city government for decades, he retired in 1989 and has sine been devoting his life, exclusively on Ahn.
Suh's embarking on research was incidental. He visited Seoul in 1989 and read a few books on Ahn. Although he heard about him before, the visit made him fascinated about Ahn's life. The fact that Harbin was the very place where he had stayed before the incident personally drew him more.
Since then, Suh has begun his own independent research on Ahn. The fact that he was in Harbin, the site of Ahn's act, and he could read Chinese, Korean and Japanese was a great advantage for him. Gradually, Korean scholars recognized his work. Korean media highlighted his work as well.
``Unfortunately, many young Chinese here don't know Ahn's history and what happened in the city. So, I have been translating some of Ahn's books into Chinese as well,'' Suh said.
Suh is also working on a book, compiling Chinese newspapers' reports about Ahn 100 years ago. ``They show that the shooting was big news in China at the time,'' he said. The book is soon to be published to commemorate the 100th year of Ahn's action that falls on October 26.
Two Special Bricks in the Train Station
In the Harbin Railway Station, the site of Ahn's assassination of Ito, there are two distinctive pavement bricks, one with triangular mark, the other with rectangular mark imbedded. They denote the positions for Ahn and Ito at the time of the incident.
The train station was different from that of Ahn's time as it has been renovated since. It was Suh, along with a city engineer who determined these original positions. ``I went out to the train station many times for that,'' he said.
Ahn is regarded as a hero in China and Korea for killing a ranking high Japanese official who masterminded Japan's colonization of the Korean Peninsula and its advance into northern Chinese territory. The view is different in Japan where Ahn is viewed a ``terrorist,'' who killed an unarmed civil servant.
Regarding the controversy, Suh pointed out that an increasing number of Japanese scholars are reinterpreting the incident with a fresh outlook, based on the historical circumstances at that time. The evidence is backed by testimonials of the Japanese prison guards who watched Ahn closely. Ahn left many calligraphic writings, mostly requested by them and they are now kept in Japan, Korea and China. The offspring of the prison guards also remember Ahn by offering an annual memorial service for him, according to Suh, who traveled to Japan many times.
But how can we justify Ahn's killing act? As a devout Catholic, Ahn was against killing himself. But he increasingly perceived Ito who was at the forefront of Japanese aggression to other Asian countries as someone who ``was undermining peace in Asia and decided to kill him to safeguard the greater peace,'' Suh viewed.
Upon hearing Ito was dead, Ahn made the sign of the cross. But the Catholic Church excommunicated him. Decades later the church readmitted him, thereby recognizing his killing as a just act.
The reason why the debate on Ahn's act still lingers is because on one hand it touches upon an ethical dilemma, but also because there is not enough research done on Ahn, according to Suh. ``Research on Ahn, even today, is lacking. So is our understanding on him.''
Most people primarily know Ahn as a person who killed Ito 100 years ago, but then they know very little that he was also a passionate peace advocate who envisioned an ``Asian United Nations'' even before Woodrow Wilson created the ``the League of Nations'' in 1919 that became a forerunner of the United Nations. ``Ahn is not complete without the peace he advocated,'' Suh said.
``One could be a national hero by fighting for the nation's independence, but one could become a global hero when he fights for the world peace. Ahn is a global hero, from what I see,'' Suh said.