[Bronze Prize] Ahn Jung-geun’s Place in East Asia’s History
It is in encountering a new culture that one begins to appreciate its history; its heritage; its hope. Ahn Jung-geun is nothing short of a revelation. He is an inspiration and an education in the past, the present and the future of Korea.
The narrative of Ahn Jung-geun begins on September 2, 1879 in Haeju, Hwanghae Do where he was born into a family of the Sunheung Ahn lineage. His first ambitions were in education where he sought to instill a sense of pride and courage in the hearts of young Koreans. He devoted eight years of his life to educating farming families, believing that the lack of education in rural areas was an obstacle to national cooperation and development. Later, he joined the resistance movement against Japanese Imperialism. In the interest of delaying his destiny as a martyr, he fled the early fighting and sought refuge with a Roman Catholic priest in whose Church he resided for several months. The priest, Hong Sok-ku, encouraged Ahn to read the Bible and after a series of discussions, Ahn converted to Catholicism in January of 1897. He maintained his belief in Catholicism until his death and even asked that his son become a priest in the last of a series of letters to his wife.
At first glance, history depicts Ahn as a murderer; the man who assassinated the first Japanese Resident General of Korea, Hirobumi Ito. He was shot by Ahn in Harbin, Manchuria on October 26, 1909 and succumbed to his wounds. Upon hearing of Ito's death, Ahn made a sign of the cross. It has been argued that he violated his Catholic faith by committing murder. On the contrary, the Catholic Churches of Hong Kong and Korea have pardoned his act as a means to the greater end of preventing mass murder by Imperial Japan. Other detractors of his legacy reference reports of the support he offered his father, a wealthy landowner, in subduing the Donghak Peasant Revolution against systematic government exploitation in Jeolla province. On the other hand, these actions early in Ahn's life can be interpreted as resistance against the reckless looting and murder of innocent people committed by some supporters of the Donghak Revolution.
Of great irony is that beneath the surface of Ahn's recognition as an assassin lies a man whose true passion was the unification of the East Asian nations. China, Japan and Korea, he vigorously argued, would be best served by joining forces against the tyranny of Western colonialism. Ahn's idea of regional solidarity was in fact ahead of its time. Woodrow Wilson's proposal of a union of nations came a decade later and the European Union was not formed until 1993.
An insightful way to examine Ahn's impact on East Asian history is to consider the ways in which his beliefs contrast with those of General Ito. In essence, Ahn was in favor of a peaceful union of the nations of East Asia. To that end, he spent his last days writing "A Treatise on Peace in the East". Unfortunately, his request for a stay of execution to complete the work was denied. Ahn proposed a zone of peace among China, Japan and Korea, but he insisted that each nation should maintain its sovereignty. While ostensibly in favor of the same goal, Ito, on the other hand, demanded that any union of East Asian states could only be formed with Japan holding a dominant role over Korea. Thus, his imperial pursuits served only to delay or prevent peace in the region.
Furthermore, while Ahn had the foresight to suggest an Asian banking system, Ito was selfish in favoring an economic system that kept Japan as the principal economic force in East Asia. This example further demonstrates his foresight when considering that the International Monetary Fund was not formed until 1944. Finally, despite the violence of his action, Ahn was essentially a peace activist while Ito allowed the killing of innocent people following the Japanese mandate to annex Korea by military force. In the final moments before his execution, Ahn offered a prayer for the eventual peaceful organization of East Asian states.
Although the assassination of Ito did not prevent Japanese colonization of Korea, it sowed the seeds of a confident and resolute nation that perseveres in its pursuit of global recognition as an advanced Asian country that is challenging Japan's dominance in the region. Ahn's legacy has instilled pride in the hearts and minds of Koreans of all ages but it is his relevance among young Koreans that gives promise to a future of solidarity and prosperity. Among his myriad honors, his greatest legacy is the position he occupies in the collective memory of South Koreans and all people who understand his unique influence on the history of East Asia. The image of a black handprint missing the tip of the ring finger will remain a symbol of Korea's struggle to establish and maintain its sovereignty.