Ahn Successful in Drawing Western Attention to Korean Plight
Ahn assassinated Hirobumi Ito in part to show that Koreans rejected the Japanese protectorate and to invite Western intervention.
What then, was the public reaction to Ito's assassination? To answer that question, we will look at how Western English language newspapers, principally the London Times, the New York Times, the Toronto Globe, and the San Francisco Sun, reported on the incident.
Unfortunately for Ahn and Korea, his assassination of Ito was treated in Western English language newspapers, without exception, as unjustified; Ahn was labeled a murderer.
While some articles credited him with patriotic motives, others asserted, incorrectly, that Ahn was probably a corrupt and disaffected member of the ruling class who had been driven from his position because of the rise of Japanese power in the peninsula.
One article, printed in the London Times, even wondered if Ahn was not simply a sort of assassin for hire.
Ito was treated quite differently.
Newspapers reported on how heads of state and ambassadors offered their condolences to the Japanese government.
He was routinely praised as a man of peace who helped transform Japan into a modern and civilized country. He was also frequently referred to as the "best friend" of Korea, on whose behalf he had worked unselfishly.
The London Times was the most positive toward Ito, probably because of the Anglo-Japanese alliance which had been in effect since 1902. The New York Times was also largely positive.
In contrast, the San Francisco Sun, which might have been affected by anti-Japanese sentiment that was then prevalent in California, did offer some criticism of Ito.
The Sun reported that Ito had used the threat of force in an effort to coerce the Korean king and his ministers into accepting the 1905 protectorate treaty and when that failed, seized the seal of state and pressed it to the treaty himself.
The Sun also stated that while Ito had promised to respect Korean independence, he secretly sought to make Korea into a province of Japan.
Despite this criticism, the Sun still did not see Ahn's killing of Ito as justifiable and even referred to him as the "best friend" of Korea.
Newspapers reporting on the assassination of Ito frequently made use of Japanese government statements, dispatches originating from Japan, and interviews with Japanese subjects, including Ito's son.
However, I could not find any examples of Koreans being interviewed.
The Korean Patriotic Association of Honolulu, Hawaii, did issue a statement praising Ahn and criticizing Ito that was printed by both the New York Times and the Globe.
In addition, Ahn was quoted in articles printed by these two papers as saying, "I came to Harbin for the sole purpose of assassinating Prince Ito to avenge my country."
However, the veracity of this report is doubtful since it conflicts with the account given in Ahn's autobiography.
While there were some Korean voices, Western papers were much more likely to print articles based on Japanese rather than Korean sources.
Curiously, most of the attention of the newspapers was on Manchuria since Ito was widely believed to be going there to partition the region, officially a part of Chinese territory, with the Russians.
Many other countries, especially the United States were concerned about this and considered it as a threat to the "open-door policy" which Japan had promised to defend in order to gain international support when it fought Russia in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905)
Western English language papers paid almost no attention to Ahn's trial.
While several did report on the verdict, the wording of their articles was identical, indicating that they had the same source.
The same was true for the rather terse articles that appeared announcing Ahn's execution.
The Japanese government's attempts to keep Ahn's public trial as private as possible worked, preventing him from successfully telling his, and Korea's, story to the Western world.
There was one notable exception, the British monthly, the Graphic, which published a rather positive account of Ahn's trial, but eve n it did not give much room for Ahn to make his case.
From the outset, newspapers reporting on Ahn's assassination of Ito saw it as unjustified.
Because newspapers relied principally on Japanese sources and because Ahn was kept isolated in prison, away from journalists who might have interviewed him, it was almost impossible to hear his side of the story.
The nature of his trial, which was carried out in Japanese with limited Korean translation, seems to have added to this difficulty.
Since Ahn could not explain his own motives or make his own case, which included not only a desire for Korean independence but for peace in the East as well, it was difficult to counter erroneous reports that he had killed Ito out of selfish motives.
This made it easy to simply dismiss him as a murderer.
This historical incident reminds us, as news consumers, to read critically.
It is important for us to ask if there are hidden voices, and if there are, to go out and find them. Furthermore, we can see in this incident the importance of language.
Japanese officials had the resources necessary to communicate their side of the story in a way that overwhelmed the limited means available to Ahn and his compatriots.
If we want to understand more of a story, we might need to step out of our comfort zone and seriously study another language.
If you do not already know it, might I suggest starting with Korean ?
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.