Commemoration Association Dispels Myths
As the construction of a new Ahn Jung-geun memorial hall gets under way, the Association for the Commemoration of Patriotic Martyr Ahn Jung-geun (CPMA) has become embroiled in a controversy over its legitimacy to run the state-funded museum.
However, the non-profit organization based in Seoul, which has already launched a nationwide campaign to raise 2 billion won ($1.7 million) of its 15 billion won construction budget, is confident that it will be able to run the government-subsidized memorial hall.
The association has managed the old Ahn Jung-geun Memorial Hall since its establishment in 1970.
Yet, some media outlets and civic groups, such as the Catholic Priests Association for Justice, say the CPMA should not run the new museum, contending that the body was established to justify a military coup and has been led by pro-Japanese figures.
In order to find out the legitimacy of the management of the memorial hall and look into disputes regarding the CPMA's honoring Ahn, The Korea Times conducted an interview with Ahn Eung-mo, chief director of the CPMA.
Ahn, 78, started his career as a policeman in 1953 and served as minister of home affairs in 1990 and 1991.
He said reports that the CPMA was established to justify the legitimacy of an authoritarian regime are biased and groundless. He argued that such reports should have been made after listening to both sides of the story.
``They did not contact us, or make sincere efforts to find the truth when covering the story,'' Ahn said, adding that the late President Park Chung-hee had greatly contributed to the nation's development, though he seized power in a coup d'etat in 1961.
``I have to say those reports were heavily influenced by groundless claims by individuals and groups that disparage the achievements of the Park administration and the CPMA with malicious intent.''
Ahn said the legacy of Ahn Jung-geun, which he full-heartedly respects, had been shadowed by Japan's iron-fist rule of Korea and distortion of history until Korea's liberation in 1945.
``The organizing committee for the CPMA was launched in March 1947, when esteemed independence fighters, such as Woo Deok-soon and Kim Gu, held the 36th anniversary of Ahn's death,'' Ahn said.
``Unfortunately, the launch of the association was postponed several times due to upheaval in Korean history, such as the 1950-1953 Korean War, the April 19 Students Uprising in 1960 and a military coup in 1961.''
Director Ahn claims it is unquestionable that all the 15 founding members of the CPMA served the association without any kind of self-interest.
``Of 15 founding members of the association, eight received a meritorious medal in recognition of their exemplary service for the country and the remaining seven members are also remembered for their patriotic deeds,'' he said.
Regarding the accusation that the majority of CPMA directors have been pro-Japanese figures, Ahn said it would be too extreme to brand it as a pro-Japanese group only because a few of its founders were discovered to have been linked to pro-Japanese activities.
``On June 10, 2003, the Ahn Jung-geun Memorial Association led by Catholic priest Ham Se-ung and members of progressive groups issued the 'Declaration of 100 People' at the Korea Press Center, downtown Seoul. They claimed Yoon Chi-young and Lee Eun-sang, both of whom served as chief director of the CPMA in the early days, were involved in pro-Japanese activities,'' Ahn said.
``However, back then, many were involved in pro-Japanese activities to a certain extent and it was very difficult to check the past activities of people. I believe it is wrong to criticize every minor mistake that those undoubtedly patriotic figures made with the higher standards that we have now.''
Ahn said he had to attend a Japanese elementary school until third grade where he was forced to speak only Japanese.
He contended that it would be wrong to accuse someone like him as being pro-Japanese for following the norms of the era, saying that people should not expect everyone to have acted as heroically as Ahn Jung-geun.
He also added that the CPMA has served as the backbone of research activities regarding Ahn's achievements and exhibited portraits and articles left by him, as well as relevant items since the memorial hall was built on Oct. 26, 1970.
``Despite our efforts, some progressive groups and 300 Catholic church goers also protested in front of the memorial hall, calling for the withdrawal of CPMA directors,'' he said. ``They even filed a complaint with the court, arguing the CPMA should summon a general meeting and oust the existing members.''
The complaint, however, was turned down. All the directors of the CPMA pay annual membership fees and do not receive any kind of financial reward.
The paper also asked about Ahn Jung-geun's involvement in the liquidation of a peasant uprising in 1894 and how the incident and his upbringing would have affected Ahn.
Ahn's father was a large landowner and is known to have spearheaded the suppression of the peasant uprising, or the Donghak Revolution, when poor farmers in large numbers rose up against the rich and the ruling elite. Ahn was reported to have helped his father to fight against the farmers.
``Ahn was born into a highly respected noble family in Hwanghae Province. His grandfather Ahn In-su was the head of a county; his father was a scholar who passed one of the country's toughest civil servant examinations,'' director Ahn said.
``As you are aware the Donghak Revolution was triggered by peasants who resisted the exploitation of a Jeolla province governor. But it is important to note that Ahn helped his father to form a civic militant group and fought to stop the killing of innocent people, including commoners and local government officials. There were many rebels who looted under the mask of the Donghak Revolution.''
Following the uprising, Ahn spent eight years on a rural enlightenment campaign, believing that the lack of education among farmers was one of the main reasons for growing discontent and disparity, which hindered national development.
``Ahn Jung-geun sought help from Bishop Gustave Charles Mutel, who lived in Korea from 1890 to 1933, to establish a university in Korea,'' Ahn said.
``The Belgian priest rejected it, saying the timing was too premature. Ahn, however, did not give up his efforts to educate young talent, selling his family fortunes to found the Samheung and Donui Schools.''
On the claims that Ahn's killing of Hirobumi Ito may have accelerated Japan's annexation of Korea, Ahn said it would be wrong to say that his patriotic deeds aggravated the situation and resulted in the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty.
``Ito came to Korea as a special envoy in May 1905, upon the signing of the Treaty of Portsmouth, which formally ended the Russo-Japanese War,'' he said.
``He quickly became the first Japanese resident-general of Korea and threatened Emperor Gojong to make him abdicate and sign the Japan-Korea Protectorate Treaty in November 1905. Ito dethroned the emperor in July 1907 and disbanded the Korean army by force the next month.''
Ahn said the Annexation Treaty was already written in April 1909 and the Japanese cabinet and emperor had already endorsed the treaty in July 1909, a year before the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty.