[Silver Prize] Innovative Thinker in Modern History
The early 20th century represents a dark age for Korea. It was during the first 10 years that Korea lost diplomatic power, and finally its autonomy, to Japan.
Ahn Jun-geun, with the severed fourth finger and the assassination of Hirobumi Ito, seemingly symbolized these dark times and the fight for independence from Japan. However, this is but a piece of the whole puzzle. It is in recent times that light has been shed on the whole of Ahn's ideology which underlies his actions as an independence activist.
Awaiting execution for the assassination, Ahn started on the book, ``On Peace in East Asia,'' which lets us take a glimpse at this
Although the book was never finished, the recovered preface along with the testimonies given during trials was enough to deliver the fundamentals of his thought to future generations.
The information gathered is in line with the pan-Asian theme that characterized most of the East Asian diplomacy at the time, such as in the pan-Asianism of Japan and China.
The book has two objectives: to promote peaceful cooperation among the East Asian nations and to list the specific policies that can be enforced to achieve this.
The pan-Asian element that constitutes the first objective can be differentiated from other similar thoughts of its time, in that it incorporates nationalism with regionalism, and laments aggression.
The significance of this unique characteristic should be understood in the context of diplomatic relations during the early 20th century.
The trend of pan-Asianism was a response to Western imperialism; the East Asian nations must unite against perceived threats from the West.
Unlike the Northeast Asian nations, East Asia experienced prolonged peace since the mid-17th century, and the region developed a self-centered identity within the three nations. Any contact with nations foreign to this identity was strictly regulated by the government, and trade was limited to a few selected regions.
Consequently, the expansion of Western imperialism came as a shock to the three nations, each of which developed various tactics to deal with the change.
Japan embraced imperialism in addition to pan-Asianism, which resulted in aggressive policies that continued to define Japan's diplomatic relations up until the Second World War. In response to this position, two mainstream ideologies coexisted in China and Korea.
The first ideology, supported by Chiang Kai-shek and Shin Chae-ho, saw the Japanese aggression as another form of imperialism disguised as regionalism, and lashed out against it with fervent nationalism.
The second, promoted by Wang Jingwei and the Korean Progress Party (Iljinhoe), conversely, saw Japan's actions as a chance for regional unification, and supported the Japanese in their fight against Western imperialism.
During the early 20th century, when Japan's aggression was threatening the autonomy of Korea, a choice between the ideologies of retaliation or acceptance would have been the norm.
Nevertheless, Ahn defied the existing extremist views and adopted a more moderate and innovative perspective of combining nationalism with regionalism to fight off Western imperialism.
This is in agreement with a recent thought in international relations that a geographical region takes precedence over a single nation-state but is subordinate to the world as a whole. Therefore, collective action across East Asia can balance powers vis-a-vis the West.
The reality of the 21st century confirms the validity of this thought. The most representative case of regionalism, the European Union (EU), has a single market and a common currency.
There is also the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The integration of these respective regions have facilitated exchange within, and also paved the way for trade amongst, the regions, leading to globalization.
East Asia has yet to develop such methods of cooperation, limiting its potential bargaining power and slowing down the globalization process.
Also, the persisting hostility in the region has been reflected in breakouts of anti-Japanese demonstrations in China and Korea.
The cause of these limits can be found in the history of East Asia. Due to extreme and non-uniform views on regionalism during the early 20th century, its constituents have been unable to cooperate for the remainder of modern history and until today.
In his book, Ahn emphases the need for regional integration built on the foundations of strong nationalism, but criticizes imperialistic means to fulfill this need. The assassination of Hirobumi Ito, the first Japanese prime minister, was a reflection of this ideology.
Due to subsequent arrest, however, his intention was misinterpreted as simple retaliation against Japanese aggression, a position found with thinkers such as Chiang Kai-shek and Shin Chae-ho.
By the recent discovery and in-depth research into ``On Peace in East Asia,'' historians were able to grasp Ahn's original intentions for peaceful regional integration.
Despite all its merits, Ahn's ideology has a downside: it shows great animosity toward the West.
It viewed the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 to 1905 as a confrontation between the East and the West, where Russia represented the whole of the imperialistic Western society. In other words, Ahn fell into the all-too-common pitfall of ``us and them'' in history.
Even so, whilst criticizing the imperialist policies of the West, Ahn was able to accept the Western thoughts and beliefs.
For example, he was able to respect Roman Catholicism as the reigning belief of Western society. Receiving recognition from the Pope was one of the few specific policies he was able to list in his book before his demise. His rational for this policy was that, after peaceful unification of East Asia has been achieved, the kings of the three countries could meet the Pope, in effect receiving recognition from, at the time, two-thirds of the world who were Roman Catholics.
The 100-year difference between Ahn's time and now means that parts of his vision must be updated.
The policies of opening China's Ryojun (Port Arthur) to trade and developing commerce and trade are obviously out of context.
However, the underlying ideology still has great merit today. Collective action amongst East Asian nations is still to be seen. The intellectuals of both China and Japan have also recently taken notice of Ahn's vision for a peaceful integration of East Asia.
So when we celebrate in honor of Ahn, we must remember him not just as a Korean independence activist, but also as an innovative thinker in the modern history of East Asia.
The writer is a student of Ewha Womans University.