[Bronze Prize] What is Ahn Jung-guen’s Place in East Asia’s History?
The year 2009 marks important anniversaries for many world events: the Versailles Treaty of 1919; the outbreak of World War II; the 1989 Tiananmen massacre and other world-changing events that took place that year; and, for Koreans, the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Ito Hirobumi by Korean patriot Ahn Jung-geun.
Just what is the role of Ahn Jung-geun in the history of East Asia? What influence did he actually have?
The author, who is of Chinese heritage, would like to take this opportunity to discuss the topic from the perspective of China's history.
Throughout the ages, the relationship between that of Korea and the Liaodong Peninsula (遼東半島) of Northeast China has been described in Chinese as "interdependent like teeth and lips" (唇齒相依)---- one being indispensible to the other. Indeed as history has shown, whenever one was attacked, the other one fell.
Imperial Japan's intentions of expansion into China and Korea became clear by the late 1800's. After the murder of Empress Myeong Seong by Japanese ronins in 1895, Korea's occupation by Japan became a matter of time. However, the Japanese Imperial Court, the Imperial Army, as well as the upper echelons of both domestic and diplomatic power, were not at one on the issue of timing.
At the time of his assassination, Hirobumi was Japan's former Resident-General in Korea. Hirobumi actually belonged to the moderate "dove" faction in the Japanese government, who opposed quick annexation of Korea as pushed for by the militaristic "hawk" faction, led by Yamagata Aritomo. It was precisely this faction that forced Hirobumi to resign as Resident-General shortly before his death. As many historians would agree today, the killing of Hirobumi, a leading figure in the "dove" faction, theoretically hastened the annexation of Korea by Japan. However, aside from a political/military aspect, the author would also like to view the issue from one more perspective: that of American railroad interest in Manchuria.
First, let's look at the events immediately surrounding Hirobumi's visit to Harbin, Northeast China, where he met his death October 26th, 1909.
On that day, he was scheduled to meet the Russian Finance Minister, M. Kokovtsoff, to discuss a range of vital issues, not least of all U.S. interest in purchasing part of the railroad rights in Manchuria, a major part of Northeast China.
At the turn of the 20th century, U.S. railway magnate E.H. Harriman expressed interest in purchasing part of the Southern Manchurian Railway; and even though he died before the assassination of Hirobumi, after his death U.S. intentions in Manchuria continued.
At the time of his death, both Hirobumi and Kokovtsoff belonged to the "dove" factions of their respective countries, advocating for "Railway Neutrality" (滿洲鐵路中立化) in Manchuria, which favored selling part of the railway in Northeast China to the U.S. The death of Hirobumi shattered all hopes of Japan conceding even one inch of railroad to the States.
This is the strategic point we'd like to analyze: many historians raise the question of whether U.S. presence in Manchuria through railway purchase would have curbed Japanese expansion in that area. Though this could be seen as an open-ended question, many would agree that American presence could at least in part keep Japanese expansion in check. The reason was that Japanese military activity in Northeast China would inevitably have interfered with U.S. railway establishments, and the risk of conflict with America might thus have held Japanese ambition at Bay at least for a short time.
Having stated the above, the author does not hold the view that Ahn Jung-geun's selfless act was futile or counter-productive. Regardless whether viewed from a military/political or railway point of view, Japanese annexation of Korea was still inevitable---with or without the death of Hirobumi.
Moreover, from a spiritual point of view, the story of Ahn Jung-geun became an anthem of hope for resistance fighters in both Korea and China, even long after the war. In the darkest days of Japanese invasion, the name of An resounded through China's blood-soaked fields, even future Premier Zhou En Lai (周恩來) and his wife Deng Rong Chao (鄧穎超) portrayed An countless times in wartime stage plays.
Decades later in 1982, the author remembers as a child in Hong Kong how college students would raise the portrait of Ahn in anger against the Japanese government for distorting textbooks on the subject of atrocities in China. Even as recently as the Comfort Women protest in the last few years, the name of Ahn was still invoked----he has simply become a symbol of strength to those who battle Japanese oppression.
However, it should not be forgotten that the Japanese people, including Hirobumi himself, were also victims of their country's military exploits. As is now widely agreed, Hirobumi was not the most aggressive among Japanese expansionists of the time.
The great Chinese reformist thinker Liang Chi Chao once referred to Ahn and Hirobumi as "Yang Yeon" (兩賢), or "two wise men", in his ode to Ahn's fateful act, clearly reflecting that all three countries----China, Korea, Japan----were victims of the same tragic strife.
In conclusion, even though Ahn's role in East Asian history was mostly spiritual and inspirational in both Korea and China's fight against Japan, let this anniversary not be a day of hate, but a day of reflection on selflessness and reconciliation.