National Identity and Historical Legacy: Ahn Jung-geun in the Grand Narrative

By and | June 06, 2014 | No Comments


The sitting statue of Ahn Jung-geun at the entrance of the Seoul exhibition. The Chinese characters behind him read “大韓獨立” (대한독립; Korean independence). | Image: Steven Denney/Sino-NK

Increasing trade and closer diplomatic relations notwithstanding, China and South Korea maintain a contentious relationship when it comes to asserting the uniqueness of one or other national history in the region. For instance, the placement of the ancient Korean kingdom of Goguryeo in the Chinese history curriculum routinely sparks outrage in South Korea, while Korea’s successful bid in 2005 to register the Dano festival as an intangible cultural heritage with UNESCO launched furor across China, where many believe the holiday is derived from Chinese tradition.

However, the differences narrow when it comes to modern history. In particular, the shared experience of the struggle against Japan in the first half of the 20th century provides space for convergence. The recent unveiling of memorials to Ahn Jung-geun in Harbin and the Korean Liberation Army in Xian reflect increasingly intimate cooperative linkages between the two countries.

Here, Steven Denney and Christopher Green further expand on how Ahn Jung-geun’s actions in Manchuria are woven into the greater narrative of the founding of the Korean national identity. By drawing comparison with a monument to Ahn in Seoul, Denney and Green underscore how the act of remembering the assassination of Ito Hirobumi in 1909 helped consolidate the identity of the modern nation-state. – Yong Kwon, Co-Editor of Rice and Iron

National Identity and Historical Legacies: Ahn Jung-geun in the Grand Narrative

by Steven Denney and Christopher Green

The Slow Train to Harbin Central | If a Korean were to pay a visit to the Russified northern Chinese city of Harbin, capital of modern Heilongjiang Province, his or her target would likely be one of the essential keystones in any explication of Manchuria’s importance to the greater Han narrative: Ahn Jung-geun. To one side of Harbin Railway Station, which is not to be confused with the city’s palatial new high-speed rail link in the suburbs, there lies the recently completed Ahn Jung-geun Memorial Hall.

At this location back on October 26, 1909, Ahn, a Korean independence activist and pan-Asianist enthusiast, shot and killed Ito Hirobumi, the first Resident-General of colonial Korea and first Prime Minister of Japan. Fully 105 years later, an exhibition hall memorializing Ahn’s actions on that day was completed early in 2014. The result is an unimposing exhibit no larger than a modest university lecture hall, but scale is beside the point. Built at the behest of President Park Geun-hye with the full and enthusiastic cooperation of her Chinese opposite number, General-Secretary Xi Jinping, it is a lightning rod for contention.

The Ahn Jung-geun Memorial Hall is not simply a memorial at a place of historical significance. It is a microcosm of Northeast Asian relations in the modern era. Needless to say, the Japanese government dislikes it. Chinese motivations for allowing it are unclear. A large congratulatory bouquet from the South Korean embassy betrays their feelings. North Korea has expressed modest pleasure at it via the pages of its online news and propaganda portal, KCNA. In short: with its photographs of Ahn, images recreating the lead-up to the assassination, the moment itself, and the resulting arrest, trial and execution of the assailant, not to mention commentary on Ahn’s life and intellectual development, guest books full of Korean and Chinese comment, and a bronze bust of the man himself, it is a location endowed with multi-faceted meaning.

View from inside the Harbin exhibition of the spot where Ito Hirobumi was fatally shot by Ahn Jung-guen | Image: Destination Pyongyang/Sino-NK

View from inside the Harbin exhibition of the spot where Ito Hirobumi was fatally shot by Ahn Jung-guen | Image: Destination Pyongyang/Sino-NK

Harbin the Act: To the “Scene of the Crime?” | The bust of Ahn is placed, as one might expect, at the entrance. However, it is not the centerpiece; guided by the natural flow of the exhibition, visitors soon find themselves brought to a picture window, which looks out onto the platform where Ahn, who had prepared the moment for a number of days, stepped from a crowd assembled to greet Ito and fatally shot him with a pistol, wounding several other senior officials in the process. A handful of inconspicuous markings on the platform indicate where the shots were fired and where they found their intended target; this is a busy, functioning railway station, and so there is no theatre here. But the power of the moment is more pronounced for that: while China, Korea and Japan are changing, becoming more dynamic every day, this one moment is etched in stone, carved into history.

In due course, having explicated at length upon the nature of the trial that followed the killing, the exhibition culminates in Ahn’s last statement before his execution. If indeed they have been faithfully rendered, his words offer ample proof of his vision for the region:

Ahn's "final words" (최후의 유연), above a statue of his grave stone | Image: Destination Pyongyang/Sino-NK

Ahn’s “final words” (최후의 유연), above a statue of his grave stone | Image: Destination Pyongyang/Sino-NK

After I die, have my remains buried next to Harbin Park, and when our national sovereignty is restored convey them back to the fatherland. For when news of Korean independence reaches heaven, I shall rightly dance and shout “Mansei!”[1]

Memorializing Visits, Imagined Connections | Hereafter, a number of books are set-aside for visitors to leave messages prior to departure back into the hubbub of Chinese life. Although the exhibition has only been open for a matter of months, there are a great many such messages. The majority are in Korean, of course; some of the most common phrases, such as “대한독립만세!” [Long live Korean independence!], indicate, as one might also anticipate, a keen awareness of Korea’s contested national sovereignty. Other messages thank Ahn for fighting for Korean independence in the name of the Korean nation (민족), referring to him variously as “patriotic martyr” (의사) “brother” (형), “teacher” (선생님), or “hero” (영웅).

In one particular case (see links below), the writer explicitly links Ahn’s historic pro-independence actions in Harbin to the defense of Korea’s latter-day sovereign territory, which manifests in the popular consciousness as passive-aggressive public jousting with Japan over the status of Dokdo, a set of mostly uninhabited islets in the East Sea/Sea of Japan. Others are less certain of the situation. One group of visitors stopped short of proclaiming Ahn’s heroism at all, stating simply, “We’re crying! We feel so many things.”

Translated Messages [click link to see photo of message]:

1) “Pioneer we will remember you so dearly. 2014.4.30

[선구자여 당신을 깊이 기억하겠습니다. 2014년3월30일]

2) “Long live Korean independence! Dokdo is our land! Please take care of it!!!

[대한독립 만세! 독도는 우리땅! 지켜 봐 주세요!!!]

3) “Long live the Republic of Korea! 2014.3.29. Patriot Ahn Jung-heun, we revere you.

[대한민국 만세! 2014년3월29일. 안중근의사 존경합니다.]

4) “We’re crying! We feel so many things. 14.3.30

[눈물이 나네요. 많은 것을 느끼고갑니다. 14.3.30.]

It All Depends on Where You Sit | From the Korean or Chinese perspective, the memorial has the potential to act as a uniting force, working in some small sense toward combining the disparate power of Korean nationalism and nationhood with the not unproblematic China and its ethnic Korean population. Ahn is ideal for this: he plays an entirely uncontroversial role within the Korean founding myth, and is so widely regarded that even North and South Korea, for whom conflict comes easily, are unable to find bones of contention with which to beat him.

Conversely, the absence of Japanese stands out. Korean and Chinese are the dominant languages; there are no Japanese captions (nor, equally tellingly, is there any English). Is there a similar absence at the prison in Lushun, one wonders, where Ahn was executed and where Japanese tourists tend to dwell in larger numbers? This outlines a productive frame of broader inquiry: What is the bigger snub? To repeatedly rub Japanese noses in their historical misdeeds, or to render them non-persons in the course of the retelling?

The exhibition’s architects tactfully overlook Ito’s work on the Japanese constitution, too, though this is not altogether unreasonable. But what exactly had he been doing in Korea in 1909? What was Korea then: an independent entity with full sovereignty, or a colonial vassal subject to the personal domain of a colonial governor? Ahn thought Korea was slipping away and sought to stem the tide of Japanese imperial expansion—by force. It is upon this point that South Korea’s grand narrative turns. Origins are tricky, inherently difficult to accurately pinpoint, but, if literature on modern nationalism has it right, then contemporary South Korea finds its roots somewhere in the struggle against Imperial Japan. As such, one is allowed to define those who “struggled” against Japan as foundational figures of modern Korea, and so it is for Ahn.

The Ahn Jung-guen Memorial Hall, located on Namsan Mountain in central Seoul. | Image: Steven Denney/Sino-NK

The Ahn Jung-geun Memorial Hall, located on Namsan in central Seoul. | Image: Steven Denney/Sino-NK

To Hanyang! The Actor, the Age, the Cause | This is also the narrative one reads in the Ahn Jung-geun Memorial Hall at Namsam Park (남산공원), in the heart of modern Seoul. This much older (but nowhere near the vintage of the shooting itself, note) memorial was privately established in 1970, before receiving an overhaul (and expansion) via private donations and state funds. The current hall was opened in 2010.

The museums in both Harbin and Seoul eulogize Ahn as a “patriotic martyr,” as do the commenters who choose to memorialize their thoughts on the matter; however, the Seoul-based exhibition is constructed with the nation-building narrative closer to front and center: it is, in effect, the “Ahn as early Korean nationalist” approach. His pan-Asian anti-imperialism is in the back seat, for the three-floor exhibition focuses far less on the practicalities of the assassination—the “great patriotic deed at Harbin” (하일빈 의거)—and more on the significance of the age, the person, and the common (Korean) cause.

In harking back to this period of imperial expansion and localized resistance, the exhibition reminds visitors that this was the world Ahn faced, as it were, on the behalf of all Koreans. The Eulsa Treaty of 1905, concluded following Japanese victory in the 1904 Russo-Japanese War, is portrayed as the decisive turning point in Japanese-Korean relations, and as the spark that ignited the fire of the Korean independence movement, which was duly led by people like Ahn. The assassination of Ito is rendered as the culmination of the anti-Japanese, pro-independence efforts of the Dongguidanjihoe (동의단지회), a small group of highly devoted individuals formed following the failures of the Righteous Armies’ (의병) resistance.

The site of the memorial is a spatial manifestation of the historical struggle. During the colonial period, the part of Namsam Park that leads to the memorial was the location of Chosun-Jingu (조선신궁; 朝鮮神宮), the central Shinto shrine constructed in 1925 and a symbol of Japanese colonial rule. With the end of Japanese occupation in 1945, the shrine was destroyed and in its place was erected a statue of the autocrat Syngman Rhee (이승만). Following Rhee’s ouster in the April 19 Revolution, the statue was unceremoniously brought down. Symbolically, the location of Rhee’s statue is now occupied by a statue of “Baekbeom” Kim Gu (“백범” 김구) and Lee Si-young (이시영), two other indigenous independence fighters and political activists who spent time in Manchuria and returned, after liberation, to rebuild Korea. Just above the location of these statues is the memorial, in front of which stands a statue of Ahn. All are historically ideal for the national narrative of post-colonial rebirth. Rather than preserve, reconstruct, or remember what once was, it is as if those responsible for maintaining this space wish to convey a simple message: something that began with Ahn is now complete.

A photograph taken during the Korean War of the shinto shrine on Namsan Mountain.

A photograph taken during the Korean War of the Chosun Shrine on Namsan. 1,000 steps lead from the base of the mountain to where the shrine was located. The site is now the location of the Ahn Jung-geun Memorial Hall and statues of Kim Gu and Lee Si-young. | Image: Dewey McLean/Flickr

Necessary Conditions for Martyrdom | Yet one can question whether Ahn was as crucial to the anti-Japanese movement as he is now made out to be. He certainly played a role in Korea’s fight for sovereignty and was very active, as evidenced by his many associations and his movements through northern Korea, Russia, and China. But the same can be said of a lot of anti-Japanese activists. In addition to Kim Gu and Lee Si-young, there was Choe Hyun (최현), Hong Bom-do (홍범도), Lee Dong-hee (이동희), Kim Il-sung (김일성), and Hwang Hyun (황현), to name but a few. The thing that makes Ahn stand out above the rest is the “patriotic deed.” Perhaps like Kim Il-sung, one can say that Ahn got lucky. In South Korea, at least, a high profile political assassination and subsequent execution at the hands of the Imperial oppressor are the necessary conditions for martyrdom.

While laudable in many senses—every nation needs, or at least has, a martyr—and entirely within the sovereign right of South Korea, the elevation of Ahn to the status of patriotic martyr is contentious. First, the historical connection between Ahn and the current manifestation of the South Korean nation-state is not a given; it is made. In other words, Ahn has been purposefully incorporated into the grand narrative. Connecting the historical dots—from 1909 to 2014—is a political exercise. The manipulation of history for nation-building purposes is, of course, not unique to South Korea; it is what every nation does and is what modern nationhood and nationalism are rooted in: supporting the idea of one coherent national and political unit through state-sanctioned myth-making.

But one man’s grand narrative can be his neighbor’s egregious offense. To some in Japan, Ahn was not a righteous independence activist but as a “a terrorist who received the death sentence for killing [their] first prime minister.” Korea has elevated to the status of patriot martyr the person who killed a man whose portrait was printed on the Japanese 1,000 Yen note from 1963 right up to 1986. When South Korea’s grand narrative is built on a figure who assassinated the founding father of the country with which it harbors considerable ideational and historical baggage, rapprochement grows more complicated.

Japan's 1000 yen note, which featured Hirobumi's likeness until 1986. | Image: Wikicommons

Japan’s 1000 yen note, which featured Hirobumi’s likeness until 1986. | Image: Wikicommons

Instrumentalizing Ahn: Contemporary Conflict | Unsurprisingly, the narrative of anti-Japanese struggle, borne in Ahn’s story, is continually politicized. Consider, for example, the use of a letter written to Ahn by his mother while he was in prison awaiting execution. In an op-ed for the Hankyoreh, the letter and Ahn’s legacy are used to remind Koreans of those responsible for Korea’s independence—and the great sacrifices they made. The author, a former Democratic Party assemblyman, uses his position to fire a shot across the bow of those who, according to himself, have an understanding of Korean history that beautifies the Japanese colonial occupation. The letter reads:

You [Ahn Jung-geun] received this sentence for doing something right. Dying honorably instead of begging like a coward is an act of filial duty. Do not leave the impression that you are struggling to live on; give your life honorably…. Your death is not of one person, but carries all of Chosun’s righteous indignation. You have come to this point for your country; do not stray and think of other things when you face death. To claim that your death penalty is unfair… means begging Japan for your life. You must be pure for Korea and die honorably.

That Ahn’s death has become the ultimate sacrifice for the cause of preserving national sovereignty and liberty from imperial oppression emboldens his legacy as a national hero and ensures respect from all in the region except Japan. While Koreans and Chinese remember Ahn as a heroic independence activist, many Japanese will continue to see him as a terrorist, pure and simple. And while South Korea has by and large moved beyond the fissures of its contentious past, the divisive history of figures like Ahn are a stark reminder that legacy politics in the region continues to fan the flames of conflict, and seems set to do so for many years to come.

[1] “Mansei” is a common Korean proclamation. It is used in the same manner and context as the English proclamation “Long live [insert name of person, state, team, etc.]!”

This piece was made possible thanks to Academy of Korean Studies Grant (AKS-2013- R-11), which supports Sino-NK’s ongoing project to document the cultural and political strategies used by the DPRK government to promote its policy agenda and create strategic discord abroad.

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