Written by Franklin Rausch, Junior Researcher ’08-09

One does not have to live in Korea long to notice Koreans have a strong sense of national identity. Pride in things Korean extends from traditional arts to advances in science. Even Korean food is celebrated, as seen in the historical drama Dae Jang Geum. Naturally this sense of national identity and pride also extends to those who fought for the Korean nation when it was threatened with extinction by Japanese colonization. It is the commemoration of one of these heroes, An Jung-geun (1879-1910), and what the forms that commemoration takes means for Korean national identity that I will discuss.

An Jung-geun is almost universally known in Korea. In fact, he is one of the few figures from modern Korean history that is admired in both the north and the south. His famous handprint, with the tip of its ring finger missing (he cut it off and wrote “Korean Independence” on a Korean flag with his blood as part of an oath to fight for his country) can be seen on books, hats, posters, the backs of delivery motorcycles, and even on advertisements for heating and cooling systems. An Jung-geun is most famous for killing Ito Hirobumi, the Japanese statesmen who masterminded the colonization of Korea and served as its first Resident-General. An shot Ito at a railway station in Harbin, in northern Manchuria.

The killing of a Japanese subject by a Korean subject in Chinese territory controlled by the Russians naturally became an international incident. This was just what An wanted, as he believed that Ito had tricked the Japanese Emporter, as well as the rest of the world, into believing that Korea wished to be a protectorate of Japan (Korea became a protectorate in 1905). An thought that by killing Ito either Japan would change its policy in East Asia, which harmed not only Korea but peace in the region, or the great western empires would intervene. Unfortunately, neither happened, and An was tried, found guilty, and executed on March 26th, 1910. Korea would be annexed that August.

One of the reasons for An’s popularity is that he had clear results — the death of Ito — to show for his efforts. However, some Koreans bemoan the fact that this is all that he is known for. They point to the fact that while in prison, An began writing an essay titled Treatise on Peace in the East to show that he was a great thinker who was concerned not only with the Korean people, but with East Asia as a whole (he was executed before he could finish the essay, however). Furthermore, while An is at times understood by many Koreans to have been anti-Japanese, others point out that this was simply not so; An was only anti-Ito and wanted the Japanese people to enjoy peaceful and prosperous lives.

Religion further complicates the picture of An. While his Catholicism is sometimes glossed over, for Korean Catholics, he is proof that one can be a patriotic Korean and a good Catholic. For Korean Catholics, stung by the painful fact that the French-led Catholic Church basically collaborated with the Japanese authorities during the colonial period, Thomas (his baptismal name) An Jung-geun is a bright spot in what is otherwise a very dark period of history, and they are thus are inclined to emphasize An’s Catholicism and its influence on his life and thought.

March of 2009 saw the 99th anniversary of An’s death. I attended two commemoration services that drove home how differently An Jung-geun can be remembered and celebrated in Korea. The first was held on the 25th of March by an organization dedicated to remembering An Jung-geun. It began with a moment of silence led by a Catholic priest. There were then several speeches extolling An and his struggle for Korean independence and for peace in East Asia, as well as announcements for a series of books on his life to be published around the time of the 100th anniversary of his killing of Ito.

During the break period I went out and looked at some posters that lined the hallways leading up to the meeting room. I quickly realized that they were political in nature and critical of Lee Myung-bak, his party (the Han Nara Dang) and the “new right.” The posters, using An’s image and memory, accused the ruling party of being “pro-Japanese.” After the break, I went back to the meeting room and heard two academic papers on how An’s trial by the Japanese had been illegal.

The next day I went to the commemoration services held at Namsan Park. The auditorium where the services were held was just across the way from An Jung-geun’s memorial hall. There, the service, sponsored by the memorial hall, began with the singing of the Korean national anthem. After several solemn speeches were given, various dignitaries offered flowers to An’s portrait. I noticed a man that seemed to be dressed a little differently and then realized that he was the Japanese Buddhist priest who regularly performs rituals for the consolation of An’s soul. When he offered a flower to the portrait of An, many members of the audience spontaneously broke into applause. This makes perfect sense: The memorial hall hopes to use the image of An to help bring about reconciliation between Korea and Japan. Through paying respect to An, Japanese are able to show regret at what the Japanese state did to Korea and, ideally, to help to heal the rift between the two countries. Next to An’s portrait were large floral wreathes, one of which was from President Lee Myung-bak. The ceremony ended with a group of school children, dressed beautifully in traditional Korean clotbes, singing a song about An while waving Korean flags.

After the commemoration services were complete a ground breaking ceremony was beld outside to officially begin construction on a new memorial hall for An. After the singing of the national anthem (the second of the day) and a speech, a message from President Lee Myung-bak was read in which he stated that An Jung-geun was an example of the indomitable Korean spirit, which he said would allow the Korean people to overcome the present economic crisis. It was curious that his message made no reference to Japan or to Ito Hiroburni, but it later occurred to me that, the next time I attend a 4th of July celebration in the United States, I ought to pay attention to how we refer to the British when discussing our national heroes. Several dignitaries then cut a ribbon and threw over several shovelfuls of earth, and the ground was officially broken. The ceremony ended with the sound of a military band playing Arirang. As it was lunch time, a nice meal, complete with beer, was served, and the attendees were each given a towel and a book on the life of An Jung-geun.

As we can see from the way that An Jung-geun is remembered, Korean national identity, though it might appear monolithic on the outside, is actually quite complex. An is remembered differently by different groups depending on their religious, philosophical, and political affiliations. Furthermore, the ways he is remembered are different, ranging from academic conferences to children singing. Though Koreans may in general have a strong feeling of national identity, they can experience and express it in markedly different ways, even when the focus of that identity, in this case, An Jung-geun, is the same.