When I left off yesterday, I’d just entered the Ahn Jung-geun Memorial Hall and was getting the feeling this was something more than a generic tribute to a political leader.
The entire building, all three floors of it, was devoted to the life story of Ahn Jung-geun, and it seemed ordinary enough at the beginning. He led a placid childhood in the Korean countryside and became skilled at hunting and horseback riding. He converted to Catholicism as a teenager and helped evangelize the villages near his home. The local priest, a French missionary, was a lifelong mentor and friend. Ahn became a teacher, and things were going pretty well for him.
In 1904, Korea became entangled in the Russo-Japanese War, and afterward it was forced into a treaty with Japan that effectively transformed Korea into a Japanese colony. Several members of the Korean royal family were killed, Korea was coerced into taking an immense loan from the Japanese treasury, and Japanese soldiers occupied Korea and imposed a variety of oppressive policies, such as restricting education of Korean children. The Korean people experienced a weight of shame and despair during this period that is difficult for most Westerners to comprehend. That pain runs deep and persists to the present day.
Ahn Jung-geun was heartbroken over the state of his homeland and initially worked to restore its independence by non-violent means via education work and development of a grassroots campaign to pay off the crushing debt to Japan. Not much came of these efforts. Ahn abandoned non-violence and took up arms against the Japanese. He fled to China, where he gathered a small band of Korean exiles into a guerrilla army and led two modestly-successful raids against Japanese troops in the northeast corner of Korea. Despite the urgings of his followers, he refused to execute captured Japanese soldiers, understanding this to be morally wrong and a violation of the international laws of war. Instead, he released his prisoners, who quickly alerted the Japanese Army to the location and disposition of Ahn’s band of rebels. Ahn escaped, but most of his fighters were defeated and captured.
Now the story gets darker. Ahn and eleven other young men formed a secret insurgent society, whose signature act was to sever their ring fingers at the first joint as a demonstration of loyalty to the group and the cause of Korean independence. Remember that hand print on the sign outside the memorial? Take a closer look at it. Blood collected during the amputation was used as ink to write recruiting postcards. They gained a few more followers, but not in sufficient numbers to influence significant change or directly oppose the Japanese occupation.
Desperate to make some impact that would turn the tide, Ahn and a few of his closest friends engineered a plan to assassinate Japanese envoy Prince Ito Hirobumi, whom they held responsible for the worst abuses perpetrated on the Korean people. Ahn confronted Ito on a train platform in the city of Harbin, China, and shot him multiple times with a handgun from point-blank range. Ito died of his wounds soon after.
Ahn and his co-conspirators were captured and tried in China by a Japanese colonial court. He argued that his actions were motivated solely toward the cause of Korean independence and peace in East Asia, and he asked to be treated as a prisoner of war, given his status as an insurgent leader. The court denied his request. Ahn was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death by hanging. He was 31 years old. While awaiting execution, he wrote his autobiography and a manual for revolutionary action. He also created about 200 pieces of calligraphic art that can be found in museums in China, Japan, and Korea, including this one. 26 of them are designated as National Treasures of Korea. He’s honored as a leading light in the independence movement that eventually threw off Japanese rule.
I left the memorial hall feeling sad and conflicted. Ahn Jung-geun’s story was tragic. Here was a kind, talented, peaceful young man drawn inexorably into a very dark place, overwhelmed by frustration and impatience over his country’s plight. Over a few short years, he turned from social activism to insurgent warfare, to self-mutilation, and finally to a desperate and very personal act of violence in which he discarded principles of civil justice and Christian ethics he’d held sacred his entire life. His people were cruelly oppressed, and his target was arguably a scoundrel and perpetrator of that oppression, but I wasn’t convinced the end justified the means.
Judging from the tribute in the memorial hall and the monuments outside it, the Korean people would say, “Yes, Ahn Jung-geun was a noble martyr for Korean independence.” They don’t apply the word “assassination” to his killing of Ito. It was “the patriotic deed.” If Japan had kept its hold on Korea, I might very well have walked through a memorial to the beloved statesman Ito, with Ahn Jung-geun remembered only as a nameless provocateur who fired the gun that killed him. As the old saw goes, one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist—and a respected diplomat can be a heartless tyrant. The truth, I expect, lies somewhere in-between for both men.
Touring this museum was a surreal experience, as if I’d discovered a shrine to John Wilkes Booth or Charles J. Guiteau in some alternate-world United States. Encountering a children’s interpretive area, with a cartoon summary of Ahn’s life story and opportunities to create facsimiles of his blood-inked postcards or write a posthumous thank-you letter, didn’t ease my mind. It’s not the sort of thing we celebrate in America or hold up as an example for our children to emulate.
No, we haven’t lived under the crushing weight of a tyrant’s boot heel in the way the Koreans did under Imperial Japan, and we have our own hagiographies for popular heroes whose exploits prove ambiguous under close inspection, but I didn’t have a handy corollary in my own history I could employ to empathize with the grim sentiment I watched unfold in the pictures and dioramas framed by white walls and smoked glass. It was a little frightening, and it reminded me that as much as I love Korea and find its people both fascinating and admirable, I don’t come close to understanding them.
This was the story I discovered on my walk past the foot of a mountain in Seoul, the sort of thing that happens when I take an unplanned turn or travel a few steps farther than I meant to. It’s the tragic saga of a promising young man who died far too soon, driven to desperate violence by pain and outrage, an imperfect revolutionary martyred under the bloodstained banner of patriotism as he tried to seize freedom for his people by his own hand.
It was a story worth hearing. I mourn Ahn Jung-geun and the person he might have been, had history been kinder.
You can learn more about the Ahn Jung-Geun Memorial Hall at http://www.patriot.or.kr, if you happen to read Korean (there are lots of pictures if you don’t). The memorial’s architect has more pictures and a historical summary in English at http://www.archdaily.com/335043/ahn-jung-geun-memorial-hall-d%C2%B7lim-architects/
UPDATE (22 Oct 14): Abby’s comment below alerted me to the opening of a second memorial honoring Ahn Jung-geun, this one adjoining the train platform in Harbin, China, where Ahn shot Ito Hirobumi. It’s a smaller museum, only two rooms, but it set off an angry response from the Japanese government and showed how incendiary this particular bit of history remains among Korea, China, and Japan. This article from Time provides a concise summary.