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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Terrorists, Freedom Fighters, Diplomacy, and Memory

by | July 8th, 2014 | 06:01 am

ahn stamp, ito note

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s stoking of anti-Japanese sentiment was a predictable feature of his visit to Seoul, ably reported by the New York Times among others. But the diplomatic correspondents overlooked one of the weirder aspects of Chinese diplomacy in this realm: the Chinese construction of a veritable shrine to Ahn Jung-geun, the Korean independence activist who was a hero or terrorist depending on one’s perspective.

The historical facts are not in any real dispute. Ahn was a pro-independence Korean nationalist and pan-Asianist who took up armed struggle against Japan following that country’s annexation of Korea in 1905. In Harbin, China in 1909 Ahn shot and killed Ito Hirobumi, Japan’s first prime minister, who at the time was Japan’s Resident-General in Korea. Ahn was captured by Russian police who turned him over to the Japanese who executed him.

Ahn and Ito are regarded as national heroes in their respective countries; Ahn has been on South Korean postage stamps; Ito once adorned Japan’s 1,000 yen currency note (See above).

The diplomacy is murkier. The current South Korean president’s father, Park Chung-hee, established a memorial to Ahn in Seoul in 1970. One interpretation is that Park, who had served in the Imperial Japanese military, wanted to burnish his own nationalist credentials and distance himself from his former employers. (Similarly, some interpret current President Park Geun-hye’s cool stance toward Japan as an attempt to distance herself from her father and his Imperial Japanese baggage.)

Reportedly when President Roh Moo-hyun asked China for permission to erect a commemorative marker at the railway station in Harbin when the assassination took place, the Chinese reacted coolly, though a small exhibition on Ahn was installed in a local museum in 2006. Last June President Park then reportedly again raised the issue of placing a commemorative marker at the actual assassination spot in the railway station and the Chinese were non-committal. However, some Japanese press sources assert that China changed its stance following Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s visit to the controversial Yasukuni shrine where among the millions of souls honored are those of 14 Class A war criminals.

Whatever the specific causality, in January of this year, China unveiled a new, expanded memorial to Ahn Jung-geun in the old VIP lounge of the Harbin railway station. South Korean diplomats claimed that they had no prior knowledge of the Chinese plan, but the official South Korean news agency Yonhap quoted a South Korean foreign ministry official as stating that “the South Korean government welcomes and hails the opening of the memorial hall honoring the independence fighter.”

A sadly predictable round of recriminations ensued. Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide, who had earlier referred to Ahn as a “criminal,” stated at a press conference that “The Japanese opinion of Ahn Jung-geun is that he is a terrorist who was sentenced to death for murdering Ito Hirobumi, our first prime minister.”  Saenuri Party General Secretary Hong-jung responded that “If Ahn jung-guen was a terrorist, then Japan was a terrorist state for having mercilessly invaded and plundered countries around it.”

In this way, China appears to have accomplished its goal of driving a wedge between South Korea and Japan. But as pointed out in a nice piece by Hankyoreh, other reaction in Japan was more nuanced: the giant Asahi and Yomiuri newspapers referred to Ahn as a “Korean independence fighter” and even the rightwing Sankei Shimbun stuck to the facts, avoiding any specific characterization of Ahn, simply underscoring that the Abe government’s counterproductive public diplomacy appears to be out of step with the broader Japanese public.

Lastly the dog that didn’t bark: Having called President Park a “whore” and President Obama “a wicked black monkey” North Korea has maintained a remarkably low profile in this contretemps. I suppose the prospect of billions of dollars in post-colonial claims that could be generated by a rapprochement between Pyongyang and Tokyo is enough to silence at least temporarily the most enthusiastic KCNA propagandist.