[Viewpoint] Honorable death rememberedMost of us swept up in the run-of-the-mill routines of life often let things that should not be forgotten slip our mind. We keep up the tradition of honoring our deceased parents and ancestors during major holidays but we don’t necessarily think of them that often for the rest of the year. And we live in a nation that we might not fully appreciate.
A century has passed since Korea’s most famous independence activist, Ahn Jung-geun, assassinated Hirobumi Ito, the Japanese military governor who played a crucial role in colonizing Korea at the turn of the 20th century.
Members of Kwanhoon Club, an organization for senior journalists, traveled recently to China to study the last days of our national hero and hold a seminar to look back on his martyrdom. The man is one of the nation’s most famous historic figures, yet as I traced his footsteps, I was overwhelmed with shame that I knew so little about him and, moreover, having gone through my everyday life without remembering him.
The solitary jail in Luishun in Dalian, northeast China, where Ahn spent his final days, and the execution chamber where he was hanged still both exist. On the eve of his execution, he told his two visiting brothers, “Bury my bones in Harbin Park and take them back to our country when we recover our national rights. I will do my utmost even in heaven to restore our nationality. I will dance and cry out our country’s name when the joyful cries of independence reach the sky.”
But his last wishes were never realized. Fearing his tomb may turn into a gathering point for independence activists, the Japanese authorities surreptitiously buried Ahn’s body in a cemetery on the prison compound without telling his family. Sadly, no-one knows the whereabouts of his remains today. The Chinese government has excavated the graves of locals massacred by Japanese soldiers at Luishun Port and exhibits the wooden caskets in a museum. But we have failed to recover Ahn’s remains. Red walls that once surrounded the prison are the only remnants of the cemetery site, now being redeveloped for a new apartment complex.
This thought prompts me to say to Ahn’s spirit, “As you ardently wished, our sovereign power has been restored. Korea now has become a proud nation. I can see you throwing your arms to the sky and shouting out in victory. But we have yet to find your remains and bring them home. We cannot raise our faces when we see other countries painstakingly trying to find the body of a missing soldier. Please find it in your heart to forgive us.”
The court in the Japanese administrative building in Luishun where Ahn proudly defended his actions still stands. Ahn was not a terrorist nor a murderer, whatever the Japanese might think. “I shot Ito as a part of activities fighting for our country’s independence,” Ahn said. “I have not committed the action as an individual, but as a senior official of the Korean righteous army.”
He asked to be tried according to international laws on prisoners of war, as he said he killed Ito solely to set his country free and find peace for Asia. He recited 15 felonies committed by Ito, including his coercion to unseat Emperor Gojong and sign the Eulsa Treaty in 1905 that eventually led to Japan’s annexation of Korea. One British journalist witnessing the trial recalled that it was Ahn who left the courtroom as the victor because he exposed atrocities committed by Ito and the extent of Japan’s imperialist ambitions, the reporter said.
Through his sacrifice, Ahn helped create a righteous army of 30 million countrymen. He even cut off one of the fingers on his left hand and wrote the words “Independent Korea” with his own blood. His sole desire was to be a Korean, a citizen of Korea.
We live his dream as the people of this nation and we should not live in vain or forget the meaning of being free.
If you have the chance, visit the train station at Harbin where Ahn took aim at Ito. On platform No. 1, a different-colored tile bears witness to the spot where Ito fell. Few passengers notice. There is no memorial engraving or plate.
Ahn is said to have shouted “Ura (hurray in Russian) Corea!” three times before he was led away by Russian guards. A Russian photojournalist later recalled that Ahn was remarkably calm during his arrest. A Hong Kong newspaper reported that he was relaxed because he had decided to sacrifice his life for what he perceived to be the greater good. Because his mind was at ease, his hands were calm. Because his hands were calm, the shot was accurate. And deadly.
When I think of Ahn, I picture a young David with a stone in his hand facing Goliath. The boy had no fear of the giant. If his hands had trembled, he wouldn’t have been able to fell the Philistine warrior. Both were confident that they were doing the right thing for their countries and were free from fear.
It’s a level of courage I, too, would like to emulate in my life.
On the last day of the Kwanhoon Club trip, one female member of our group spoke about Ahn’s mother and how she must have felt. We were reminded that she reportedly said upon hearing the death sentence, “It would be better to die honorably for a just action instead of cowardly pleading for one’s life.”
We soon returned home to our humdrum everyday lives, but with our heart heavier with a passion for our nation.
*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Moon Chang-geuk