[Viewpoint] Remembering Ahn’s ‘wise power’

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[Viewpoint] Remembering Ahn’s ‘wise power’


General Ahn Jung-geun’s calligraphy emphasizes his dream to achieve peace in Asia. Some of it is kept at the Korean Independence Hall and the Ahn Jung-geun Memorial Hall.

Various state and non-governmental organizations are hosting activities these days to commemorate the centennial of independence fighter Ahn Jung-geun’s shooting of former Japanese Resident General of Korea Hirobumi Ito on October 26, 1909.

The significance of the activities is manifold: recovering Ahn’s honor by redefining his martyrdom as a nationally organized military undertaking, not an individual action born out of his own heroism; reviewing and taking lessons from the centuries of history before and since his brave deed so as to find the right direction to take in the 100 years to come, and, most importantly, reaching a consensus on the issue of war and peace in the East Asian region.

The world of 100 years ago from today was characterized by “just war” - the strong conquered the weak by military force. Methods of force projection were not as subtle as they are today. They were brutal and direct, and only the law of the jungle prevailed.

The traditional Pax Sinica in East Asia was systematically dismantled by the advance of the Western powers.

In the meantime, Japan’s national power grew by leaps and bounds by virtue of the successful Meiji Restoration in 1867. By introducing Western institutions and technology, Japan emerged as a new regional giant. Japan’s imperialistic expansionism triggered by its territorial ambition resulted in the occupation of Taiwan and later the Korean Peninsula.

The Korean Empire became a protectorate of Japan in 1905 and was annexed to it in 1910. Japan then invaded Southeast Asia to build a “Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere.”

The young Ahn Jung-geun dreamed of a civilized world where large and small powers lived together in peace and prosperity. His idea was not to return to the ancient regime maintained by Chinese hegemony but to create a completely new order - the same one that contemporary East Asians dream of today.

It was the kind of regional integration that the member states of the European Union and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations still endeavor to accomplish.

In his farsighted wisdom, Ahn was a Pan-Asianist who advocated East Asian integration, teaching us that human history is a tale of liberation, and those who thrive by the sword are bound to perish by it.

His unfinished manuscript of “Peace in East Asia” confirms his status as a foresighted visionary even 100 years after his death. The treatise saw through the “co-prosperity” offered by Japanese domination.

Instead, he claimed that true lasting peace in East Asia could take root only when the sovereignties of Korea, Japan and China were equally respected.

It is deplorable that Ahn’s request for two weeks to finish writing his treatise in prison was denied.

Innumerable independence fighters rose up in the early 20th Century, when the sovereignty of Korea was infringed upon by Japanese imperialism.

There are three whose fame rises above the rest: Ahn Jung-keun, Yoon Bong-gil and Kang Woo-gyu, and the most prominent of them is Ahn.

Ahn’s heroic action made him a pioneer for other patriots to follow in his footsteps. Unlike other martyrs, Ahn repeatedly stressed that he assassinated the first resident general of Japan in Korea, Hirobumi Ito, not as an ordinary civilian or independence fighter but as a lieutenant general of the loyal Korean troops.

General Ahn released Japanese prisoners of war in July 1908 in accordance with the relevant provisions of international public law, and imperial Japan recognized the army behind Ahn in November 1909.

It has been recently revealed that Emperor Gojong sent secret letters to Western sovereigns, pleading them to exercise pressure on Japan to release Ahn.

The imperialist aggressors were stifled by the allied forces in 1945, but the subsequent Cold War standoff gave rise to the fratricidal wars in Korea and in Vietnam.

Whereas peace has been restored in Southeast Asia by Vietnam’s reunification, opening, reform, and Asean membership, only an uneasy peace has been maintained so far by the truce in Korea.

The contrasting characters of the two Koreas have perpetuated the division of the country in all aspects. While South Korea has concentrated its efforts on peace and prosperity by non-violent means, the North has funneled all its energy and resources into military buildup.

As a founding father of modern East Asian history, Ahn showed the right way that countries in the region could cooperate for peace and prosperity today.

First and foremost, the two Koreas must establish a peace regime on the peninsula to replace at last the 56-year-old armistice. Neighboring nations must cooperate to achieve the same goal.

Meanwhile, South Korea must play the role of a clearinghouse of wisdom, encouraging mutual respect, cooperation and a durable peace in East Asia - which is inseparable from world peace.

Wise power here means power that is accepted universally, transcending time and space, in contrast to, or perhaps an evolution of, the “smart power” that is a combination of hard power and soft power.

China has recently emerged as a global power since Deng
Xiaoping’s began his modernization policies in 1978. Yet the possibility that China will be the second coming of Meiji-era Japan is almost nil.

The character of the world has dramatically changed, and Ahn’s spirit of foresight has become today’s zeitgeist.

Yet the dynamics of regional and global situations create formidable challenges for future stability and harmony in this region.

Controversies over ancient history and the intermittent recurrence of potential territorial disputes require wisdom, smooth management and control to find ultimate solutions.

The Northeast Borderland History and Chain of Events Research Process by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences must be transformed into a joint study among scholars of Korea, China and Japan.

While the academy completed this project, North Korea kept silent, whereas the South asked China to end it. China responded that it was a purely academic venture.

Some scholars of the three countries did produce common textbooks of history a few years ago, but they have not been used until now.

The steady trend towards military buildup in East Asia makes strategists and scholars fearful of an accelerating arms race.

These times demand we call upon “wise power,” as imagined by Ahn.

We hope that the events commemorating the 100th anniversary of Ahn’s patriotic act will not finish as one-time occurrences to be forgotten soon after, but instead will lay solid foundations for deeper understanding of Ahn’s place in East Asian history as well as for collaboration between China, Japan, Southeast Asia, India, the United States, Australia, and the European Union to build a lasting peace in East Asia, with another 100 years of foresight.

Such an understanding must be based on a consensus that General Ahn was more of a pacifist than a warrior in striving to promote his idea of integration, which is supposed to derive from Immanuel Kant’s “Eternal Peace of 1795” and set the stage for Woodrow Wilson’s 14 principles and the League of Nations a decade later, integration of the European Community about 70 years later, and discussions to create an East Asian community 100 years later.

*The writer is a lecturer at the Korean Council on Foreign Relations.

by Kim Jae-bum
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