Activist honors Yi Jun with memorial project

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Activist honors Yi Jun with memorial project

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Lee Gi-hang

Lee Gi-hang, director of the Yi Jun Academy in The Hague, Netherlands, still embodies the spirit of the independence activist of the same name more than 100 years after his death.

The 76-year-old, who also runs a memorial museum dedicated to the Korean diplomat in the city, has embarked on a fresh project to commemorate Korea’s independence since November last month: a campaign entitled “Never Forget, Never Again!”

The project is aimed at highlighting that the “Eulsa Treaty,” a pact made by the Japanese during the colonial era and forced upon Korea in 1905, was created under unfair circumstances.

“Having lived in The Hague where Yi Jun died, I thought I must do something for the man who sacrificed his life for his country,” said Lee.

The campaign’s message was exactly what the freedom fighter desperately sought to deliver to the world in 1907 when he was sent in secret to the Netherlands as an envoy to promote Korea’s independence during The Hague Convention under the command of King Gojong (1852-1919) during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910).

But Japanese agents prevented Yi from entering the convention hall, and he never had a chance to make his voice heard before foreign diplomats. Mr. Yi is believed to have committed suicide a month after having arrived at The Hague.

Japan’s effort to take the territorial dispute over Dokdo Island to the International Court of Justice prompted Lee to engage in the anti-colonial campaign.

“The Yi Jun Peace Museum is located near the International Court of Justice. This also triggered me to think that there is something I must do for the territorial issue,” he said. “The British people commemorated World War I by supplying free poppy pins to people on the street. I’ve launched my own campaign in order not to repeat the humiliating history by distributing edelweiss badges to museum visitors and Koreans living in the Netherlands. If we don’t want to slide back to the oppressed era we should remember what exactly happened in the past.”

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Lee Gi-hang, director of Yi Jun Academy, transformed the De Jong Hotel in The Hague into a memorial museum dedicated to the independence activist by purchasing the building from the Dutch city. Provided by Lee

He chose edelweiss due to its resemblance to forget-me-not flowers. The meaning of the name reflects his determination to reveal the details of the oppressive colonial period.

He worked for a state-owned trade organization during the Park Chung Hee administration. He was dispatched in 1972 to The Hague as part of the former administration’s project to promote its ginseng. He started running his own trade business three years after he quit the job. He then came across an article piece on Yi Jun by the Dutch daily NRC Handelsblad in 1992. He began tracing the life of the independence fighter the next day. He was finally able to find the hotel where Yi is known to have died.

“It was a three-story building but it was rundown. The landlord didn’t seem to care about the place and the ownership belonged to The Hague city. I talked with city officials and bought the building for $200,000,” Lee said.
He transformed the hotel built in 1620 into the memorial museum and opened Yi Jun Peace Museum on Aug. 5, 1995 along with his wife Song Chang-joo. The couple now works on renovating the memorial hall by injecting 170 million won ($156,739) of government funding.
The once-dilapidated hotel is now included in the “Top 20 Landmarks in The Hague.”
All of the efforts are linked to Lee’s dedication to reveal the exact cause of the national hero’s death. “In the document detailing his death, there is no mention that he committed suicide. If he was to take his own life, he would do so in the convention hall. I am not sure, but there is likelihood of assassination,” he said.

By Jeong Yong-su [ejpark@joongang.co.kr]

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