Today, March 26th, 2010, was the 100-year anniversary of Korean patriot Ahn Jung Geun's execution at the hands of the Japanese authorities. Here in South Korea, Ahn is one of the most celebrated names in the early anti-Japanese resistance movement. His familiar mustachioed face stared sadly out from newspapers and TV screens today as various historians, pundits and other notables commented on his impact.
In October of 1909, Ahn waited in the crowd at the train station in Harbin, China, and assassinated the first governor-general of Korea as he stepped out of his train to greet the assembled welcoming party. It was a largely fruitless act of defiance and, many argue, actually helped the Japanese to cement their hold on Korea, as it gave them an internationally acceptable excuse to take over Korea's police force and crack down strongly on the budding independence movement, in the name of maintaining the peace. Ito Hirobumi was no longer governor-general at the time, and during his tenure he actually had opposed the annexation of Korea, believing that Korea should remain a Japanese protectorate and maintain some degree of independance. Ito's successors were much less sentimental about Korean rights.
Nevertheless, for his one patriotic act of defiance, Ahn is a hero known to every Korean old enough to read, at least here in the South. I have to admit that I find the beatification surrounding this man a little disturbing. However laudable his motive may have been, he did in fact kill a man in cold blood. It cannot be denied that it took some stones for young Ahn to step out and open fire in front of the squadron of armed guards surrounding Ito, knowing that he would be arrested and executed for his crime. And I personally sympathize with the Korean feeling of powerlessness and their need to do something, anything, to strike back against the power that was eating away at their sovereignty. But in the largely Christian society of Seoul, what with their doctrine of "Thou shalt not kill" and "Turn the other cheek" and all that, I kind of hoped to hear more thoughtful debate about the spiritual consequences of Ahn's act.
Koreans don't have a lot of heroes of peaceful resistance from the colonial era, like a Ghandi or a Martin Luther King Jr., to fall back on. There were intellectuals and leaders of the independance movement who traveled abroad and wrote letters appealing to various foreign powers to intervene on their behalf, but as Japan's influence was too great and the Western nations had their own interests in Asia to protect, their words fell on deaf ears. In that light I can understand how someone like Ahn, who at least managed to take one for the team, could be raised to hero status. The Japanese, on the other hand, will always remember him as a "terrorist assassin."
My recent trip to Cebu further enlightened me on the way historical figures become deified over time, regardless of the merits of their acts. Cebu has the dubious honor of being the site where Magellan met his end during his historic circumnavigation of the world, killed at the hands of a chieftan named Lapu-Lapu in a local conflict Magellan somehow got mixed up in. Today, Lapu-Lapu is a hero with a town named after him and a large statue erected in his honor. At the same time, there is also a shrine to Magellan, and Magellan's cross is maintained to this day as one of the cities' most sacred religious relics. So it seems that for one historic act of violence, both killer and victim have been immortalized as heroes by the local population.