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2009/10/25 09:00 KST
(Yonhap Feature) A century on, true picture of Korean independence fighter still veiled

By Shin Hae-in
SEOUL, Oct. 25 (Yonhap) -- The late An Jung-geun (1877-1910) is one of Korea's most honored independence fighters, hailed for his daring assassination of the peninsula's first Japanese Governor-General Hirobumi Ito to protest its annexation.

   Monday marks the 100th anniversary of An's patriotic deed, told and retold countless times in textbooks and through various artistic genres over the past century. Yet, many aspects of An's life as a nationalist, pan-Asianist and devout Catholic remain unknown even among locals, shrouded by a lack of historical research, scholars here say.

   "A century has passed, but An's assassination of the Japanese governor-general is often told to people without some important details," said Prof. Cho Kwang, who teaches Korean history at Korea University in Seoul. "He was neither just a terrorist nor a soldier. We must also view him through the various achievements he made in education, the economy and religion to properly understand him."

An's pan-Asian theory is also worth noting as it is applicable to current diplomacy, Cho added.

   "His assassination of Ito, as well as his diplomatic views, played an important role in Korea's independence movement," he said.

   Born in the northern city of Haeju, in what is now North Korea, An worked first in education, later joining the armed resistance against the Japanese colonial rulers. While fleeing, he took refuge with a priest of the Roman Catholic Church and converted to Catholicism in 1897. He was baptized as Thomas An.

   Going against the teachings of his newfound Catholic faith, however, An assassinated Ito at a railway platform in Harbin in 1909 and was executed on March 26, 1910. The death of the Japanese politician resulted in the acceleration of Japan's colonization of Korea.

   An strongly believed in the union and restoration of peace between China, Korea and Japan in order to counter and fight off the "White Peril" of European colonialism, according to writings he left behind.

   An felt that with the death of Ito, Japan and Korea could then forge friendly relations through their many shared traditions. He hoped that such ties could also be formed with China, and that this pan-Asian unity could then become a model for the world to follow, An said in his unfinished essay "On Peace in East Asia."

   While most Japanese textbooks depict An as a terrorist and assassin, movements are now afoot in the country among civic groups and scholars to reevaluate him based on historical facts.

   In March, a group of Korean and Japanese scholars held an exhibition at Kyoto's Ryukoku University featuring calligraphic works and photographs of An.

   During a symposium held as part of the event, participants shared their views on An's pan-Asianism and whether the assassination of Ito resulted from Japan's unjust annexation of Korea.

   Such changes in views of An among Japanese are also largely due to records of his companionship with his Japanese prison guards and lawyers as well as Japanese prisoners in Korea.

   An recorded in his autobiography during his time in a Japanese prison that public prosecutor Takao Mizobuchi told him, "From what you have told me, it is clear that you are a righteous man of East Asia. I can't believe a sentence of death will be imposed on a righteous man."

   An writes he was sure that most Japanese felt similar hatred for Ito, an opinion he formed through talks with Japanese prisoners in Korea. He also records special friendships with Japanese prison guards, lawyers and prosecutors during his time in prison and on trial.

   Eom Chang-joon, a professor at Japan's Ritsumeikan University, said the reevaluation of An in Japan is "critical to peace between Korea and Japan as well as throughout East Asia."

   "An is among the few people widely known in both countries but regarded with two contrasting views," he said. "I consider it very important for Japanese people to have a correct view of An and his history."

   In the city of Harbin, the site of Ito's assassination, there is a special exhibition featuring documents on An. An annual Korean Week festival has been held to expand ties with South Korea since 2006 in the Chinese city, where An is considered a patriot and hero among the majority of residents.

   On Oct. 26, a statue of An will be set up at the Chosun Art Museum, located in central Harbin, commemorating An's heroic deed 100 years ago. It will stand at the entrance to the An Jung-geun commemorative hall within the museum, which receives financial support from the Chinese government.

   In January 2006, the Chinese city removed a statue of An set up by a Korean businessman, saying it was not approved by the government.