A century on, Koreans recollect late independence fighter
By Shin Hae-in
SEOUL, March 26 (Yonhap) -- As the torch was being lit and the national anthem was being sung in memory of Korean national hero Ahn Jung-geun on Friday, many here became heavy-hearted at the thought of Ahn's century-overdue last wish: that his remains be buried in his liberated homeland.
"We've had no luck for the last 100 years. I have almost, but not entirely, given up hope that I will see martyr Ahn's remains return home before I die," said 80-year-old Kim Shin-hong, who introduced himself as a member of the Korea Liberation Association, founded in 1965.
"We could have had a completely different history if it hadn't been for him," Kim said, his voice cracking with emotion.
Kim was among thousands of Koreans who braved a lingering cold spell Friday to attend the ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of Ahn's death. Ahn assassinated the Korean Peninsula's first Japanese governor-general, Hirobumi Ito, to protest the forced annexation of Korea, and was arrested and executed by Japanese authorities in northeastern China on March 26, 1910.
He is a highly symbolic figure in Korea's independence movement against Japan's brutal colonization of the peninsula from 1910-45.
South Korea has worked for years to locate and bring home Ahn's remains, but has been unsuccessful largely due to Japan's lackluster response to requests for help in finding where his body was buried -- an attitude that has fueled continued anger here.
"It is truly shameful and pitiful that we have been unable to trace the remains of martyr Ahn up until today," Prime Minister Chung Un-chan said during the ceremony. "The government will make the utmost effort in winning cooperation from Japan and China to bring his remains home."
The green grass outside Seoul City Hall was hardly visible as people clad in black and grey coats packed into the narrowly arranged seats prepared for some 2,000 people, including Ahn's 72-year-old granddaughter, Yeon-ho.
Ahn's granddaughter, who was invited by the South Korean government to attend the ceremony from her current home in Seattle, said in a recent media interview that she was "still hopeful" that the remains of her grandfather will be recovered.
Calls have been growing here with the centennial of Ahn's death for the government to make more intent requests to Japan and China to help in tracing Ahn's remains. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak also pledged earlier in the day that his government will make unreserved efforts in the stalled project.
Friday's ceremony, which ended with a torchlight procession through downtown, was attended by people from all age groups including students from local high schools.
"Frankly, I did not know much about (Ahn) until I read stories on the Internet," said Shin Sung-ah, who, like most young students here, normally does not take much of an interest in the Korean War or the Japanese colonial period -- both of which seem like distant history.
"I am aware, however, of how much it means to bring his body back home," the 17-year-old added. "He sacrificed himself for the country. We are indebted to him."
Born in the northern city of Haeju, in what is now North Korea, Ahn 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 Ahn.
Ahn assassinated Ito at a railway platform in Harbin in 1909 and was executed the following year. Known as a nationalist and a pan-Asianist, Ahn 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.
Ahn 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, Ahn said in his unfinished essay, "On Peace in East Asia."
Ahn was 32 years old and was dressed in a traditional white Korean suit his mother had sent him when he was hung to death.
In a letter to her eldest son, Ahn's mother wrote, "Do not beg for mercy. Do not be afraid of death as you have done no wrong," according to historic records.
"I am sure Lushun was a lot colder 100 years ago than here today," an MBC TV anchorman hosting Friday's ceremony said, referring to the Chinese site of the prison where Ahn was executed. "The memory of martyr Ahn is still fresh in our hearts and will live on for a long time through history to come."