Asia’s Nasty History Fight, Korean Edition: Jung-Geun Ahn


This week on the radio, I talked about the persistent conflict over history and memory in East Asia. March 26 was the 100th anniversary of execution of Jung-Geun Ahn, a Korean nationalist who assassinated the first Japanese Governor-General of occupied Korea, Ito Hirobumi. For the Korea version of the story, try here. For the Japanese ‘version,’ try here. Ahn is treated as a national hero here. He is referred to Korean history textbooks as ‘the Martyr’ and the ‘Patriot.’ Japan’s occupation ran from 1910 to 1945, although slow-but-steady annexation had been ramping up since the 1880s. The occupation was pretty vicious, including the mass impressment of ‘comfort women’ and cultural japanification efforts that included the elimination of Korean names! If you don’t know too much about the endless history/memory conflict between Japan, China, and Korea, the transcript below is a good place to start.

American readers might want to take special note of the fairly embarrassing information contained in the transcript’s last few paragraphs.

The Japanese really ought to be worried about this stuff. 60 years after the war, and they still can’t really talk to the Koreans and the Chinese. The Japanese right’s recalcitrance on history has isolated Japan for decades, and as Japan’s decline continues, the price of this isolation will rise. When China was a mess 30 years ago, and Korea was still a NIC (Newly Industrializing Country), first world Japan could strut like this. But today the gap between Japan, and Korea and China is narrowing, and the Japanese would do well start thinking of a serious, Willy Brandt-style apology tour. Without that serious, German-style soul searching, no one will ever trust Japan, they’ll be indefinitely dependent on the US,  and they’ll stand no chance to get that UN  Security Council seat.





March 29, 2010


…this week we are going to discuss Korea’s foreign affairs at the time Ahn Jung-Geun’s death and the start of Japanese occupation. Hi, Dr. Kelly.


Hi, Petra. Thanks for having me


Thanks for being with us again today.


It’s my pleasure.


Usually, we talk of contemporary Korean affairs, but this seems like an interesting topic given the recent 100th anniversary of Ahn Jung-geun’s death. How is this relevant though to Korea’s contemporary foreign policy?


Well, memory plays a major role in Korea’s relations with its local neighbors and with the United States. A central Korean narrative about Korean history is betrayal and manipulation by Korea’s neighbors resulting in a very harsh, frequently bloody twentieth century. As Koreans well know, historical disagreements with the Japanese are a regular feature of East Asian international relations. So the celebration of Ahn’s assignation of a Resident-General Ito Hirobumi is a deep reminder of that a competitive relationship with Japan persists.


That’s true. So, does this celebration irk the Japanese? And does that make any difference?


It almost certainly does the former. I am not surprised at all that the Japanese have found it so conveniently difficult to find the body. A central Japanese narrative about its occupation of Korea is that it was good for Korea. This is what I meant by the deep division over memory. What Koreans call imperialism, the Japanese call the modernization of Korea. In Japan, the Pacific War is marketed by Japanese conservatives as an effort to free East Asia from white imperialism and to spread modernity. Korea and China find such an interpretation self-serving, and the Korean commemoration of Ahn’s death is a pointed way to remind that Japanese of that. It’s a tough, emotionally-loaded conflict over remembrance.


And how is this relevant to Korean foreign policy now?


Well, Korea and Japan, despite their historical antagonism, actually share certain values and interests in East Asia. Both are liberal democracies; both are US allies; both worry about North Korea and the rise of China. So from an American perspective, it is fascinating, and perhaps frustrating, to see Korea and Japan cooperate so little. My students frequently ask me why there is nothing like NATO or the European Union in Asia, and the first reason I give is that the US’ two major allies and the region’s two wealthiest democracies can’t seem to agree on much, such as history or Dokdo.


So Korea and Japan should collaborate more?


Well, ‘should’ is a tough notion here. Certainly the US would like that. Korean-Japanese reconciliation has long been a US policy goal, but honestly, the US has basically given up pursuing that. The US military works independently with each military, despite the geographic proximity. I find most Koreans warm to the prospect on reconciliation, but they insist on Japanese apologies first of course, including for the execution of Ahn one hundred years ago last Friday.


But you sound like you don’t really expect the Japanese to apologize…


That’s right. I don’t. And here I sympathize with Korea a great deal. The longer I have lived here and the more I have learned Korean history in detail, the less tenable the Japanese claim of modernization or defense against white imperialism becomes. It is not clear at all of course that Koreans in 1910 wanted to be ‘modernized,’ especially by foreigners, and it is simply ridiculous to assert that Japan saved Korea from white, western imperialism, because there wasn’t any of that here. It was more in southern China and southeast Asia. So it’s hard to argue that Japanese imperialism here was not just as bad as imperialism was anywhere else…


So what about an apology? Various Japanese figures have apologized before, but no one really seems to believe them.


That’s right, and it’s one of the most frustrating parts of the history debate for everyone involved. I think the Koreans and Chinese want the sort of apology the Germans gave to eastern Europeans and Jews after World War II. In the 60s and 70s, democratic Germany really opened up about the Nazi past. The concentration camps were researched and preserved. Germans leaders went on good will and apology tours. Much of it was very moving, and Germany’s neighbors genuinely accepted that the Germans were sorry and should rejoin the European community. This worked well, and when Germany sought to reunify, no one really thought the new Germany would be a new threat. By contrast, Japan’s historical debate is still where Germany’s was in the 50s. It is clouded by nationalism, romantic notions of the past, and an embarrassed unwillingness to look at the nasty details, such as the comfort women or the elimination of Korean names.


So the apologies aren’t meaningful without more historical soul-searching?


That’s exactly why they are so unconvincing. The usual pattern is that some Japanese official gives a vaguely-worded apology. Then some other official or parliamentarian cuts loose unofficially about how Japan should not need to keep on apologizing. All this gets picked up in the Korean and Chinese media, and the whole story recycles itself. This is why so many want the Japanese emperor to apologize, not just some foreign ministry official, and this is also why the commemoration of figures like Ahn will continue in Korea. Remember that Kim Il Sung is celebrated in this way too, in the North, as an anti-Japanese patriot. If the Japanese ever want this to cool, they are going to have to try a lot harder.


So Ahn is directly related to the continuing general tension between Japan, and China and Korea. Ok.


Finally, it would be remiss if I did not mention that US abandonment of Korea to Japan at the time. I find that Americans don’t know this too much, perhaps because today the US-Korean relationship is so tight. But your US listeners should probably know that we sold Korea up the river to Japan in 1905. It is fairly embarrassing…


The Americans had a role in the occupation? Ah, the Plymouth Treaty…


That’s right. In 1905, the Japanese emerged as a major global power by defeating Russia in a naval contest. The US president at the time was Theodore Roosevelt, TR. TR invited the Russians and Japanese to Portsmouth, New Hampshire in New England in the summer of 1905 to arrange a treaty. One of Japan’s demands was domination of Korea. The US unfortunately agreed, and Japan fully annexed Korea five years later. This was the context in which Ahn assassinated Hirobumi. It’s a sad story, and one in which the US part is rather poor. Most Americans here don’t know about this, but they obviously know that American soldiers died in the Korean War. Fairly convenient to re-tell your history that way, do you think?


I think these sorts of history debates will only accelerate this year as we approach the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean war. Thank you for being with us again today.

11 thoughts on “Asia’s Nasty History Fight, Korean Edition: Jung-Geun Ahn

  1. Dr. Bob, thank you for your writings on Asia, much appreciated. Good stuff! You are becoming an authority on the subject.

  2. In the defence of the Americans here, they never really had control of Korea to sell them up the river in ’05; I’d say it certainly wasn’t as bad as our (Australian) acquiescence (even aid) to Indonesia’s domination of Timor Leste, which we eventually had to dedicate troops to rectifying. Thankfully without having to resort to a Korean War type scenario…

    • Perhaps… You are correct that the US could not have militarily prevented a take-over. We were too far away, and Japan was too locally powerful. But TR did give the annexation official American approval, and the US didn’t really get much from Japan in exchange for it either. It certainly didn’t slow down Japanese fiddling in China. And of course, TR had no right to declaim Korea as a part of Japan’s sphere of influence, but he did anyway. He admired the Japanese as the ‘Prussians of East Asia,’ bringing modernity to the backward ‘Orient’ and all that. Pretty shameful stuff, however you cut it.

  3. “He admired the Japanese as the Prussians of East Asia, bring modernity to the backward Orient and all that. Pretty shameful stuff, however you cut it.”

    Dr. Bob as shameful as this might be, I don’t think that you can apply today’s understanding of history to 1905. TR was operating in the context of his day. I do agree with you that it was an overstretch in the least, to offer a country that wasn’t his to give.

    Very interesting. This was like the Berlin Conference of 1885 light.

    Yes, ethnic tensions are very high in your neighborhood . I experienced it myself during my one year tour as a US Marine in the Orient.

    I was about to send my reply but then thought…replace “Japanese” with “China” and “Orient” with “Africa”. It could be said that the US is kinda of repeating history vis a vis China in this regard.

    “He admired the Japanese as the Prussians of East Asia, bring modernity to the backward Orient and all that. Pretty shameful stuff, however you cut it.”

    Hello Nathan, I never made it to Australia while I was in your neighborhood. When the Australia FLOAT came up, I had to orders back to the US. I would have tried to jump on that FLOAT. Heard nothing but great things from Marines who were assigned to that FLOAT to Australia.

    • You’re letting TR off the hook. He bought all that creepy late 19th C stuff about social Darwinism, superior races, and cutural backwardness. Korea was a feudal, confucian backwater; Japan was the ‘Asian Prussia.’ So it was godo for Korea to be ‘modernized’ by these foreigners. As you say, that is exactly what whites thought in Africa and India too. And it turned those places upside down. Given the US history as a colony that fought for its independeence, it is fairly embarrassing that we look the other way on incipient Japanese colonialism.

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