Friday, May 27, 2016, 4:19 PM CST – China


Ahn Joong-keun


Ahn Joong-keun, the Korean dissident who assassinated Japanese Premier Itō Hirobumi during a visit to China in 1909, remains a prominent figure in the complex political histories of China, South Korea and Japan

A photograph of the assassination exhibited in Ahn’s memorial in South Korea Photo by Xinhua

Ahn Joong-keun’s effects, exhibited in his memorial museum Photo by Xinhua

As China and Japan continue to trade jibes over the Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands, South Korea’s proposal to establish a monument to Ahn Joong-keun, a man seen as a martyr in Korea, a folk hero in China and a terrorist in Japan, seems just another twist in the constantly changing flow of regional politics.

“Japan always defines Ahn Joong-keun as a criminal. Promotion of this monument does no good for Japanese-Korean relations,” protested Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga at a press conference on November 19, 2013.

South Korea’s foreign ministry hit back immediately. “It is ridiculous for Japan to call Ahn Joong-keun a ‘criminal,’ given Japan’s history,” said foreign ministry spokesman Cho Tai-Young. “Ahn Joong-keun sacrificed his life for Korean independence and peace in Asia,” he added.

The proposed site of the monument is the Chinese city of Harbin, where Ahn assassinated the then Japanese Premier Prince Itō Hirobumi in 1909. South Korea suggested establishing the monument in cooperation with China in June when South Korean President Park Geun-hye made an official visit to Beijing. The South Korean media recently revealed that China had activated the program.

“An anti-Japanese martyr, Ahn Joong-keun is also respected by the Chinese people. China will investigate and promote the monument plan in line with foreign affairs protocols,” said China’s foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei on November 19.

China’s lukewarm support for the monument was taken as tacit approval for South Korea’s stance, though some have warned that the move is unnecessary provocation that could threaten already rocky Sino-Japanese relations.

The Assassination

Born into an aristocratic Korean family in 1875, Ahn Joong-keun witnessed the Empire of Japan outpace all its neighbors in the wake of a modernization program launched during the Meiji Restoration of the 19th century. In 1894, Japan expelled a Chinese military force from the Korean peninsula, inflicting a humiliating defeat on the Great Qing Empire, wiping out several centuries of de facto Chinese suzerainty with the Treaty of Shimonoseki. Continued sparring over control over Korea’s nascent Joseon Dynasty, marked by the assassination of the pro-Russian Empress Myeongseong by Japanese agents in 1895, ended with the resounding defeat of the Russian imperial navy in 1904, leaving Japan with no regional rivals.

Korea, with a long tradition of anti-foreign insurrections, had many underground resistance movements which gained in strength as new political ideas took hold in the early 20th century. Like many Koreans of his generation, Ahn was quickly swept up in anti-imperialist fervor. A committed Catholic who learned fluent French from a priest in Shanghai, he devoted himself to patriotic education among overseas Koreans, first in China and then in Imperial Russia, at the time Japan’s main rival for control over Korea and the Qing Empire’s frontier in Manchuria.

On November 17, 1905, soon after the Japanese fleet smashed the Russian navy, Japan forced the Joseon Dynasty to sign the Eulsa Treaty, also known as the Second Japan-Korean Convention, which would bring the peninsula under Japanese “protection.” In the wake of the treaty, the Emperor of Japan appointed Ahn’s future target, Prince Itō Hirobumi, as the first Resident General of Korea. In 1907, Itō forced the abdication of the Joseon Emperor, disbanded the Korean army and began a “modernization” process, which essentially amounted to Japanese colonization of the country.

At the time, Ahn, a passionate literary scholar who was also a keen marksman, was leading a 300-member volunteer army in an insurrection in Japanese-occupied Russia. His band suffered a string of defeats in skirmishes with Japanese forces. Ahn then determined to try his hand at political assassinations – starting with the man he saw as the architect of Korean subjugation – Itō Hirobumi. While fighting in Russia, he reportedly vowed to “terminate” Itō “within three years.”

When Ahn came across a report in the Far East News which revealed that Itō would embark on a tour of Russian-controlled Manchuria, and meet for talks with Russian finance minister Vladimir Nikolayevich Kokovtsov on November 26, 1909, he saw a chance to fulfill his vow.

Ahn and his two accomplices decided on a rest stop on the route between Changchun and Harbin that Itō was scheduled to take as the ideal location for their attack, believing it would be less well-guarded. However, when Ahn confirmed from media reports that Itō’s train would make the stop at dawn, in darkness, he changed his plan. He would instead strike when Itō reached Harbin, then a cosmopolitan city jointly administered by several foreign powers under Russian oversight. He also decided to proceed alone to avoid detection.

October 26th dawned cold. Ahn put on his overcoat, loaded his Browning with eight dum-dum bullets, each carved with a Catholic cross, and tucked it into his pocket. He pulled down a peaked cap to cover his face before blending into the crowd of Japanese nationals who had arrived at the heavily guarded Harbin railway station to welcome Itō.

The train arrived on schedule at the open-air platform. Ahn watched his target disembark to inspect the Russian guard of honor alongside finance minister Kokovtsov. As the Russians lining up in front of Ahn raised their guns to give a salute, Ahn drew his pistol and fired three shots into the belly and chest of the elderly Itō, one of which passed through his spine. He then emptied the pistol into Itō’s entourage, crying out “Long live Korea” in Russian, before he was subdued.

Prince Itō was pronounced dead from blood loss later that day. When he heard the news that Itō had died, Ahn reportedly crossed himself.

The Resolution

The Russian authorities held Ahn for two days before turning him over to the Japanese. “I did it for four thousand years of Korea and her 20 million people. I executed a villain who subjugated Korea and ravaged the peace of Asia,” Ahn told the Japanese colonial court during his trial.

Ahn was later transferred to Ryojun, or Port Arthur, the modern-day Chinese port of Lüshun, another city under Japanese administration, where he underwent 17 interrogations. While in prison, Ahn wrote many pro-Korean independence inscriptions on his prison cell wall in Hanja – the scholarly script of Korea which used Chinese characters. Ahn’s Japanese guards reportedly admired his calligraphy.

Ahn’s cell wall slogans were signed with a print of his ring finger, a section of which had been cut off in solidarity with 12 other veterans of a battle between Korean insurgents and Japanese troops in Russia January 1909. The 12 cut off a section of their ring fingers and daubed a pro-independence slogan on a huge Korean flag with the bloody stumps, vowing to give their lives in service to their country.

Ahn, represented by foreign lawyers who were not permitted to speak during his trial, remained defiant until the end. “I am no ordinary assassin. I killed Itō in the name of the Lieutenant General of the volunteer army. I should be a prisoner of war,” he told the court.

“The assassination was not an individual act, but a part of Korea’s fight for independence. The Emperor professed that Japan wanted peace in Korea, but Itō pushed the opposite,” he continued.

“If I am guilty, it is only of being a weak Korean national.”

Although Ahn demanded execution by firing squad as a war criminal, the court sentenced him to death by hanging, and the sentence was carried out on March 26, 1910 after his defense obtained a brief stay of execution. This delay allowed him to die wearing a suit of traditional white Korean clothes made by his mother that his Japanese warden had been able to secure for him. He spent his last month writing his autobiography, and finishing an essay titled “On Peace in East Asia” with the help of his guards.

“20 million Korean people, keep on fighting,” he wrote. “I will have no regrets if you carry out my unfinished work and lead Korea to independence.”

Ahn was buried in an unmarked grave in Harbin.


Itō’s assassination made headlines worldwide, and was seized upon by the Korean independence movement, while Ahn was demonized in the Japanese press. China’s widespread anti-foreign political movements also seized upon the case as a rallying cry for those seeking to resist Japanese encroachment on the Asian mainland.

“As Japan waits to swallow up China, Ahn Joong-keun’s bullets are more valuable than the tears of millions and the patriotic words of thousands,” ran a commentary in the People’s Voice Daily, a leftwing circular published in Shanghai. Chinese nationalists, still smarting from their defeat at the hands of foreign powers during the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901), continued to use Ahn as an example of patriotic heroism throughout the escalating conflicts with imperial powers and Japan in particular, which culminated in the wholesale invasion of  northeastern China in 1931. Well-known revolutionary leaders and scholars like Sun Yat-sen, Cai Yuanpei and Zhang Taiyan honored Ahn as “a righteous Asian.”

During the cultural and political movement known as the May Fourth Movement which swept through China’s cities in 1919, which attacked foreign imperialism and Chinese feudalism, Ahn was revived as a folk hero. Zhou Enlai, who would go on to become the People’s Republic of China’s first Premier, assisted in a production of the opera Ahn Joong-keun, in which Deng Yingchao, his future wife, played the title role.

“The Chinese and Korean people’s fight against Japanese colonialism began with Ahn Joong-keun’s assassination of Itō Hirobumi,” Zhou remarked in an essay on China’s historical relations with Korea.

Since the recent souring of relations between Japan and China, Ahn has been revived as a symbol of resistance to Japanese aggression. Many Chinese netizens have accused Japan of double standards on the Ahn monument issue. Tokyo’s Yakusuni Shrine, for example, which commemorates Japanese war dead including Class A war criminals, continues to be visited by Japanese politicians.

However, Chinese solidarity with Korea seems to have fizzled over the matter of Ahn’s nationality. A survey by nationalist Chinese newspaper the Global Times showed that one fourth of respondents opposed the monument’s placement in China, as it honored “a foreigner whose deeds were for the benefit of Korea alone.”

“Approval for an Ahn monument might mislead Japan into thinking that China intends to estrange itself from Japan while cozying up to Korea,” Lü Chao, a researcher from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Liaoning Branch, told the Global Times. “I don’t think it is reasonable to set up a monument or statue honoring a foreigner in any public place. A plaque commemorating the event itself might be preferable,” he added.

Despite the lukewarm support for the monument on the part of China’s foreign ministry, the government of Harbin told media that they have not yet received “any notification from upper-level departments” about establishing the monument.

Given the subtle balance of relations between China, Japan and South Korea, a monument for such a controversial historical figure might, even for China, be a provocation.


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