Many people have dubbed South Korea as one of the most romantic countries in the world. Taking ‘romantic holidays’ to the next level, many amorous young Koreans celebrate an unofficial ‘love’ holiday on the 14th of every month of the year. For an excellent write-up on what those holidays are, as well as the traditions observed on each, check out this excellent article by my fellow blogger Tara @ Gypsy Shutterbug.
The one you will recognize is Valentine’s Day. Due to White Day being on the 14th of March, on which men buy gifts for their ladies, Valentine’s Day is the day women buy their flame some delicious chocolate. However, overshadowed by the hearts, sweets, and frills is a lesser known holiday which hearkens back to Korea’s tumultuous past.
February 14th has another name here: 사형 선고 당일, which translates to ‘The Day of the Death Penalty’. It marks the day a man named An Jung-geun (안중근) was sentenced to death for the assassination of Ito Hirobumi–the Japanese Resident-General of Korea–whom he believed was responsible for the miserable state of affairs that were Korean-Japanese relations. An Jung-eun is celebrated as a hero in both Korea and China–fellow targets of Japan’s imperialist ambitions in the early 20th century. However, in Japan, he is regarded as a murderer and a terrorist.
Made curious about An Jung-geun after some of my 12-year-old students brought him up during a Valentine’s Day lesson, I started reading about him. He was well-educated, charismatic, idealistic, nationalistic, and religious. He was an advocate for Pan-Asianisim, believing that, in order to survive and be influential in a rapidly globalizing world, Korea, Japan, and China needed to work in unison against what he called “the White Peril”. I was curious about this since that viewpoint seemed to clash horribly with his decision to assassinate a Japanese politician/military official in Korea. So, I read a little more.
At the time, Korea was occupied by Japan. On November 9, 1905, Ito Hirobumi showed up in Seoul and gave a letter detailing a treaty revoking Korea’s rights of sovereignty by making it a protecterate of Japan to the Korean Emperor. Further communications and threats of violence from Hirobumi increased the pressure until the Korean cabinet signed the agreement in spite of the Emperor’s emphatic disagreement.
Over the next two years, the Korean Emperor Gojong labored in secret to get support for his nation from world leaders, but Korea’s past of isolationism (propagated by the Emperor’s father, among others) took its toll. In 1907, in retaliation for these efforts, the Japanese government made Emperor Gojong abdicate to his son. Then, later that same year, Korea and Japan signed another treaty giving Japan full control over the administration of Korean affairs.
Things were moving toward Korea being annexed by Japan, and that’s where An Jung-geun came into the picture. After the signing of the Eulsa Treaty (the treaty of 1905), he shifted his focus from a new coal business to education. Two years later, he exiled himself to Russia, where he joined with fighters in the independence movement and became a lieutenant general.
On October 26, 1909, he went to the platform at the train station in Harbin, China with a gun in his lunchbox. Disembarking the train was former Prime Minister of Japan and Resident-General of Korea, Ito Hirobumi–accompanied by several other prominent Japanese officials. An Jung-geun pulled out his pistol and shot Hirobumi and 3 others, waving the Korean flag and shouting as he did so. Ito Hirobumi was killed, the others gravely wounded.
After his apprehension by Russian officials and hand-over to the Japanese, An gave his captors a list. In it, he detailed his 15 accusations against Hirobumi, among them: assassinating the Korean Empress, forcing unequal treaties upon Korea, and deceiving the global community that Korea wanted Japanese protection. It also became apparent that An Jung-geun believed himself a patriot–acting not only in the best interest of Korea but (surprisingly) in Japan’s as well. An Jung-geun believed Ito Hirobumi had deliberately deceived the Emperor of Japan about the reality of Japanese involvement in Korea. It was his belief that, when Hirobumi was removed from the picture and the truth made known, the Emperor would discover the deception and feel gratitude towards An.
Before he died, he attempted to finish a treatise titled “On Peace in East Asia.” In it, he argued for unification among the three great East Asian countries: Korea, China, and Japan. This involved a joint military force, a shared currency, and cooperation in the global community. It sounds surprisingly familiar, right? And yet, this was decades before the EU came into being.
Now, we go to the present. Korea has had their independence from Japan since 1945. Even though decades have passed, the two countries are ill at ease with each other–whether it’s territory disputes (the Liancourt Rocks), controversial decisions by leaders, or stubbornness regarding each other’s past transgressions. This unease was exacerbated recently when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine–seen by China and Korea as the spiritual nest of Japan’s colonial legacy. Then, things were further agitated by the construction of a pro-An Jung-geun monument at Harbin Station in China–decried by the Japanese as an ‘extremely disappointing and regrettable’ decision which celebrates a convicted terrorist.
It’s not all news stories, however. Though I have yet to go to Japan (edit: I’ve now been twice!), I have spent a significant amount of time in Korea. The anti-Japanese sentiment is still prevalent here–even surfacing from the mouths of some of my students. (Of course, this isn’t the case with everyone, but it is common nonetheless). This is backed up by a BBC poll, which found that 19% of Japanese view South Korean influence in a positive light and 21% of South Koreans view Japanese influence positively.
At last, it’s time to come full circle. South Koreans already have a number of holidays celebrating their independence. There are some who would like February 14th to share a similar significance, instead of the fluffy and romantic commercialism of Valentine’s Day. They want to celebrate the man who many believe played a crucial role in the founding of an independent Korea. Oddly enough, the day chosen for such a celebration is not the day of his birth or death, but the day he was sentenced to die for assassinating Hirobumi.
The questions I want to ask are these: does South Korea need yet another reason to be reminded of past injustices they have suffered? And last, but not least: how appropriate is it to honor An Jung-geun with a holiday when his dream of a united East Asia is anything but realized?
Leave your thoughts and opinions below, I’m curious to hear what people think!