Who Are Modern Korea's 'Founding Fathers'?
A statue of Ahn Jung-geun in Seoul.

Who Are Modern Korea's 'Founding Fathers'?


Sunday, March 1 was Independence Movement Day in South Korea. This public holiday, which commemorates the March 1 Movement of 1919, is a good representative of a nationalistic celebration in a new era nationalism in Asia. The movement in 1919 was triggered by the oppressive colonial regime and the galvanizing idea of national self-determination, inspired by Woodrow Wilson.

Yet, whom do the Koreans see as the symbol of the country’s independence movement?

Gallup Korea has the answer(s). In a nation-wide poll conducted February 24-26 respondents were asked who comes to mind when they think about the anti-Japanese independence movement. The top three people chosen were (1) Ahn Jung-geun, (2) Kim Gu, and (3) Yu Gwan-sun.

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Ahn was an independence fighter, member of the “Righteous Army,” and (arguably) a pan-Asianist visionary. In 1909, Ahn fatally wounded the first governor-general of Korea (and Japan’s first prime minister), Ito Hirobumi, on a train platform in Harbin (now the capital of China’s Heilongjiang province).

Kim was a Korean nationalist and teacher who served as the sixth president of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea (based in Shanghai and Chongqing). Kim was also a reunification activist (after 1945). In addition to his anti-Japanese struggles before liberation, Gu is well known (on both side of the 38th) for his efforts to reunify the peninsula after the division. Gu was assassinated in 1949.

Yu was a student activist who, because of her participation in the March 1 Movement, found herself in a Japanese prison. She would die there at the age of 18.

It was inevitable, given the question asked by Gallup, that the top three people chosen are anti-Japanese activists. However, it is quite clear that Koreans do not just understand someone like Ahn Jung-geun purely as an independence fighter; he is also seen as representing the nation itself. South Korean (ethnic-)nationalism, it is argued, was forged in struggle against Japanese imperialism. This idea is reproduced time and again by elite discourse and bottom-up processes.

The brief but illustrative back-and-forth between Japan and South Korea during the opening of the new Ahn Jung-Geun memorial hall, located at the same station where Ito was fatally wounded more than a century ago, highlights the ways in which Ahn is continually instrumentalized. Built at the behest of the Park Geun-hye, the memorial (unsurprisingly) piqued the ire of the Japanese. It also highlights the transnational element of Ahn’s legacy; one thing that can unite South Korea and China (besides economic considerations) is their shared history – especially their anti-Japanese struggle.

Given the circumstances surrounding Korea’s birth as a “modern” nation (and later as a state), the degree of anti-Japanese sentiment embedded in Korean nationalism is understandable. Still, it certainly is not going to help mend the diplomatic rifts that seem to leave Korean-Japanese relations constantly frayed. So long as nationalism is the organizing force in Korean society, anti-Japanese sentiment seems unlikely to dissipate.

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