The Koreas

Who Are Modern Korea’s ‘Founding Fathers’?

A look at the figures Koreans see as emblematic of their independence movement.

Who Are Modern Korea’s ‘Founding Fathers’?

A statue of Ahn Jung-geun in Seoul.

Credit: Steven Denney/ Sino-NK (reproduced by permission)

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.

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.

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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.