Ahn Jung Geun was born on September 2nd, 1879 in Haeju, Hangwon-do. In his early life, he showed interests in books, martial arts, and marksmanship, as recorded by future leader of the Korean independence movement, Kim Gu, while he was staying at their home. At 16, Ahn entered the Catholic Church with his father where they became missionaries and helped educate the people. Later when running from the Japanese police, Ahn sought refuge in a church with a French priest named Nicolas Joseph More Wilhelm. The priest taught Ahn many teachings from the Bible but also on peace and equality.
Ahn soon became angered with the attitude of the Japanese towards Korea following the Russo-Japanese War where Korea had supported Japan, believing them to be fighting to keep peace in East Asia. However, Japan immediately began taking the steps to dismantle Korea right after the war, killing Empress Myeongseong to establish their influence in the region and by forcing the Emperor to sign the Eulsa Treaty in 1905, making Korea a protectorate of Japan and effectively ending its diplomatic sovereignty and installing Ito Hirobumi as the first Resident-General of Korea. Following this, Ahn established two schools- the Donghee School and the Samheung School in the northwestern region of Korea, and served as principal of both schools, wanting to help educate the Korean people. The following year, Emperor Gojong tried to send a delegation to the Hague Convention of 1907 in order to seek international help. However, the plan failed and Japan forced the Emperor to abdicate his throne.
With this, Ahn went to Vladivostok, Russia to join Korea’s Righteous Army and quickly became the lieutenant general, leading several attacks on Japanese troops. However, with just 150 troops of his own, Ahn ended up withdrawing from the attacks, rethinking his plan of action. In early 1909, Ahn joined the Danjihoe, a Korean independence group, and cut off the tip of his left ring finger with 11 of his comrades as a sign of devotion to their country. With this, he travelled to Harbin, China where Ito Hirobumi, now former Resident-General of Korea, was due to arrive to discuss the purchase of a railway rights in Manchuria from Russia and to finalize Korean annexation plans.
As Ito Hirobumi arrived at Harbin Station, Ahn, masquerading as a member of the press corps, fatally shot him three times in the abdomen before being stopped and subdued by Russian police. He shouted for Korean independence in Russian before being led away. He was initially taken in and held by Russian police before ultimately being handed over to Japanese authorities 2 days later. While being interrogated by the police on his motives for killing Ito, Ahn listed these 15 reasons:
- Assassinating the Korean Empress Myeongseong
- Dethroning the Emperor Gojong
- Forcing 14 unequal treaties on Korea
- Massacring innocent Koreans
- Usurping the authority of the Korean government by force
- Plundering Korean railroads, mines, forests, and rivers
- Forcing the use of Japanese banknotes
- Disbanding the Korean armed forces
- Obstructing the education of Koreans
- Banning Koreans from studying abroad
- Confiscating and burning Korean textbooks
- Spreading a rumor around the world that Koreans wanted Japanese protection
- Deceiving the Japanese Emperor by saying that the relationship between Korea and Japan was peaceful when in truth it was full of hostility and conflicts
- Breaking the peace of Asia
- Assassinating the Emperor Komei
Following the investigation, Ahn was given a trial, although the trial was more of a formality as his fate was already sealed. He was given the chance to defend himself but was handed the death sentence. Ahn requested to be killed by firing squad as is the death in wartimes as Ahn insisted he was a soldier and acted as one. However, his requests were denied. Later in prison while awaiting his death sentence, Ahn committed himself to writing a book On Peace in Asia, as he believed his mission was not complete. In his book, he reflected on Pan-Asianism where China, Korea, and Japan could work together in order to fight off Western imperialism and colonization. He even introduced the idea of a common currency, similar to the Euro.
Ahn requested for a sentence extension and to suspend his execution in order to finish the book. Unfortunately, his request was denied and he died by hanging on March 29th, 1910 at age 30. Before dying, he wished for his body to be returned to Korea upon their freedom from Japan. However, Japanese authorities, concerned his body may incite or further anti-Japanese sentiments, withheld from sending his body back to Korea upon request of his family, and to this day the ultimate resting place or manner in which his body was handled after death is still unknown.
By killing Ito, Ahn had hoped it would put an end to Japan’s colonization of Korea as he thought the Japanese emperor’s opinion differed from Ito and didn’t share the same fervor for dominating the East. However, shortly after his death on August 22nd, 1910, the Japan-Korea Treaty of 1910 was signed, officially annexing Korea to Japan. To this day Ahn’s actions are still controversial as Japan continues to view him as a terrorist, sharply contrasting Korea and China’s views of Ahn as an independence activist who sacrificed himself for his country. In 2014, China opened a memorial hall dedicated to the activist in Harbin, China. There is also a memorial museum dedicated to his life in Seoul, South Korea where several pieces of his writings in prison are on display. In March of 2010, a nationwide centenary tribute for Ahn was held in South Korea which included a ceremony led by then Prime Minister Chung Un-chan.