You know what won’t diffuse tension in Northeast Asia: building a tribute to one of the region’s more divisive historical figures. But Seoul and Beijing last week confirmed plans to do just that, vowing to erect a statue of Ahn Jung-geun, a Korean independence hero reviled by Japan, in the northern Chinese city of Harbin.
In October 1909, as imperial Japan tightened its grip on the Korean peninsula, Ahn shot and killed the Japanese governor of Korea, Hirobumi Ito, on a railway platform in Harbin. Ahn was then executed by the Japanese in March 1910 — months after Japan formally annexed Korea. To Koreans, Ahn is a martyr. He is celebrated in children’s books and commemorated in a hit musical. Visitors to Seoul can stop by his very own museum, the Patriot Ahn Jung-geun Memorial Hall.
Japan sees him in a different light. The man Ahn shot, Ito, was a towering figure in 19th century Japanese politics, an architect of the reformist Meiji constitution who went on to be the country’s first (and fifth and seventh and 10th) Prime Minister. To them, Ahn is a villain. Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga last week dismissed him as a “criminal.” The statue, he warned, “will never contribute to Japan–South Korea relations.”
South Korean President Park Geun-hye and her Chinese allies know well that rousing Ahn’s ghost will rile Japan. So, why do it? Because the statue is a relatively safe, largely symbolic, way for Park to bolster her reputation at home while strengthening ties to China.
President Park wants to be seen as tough on Japan. As the daughter of the country’s Cold War–era strongman, Park Chung-hee, she carries a complicated legacy. The elder Park is hailed as the architect of the country’s economic miracle, but hated for his heavy-handed rule. Born to a peasant family during Japanese colonial rule, he served as a lieutenant in the Japanese army and studied in Japan. After coming to power in a 1961 coup, he normalized diplomatic relations with Japan in 1965, spurring demonstrations. “Park’s father was seen as being a little too close to Japan,” says Brian Bridges, a professor of political science at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University. “She may wish to distance herself a little from her father’s legacy.”
Tough talk on Japan will certainly find an audience at home. Though the two countries are very much tied by tourism, trade and their common alliance with the U.S., they remain deeply divided over the past, particularly the fact that South Korean women were forced to work as sex slaves in Japanese military brothels. South Koreans say Japan has never adequately apologized for what happened. Asked recently about the prospect of a Seoul-Tokyo summit, President Park told the BBC such a meeting would be pointless without some fresh attitudes from the Japanese: “If Japan continues to stick to the same historical perceptions and repeat its past comments, then what purpose would a summit serve?”
Instead, Park seems keen to engage China, longtime ally of her northern foe. Mao sent Chinese soldiers to fight for the North in the Korean War and famously said that North Korea and China were “as close as lips and teeth.” They are still close, technically, although growing trade and a mutual distrust of Japan have brought Seoul and Beijing together under Park. The statue proposal is part of this rapprochement, says John Delury, an assistant professor at Yonsei University in Seoul. “President Park took the initiative to build something permanent, and to build something in China,” he said. “It definitely ups the ante.”
That suits China well. The ruling Chinese Communist Party sheds no tears for slain colonial officials, nor do the people of Harbin. Japan’s imperial occupation of Manchuria, where the city is, was brutal. Unit 731 of the Japanese Imperial Army set up a base near Harbin and conducted germ-warfare experiments and lethal pseudomedical tests.
At the same time, Park may find this a dangerous moment to ratchet up the rhetoric. Days after she talked up the Ahn plan, China announced aircraft-identification rules for an “East China Sea air-defense identification zone” that includes the skies over the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islets. Japan’s Foreign Minister said the zone’s establishment could “trigger unpredictable events.”
For now, it’s a war of words. But South Korea is treading closer to a conflict that may no longer be symbolic.