HARBIN, CHINA – By opening a memorial hall honoring a Korean independence activist who resisted Japanese rule more than a century ago, China drove home its shift from caution to action in handling a sensitive historical issue.
The timing of the launch suggests the about-face received a final push from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit in December to Yasukuni Shrine, the spiritual backbone of Japan’s war of aggression. Abe’s visit was the first by a sitting prime minister in seven years.
The memorial, which more than met South Korea’s request for a stone monument, reflects China’s hopes of forming a united front against Japan, which is embroiled in disputes with both countries over tiny islands and perceptions of their wartime history, analysts say.
Amid bitter cold temperatures below minus 20, the memorial dedicated to Korean activist Ahn Jung Geun was unveiled on Jan. 19 at a prominent location facing a busy square in Harbin, Heilongjiang province.
To design it, China renovated the VIP lounge at Harbin Railway Station and reproduced the facade of the old station building from its opening in 1899. A red carpet leads to the entrance of the facility, which occupies more than 100 sq. meters and has a bust of Ahn just inside.
Ahn shot and killed Hirobumi Ito, Japan’s first prime minister and the first resident-general of Korea, then a Japanese protectorate, at Harbin Station on Oct. 26, 1909. Japan went on to annex Korea, and its brutal colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula continued through the end of World War II in 1945.
The memorial looks back at the life of Ahn, who was executed in 1910 at the age of 30, using pictures and exhibit panels. He is introduced as a man who sacrificed his life for a patriotic cause and a leader of the resistance against Japan.
A large window offers a direct view of the station’s No. 1 platform, where Ito was gunned down. A sign hanging from the platform roof indicates the site of the assassination, adding prominence to the location. Previously, there were simple markers on the platform to show where Ahn fired the shots and Ito fell.
The admission-free memorial, completed with funding from the Harbin Municipal Government and railway authorities, opened to the public on Jan. 20. The visitors were mainly South Korean but included Chinese.
The memorial was built at the request of South Korean President Park Geun-hye. During her summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping in China last June, Park requested that a stone monument be built at the station.
China had been uneasy about requests to commemorate Ahn to avoid antagonizing Japan.
In 2006, a bronze statue of Ahn was set up near the station at the proposal of a South Korean group, but local authorities removed it two weeks later on the grounds that statues of foreigners were not permitted.
“Consideration for relations with Japan ruled out such a monument,” a source said.
Sino-Japanese ties have since soured sharply, in particular over the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. China also claims the islets as its own, calling them Diaoyu.
This time, Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine was apparently a clincher for Beijing, which continues to criticize him as a hard-liner toward China. Both China and South Korea consider the Tokyo shrine a symbol of Japan’s past militarism because it honors Class-A war criminals along with the war dead.
The launch of the memorial for Ahn, who is regarded by the Japanese government as a criminal, reflects the high value China places on South Korea as a partner in its “anti-Japan front.”
The Chinese government has established a number of memorials commemorating the anti-Japan movement in its northeast, which became the main battlefield during the war, to serve as outposts for patriotic education.
At the same time, however, it is unusual for China to create a memorial in honor of a non-Chinese individual.
China, which highlights Imperial Japanese atrocities at the memorials, seems to be preparing to bring stronger pressure to bear on Japan because this year marks the 120th anniversary of the battle Japan launched to win effective control of the Korean Peninsula, before World War II.
Some watchers of bilateral relations attribute China’s establishment of the Ahn memorial to the fact that Ito, the murdered Japanese leader, served as an ambassador plenipotentiary at the peace talks after that battle.
Not everyone in Harbin welcomes the memorial, however.
At Harbin Station, one worker was critical of the region confrontation, which has lasted for more than 100 years since Ito’s assassination in Harbin. “China, Japan and South Korea are all members of Asia,” he said. “We need to learn from each other.”