Seoul seeks to retrieve Korean assassin's remains

Seoul is preparing a series of 26 initiatives to mark the 100th anniversary of a Korean independence movement on March 1. PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA (AFP) - South Korea is seeking to recover the remains of an independence activist who assassinated Japan's top colonial official to mark a key anniversary, potentially exacerbating historical disputes between the neighbours.

South Korea and Japan are both US allies, democracies and market economies faced with an overbearing China and nuclear-armed North Korea.

But relations between Tokyo, Beijing and both Koreas continue to be heavily affected by Japan's expansionism in the first half of the 20th century, including its colonisation of the peninsula.

Ahn Jung-geun is a case in point.

In 1909, he shot dead Hirobumi Ito, a four-time Japanese prime minister and at the time Tokyo's top official in Korea in the north-east Chinese city of Harbin, then also under Japanese control.

Ahn was executed the following year. In Korea, he is lauded as a hero, praised in school textbooks and with a statue in central Seoul, while Tokyo regards him as a criminal and terrorist.

Seoul, which regularly accuses Tokyo of failing to properly address the past, is preparing a series of 26 initiatives to mark the 100th anniversary of a Korean independence movement on March 1.

Among them, it will look to launch a joint project with the North to recover Ahn's remains, the ministry of patriots and veterans affairs said in a statement.

"The purpose of this project is to fulfil our immense responsibility as a nation by bringing home the remains of a great patriot who worked so hard for our country," a ministry official told AFP on Tuesday.

Ahn is believed to have been buried in the grounds of the prison in Dalian where he was hanged, but Tokyo has not responded to requests for records of his grave, the South's Yonhap news agency reported.

In his will, Ahn asked to be reburied in Korea once it recovered its sovereignty.

"I will also make every effort for the independence of Korea even after I go to heaven," he wrote.

Ahn was born in Haeju, in South Hwanghae province, now part of North Korea, whose state media excoriates Japan on a near-daily basis.

Beijing's communist authorities - who use nationalism as part of their claim to legitimacy - also regularly denounce Tokyo over historical issues.

China and South Korea established a memorial to Ahn in 2014 at the Harbin railway station, where he carried out the killing.

Tokyo criticised the monument, saying it did not contribute to peace and "cooperative relations" in the region and branding Ahn a "terrorist".

The hall was moved in 2017, when Beijing and Seoul were at loggerheads over the deployment of the Thaad US missile defence system in the South.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.