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2005 Inter-Korean Agreement to Jointly Excavate Remains of Ahn Jung-geun


ⓒ KBS News

Every year on March 26, a solemn memorial ceremony is held. It is the anniversary of the death of Ahn Jung-geun, one of Korea’s most revered independence fighters. 

Ahn was executed by Japanese colonizers in 1910 after he assassinated then-resident general of Japan’s colonial government in Korea Ito Hirobumi at the Harbin Railway Station in China the previous year. On March 25, 1910, just one day before his execution in Lushun Prison, he told his two younger brothers to bury his body in Harbin Park and move it to his homeland when Korea restores its sovereignty. Unfortunately, the remains of the patriotic martyr have yet to return home. 

But South and North Korea once joined forces to recover the remains of the independence activist. Today, we’ll take a look back at the 2005 inter-Korean agreement to jointly excavate Ahn’s remains. Let’s hear from Park Seon-ju, who served as the chief of the South-North team dedicated to the joint exaction of Ahn Jung-geun’s remains, now honorary professor at Chungbuk National University. 

After Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule in 1945, there were discussions about how to locate and recover Ahn’s remains. In 1999, some documents were discovered in Japan hinting at the whereabouts of the gravesite. The documents were sent to the South Korean government in the early 2000s, and in 2004 plans were made to unearth the remains at the suggested location.

At high-level inter-Korean talks the following year, Seoul disclosed its plans to Pyongyang and proposed a joint excavation project. Pyongyang accepted the proposal, and a joint research team began to carry out an on-site survey in the Lushun district in China’s northeastern city of Dalian in 2006. 

As early as in the late 1940s, following Korea’s liberation, prominent political leader Kim Ku proposed recovering the remains of independence fighters outside of Korea, including those of Ahn’s. Despite a number of attempts, though, his remains have yet to be found. As a matter of fact, Japan buried his body in secret for fear that the grave might become a sacred place that would inspire Korean independence activists. 

But two photos of a Lushun prison yard taken in 1911 provided by the daughter of a prison warden there offered new hope. South and North Korea decided in 2005 to create a joint team to find Ahn’s remains and bring them back home. But why did North Korea readily agree to South Korea’s proposal? 

North Korea was and is greatly interested in anti-Japanese independence fighters. In fact, a North Korean inspection team visited Lushun in 1985, under the instruction of then-leader Kim Il-sung. There, the inspectors heard that the site where the remains had been buried was dug up and turned into a farm plot of sweet potatoes. It seems North Korea concluded that it would be impossible to locate Ahn’s remains. But after South Korea presented those documents in had obtained from Japan in the early 2000s, North Korea agreed on the idea of a joint excavation project at another site. 

Ahn’s hometown is Haeju, Hwanghae Province in what is now North Korea – something the North is very proud of. Ahn is represented in North Korean film and several inspection teams have been dispatched to China to locate his remains. But such efforts proved unsuccessful. But the South Koreans suggested a new, previously unexplored location. So, in June 2006, the inter-Korean excavation team conducted traveled to Lushun. 

…According to historical documents, Ahn’s body was carried out through a small door in the eastern section of the prison following his execution, moved along a mountain path, and buried at the location the inter-Korean joint team was moving to... 

China also joined the on-site survey. The inspectors meticulously examined the photos provided by the daughter of the prison warden, an old map, and execution reports. They pointed out a hill northwest of the prison as a probable burial site. In April 2007, South and North Korea held working-level contacts in Gaeseong. 

At the time, the head of the North Korean delegation left a deep impression on me. During the talks, South Korean delegates used some wrong words by mistake. North Korea could have walked out of the talks, as it did in the past. But the North Korean chief delegate politely said, “Would you mind not using those words, please? But we should still continue with the inspection.” Also, the South Korean side wanted to survey the site with some machines first, but the North Koreans said, “Comrade, why don’t we just dig up the ground together?” I thought they were proactive and enthusiastic about the project. 

Unfortunately, however, the joint excavation never really took place. Inter-Korean relations began to worsen in the wake of North Korea’s nuclear test in October 2006, and Pyongyang suggested to Seoul that it carry out the excavation independently. To make matters worse, China also became uncooperative. 

In the winter of 2007, a newspaper in Seoul sent me a photo and said, “Workers are excavating the earth here to make a foundation for an apartment complex. But isn’t it the presumed burial site of Ahn Jung-geun’s remains?” I examined the photo and recognized the very site where Ahn’s remains were assumed to be buried. I was startled and upset. I immediately contacted the South Korean government and complained, “South and North Korea had already requested the Chinese government to designate the site as a conservation area. But how can China dig up the site for apartment construction?” I returned to South Korea right away and lodged a strong protest with China. Chinese authorities then told us to do our excavation work the following spring. 

Finally, South Korea began excavations on March 26, 2008. For 29 days, the excavation team dug up 4,952 square meters of a hillside to the rear of Lushun Prison. Sadly, the work turned up nothing. At the time, the ground-leveling work for the apartment complex had been nearly completed. 

The South Korean government pushed for additional excavation work in 2010. But the Chinese government said it was difficult to cooperate without any clear evidence and also demanded that both Koreas work together on the project. Since then, there has been no progress in the recovery of Ahn’s remains. However, the excavation work may resume in the near future. 

…We haven’t even found Ahn’s remains yet. His tomb, prepared by Kim Ku at Hyochang Park in Seoul, still remains empty…. 

During a speech commemorating the August 15 Liberation Day this year, South Korean President Moon Jae-in expressed determination to unearth Ahn’s remains jointly with North Korea. Professor Park explains why this project should move forward.

In Hokkaido in 1997, I began to work on the excavation of the remains of Koreans who were forced into labor under Japan’s colonial occupation. While engaged in the work for nearly two decades, I realized that the excavation of the remains of our ancestors who met tragic deaths during the colonial period would contribute greatly to Korea’s national identity and promoting human rights. I also became confident that it would help facilitate reconciliation and co-prosperity between South and North Korea and remove mutual distrust. Through this project, I’m sure that South and North Korea will be able to move toward peace on their peninsula and in Northeast Asia as well. 

Professor Park says that the joint excavation of Ahn’s remains by the two Koreas will pave the way for overcoming national division and working toward regional peace. He believes such efforts will remind both countries of their common roots and mutual struggle for independence, and contribute to Korean unification. 

Ahn Jung-geun not only presented a vision for Korea’s independence but also sought to realize peace in East Asia.

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