Three statues stuck out at me on my visit to the Independence Hall of Korea on the weekend of the anniversary of the March 1st Independence Movement. Copper-gold statues of three combative men in various stages of action stride atop pedestals. The three men are Kim Chwa-chin, a guerrilla general; Ahn Jung-geun, the assassin of Japan’s Resident-General in charge of Korea, Ito Hirobumi; and Yun Bong-gil, an attempted suicide bomber.
They are some of Korea’s most beloved national heroes. They struck against high-profile Japanese military and political leaders at a time when Japan was colonizing Korea, trying to extinguish the Korean language, brutalizing the Korean people, forcing Korean men to labor in dangerous factories for low and often no wages, and raping Korean women.
Their lives and legacies are commemorated in books, films, memorials across South Korea (and North Korea too), and even sets of Lego-style building blocks. Yes, the “Harbin Train” set by local company Oxford depicts Ahn pointing his gun at Ito on the platform. The image of a Lego man in the form of Yun holding a grenade on the box of the “Independence Army” was a little bit stunning; the American originals won’t even make blocks of military equipment.
This all got me thinking: Why doesn’t America have more assassins among our national heroes?
Part of it is due to lack of historical opportunity. The United States hasn’t been occupied by a foreign power since the War of 1812. Who would there be to be assassinated?
Historically, it was presidents, including those who freed the slaves; civil rights activists registering people to vote; union organizers; and radicals. Those who committed the killings were usually Confederates, Klansmen, paid operatives of mining companies, or just plain kooks.
Before the U.S. declared its independence from Great Britain, the patriots did loot and pillage the homes of prominent loyalists, including Governor Thomas Hutchinson, and forced people to sign anti-British pledges at the threat of being dragged from their own homes to be covered with tar and feathers.
But when Michael Moore suggested that American colonists fighting for their new nation’s sovereignty bombed carriages, he was condemned as an anti-American terrorist-supporter who was “on the same side” as bin Laden.
America’s most beloved and righteous guerrilla warrior might be John Brown, but even he’s not universally praised. David French called him “an evil man” in an article for the National Review. Only two major statues exist of Brown in the United States, and one of them was defaced twice with Swastikas in 2018 and 2019. That’s fewer than the number of statues of Ahn in Korea, a country the size of Indiana, and many fewer than the number of statues of Robert E. Lee.
Reflections on the legacy of Brown often contain titles like, “John Brown: Hero or terrorist?,” as if those things are mutually exclusive. In the popular parlance, in the way governments and activists throw around the term, they appear to be. Koreans wouldn’t dare call Yun a terrorist either. But what kind of a concept is “terrorism” if its definition depends on the personal views of each person defining it?
There’s the facts of the matter, what actually happened: John Brown led the raid on Harper’s Ferry, capturing the Armory and taking hostages, in an attempt to free slaves. He also attacked pro-slavery forces in Kansas, forcing a family from their homes and killing five with pistols and swords, after the pro-slavery militia looted Lawrence. Yun hid bombs in his water bottle and bento box and made his way towards the stage of the Imperial Japanese Army’s celebration of Emperor Hirohito’s birthday in Hongkou Park, Shanghai, placed his bomb on the stage, and exploded it to kill Kawabata Sadaji, a local Japanese official, immediately, and mortally wound General Yoshinori Shirakawa.
They were both fighters, warriors, killers. About that, there is no dispute. They both used violence to pursue a political cause.
Then there’s the subjective arguments about whether or not they were justified: They both used violence to fight for the cause of freedom for oppressed peoples. Or, to take the negative view of Brown, his “blood-soaked” violence pushed the South to secede, David French argued, in his condemnation of Brown. That strikes me as a little bit too close to blaming the good guys for the sins of the oppressor, and similar to the false condemnation of Ahn’s actions for supposedly “accelerating” the colonization of Korea.
According to the most basic definition of terrorism, “Terrorism is commonly understood to refer to acts of violence that target civilians in the pursuit of political or ideological aims.” So says the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. The UN never did come up with a widely accepted definition of terrorism, because different countries squabbled over the specifics so they could exempt their own military and police actions while condemning their oppositions’ actions. But even the very basic definition already contains a qualifier that could exempt Yun: terrorism is violence against “civilians.”
Who are “civilians?” Military leaders prosecuting illegal colonialist wars abroad? Industrialists building railroads to facilitate the colonialism? (Ahn also shot and injured South Manchuria Railway executive Tanaka Seitarō.)
The U.S. prosecutes attacks on military personnel as terrorism, and attacks on government officials and politicians are certainly referred to as terrorism. One could easily modify that definition by defining terrorism as violence against “legitimate” government.
If the Japanese generals were slaughtering civilians in a country they had invaded and bombing railway cars to commit assassinations of their own, and if the Koreans and Chinese had no way to pick the president at the ballot box, as the MAGA capitol rioters did, then the bullet was their only choice left. Responding to violence against their people was a form of self-defense.
Most Americans never lived in a time when they were denied voting rights, or occupied by a foreign power, or had medical experiments conducted on them against their will. So, who would they have to take up arms against to fight for their freedom?
When the people who were held in captivity in America did rise up and seek to throw off their chains, they escaped the plantation and ransacked the homes of whites, killing sixty with knives and axes in 1831. When nineteen of the participants at the pro-independence march on colonized Puerto Rico were shot to death in 1937, it was the American-appointed governor who was blamed, and when the independence activists grabbed guns of their own in the 1950s, it was the American president and American Congressmen they went after.
The MAGA riot wasn’t the first-time armed terrorists had engaged in an attack on the Capitol. But perhaps Americans never wanted to think too deeply about the 1954 shooting in the Capitol that wounded five representatives that was carried out by four Puerto Rican activists, among them Rafael Cancel Miranda, whose parents had taken part in the Ponce protests.
Nor, even, was the 1950 assassination attempt on Truman covered extensively in contemporary U.S. press, according to Daniel Immerwahr’s book “How to Hide an Empire.” The New York Times called it a “one of those mad adventures that make no sense to outsiders.” Perhaps because “outsiders” didn’t want to make sense of it. It might have been too unsettling.
Consider South Korea. A peculiar benefit of one’s country having never been a great empire, having never colonized another, and never had many troops abroad in foreign countries, but instead been the victim of colonization, is that the citizens of that country today have nothing in foreign policy or history to feel guilty about. Koreans can build their statues to insurgents, safe in the knowledge that they won’t be inadvertently justifying the bombings of their troops. They can—and should—criticize Japan over comfort women and the Yasukuni shrine, knowing that Japan’s government won’t be able to say anything about Ahn Jung-geun Park without awkwardly stepping around the annexation.
American history is full of heroes in uniform who dove on grenades to save their comrades as they stormed beaches to liberate concentration camps and occupied nations, to push communism back, to light the path for freedom. One could imagine Ahn, Yun and General Kim would be doing the same if they were born in a free and prosperous world power at the right time.
Mitchell Blatt is a former editorial assistant at the National Interest, Chinese-English translator, and lead author of Panda Guides Hong Kong. He has been published in USA Today, The Daily Beast, The Korea Times, Silkwinds magazine, and Areo Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him on Facebook at @MitchBlattWriter.