Sunday, September 9, 2018

Jang Jirak and Korean Nationalism

When Japan annexed Korea in 1910 many strident Korean nationalists went into exile. Among them were aristocrat Yi Hoe-yeong and his five brothers, who fled to a remote town in Manchuria and set up a military academy disguised as a neo-Confucian school. Only one of the brothers survived to see the rebirth of Korea in 1945, Yi Si-yeong, who became South Korea's first vice president.

One of the graduates of that hidden military school was Jang Jirak, who ended up fighting with the Chinese communists. There he ran into American journalist Helen Foster Snow, who interviewed him in 1937 and wrote a long article about him. Jang said to her:
All Koreans wanted only two things, really, though they differed in how to achieve these: independence and democracy. Really they wanted only one thing: freedom – a golden word to those who know it not. Any kind of freedom looked divine to them. They wanted freedom from Japanese oppression, freedom in marriage and love, freedom to live a normal, happy life, freedom to rule their own lives. That is why anarchism had such appeal. The urge toward a broad democracy was really very strong in Korea. This is one reason we did not develop a strong, centralized system of political parties. Each group defended its right to exist and its right to free expression. And each individual fought to the end for his own freedom of belief. There was plenty of democracy among us – but very little discipline. . . .

Nearly all the friends and comrades of my youth are dead, hundreds of them: nationalist, Christian, anarchist, terrorist, communist. But they are alive to me. . . . They failed in the immediate thing, but history keeps a careful accounting. A man's name and his brief dream may be buried with his bones, but nothing that he has ever done or failed to do is lost in the final balance of forces. That is his immortality, his glory or shame. Not even he himself can change this objective fact, for he is history. Nothing can rob a man of a place in the movement of history.
Jang Jirak was eventually executed in one of the Chinese Communist Party's frequent purges.

–Michael Breen, The New Koreans: the Story of a Nation. 2017. p. 150

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