South Korea’s National Assembly held a hearing on Thursday to discuss the possibility of replacing the national anthem, “Aegukga,” on the grounds that it was written by a composer who supported Japan during its occupation of Korea in the first half of the 20th Century.
Aegukga essentially means “patriotism.” The lyrics and music of the South Korean national anthem evolved over the course of many years, from a prototypical marching-band song in 1902 to lyrics that were originally set to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne.”
The finishing touches were applied by famed classical composer Ahn Eak-tai in 1935 when he wrote a new score to replace the borrowed Scottish folk music. Ahn’s composition and the version of “Aegukga” sung today became the widely accepted national anthem after South Korea established its independence from Japanese colonial rule in 1948.
The problem is that a report published in 2008 named Ahn as a supporter of Imperial Japan during the occupation.
Ahn, a child musical prodigy, was educated in Germany and Japan and was among the first students at the Tokyo Conservatory of Music. He took the opportunity to live and work in Japan during the years of the occupation, when it would have been difficult to make a living as a musician in Korea. In Japan, he was hailed as a musical genius; in Korea, the Japanese police stopped him from performing at a concert.
Ahn got the idea to write new music for the Korean anthem while visiting the United States, where he was detained by immigration officials for refusing to surrender his cello during an inspection and released after the prison guards heard him play it. He wrote an entire symphony to express his love for Korea while living in America, submitted it to Carnegie Hall, was given command of the New York Philharmonic for its debut, and stormed off the stage in frustration because they did not play it right.
Ahn worked the bugs out of his masterpiece, performed it numerous times to great acclaim, and proposed using its final movements to replace “Auld Lang Syne” as the melody for the South Korean national anthem. He was awarded the Cultural Medal of Merit for his musical skills and patriotic contributions. He died abroad in 1965 but his remains were moved to the Korean National Cemetery in 1977. His family signed away all rights to “Aegukga” to the Korean people in 2005.
A few years after that, researchers began uncovering documents that painted Ahn’s activities during the World War II era in a most unflattering light. In sum, he was accused of toadying to Imperial Japan – and its allies in Germany, where he became the only Korean member of the Nazi state music bureau and once conducted a symphony to celebrate Hitler’s birthday – so that he could live comfortably abroad during the occupation and pursue his musical career. He hit the trifecta of dismaying Axis connections by developing friendly relations with fascist Italy and Spain, which came in handy when the Allies landed in Normandy and moving from Tokyo to Spain suddenly looked like an excellent idea.
The most determined critics of Ahn Eak-tai’s legacy flatly accuse him of working as a collaborator with Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany, charging the South Korean government with whitewashing his history and deliberately concealing historical documents because it was more useful to depict him as a patriotic hero so his lovely music could be retained for the national anthem.
The debate over “Aegukga” heated up as South Korea’s National Liberation Day holiday on August 15 approached and the Koreans found themselves embroiled in a bitter historical feud and trade battle with Japan, whose former empire is what South Koreans celebrate their liberation from in August.
According to the Korea Herald, Thursday’s hearing at the National Assembly did not dwell on the controversy over Ahn’s history, but said it was important to consider a new anthem to “root out traces of the Japanese colonial era.”
“It is not to disparage or denounce an individual, but to realize historical justice and set straight the people’s spirit. If we think about how the future generations will see us, it is not a matter that can go unnoticed,” said honorary Hansung University professor Yoon Kyung-ro, who was involved in publishing the 2008 list of alleged occupation collaborators that included Ahn.
The Korea Herald noted that some who favor changing the anthem are dwelling on Ahn’s personal conduct. “I am feeling betrayed that the composer of Aegukga was pro-Japanese and anti-Korea. The current anthem has already lost its status as a song that instills love for the country,” said Kim Won-woong of a group called Heritage of Korean Independence.
Korean media reports indicate interest in changing the anthem has grown stronger as the current dispute with Japan intensified, but the change has been contemplated ever since Ahn’s history became a topic of conversation. Also, some have complained the high notes make it too difficult for ordinary people to sing, a criticism that may sound familiar to Americans.
“When I sing ‘Aegukga,’ I will bear in mind the background of its composer Ahn Eak-tai. I learnt he was not yet pro-Japanese and did not work for the Nazi Party when he composed the song in 1935, but later, he seemed to have succumbed to colonial power after losing hope to stand against it,” singer Zoe Yungmi Blank told the Korea Times in February after she was invited to perform the anthem at a major public event in Seoul.
“I do not think it is my place to decide whether singing ‘Aegukga’ is flat-out right or wrong, but I think people should still remember the tragic history behind it,” Blank added modestly.
According to the Korea Times, at the beginning of 2019 a majority of South Koreans did not want to replace the national anthem because the song remains a popular tradition, the worst allegations against Ahn had not been proven to their satisfaction, and the quality of the piece should be judged separately from its composer.