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Body of Whang Ki-whan, early independence activist, returns home

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A military honor guard escorts the casket containing the remains of Whang Ki-hwan. The guard at the head of process is carrying his portrait. [JOINT PRESS CORPS]
A military honor guard escorts the casket containing the remains of Whang Ki-hwan. The guard at the head of process is carrying his portrait. [JOINT PRESS CORPS]

The body of Whang Ki-whan, an activist and diplomat who pleaded the case for Korean independence at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 during the Japanese colonial rule, arrived in Korea for re-burial at the National Cemetery in Daejeon on Monday, almost a century after his death.

Whang, also known as Earl K. Whang, served as a diplomat on behalf of the Korean Provisional Government after its establishment in Shanghai but died of a heart attack in New York in April 1923.

The popular 2018 tvN television series “Mr. Sunshine” featured a protagonist based closely on Hwang.

Upcoming Monday this year marks the centennial of his passing.

He was buried at the West Lawn of Mount Olivet Cemetery in Queens, New York.

Whang’s remains arrived at Incheon International Airport on Monday and were received by Veterans Affairs Minister Park Min-shik.

Following a repatriation ceremony with an honor guard from the Defense Ministry, Whang’s remains were transported to Daejeon National Cemetery for re-interment.

Born in 1886 in Sunchon, South Pyongan Province, in what is now North Korea, Whang moved to the United States in 1904 and joined the U.S. military during World War I, fighting on the western front of the conflict.

After the war, he remained in Europe and was chosen by independence movement leader Kim Kyu-shik to serve as the secretary-general of the delegation sent by the Korean Provisional Government to lobby the governments of Britain and France and others participating in the Paris Peace Conference to recognize the Korean independence movement.

Although Whang’s efforts failed to attract serious support for Korean independence, he continued by publishing a booklet titled “Peace and the Independence of Korea” and a monthly magazine, “Free Korea,” in French.

Writing at the time of the mass demonstrations in Korea over Japanese rule, Whang argued that the end of Japanese colonial rule and the independence of Korea was necessary to establish peace in East Asia.

“Koreans are spilling blood to gain absolute independence of Koreans for Koreans by Koreans,” he wrote, adding that “the only way for Korea and Japan to reconcile is for Korea to become independent and establish a good neighborly relationship between the two countries.”

Seoul’s Veterans Affairs Ministry requested that Mount Olivet Cemetery allow the return of Whang’s remains to Korea for over a decade, but the cemetery required local court approval.

Complicating the matter was the fact that Whang died childless, leaving no family members to formally request his re-interment.

The cemetery agreed to the relocation of Whang’s remains in January after being persuaded by the Veterans Affairs Ministry and the South Korean Consulate General in New York, according to the ministry.

Whang, who was de jure stateless given the absence of living descendants, was also issued a certificate of family registration during the repatriation ceremony to restore his Korean nationality before re-burial.

BY MICHAEL LEE [lee.junhyuk@joongang.co.kr]