The Korea Herald


‘Mr. Sunshine’ returns home after century-long wait

By Ji Da-gyum

Published : April 10, 2023 - 15:29

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The remains of the late Korean independence fighter Hwang Ki-hwan arrive at Incheon International Airport, west of Seoul, on April 10, 2023, returning home 100 years after he died in New York in 1923. (Pool photo) (Yonhap) The remains of the late Korean independence fighter Hwang Ki-hwan arrive at Incheon International Airport, west of Seoul, on April 10, 2023, returning home 100 years after he died in New York in 1923. (Pool photo) (Yonhap)

The remains of the Korean independence fighter who inspired the hit South Korean TV series “Mr. Sunshine,” have returned home and been laid to rest at a national cemetery in South Korea after a century-long wait.

Hwang Ki-hwan had been buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery in New York after dying alone in 1923. A century after his death, his remains arrived at Incheon Airport early on Monday morning after a 15-hour flight.

Honor guards carried Hwang’s casket, which was covered with a South Korean national flag, during the repatriation ceremony starting at 9 a.m.

South Korean Minister of Patriots and Veterans Affairs Park Min-shik and descendants of Korean independence fighters paid tribute to the deceased patriot while a song was played to honor him.

“After 100 years, patriot Hwang Ki-hwan has finally returned to his homeland today. When thinking about his whole life dedicated to fighting for independence, I am truly sorry for the time of 100 years,” Park said Monday in a written message.

“I hope that he can now rest in peace in the embrace of his proud homeland, which has risen on the world stage.”

Hwang was interred in the national cemetery in Daejeon on Monday afternoon. The patriot had South Korean nationality conferred to him before the burial ceremony. Hwang had been stateless as he had no direct descendants in South Korea and left Korea before the Japanese Empire enacted Chosun Civil Codes in 1912, which the South Korean government used as the standard to grant nationality after liberation.

The Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs put in a decade of strenuous efforts since 2013 to bring back his remains to South Korea.

The New York cemetery had called for a local court’s approval due to the absence of Hwang’s family members. The ministry failed to obtain approval from the local court twice in 2019 and 2022 due to the lack of official records to confirm that he had no living family. But the cemetery gave the green light in January to repatriate Hwang’s remains to South Korea.

Hwang, whose English name is Earl K. Whang, devoted his whole life to restoring Korea’s sovereignty from Japanese colonial rule and telling the world about Japanese atrocities while traveling around France, the United States and the United Kingdom. Hwang’s interviews, in which he claimed the legitimacy of Korean independence, were featured in the international press, including the New York Herald and the Chicago Tribune.

Born in 1886 in Sunchon, South Pyongan Province, now in North Korea, Hwang moved to the United States in 1904 to study. Then he volunteered to fight for the US in 1918 during World War I and rescued wounded soldiers on the front lines in Europe.

After the war, he moved to France in 1919 and engaged in the Korean independence movement. Hwang supported Kim Kyu-sik, then-foreign minister of the Korean Provisional Government in exile in Shanghai, who stayed in France to attend the Paris Peace Conference convened in January 1919 at Versailles, just outside Paris, to lobby for Korean independence.

Hwang published a monthly magazine, dubbed La Coree Libre, in French and distributed it to news organizations, government officials and scholars.

Hwang also mustered support for the Korean independence movement in the UK. Along with Frederick Arthur McKenzie, he led efforts to establish the League of Friends of Korea in London in support of Korean independence in late October 1920. McKenzie was a journalist whose reporting and writing during the early 20th century helped expose Koreans’ suffering under the rule of Imperial Japan.

Hwang later moved to the US to attend the Washington Conference in the early 1920s and continue his fight for Korean independence and protect the rights of overseas Koreans.

He died of a heart attack in New York. The South Korean government awarded him with the Order of Merit of National Foundation and Patriotism Award, posthumously recognizing his contribution toward the Korean independence movement.

His grave was found at the West Lawn of Mount Olivet Cemetery in 2008, 85 years after his death, as he was unmarried and had no bereaved family members.

His life came to wider attention thanks to “Mr. Sunshine,” a historical drama that aired in 2018.

The Korean patriot was depicted as Eugene Choi, a Korean-born US military officer, played by Korean actor Lee Byung-hun. Choi, a former slave who returned home during the Japanese rule of the Korean peninsula, joins a band of independence fighters with Go Ae-shin, a nobleman’s daughter played by Kim Tae-ri.