Thursday, May 06, 2010

A closer look at Ernest Bethell

A worthwhile article by Robert Neff appeared in the Korea Times the other day about Ernest Bethell, who published English and Korean-language newspapers which openly challenged and criticized the Japanese rule of Korea one hundred years ago. While I thought I'd read a fair amount about Bethell in the past, Neff (as always) digs up information I hadn't come across before.

While I knew that he had been sent to Korea from Japan to cover the Russo Japanese War (like these journalists) and had been let go because Japanese control of information in Korea made their international press releases more informative than reports from most journalists in the field, I hadn't known this:
Bethell insisted that he was dismissed for another reason. "My instructions from the Chronicle were that the policy of the paper was pro-Japanese and I was told that my correspondence would have to fit in with that policy.''
Bethell stayed on in Korea and went on to found the Korea Daily News and the Daehan Maeil Sinbo. I hadn't realized it was initially called the Korea Times, nor had I realized that Bethell had been sent to Korea with fellow Englishman Thomas Cowen, who started the paper with him and eventually betrayed him:
Unknown to Bethell, Cowen was pro-Japanese and informed the Japanese authorities that they were getting ready "to start a paper here (in Seoul) called the Korea Times, with a lot of support from the Korean Court, the policy to be Korea for the Koreans and the anti-Japanese.''

Shortly after the inauguration of the Korea Times and the Daehan Maeil Sinbo on July 18, 1904, Cowen quit and returned to Japan. It was at this point that Bethell changed its name to the Korea Daily News.
It's also noted that " Emperor Gojong helped finance Bethell through Antoinette Sontag, the proprietress of the Sontag Hotel -- the headquarters for the pro-Russian party in Seoul." I also found this interesting:
Bethell was also attacked by Japanese-owned Korean newspapers. One paper claimed that it was a "great folly'' for Koreans to trust the Korea Daily News and those who did were likened to "Chinese opium-smokers." It asked its readers if it was "wise for Korean people to give their confidence to men of another race'' and insisted that Koreans should "trust men of their own color.''
As is well known, Bethell was able to print such critical articles about the Japanese because his British nationality prevented the Japanese (or Koreans, really) from prosecuting him due to Britain's extraterritoriality agreement with the Korean government. He was hounded in various ways until the Japanese pressed the British government to censure him, and after a first trial he handed over control of the paper to his assistant editor Arthur Marnham. A second trial saw him sent to a British prison in Shanghai for three weeks. He died soon after his return due to his heavy drinking (though the stress he had been put under no likely played a part in his early death - he was not yet 40). His papers would not long outlast him.
It was Bethell's wish for his newspapers to continue printing but shortly after his death, Marnham suspended production of the Korea Daily News; only the Daehan Maeil Sinbo was printed under the supervision of Yang Ki-taik, the Korean editor.
It was in the Daehan Maeil Sinbo that Shin Chae-ho published his influential essay, "A New Reading of History" in 1908 (discussed briefly here); Shin was in fact editor-in-chief and a regular contributor to the paper. As for Yang Ki-tak, he ended up becoming a target of the Japanese - twice - which led one British diplomat to stand up to the Japanese, but I'll save that story for another time. What I really found interesting was this:
Marnham, unwilling or unable to endure the threat of Japanese persecution and encouraged to do so by the British consul-general in Seoul, sold the newspaper to the Japanese government for about 7,000 yen.

The sale of the newspaper was kept relatively secret until after Japan's annexation of Korea when the paper's name was changed to the Maeil Sinbo on Aug. 30, 1910.

The paper that had once defied the Japanese government's steps to colonize Korea was now nothing more than a propaganda tool for the very government it had opposed.
This is quite interesting, as Yi Kwangsu's Mujeong (the first modern Korean novel) was serialized in the Maeil Sinbo in 1917, and it was in the Maeil Sinbo in the 1940s (after other Korean papers had been closed down) that he would write many of his pro-Japanese articles. Worth noting is that you can actually read most (all?) of the Maeil Sinbo here, at the Korean Internet News Database (KINDS). To see the full selection of papers available (in pdf form) look here. Among the papers you can find are the turn of the century papers Daehan Maeil Sinbo, Hwangseong Shinmun, Dongnip Shinmun, and the English-language version of the Dongnip Shinmun, The Independent. I think it's great that this material is now freely available online. Started as it was by Seo Jae-pil (Philip Jaisohn), the first naturalized Korean-American, I imagine he wrote the editorial which appeared in the first issue. Speaking of the outrages caused by the Righteous Armies which formed in the wake of the murder of Queen Min, at one point it reads,
We are told that some foreigners have been killed by these rebellious bands and that some of Our people have been killed by foreigners, all of which shocks and pains us. As We have opened up intercourse with the world, We consider that we are all brothers, whether foreign or native born. For brothers to hate and kill one another is an offense to Heaven and will bring its punishment. Our messengers tell us that the governors and magistrates have received Our orders to protect the people regardless of nativity.

Ye people, cast away all savage customs and become peaceful and obedient children. Cast aside the doubts and suspicions which you entertain against foreigners.
Compare this to what the Japanese said later about Bethell, asking if it was "wise for Korean people to give their confidence to men of another race,'' insisting that Koreans should "trust men of their own color," describing his foreign physical attributes as an "Englishman, with deep-set eyes and white nose, with white face and yellow hair'' and accusing him of "taking advantage of the ignorance of the Koreans.'' Luckily, after liberation, Koreans put a stop to such negative media portrayals of foreigners and harping on their different physical characteristics. Right?

Just for fun, it's worth pointing out that after the Japanese turned the anti-Japanese Daehan Maeil Sinbo into their mouthpiece as the Maeil Sinbo, it became the Seoul Shinmun after liberation, which now publishes things like this.

While it's nice that cut flowers are often left at Bethell's grave at the Seoul foreign cemetery, one wonders how someone in a similar position, looking critically at what goes on in Korea, would be treated today.


midknight said...

Hey Matt,

Do you know whatever happened to the Magok Waterfront Park that was supposed to be developed?

I live around 15 minutes bike-ride from there and was wondering if it's going to be completed anytime within the next 2-3 years?


matt said...


It's supposed to be finished in 2012. There are some renderings of the area here. The rest of the area will be developed in phases through 2031. I have no idea why it's supposed to take so long. They stopped planting crops last year, and most of the greenhouses have been torn down (and they're currently ripping the place to shreds, tearing out the irrigation canals, etc). Note also that the original plan called for the main street and the olympic expressway to be tunneled under the lake park, which I figured wouldn't happen. The plans now show bridges.

midknight said...

Thanks Matt.

I live near Jeungmi station on Line 9 which has fairly easy access to the Hangang.

Also read about a bycicle-friendly bridge ("World Cup Bridge") being built nearby to connect this side of the river with World Cup Park.

Know of any other cool urban design projects happening near Juengmi/Deungchon/Gayang stations?


Sperwer said...

The passage you attribute to Seo actually is an excerpt from the official Joseon government gazette republished in The Independent and ostensibly represents the voice of Kojong (note the royal "We"). Seo's editorial is in the far left column, which is notable for a number of things, including especially, though his express articulation of the idea that the concept of the Korean people encompasses every Korean, regardless of status or place of residence. It also includes this potentially troublesome little tidbit: "Our platform is: Korea for the Koreans..."

matt said...

I hadn't even known about that bridge (There's a map of it here). I don't really know of anything else going on in the area these days, other than typical redevelopments and park improvements. I'll post the photos I took yesterday before too long - they're of the Magok lake park construction.

That explains a lot (and reminds me to read a little more carefully). As for 'Korea for the Koreans,' if I remember correctly the Independence Club used the paper as a platform to challenge cessions of land and the like to the Russians at the time. I'm not sure if the Independent/Dongnip Shinmun was as nationalist as other papers (like the Daehan Maeil Sinbo) would become later, but I don't remember it being mentioned much in Gi-wook Shin's 'Ethnic Nationalism in Korea' or Andre Schmid's 'Korea Between Empires.'

Sperwer said...


Your comment about the immediate object of Seo's proclamation of Korea for Koreans is correct; one of the specific targets was the father of Yul Brynner, who had a major stake in the forest land concessions the Russians obtained in the far north. Ad I don't mean to read too much into Seo's proclamation- particularly in any necessitarian sense - but there it is; nationalism can get twisted in lots of ugly ways when it is fueled by the sort of deliberate cultivation of victim's mentality that is at least implicit in even the abstractions of the Independence group. I don't recall the Independents getting much play in Shin's book (but it's been awhile since I looked at it); in any event it's pretty clear that he attributes the beginning of the ugliness of Korean nationalism to the later efforts, spearheaded by Shin Chae-ho, to "ethnicize" it. My recollection is that Schmid, whom I also read long ago, pays more attention to the Independents, but, again, emphasizes the rather abstract nature of their understanding of nationalism. I don;t think, thouhg, that this makes them less nationalistic, just differently nationalistic.

Keep up the good work.