The life and times of Seo Sang-don (Debt Repayment Movement pt. 1)

As one of the prominent figures in the National Debt Repayment Movement, Seo Sang-Don spent years of his life building up his reputation as a devoted member of the Catholic Church. It all started with his family having close ties to the history of familiarizing Catholicism to Korea. However, not all was good. During a time in the 1780s when Catholicism was forbidden, his grandfather was driven out of his family clan, causing severed relationships. As this happened about 65 years before Seo Sang-don was born, it didn't have much effect on his upbringing.

He was born in 1850. Like many children during the 1800s, he made pocket change by running errands for a local store. This could be anything from fetching wood for a fire, delivering rice to locals, transporting small goods, etc. After his father passed away in 1859, he became the young man of the house since he, his sister and his mother had to live with the grandfather in Jukjeon (an area in Daegu). At age 18 he started his business as a vendor manufacturing paper, linen, and cotton products thanks to the help of some members of the Daegu Catholic Church.

With visions to expand his trade, he became a highly successful entrepreneur and hired the best vendors to expand more. His influence spread across the region when he had enough wealth to harvest 30,000 bags of rice a year. But things took a turn for the worst when his uncle was killed for his belief in the Catholicism. This could’ve been due to the Open Port Policy which forced the country to open its ports after immense pressure from foreign powers. During this time, the invasion of imperialism was the root of racism and maltreatment against Catholic belief. 

When the Open Port Policy was implemented, it also meant that national movements would be spread across the country via press and writings. With a church being a holy place, the Catholics opted for non-violent civil movements. This would include Seo Sang-Don contributing money to build smaller churches, pushing the Vatican Curia to bring the residents of the bishop to Daegu, donating land, etc. He even played a big role in aiding and establishing a Chinese reading school called Haeseongjae. This all seemed like a precursor to what eventually led to colonization. Japan couldn’t care less about the Catholic faith. They wanted resources instead. Eventually, by 1907, the country accumulated a huge amount of debt of 13,000,000 KRW to Japan.

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