National Debt Repayment Movement - UNESCO Memory of the World Record

published by Devon Furbush

“The 13 million won national debt is a matter of life and death for our country. If we pay it off, we will live. If not, the end of Korea is an inevitable consequence. We shall pay it off with the power of the people to protect our country and its sovereign rights.”

These were the words of Seo Sang-don that inspired hundreds of members of the Daegu County Council to join a movement to repay the stacking debt owed to Japan. The National Debt Redemption Movement is another monumental operation that has its roots in the city of Daegu. Led by Seo Sang-don and Kim Gwang-jae, they would do anything for their country and wouldn’t let Imperial Japan stop them.

What caused the national debt?

In 1905, the Korean Empire was coerced by Japan to sign the Protectorate Treaty against its will. But the year before, Foreign Minister Yun Chi-ho and Japanese envoy Hayashi Gonske signed the very first Korean-Japan protocol agreement which brought in several other foreign advisors onboard. These advisers included Megata Shigetoshi, Shidehara Hiroshi, and D.W. Stevens who all would have complete control over the state’s administration of finance, the police, external affairs, culture, and overall public education.

Japanese imperials sought out every opportunity to dominate Korea politically, militarily, and economically with the aim to colonize. Megata Shigetoshi, the controller of the finances, transferred HUGE loans from Japan all the while being well aware of the embezzlement and high-interest charges that came with these loans and bonds. While this devious plan went on for years, the people of Korea finally caught on to this critical problem that had to be stopped. Thus, the movement was launched just three short years before Korea completely fell into the hands of Japan.

Two men lead an entire nation

An organization of patriotic nationalists called the 'Great Eastern Literary Association' wished to open a New Education Campaign. This would include establishing brand new education facilities across the Gyeongbuk Province starting at the beginning of 1906. The problem was Japan had already built a Japanese institute --Daegu Insacheong-- that ruled the entire district. So, as a rebuttal to secure the rights of Korea as a sovereign state and to combat Japanese rule, Kim Gwang-jae and hundreds of members installed the Daegu County Council.

Later on at a January 1907 meeting, Seo Sang-don introduced the National Debt Redemption. From then until 1910, citizens of Korea carried out the nationwide fundraiser in order to repay the debts of the nation during the financial crisis.

Who participated in the movement?

Everyone was involved. This wasn’t a mandatory movement. All of the donations by the citizens were completely from the heart in order to stop the annexation of Korea; a grassroots campaign launched by the people. Everyone from all walks of life was involved: thieves, prisoners, villagers, children, monks, woodcutters, rickshaw drivers, beggars, and barmaids participated to protect the country’s economic sovereignty.  Small-scale traders at Seomun Market even donated the hard-earned money they got from selling products like bean sprouts and straw sandals.

For the first time in Korean history, a campaign to help smokers quit for 3 months sought out to help raise a good chunk of money. This campaign spread like a wildfire nationwide and turned the country into a full-blown movement. Even Emperor Go Jong gave up smoking when he heard about the grand campaign. “My people stopped smoking and are collecting money to repay the national debt, so I will not smoke anymore.” 

As you can imagine, this movement made Japan furious. It was a success in terms of bringing people together to reclaim their land. With the donated funds, Korea wanted to purchase land to establish a civil college but Japan wasn’t having that. Ultimately, the 13 million won goal wasn’t reached, but that doesn’t mean the movement was ineffective. This act of pure patriotism out-rivaled social and economic division, gender differences, religion, and nationality.

The idea of independence was embedded in the minds of every citizen and it cultivated nationwide consciousness. It helped breed Korean’s harmony that started the wave for several other independence movements. The records of the movement also made its entry in the UNESCO Memory of the World as of 2017; the first of its kind in the city of Daegu. The Foreign Debt Redemption Movement Memorial Hall serves as a place for education and enlightenment.

Address: 42 Dongin 2(i)-ga, Jung-gu, Daegu, South Korea

Outdoor Museum at Kyungpook National University
The Life and Times of Activist Seo Sang-don

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