By Robert Neff
Many of the early Western visitors to Korea were impressed not only with the exoticness of the “Hermit Kingdom” but also with the average Korean’s honesty. One such man was William R. Carles, a member of the British diplomatic service.
In the fall of 1883 he and two other companions traveled extensively throughout the Korean interior. They were often forced to leave their packs and goods outside their rooms at night but experienced no thefts which, according to Carles, spoke “highly of the honesty of Coreans.”
But the group held a different opinion of the Koreans who had been “affected by foreign intercourse.” While traveling aboard the German steamer Nanjing from Jemulpo (modern Incheon) to Fusan (Busan), Carles discovered that the money in one of his bags has been stolen.
“There was little doubt that the money had been stolen by a Corean servant, who was on his way to Fusan, and who had seen the contents of the portmanteau. He was stripped before landing, but none of the spoil was on him, and he bade me adieu with smiles which were repeated when next we met.”
Percival Lowell, an American who spent the winter of 1883-1884 in Seoul, also described the average Korean as being very honest.
He wrote: “Actual thieving is very rare in Korea, as it is in Japan. I observed this with impersonal gratification with reference to the community at large and with much personal delight in my own instance. In spite of the confiding way in which I left my things about, I never had anything but a penknife stolen; and this too in the face of the fact that, however valueless to me, the simplest of my trinkets was to them an article of nearly priceless curiosity.”
Lowell jokingly suggested to a Korean friend, a military officer, that the thief should be executed. He was horrified when his friend responded that if the thief was caught he would be summarily decapitated as punishment.
British diplomat, Christopher T. Gardner, also held a high opinion of Koreans. He stated that they were extremely generous and would readily share their food with neighbors and strangers alike.
But, according to him, Koreans had a different perception of individual property.
“Any article without a visible owner is taken by the first comer.”
Gardner recounted that many Koreans fled the city following the Japanese occupation of Gyeongbok Palace in July 1894. One alarmed Korean told him:
“I fear someone else may come and take my house, for it is a Corean custom that anyone may take an empty house unless some living thing, like a dog or a cat, is left in it. I have not a dog or a cat, so I intend to leave my wife’s mother in the house.”
Then, as an afterthought, he added, “She is an old woman and may die before we come back.”
Prior to the Japanese occupation, it was common to see stalls in the market left unattended; customers would take the items they desired and leave the money on open trays — money and goods unguarded by anything but Korean custom.
Gardner’s accounts seem to imply that the average Korean was honest but was changing due to outside influence. Following the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), Seoul, as well as much of the country, was plagued with unrest and lawlessness. Many people blamed the Japanese for this increase of crime and violence but apparently there were others to blame as well.
After a Western woman nearly had her purse snatched by a young Korean thief, the editor of the English-language newspaper, the Independent, speculated that this type of behavior had been learned from Westerners — particularly the sailors.
Robert Neff is a contributing writer for The Korea Times.