(120) The Great Joseon smokeout
In 1997, economic disaster roared through Asia spreading ruin and despair. One of its victims was Korea, which was forced to accept the assistance of the International Monetary Fund, a fact that is still somewhat bitterly remembered.
During the economic disaster, many Koreans took it upon themselves to make sacrifices for the good of their country, donating gold jewelry and heirlooms. So much was donated (about $1.3 billion worth) that it caused the international price of gold to fall to its lowest level in nearly two decades. It was largely through the efforts of the average Korean that the country quickly recovered and repaid its debts.
But that wasn’t the first time that the average Korean made sacrifices to help pay off the national debt.
Following the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), Korea found itself an independent country in name only. The Japanese government was slowly gaining control of Korea not only through diplomacy (making Korea a protectorate) but also through economic means. At the insistence of a Japanese financial adviser to the Joseon government, Korea borrowed more than 10 million yen in less than a year. An astronomical amount considering Korea’s revenue for 1906 was 13,189,336 yen and its expenses amounted to 13,950,523 yen.
By early 1907, much of the Korean population was aware of just how financially dependent Korea had become on Japan. In order to help resolve the nation’s debt (then at 13 million yen) the average Korean began making personal sacrifices. People donated their rings and jewelry, while others gave sums of money. But for many, the most difficult sacrifice was giving up smoking.
During the Joseon era Koreans were extremely fond of tobacco. At the end of the 19th century one Western observer noted that Koreans did not use tobacco as a luxury to facilitate social enjoyment, or for “other purposes, real or imaginary, which nicotine can aid or abet,” but as a necessity or addiction. Men, women and even children smoked. And it wasn’t just the common people. Prior to her murder, Queen Min was alleged to have smoked “American cigarettes by the thousand” and Emperor Gojong was also fond of smoking.
In 1907, a campaign was started in Daegu by Kim Kwang-je and Seo Sang-don to pay off the national debt through the curtailment of smoking. It was estimated that the average person spent about 0.2 yen per month on tobacco. If the smokers could be convinced to quit smoking and donate the money, it was reasoned that the national debt could be paid off in a little over three months. This would help free Korea from its dependency on Japan.
The campaign soon became quite popular and even Emperor Gojong allegedly quit smoking, adding further strength to the cause. Of course, the Japanese government viewed these efforts as being anti-Japanese and tried to besmirch the reputation and efforts of those involved.
While the campaign was very popular and fairly successful in the beginning, it never did achieve its goal. After some 18 months enthusiasm waned and the amount of donations decreased. This was further aggravated by allegations of embezzlement and the campaign was soon abandoned.
Some 187,842.78 yen had been collected but what became of all the money is unclear. What little money may have been used to help pay off the national debt seems to have had little effect. By 1910, Korea’s debt to Japan was nearly 44 million yen. But Korea was to pay an even greater price. On August 29, 1910, Korea was officially annexed by the Japanese empire and ceased to exist as an independent nation.
Robert Neff is a contributing writer for The Korea Times.