(499) On Track for Development
By Andrei Lankov
Of the many technologies making the modern world possible, few have played a greater role than rail. Indeed, the train was the vehicle that brought modernity to remote Siberian townships and Chinese villages, for better or worse making them a part of an interconnected world. Korea was not an exception.
The first railways were built in the U.K. around 1804, but it took almost a century before this technology reached Korea. The Koreans learned about the existence of the railways in 1876 when a Korean mission was dispatched to Japan. By that time, Japan had already acquired its first railroad connecting Shimbashi (now Shiodome) with Yokohama.
We know exactly who was the first Korean to take a train ride. His name was Kim Ki-su, and at the time he was a middle-aged official, respected for his good education.
Since he was serving in the Ministry of Rites which in old Korea also performed some of the functions of a present-day Foreign Ministry, Kim visited Japan as the head of the Korean official delegation in 1876.
Upon his return he produced a detailed description of his manifold experiences. Among other things, he related his railway trip at some length.
Kim wrote: ``When we departed from Yokohama by train, at first we had a short rest at the train station ... Then they said that the carriages were waiting, but when we left the building there was only a row of pavilions, but nothing like a carriage. I asked where was the train and they told us that what we mistook for a row of pavilions was actually a train!''
Then Kim proceeded with a detailed description of the carriages and train as well as his own experiences. He could not resist some exaggerations: He stated, for example, that the train sped was ``300 or 400 ri an hour.'' (Ri is the traditional Korean measurement of distance.)
Well, taking into consideration that in his time one ri was equal to some 390 meters, this would mean that the steam train moved at the speed of 150 kph or even a bit faster. Well, it was no KTX, so its actual speed hardly exceeded 50 kph.
Upon his return home, Kim met King Gojong and briefed him about the results of the mission. No doubt, he found time to talk about the railway wonders. The reports made by Kim were soon elaborated on by other Korean diplomats who were also impressed by the speed and comfort of rail transport.
One of them, Pak Chong-yang came back from his stay in the United States with a tiny model railroad. In 1887 he showed the set to His Majesty who was duly impressed. Taking into consideration Gojong's infatuation with gadgetry one can easily imagine the king admiring this wonderful toy.
So, when in 1882 Pail von Mollendorf, a German-born adviser to the king, suggested that railways would greatly facilitate the country's economic growth, his words found fertile ground. However, there was the usual question: where is the money?
It was clear that railways could be built by foreign investors only, and in the 1880s the Korean court received some proposals from British and Japanese companies. Nothing came from these early efforts.
In 1892 Korean diplomats in Washington were approached by an American entrepreneur named James R. Morse who expressed an interest in building railways in Korea. Next year Morse came to Korea himself, with a detailed proposal.
Unknown to him or, for that matter, to Korean authorities, in 1892 the Japanese undertook a secret survey of a possible route between Busan and Seoul. By that time, Japan already saw Korea as the major target for its growing imperialist ambitions, and in the 1890s no such ambitions would be possible without railways.
Indeed, it was the great strategic importance of the railways that made the struggle over construction rights so bitter. The Japanese were major contenders, and they were not happy about the presence of competitors, including Morse.
On the other hand, the representatives of other great powers made it clear that Japan should not have a monopoly on railway construction in Korea (in May 1895 missions of Russia, Germany, the U.S., and Britain even presented the Korean government with a joint memorandum to this effect).
So, Morse succeeded ― at least, for a while. In March 1896 he was granted permission to build a railway between Seoul and Incheon, which by that time had become the sea gate of the Korean capital.
The line would be short (merely 35 km), relatively easy to build, and with the existence of a large amount of traffic clearly commercially viable and profitable. The agreement between Morse and the Korean authorities stipulated that construction work should start within a year, and the railway should be completed within three years.
Work began immediately, but soon it became clear that Morse and his partners were having troubles with funds, and by early 1897 it looked unlikely that the railway would be completed on time.
The Japanese used this opportunity to approach Morse, asking him to sell the railway construction rights to a Japanese-owned company. Rather complicated and convoluted negotiations followed, but finally Morse agreed to sell the rights to the Japanese who took over the construction.
The work progressed quickly, since the new owners were driven not so much by commercial but also by strategic considerations.
By September 1898 everything was ready, and on September 19 the new railway was officially opened to fee-paying customers. The railway age finally arrived in Korea.
Prof. Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He has recently published ``The Dawn of Modern Korea," which is now on sale at Kyobo Book Center and other major bookstores. The book is based on columns published in The Korea Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.