The Dawn of Modern Korea: The Seoul Times

Andrei Lankov says that the Seoul Times has a lot of historical significance, despite its origins as a political prop

The Korea Times
Sunday, August 21, 2005

By Andrei Lankov

In December 1906, Korea acquired a new newspaper that was published entirely in English. It was the Seoul Times, the official mouthpiece of the Governor Generalís office. The Seoul Times was to last for three decades, until May 1937. In fact, it became the first stable English language newspaper in Korea: it had predecessors, of course, but none of the earlier papers lasted for more than a few years.

To put it mildly, the market for the nascent paper was not big: in 1909, there were merely 680 Westerners permanently residing in Korea. Not all of them were of the newspaper-reading type, so one would not expect an English-language periodical to be commercially viable. But commercial interests were secondary to the publishers at the Seoul Press. Their paper was a public relations (PR) campaign, first and foremost. It was conceived to win Western public opinion over to the Japanese side, and persuade the world that the looming colonial takeover was a fair and necessary step.

Japanese politicians of the era understood the importance of good PR and worked hard to gain a favorable international public opinion. Ito Hirobumi, the main architect of Japanese policy in Korea, even paid for the visit of a Yale University professor to Korea. The professor spent two months here and duly produced a book that enthusiastically lauded Japanís "civilizing efforts" in its would-be colony.

A pro-Japanese English paper was even more necessary since at the time, Korea had an anti-Japanese English paper, the Korea Daily News. The Korea Daily News was published and edited by the formidable Ernest Thomas Bethell, a staunch critic of Japanese colonial penetration. By establishing the Seoul Press, the Japanese administrators wanted to drive Bethell and his paper out of an already small and tight market.

The choice of the paperís editor demonstrated how important the project was to the Japanese. The job was taken by Jimoto Motosata, one-time secretary to Ito Hirobumi and one of the most prominent Japanese journalists of the time. In 1897, he became the first editor of the Japan Times, the official English-language newspaper of Tokyo. The decision to transfer him to Seoul spoke volumes about the significance attached to the Seoul Times project.

Polemics with the pro-independence forces occupied the lionís share of the Seoul Press activity in 1906-1909. And the argument was joined: in December 1906 alone, Bethellís Korea Daily News ran three articles that specifically criticized the Seoul Press and its publications. In turn, the Seoul Press journalists kept accusing Bethell of "incendiary journalism," "unwillingness to understand true interests of Korea," and the like. Litigations ensued as well. Bethell was protected by his British passport, but still spent several weeks in a Seoul jail for publishing "seditious material." He continued his fight against Japanese encroachment until his own untimely death in 1909, at the relatively young age of 37. Soon afterward, his nemesis, Jimoto Motosata, also left Korea: in the new situation, the presence of a person of such importance was no longer necessary. He eventually resumed his job as the editor of the Japan Times.

The Seoul Press reasoning was predictable: Koreans were unable to rule themselves and needed friendly advice and guidance from the Japanese. The annexation of 1910 was portrayed as a voluntarily union of two equals. This propaganda (probably sincerely believed by many Japanese but hardly by any Koreans) remained the basis of the editorial policy of the paper until its final edition.

At the same time, the Seoul Press occasionally ran some critical material and was even forced to cease publication on a number of occasions (in the colonial era, this was a common fate for all newspapers). In more liberal times, especially in the 1920s, the Seoul Press also published letters from foreigners who were less than enthusiastic about conditions in Korea.

Throughout its history, the Seoul Press was a struggling project, made viable only through the agency of the politically motivated subsidies from the colonial government. It had a small staff of seven-eight employees, and most of the writing was done by Westerners residing in Korea. In the colonial era, before the advent of the English teaching boom, they were overwhelmingly missionaries. The market remained small: at most, the Western community numbered but a few thousand, and few Koreans bought the paper.

The paper came to an end in May 1937, when it notified its readers that it would be discontinued. The explanation was patently false: the statement said that foreign residents in Korea had acquired such a good command of Japanese and Korean that the paper had lost its raison díetre. This was not the case. In the new situation, one in which the stable and gentlemanly world of the early 1900s had been shattered, the Governor General did not care any more about winning international public opinion, and also wanted to save resources for the coming war in the Pacific.

The Seoul Press was a propaganda exercise. But does it mean that it should be erased from the pages of history? Of course not. After all, despite all of its shortcomings and bias, it did tell people about Korea. And it also laid the foundation for the flourishing of the English-language press after 1945. But that is another story ...