Korea is a nation obsessed with English. It is an important tool for promotion at workplaces and some universities such as Pohang University of Science and Technology (POSTECH) are adopting it as the official language in the office and on campus.
There has also been some public debate about whether this country, which has no colonial experience with an English-speaking country, should adopt English as a second official language to promote globalization.
“English Awakens Joseon,” a two-part series by journalist Kim Young-cheol, provides a detailed historical reference on how English entered the country during the late Joseon Kingdom (1392-1897) and how it has impacted Korean society.
Kim writes for the city desk of one of Korea’s major news dailies. He majored in diplomacy at Seoul National University.
This book is particularly useful for diplomats, students and professors in international relations because they are very informative about how the Joseon elite used English in dealing with foreign powers.
“The book is intriguing in that it takes a look at Korea’s modern history through its relationship with English and English-speaking countries. It would be enlightening for Koreans working in the international stage,” Lee Yong-joon, Korea’s ambassador to Malaysia, said in the introduction of the book.
The “gaehwapa,” a political faction in favor of opening Korea to Western influences, was particularly interested in learning English.
The writer often makes interesting references to newspaper articles, theses and other historical records, taking the readers back in time to a period when the Joseon Kingdom was opening its doors to the West, particularly with Japan’s increasing influence on the peninsula.
Stories of English speakers
In particular, the books tell some rare stories of some of the first English speakers from the late Joseon period such as Seo Jae-pil (1864-1951), the first naturalized U.S. citizen from Korea and a renowned independence activist.
He is mostly remembered as the founder of “The Independent,” the nation’s first newspaper to be printed in Korean, rather than in Chinese characters as had been the practice, to transform Korean people into an informed citizenry and include the lower classes and women in newspaper readership.
Founded in 1896, the four-page daily was also unique in that its third page was printed in English.
In the first book, one can see a photo of an advertisement for English classes that ran in “The Independent” dated July 4, 1898, reflecting a rising demand among the elite to study English.
The advertisement read: “There are more people in this country hoping to learn English, but many say that they have hard time finding teachers. There is a British gentleman willing to give classes every night for a few hours. Come to office of ‘The Independent’ for more information on the classes.”
Tool for success
Like today, English was a tool for success in the late Joseon Kingdom and Kim writes about some examples found among the elites of the late 19th-20th centuries.
Former President Syngman Rhee (1875-1965) was also one of the first public figures closely associated with English. The nation’s first president was the first to give public speeches in English.
In his youth, Rhee enrolled in Baejae School, an institution which had been established by a missionary from the United States.
He obtained a bachelor of arts from George Washington University in 1907, then a master of arts from Harvard University in 1910, and a Ph.D. from Princeton University the same year.
Particularly during the Japanese occupation (1910-1945), studying in the U.S. was like a dream for many Koreans and an opportunity to distance themselves from the oppressive environment of their native country.
During this time, missionaries started to found schools where English was an important part of the curriculum.
King Gojong, the 26th king of Joseon, was the first to establish a school for English. A palace school named “Yugyoung Gongwon” (royal English school) was established in 1883 with an American missionary, Homer B. Hulbert, and three other missionaries. The school had two departments, liberal education and military education. Courses were taught exclusively in English using English textbooks. High-level officials like Lee Wan-yong, a pro-Japanese minister of Korea who signed the 1910 Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty, was a graduate of the school.
At the end of Japanese rule, schools were banned from teaching English, but the language became socially important again with the U.S. Army’s presence in Korea after independence from Japan in 1945. The author takes the reader through these times with stories of famous incidents and public figures.
If translated into English, the books would also be useful in promoting foreigners’ understanding of Korean history.
The first book cover’s Korea’s past starting from the late 19th century until the end of Japanese rule and the second book focuses on more recent times.
Source: The Korea Times