Ernest Bethell in Korea

Ernest BethellThe ambassador’s blog reminds us that it is 100 years since the death of Ernest T Bethell, “a name all but unknown in his homeland”.

Bethell merits half a page in Don Clark’s Living Dangerously in Korea – the Western Experience 1900-1950, but occupies the first (very brief) chapter in Don Kirk and Choe Sang-hun’s fascinating collection Korea Witness, from where the image (right) is taken.

He went to Korea as a reporter for the London Daily News in 1904 to cover the Russo-Japanese war, and is believed to have been the first foreign correspondent to have lived in Korea.

But what he is remembered for in Korea is for starting two newspapers in 1908 – the Taehan Mae’il Sinbo and the Korea Daily News – along with a Korean backer, Yang Kit’ak. The papers were openly critical of Japanese policy in Korea. Because of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance this presented a delicate problem for the British Consul General in Seoul, Henry Cockburn – whose grandson recently gave an interesting talk in the KCC.

Ernest Bethell's tombstone

In the end, international politics won out, and Bethell was briefly imprisoned in Shanghai. But he soon returned to continue the struggle. “My fight for Korea is heaven-ordained. I will work, regardless of my personal safety”, Bethell is reported to have announced on his return.

Sadly, it was not the danger of standing up to the Japanese which did for him in the end, but the demon drink. He died of heart failure on 1 May 1909 at the age of 36, and is now buried in the Yanghwajin Foreigners Cemetery. The Taehan Mae’il Sinbo was taken over by the Japanese authorities and used as the official paper of the colonial regime.

At the ceremony to commemorate his death, wreaths from, among others, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon were on show.

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