3 tales of selflessness -- a student, a king, a movement

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3 tales of selflessness -- a student, a king, a movement

Jan. 26, 2001

Lee Soo-hyun, a college student at Korea University, wanted to see the wider world. So there he was in Shinjuku, Tokyo, on this date, around 7:20 p.m. On his way back from his part-time job at an Internet cafe to his dormitory at a Japanese institute, Mr. Lee was about to take the subway at New Okubo Station. Waiting on the platform, he called his girlfriend Han Jeong-im to say he would see her in half an hour. Neither one knew it would be his last phone call.

After hanging up, Mr. Lee saw a very drunken man, Mr. Sakamoto, slip over the platform and fall onto the tracks. A signal that a train was approaching rang and people started to scream. Mr. Lee, followed by a Japanese man, jumped down onto the tracks to rescue the drunk, but they were too late and the oncoming train killed all three men. Korean and Japanese newspapers hailed Mr. Lee's chivalry on the front pages.

Jan. 28, 1898

There is almost nothing Koreans cannot do with their cellular phones these days. They can play games, listen to music, do calculations -- you name it. But in 1898, a telephone was a strange, weird thing from the West. So strange, that at first Koreans called it a deongnyulpung, or "a box that speaks." The first lucky Korean to try the wonder was King Gojong on this date in his Deoksu Palace, central Seoul. To promote the invention, the king ordered the installation of a Swedish magneto telephone set, complete with iron wires, 45 centimeters wide and 90 centimeters long (18 inches by 36 inches). In case of emergency, the king would deliver his wishes to government offices over the phone.

In fact, the first call the king ever made was an emergency. Reviewing a list of criminals condemned to die, he noticed a Kim Gu charged with "revenging the murder of the queen." Mr. Kim, an independence movement activist, had been condemned for killing a Japanese regent. With the execution date approaching, it was too late to send a messenger to the prison in Incheon, so the king used the Box That Speaks to save Mr. Kim. The spared man wrote in his autobiography, "But for that telephone, I would have been a dead man." So the first telephone call in Korea was made to save a life.

Jan. 29, 1907

When Korea was struck hard by the economic crisis of late 1997, Koreans rallied together and voluntarily gathered their gold in order to save the economy. Regardless of the actual utility of that movement, it was an impressive gesture.

But it was not the first time -- on this date, 16 citizens in Daegu, North Gyeongsang province, initiated the Repaying the National Debt Movement. Since 1904, Japan had been attempting to colonize the peninsula by economic means. By 1907, the Japanese government had lent 13 million won to Korea -- at the time a huge amount that Korea could not repay. The voluntary movement was met with great enthusiasm all over the peninsula, gathering 2.3 million won from more than 40,000 people by May. Housewives turned in their wedding rings and gold plates while gisaeng, or Korean geisha, sold their personal jewelry. The Japanese suppressed the movement by charging the organizers with embezzlement.

by Chun Su-jin
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