A golden nugget of Korean history

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A golden nugget of Korean history

Just like in Charlie Chaplin’s film, “The Gold Rush,” there was once also a gold rush on the Korean Peninsula. In the 1930s, more than 5,000 gold mines were dug across the country. In 1939, 31 tons of gold were produced. The gold, which would be worth around 10 trillion won ($7.3 billion) today, was dug out over the entire land. It was the result of a policy to encourage gold mining by Japan’s colonial government in Korea, which ruled Joseon then and did anything to make money, combined with a surge in gold prices. Thanks to this, Japan became the sixth-largest gold-producing country in the world, according to the book titled “The Gold Rush,” by Jeon Bong-gwan.

At that time, Choi Chang-hak (1890?1959) was one of the three richest men in Joseon, accumulating his fortune on the back of the gold rush. In his early 20s, he discovered a gold mine in Guseong, North Pyeongan Province and went on to own numerous mines that produced tremendous amounts of gold. Just like other men of wealth at that time, Choi donated eight airplanes to the Japanese colonial authority, maintaining good relations with the Japanese rulers.

Gyeonggyojang, a residence in Pyeong-dong, Jung District, central Seoul, was built by Choi in 1938. On the 1.3-acre site, he built a Western-style two-story house for his own use. The house had a billiard table and a barber’s room on the second floor, hot running water and a central heating system. It was a luxury house by any standard at that time. In 1945, however, Choi gave the house for free to Kim Gu who returned home with other leading figures of the Korean provisional government. It was a quick move to shed his record as a pro-Japanese figure.

As Kim did not have a place to stay in Korea due to his long exile, he used the house as his home and office. He held a cabinet meeting of the provisional government, announced a decree opposing trusteeship for Korea and wrote his biography there.

On April 19, 1948, he said he would rather die on the 38th Parallel rather than cooperate to establish a separate government. Kim decided to visit Pyongyang to negotiate with Kim Il Sung but the mob who attempted to block his move surrounded Gyeonggyojang. About a year later, he was assassinated by an army lieutenant, Ahn Doo-hee. On the second floor of Gyeonggyojang, the bullet mark still remains.

The house was later used as an embassy, and in 1967, Goryeo Hospital, now Kangbuk Samsung Hospital, took ownership of the building and used it as part of the hospital. Gyeonggyojang was on the verge of being torn down until the City of Seoul and the Samsung Hospital agreed recently to restore the entire house. Sixty years after Kim passed away, the site is to be restored and used for educational purposes.

The history of Gyeonggyojang seems like a condensed version of Korea’s modern history.

The writer is a deputy political news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Yeh Young-june
[yyjune@joongang.co.kr]
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