Korean finance, past and present
The history of modern banks in Korea takes us to the 1870s when Korea, under increasing pressure from Japan, signed the Treaty of Ganghwa, or the Korea-Japan Treaty of Amity, in 1876, and was forced to open itself up to trade and financial institutions from Japan.
But it wasn’t until recently that Koreans began to recognize the importance of studying the history of Korea’s banking sector, and began compiling and preserving documents and artifacts related to the field.
Traditional finance in Korea
One of the oldest documents related to Korean finance is the Songdo Rule Book on Bookkeeping. It was written during the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392) when Songdo, an old name for Gaeseong, was the capital of Goryeo.
The book shows a detailed system for recording transactions involving the seller, the buyer and the goods, as well as the resulting credits and debts, in a manner that is strikingly similar to the bookkeeping methods used today. Some historians argue that the book proves that bookkeeping developed in Korea about 200 years earlier than its counterpart in Europe.
In 1678, the government issued and circulated Sangpyeongtongbo, the national currency, and this further facilitated economic activity in Korea.
Modern times, modern banks
Historians trace Korea’s first modern bank to the Japan First Bank, which opened as a branch in the port city of Busan in 1878. Soon after, more and more Japanese banks set up branches across Korea, increasing their presence and dominance in the Korean market.
Then came Daehancheonil Bank in 1899. Daehancheonil was the first modern Korean bank and was opened by a group of influential merchants with full government backing. As “the first bank under the sky,” it was the central bank of the Korean Empire (1897-1910), a short-lived dynasty at the end of the Joseon period.
It was truly a Korean operation. The government was the biggest shareholder, King Yeongchin (1897-1970) was the second president of the bank, and the bank only allowed Koreans to be shareholders.
“Our office offers a significant amount of loans with house deeds. So instead of going to foreign pawnbrokers, come to our office,” reads an ad for Daehancheonil Bank in the Hwangseong Newspaper on Dec. 3, 1901.
In 1909, Daehancheonil Bank, which had been located just north of the Cheonggye Stream in today’s Jongno District, moved to a new building south of the stream. It was a handsome two-story Western-style structure with domes, arched windows and tall pillars.
“While other Western-style buildings built during that period were designed by foreigners, this one was designed by the Korean architectural company Takjibu Architecture Firm,” said Yim Seung-yeoung, curator at Woori Bank Museum.
Today it is the oldest bank building in Korea, and was designated by the city of Seoul as Monument No. 19 in 2002. It is currently used as the Jongno branch of Woori Bank.
Changes in the colonial period
With Japanese colonization (1910-1945), the banking sector in Korea was swept by changes. Daehancheonil Bank, for one, was forced to change its name to Joseon Commercial Bank and made to merge with Japanese-controlled financial institutions in subsequent years.
In 1909, Japan opened the Korea Bank (separate from today’s Bank of Korea) to serve as the central bank in its soon-to-be colony. Two years later, the name was changed from Korea Bank to Joseon Bank.
Joseon Bank settled into a building on “bank street,” which was formed by today’s Namdaemun and Myeongdong areas. Japan set up a number of banks and other financial institutions in and around the area during the colonial period.
Construction of the building, according to officials at the Bank of Korea Museum, began in 1907, and it was originally to be used as the Seoul branch of Japan First Bank. Today, the Renaissance-style granite structure is a state-designated cultural property (Historic Site No. 280) and houses the Bank of Korea Museum.
According to historians, the Japanese economy collapsed after World War I, and many Japanese banks were deep in debt. To address the problem, the Japanese enforced mergers between Korean banks and the debt-ridden Japanese banks.
“This is the second time in the banking history of Korea that a Korean bank was forced by the government to merge with a Japanese-controlled institution, in such a way as to lose its Korean identity and become Japanese,” said a writer denouncing Japan’s order to merge Joseon Commercial Bank with a Japanese bank. The statement appeared in an English-language article in the Dong-A Ilbo on Aug. 30, 1924.
By Kim Hyung-eun [email@example.com]