Because Japan occupied the Korean Empire with the eruption of the 1904 Russo Japanese War, Japan enforced the Protectorate Treaty between Korea and Japan on the Korean Empire in 1905. In order to set the groundwork for of colonization by subordinating the Korean economy under Japan, Korea was forced to borrow 3 million won as a currency organization loan under the pretext of cleaning the Korean currency, as well as 1.5 million won under the pretext of financial crisis relief. Following the establishment of the Residency-General in 1906, predatory loans were issued under the pretexts of improving the education system, expanding and organizing financial institutions, increasing the number of road and port facilities, and hiring Japanese government officials. Over a period of two years, the country’s national debt rose to 13 million won. The debt, which amounted to the Korean Empire’s 1907 budget for annual expenditure, spread throughout the country as crisis awareness, “a life and death problem for the nation.”
In the midst of the desperation regarding the fate of the country, and with the growing awareness that the people would have to repay the national debt, on January 29, 1907, the Daegu Gwangmunsa vice-president Seo Sang-don suggested that, “if we do not repay the national debt of 13 million won, we will have to give up our land in the future; so let us, the 20 million compatriots, stop smoking for three months and repay the national debt with that sum of money.” This proposal garnered unanimous consent by the members and initiated the movement. Subsequently, Kim Gwang-je, and others, composed and promulgated the prospectus for the national debt repayment in February, imploring the participation of all people. As this spread across the nation on the 16th of the same month, via Jeguk Shinmun, people living in the country and those abroad participated alike. Men participated by stopping smoking, and women participated by reducing side dishes and selling jewelry. Local media, such as Hwangsung Shinmun, Jeguk Shinmun, and Gyeonghyang Shinnum, actively promoted the National Debt Redemption Movement . In particular, Daehan Maeil Shinbo’s Bethell and Yang Gi-tak led the development of this initiative into a nationwide movement. In Seoul, the National Debt Redemption Support Association was established to nationalize and systematize the movement and, on April 8, the National Debt Redemption Donation Collection Center was established in Daehan Maeil Shinbo in order to keep the donated funds safe and to comprehensively promote the movement.
Startled by the enthusiasm shown by the Korean people and the fast spread of the National Debt Redemption Movement , the Residency-General constrained the Korean press and prohibited assembly and association by enacting the press law and security law in July 1907. In addition, the Englishman, Bethell the president of Daehan Maeil Shinbo was brought to trial in three attempts in October of the same year, and Yang Gi-tak, the secretary of the National Debt Redemption Support Association, was arrested on a charge of embezzling the National Debt Repayment fund in July 1908. In the midst of such direct interference, the movement declined. Ultimately, it was unsuccessful because Japan seized the Korean national sovereignty on August 1910. A decision to invest the remaining funds in the future education industry was taken at a representative meeting held by The Committee for Handling of Dontaitons for National Debt Repayment.
The National Debt Redemption Movement was a national salvation movement initiated by the nationwide manifestation of the spirit of sovereignty in protecting one’s own country, a patriotic movement in which all people participated transcending differences in gender, birth, urban rural divides, and religion. Furthermore, it was a pan-national movement in which the lower caste (i.e., laborers, beggars, gisaeng traditional Korean female entertainers, and butchers) participated as well, and was a voluntary nationwide donation movement in which the people took the initiative to repay their country’s debt. The spirit of the National Debt Redemption Movement was rekindled during the gold collection movement of the 1997 Korean financial crisis, and carries on, to this day, as a form of patriotic movement.