▲ Mokpo harbor circa 1910 - 1920. Photocourtesy Robert Neff Collection
One of the first organized labor strikes in Korea took place in Mokpo in 1903. Mokpo was an important rice port in the early 1900s and was first designated as an open port in 1897. Starting out as nothing more than a handful of ancient mud huts – “unfit for any European” – by 1903 it had grown into a bustling city of two-story Japanese buildings, a post office, banks, factories, and trading companies. Except for a handful of American missionaries and their families, the entire foreign population of the city (other than the Customs’ staff) consisted of 1,481 Japanese and 53 Chinese. The Korean population was about 2,280 people, and a large number of them worked for the 332 Japanese firms and five Chinese firms.
For the most part, relations between the different nationalities residing in Mokpo had been good. But in 1903, Japan and Russia were on the brink of war – primarily due to both nations’ desire to control Korea. It appears that many Koreans in the Joella and Jeju regions were vehemently anti-Japan.
In May of that year, the magistrate of Jeju Island declared that Japanese were not entitled to live on the island and that all of their businesses would be boycotted. He then added that “any Korean attending a Japanese school should be beheaded.”
However, the most serious incidents took place in Mokpo. They revolved around the common Korean laborer – or coolie. Japanese were notorious for their abuse of Korean employees. In a letter to home in July 1886, Carl Luhrs, an employee of Meyers & Co., a German trading company at Chemulpo (modern Incheon), described the abuse he witnessed at Mokpo:
“On the morning of July 12th the loading process began. To observe this procedure of the Koreans loading the ship alone made the trip worthwhile. We had about two hundred workers aboard (so called coolies). The entire group of two hundred men received three sacks of rice. However, a couple of months ago these men did the same work and received nothing for it.”
“It is no wonder that these people shun and avoid hard labor and tend to sneak away from it and hide. However, they find themselves in a worse situation. The overseers of the ship and the Korean tax collectors are all armed with flexible sticks with hooks at the end of them and then they come across a shirker they commence to beat him severely with the sticks. The more they are beat, the more willing and submissive they become. They don’t dare speak a word of complaint. It was in this fashion that we happily loaded some 4,000 sacks of rice by four in the afternoon.”
There were times when the coolies hit back – but they were very few and far in between. But the trouble of 1903 did not start over coolie abuse, it started because of a power struggle between T. Wakamatsu, the Japanese Consul, and Kim Sung Gyu, the senior Korean official.
Watamatsu believed that he should be the one to hire and issue licenses for the Sipjang or Korean rice measurers, but Kim disagreed. He declared that as the senior Korean official in the area that only he had the right and ability to issue licenses and choose who and who would not be Sipjang.
Neither of these men would budge. The first incident took place in February when the Korean coolies refused to load the Ise Maru, a Japanese steamship, with rice. Japanese newspapers reported that the steamer had to leave Mokpo empty “not due to the lack of cargo [as] was evident from the fact that fully a hundred junks each laden with 300 bags of rice, were in the port.” According to the Japanese newspapers, the coolies had been instructed not to work for the Japanese, so not even a single bag of rice was transported to the Japanese steamship.
Business conducted by Japanese firms wa severly hampered by the Korean coolie’s boycott. According to the Japanese papers, the merchants had appealed to local Korean officials for help in ending the strike but nothing was done. The Korean officials were accused of “complicity and instigation.” But there are two sides to the story.
One night, probably in late November, a large number of Japanese merchants marched to Kim Sung Gyu’s residence, beat some of his employees, and threatened him with bodily harm unless he agreed to end the boycott. Fortunately for Kim, he was saved by Leonard A. Hopkins, an Englishman in charge of the Korean Customs Department in Mokpo. The boycott remained in effect.
But not all of the Korean coolies supported the boycott. A couple of coolies were discovered working for the Japanese and were promptly beaten by their fellow coolies. They were rescued by the Korean police. The angry mob of coolies then took out their frustration upon the homes of the strike breakers and their friends.
The Japanese merchants responded by attacking the Korean police. The Japanese government, alarmed for the safety of its citizens, sent the Japanese gunboat, the Saiyen, to restore order. According to various papers, 50 marines landed to “suppress a riot which had been caused by some labourers on strike.”
According to the reports, the Japanese settlement had been “seriously menaced” and the commander of the Japanese marines ordered his men to fire into “the mob” killing or wounding 17 Koreans.
But this wasn’t quite true. The marines had landed but had merely marched up and down the street “as if to intimidate the Koreans.” It was later that night that a Japanese mob attacked a group of Korean coolies in a nearby village. According to one eyewitness (I assume he was one of the American missionaries), he “found seventeen (16 men, one woman) pretty badly beaten up and lying in the neighboring houses, some with bruises on their bodies and some with cuts in their heads and blood all over their clothes.” So far as he could tell, “none were dangerously or fatally hurt.” But, a few days later, a Korean official reported that four of the wounded were not expected to live.
Soon order was restored. The Korean government dispatched an additional 20 Korean police officers to help maintain order. Kim Sung Gyu, probably much to his relief, was replaced by Yun Chi Ho and, in addition, two of the coolie “ringleaders” were to be punished.
Although the incident in Mokpo had been successfully resolved, it still played a part in propelling Russia and Japan into war. In January 1904, a newspaper reported that the Russians were convinced that the Japanese planned on occupying Mokpo and would force the Russians to fire the first shot, this was followed by another report that Russian marines had landed in Mokpo. Both were later proven to be untrue but had little impact on staving off the war. On Feb. 8, 1904, Japan declared war upon Russia.
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