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The timber king of Ulleung IslandMeet James F. Mitchell, a Western businessman in Korea in 1882
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승인 2011.10.13  18:02:15
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▲ Koreans carrying timber, circa 1900-1910. Photocourtesy Robert Neff Collection

In the spring of 1885, James F. Mitchell and his crew of sawyers, carpenters, builders and their families arrived on Ulleung Island to begin lumbering operations. It had been a difficult task to get his crew and their equipment to the island and Mitchell was eager to begin operations. But troubles were just beginning.

Unbeknownst to Mitchell, an lumbering crew had already been on the island and had harvested some US$2,000 worth of timber. That company was the American Trading Company, represented by Walter Townsend in Chemulpo (modern Incheon).

In April 1884, Kim Ok-kuin, a Korean official who represented the Korean government’s whaling and timber industry, granted an exclusive contract to Walter Townsend to harvest timber from Ulleung Island. Apparently the word “exclusive” had a different meaning in Kim’s mind because at about the same time he granted another exclusive Ulleung Island timbering contract to Takasu Kenzo, a Japanese businessman in Osaka.

Things became even stickier following the Kapsin Revolt in December 1884. Kim, who helped orchestrate the attempted coup, was forced to flee for his life to Japan leaving Paul Georg von Mollendorff, a German advisor to the Korean government serving as the vice president of the Foreign Office, free reign in granting concessions and contracts.

George C. Foulk, the young American acting chargé d’affaires in Seoul, claimed that Mollendorff was fully aware of Townsend’s and Takasu’s earlier contracts but had used Kim’s fall from power as an excuse to grant James Mitchell another exclusive contract in February 1885. In effect, there were three exclusive contracts for Ulleung Island’s timber.

But Mollendorff and the Korean Foreign Office did not see it in that manner. They argued that the contracts with Kim were no longer valid because he was a traitor to the Korean government.

Townsend was unaware of all the double-dealing until he transported his timber to Japan and tried to sell it. He was promptly informed by the potential buyers that they could not buy the timber from an unauthorized seller – only Mitchell and the German firm he represented were allowed to sell Ulleung timber.

Furious at the deceit, Townsend immediately reported the matter to Foulk who vehemently protested to the Korean government. But his initial efforts fell upon deaf ears and received mocking advice from Mollendorff to take it up with Kim Ok-kuin.

It was only through Foulk’s persistence that in August 1885, the Korean government, Townsend, and Mitchell came to an agreement. It was decided that Townsend could sell the timber that he had already harvested in Japan, pay the Korean government its share, and then surrender his contract. Mitchell would keep his contract but would only be allowed to sell timber in Shanghai, China. Illegally poached timber by Koreans and Japanese would be turned over to Townsend.

Within six months the agreement had been broken and Mitchell was in serious trouble. Apparently he had taken a large shipment of timber to Kobe, Japan, where he attempted to sell it but Townsend and Foulk soon learned of his actions and immediately protested. They demanded that Mitchell turn over the timber to the Americans. The results of their efforts have faded from the pages of history but, judging from later accounts, the matter was settled and Mitchell was allowed to continue harvesting timber.

In August 1887, Mitchell transported another large load of timber to Nagasaki but had a difficult time selling it. “The timber was excellent,” but “it was too green for the requirements of the carpenters and cabinet-makers,” and “it was feared that it could not be sold at anything like the prices it should command, as there was no demand for it either at Nagasaki or Shanghai.” A Western reporter in Japan noted that Mitchell was authorized by the Korean government to cut and “send the timber to the best market.” The same reporter noted that “Mr. Mitchell had experienced much trouble and suffered great loss in his first attempts to cut and export the timber. He had been thwarted by the Japanese and some Americans…” Another newspaper in China noted that “Mr. Mitchell, after working hard for three years and undergoing many hardships, was but poorly remunerated for his troubles.”

But Mitchell would not give up. In November 1888, he was back in Nagasaki recruiting more Japanese laborers to accompany him to the island to harvest more timber.

It is interesting that Mitchell was so tenacious, considering that his exclusive contract was anything but exclusive. In December 1888, The London and China Telegraph reported that the Korean government was sending its steamship, Signal, to Ulleung Island to bring back some 30 large logs and the 200 Korean lumbermen that it had dispatched to the island the previous year. The same paper noted that there was a strong possibility “to make the [Ulleung timber] enterprise a profitable business,” but it would require a fair amount of capital – something the Korean government was lacking or unwilling to spend.

But perhaps it wasn’t only timber that Mitchell was interested in. Mitchell claimed that the island was filled with mineral wealth. He claimed that “by digging the ground with a pickaxe to the depth of a few feet, he found tinore, cobaltine, and here and there gold.” It is unclear if Mitchell ever tried to develop the alleged mineral deposits on the island or what became of his timber concession; he simply faded from the pages of Korean history.

As for the timber concession on Ulleung Island – it continued to be a pawn of politics, but, as Prof. Andrei Lankov likes to say, that is a story for another time.

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