The Archives of the National Debt Redemption Movement is a documentary heritage chronicling the entire process and history of a nationwide campaign undertaken by the Korean public from 1907 to 1910 to help their government repay a huge external debt and thereby protect their national sovereignty.
From the end of the 19th century, imperial powers coercively imposed large loans on nations in Asia, Africa and the Americas to increase their influence as part of their designs for colonial expansion. Korea, a small nation in Northeast Asia, also faced a mounting threat to its sovereignty under coercive external debt owed to Japan. At the time, Koreans took note of the fact that they were not alone in the grip of coercive foreign debt but other nations as well, such as Vietnam, India, Poland, Egypt and the Ryukyu Kingdom (present-day Okinawa), had lost their sovereignty in similar situations. The National Debt Redemption Movement was an effort by the Korean people to forestall their national crisis due to sovereign debt.
The public fundraising campaign through donation gathering quickly spread throughout Korea, with some 25 percent of the entire population voluntarily participating. Donations raised in various ways poured in from across all social classes: propertied families sold land and houses; men stopped smoking and drinking to save the money they would have spent on tobacco and drinks; matrons sold their jewelry and accessories such as rings and heirloom hairpins; many female entertainers called gisaeng enthusiastically helped in the fundraising; even beggars and thieves gave what little they had. The Korean people responded as one in an unprecedented nationwide call to fulfill their civic duty; by helping repay the national debt they strived to safeguard their nation’s sovereignty.
The National Debt Redemption Movement in Korea became known to the outside world through a bilingual newspaper published in Korean and English in Seoul by a British journalist, as well as newspapers published abroad by overseas Korean students and emigrants. In 1907, the movement became known more widely through the second International Peace Conference held in The Hague, in the Netherlands, inspiring other nations suffering under colonial occupation as a consequence of heavy sovereign debts.
Afterwards, people in other countries facing imperial aggression, including China (1909), Mexico (1938) and Vietnam (1945), made similar efforts to protect their national sovereignty. The Korean movement had preceded these endeavors and sustained itself longer by enlisting wider public participation. It is also the only case where records concerning the entire process of the movement have been preserved intact until today.
Nine decades later, in 1997, when the Asian financial crisis hit their country, the Korean people again rose to the occasion, campaigning for gold donations to give to the government in an effort to help save their nation from imminent default on external debts. In many ways, this nationwide “gold gathering movement” resembled the popular movement to repay onerous sovereign debts in the early 20th century. It was acknowledged as having inspired the people of Thailand and Mongolia to contribute significantly to their early recovery from currency crises. Then, a decade later, amid the global financial crisis which began in the United States in 2008, the gold gathering movement by the Korean people drew attention farther afield, in European countries facing fiscal crises such as Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy, as a viable model of public participation in economic recovery.
As noted above, onerous sovereign debt was a common problem between imperial powers and their colonies in the 20th century, and remains an issue of major concern between developed countries and underdeveloped countries in the 21st century. There are two ways to
cope with this problem: cancellation or repayment of the debt. Jubilee 2000 represents the former, and the National Debt Redemption Movement exemplifies citizen action on the latter. In this regard, the spirit of the National Debt Redemption Movement can be seen as a living legacy of humanity, an outstanding example of civic solidarity to overcome national crisis by fulfilling the obligation to repay the national debt.