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[Lee Kyong-hee] A land developer’s passion for Korean script

Tourists flock to Bukchon Hanok Village, perpetuating the must-see reputation of the Seoul enclave. The small Korean-style houses lining narrow alleyways are cultural magnets, pulling in sightseers from home and abroad. Many of the residents don traditional Korean garb to perhaps recapture the backdrops of popular serials and movies shot in the neighborhood. This, of course, was before the COVID-19 pandemic froze travel and tourism.

The tourist boom in Bukchon began with the first ripples of Hallyu, or the Korean Wave, that appealed to Asian TV audiences and pop music listeners in the early 2000s. Around that time, Seoul’s preservation measures for hanok clusters also improved, and residents grew increasingly appreciative of the cultural and historical value of their houses and neighborhood.

Even then, however, few people questioned the origins of those charming houses. They were simply classified as “modern urban dwellings” built in the 1920s and 1930s. That meant they differed from Korean houses of the previous era. There was little probing over who built the houses, which are largely identical in layout and appearance, much less why.

Last year, the National Hangeul Museum’s “Heroes of Hangeul” exhibition brought to light the man who created this hanok enclave. The dozen who “protected the country, fought social prejudices, or pioneered a new era” through Korean script included land developer Jeong Se-gwon, linguist Ju Si-gyeong, poet Yun Dong-ju and American missionary Homer B. Hulbert.

Intriguingly, as Jeong’s sole personal belongings from his final years, the exhibition displayed a full six-volume set of a comprehensive dictionary of the Korean language, published in 1947-1957, and two worn-out wooden rice measuring instruments. The humble reminders symbolized his activities under Japanese colonial rule; he created several hanok districts in the capital city and funded the Korean Language Society.

In the 1920s, a decade or so after Korea became a Japanese colony, the capital (then called Gyeongseong, not Seoul) underwent an unprecedented wave of urbanization and industrialization. The population ballooned, and so did housing demand.

After the government-general’s new headquarters was built on the grounds of the palace Gyeongbokgung, Japanese government offices and business companies relocated to nearby areas north of Jongno Street and Cheonggyecheon from their initial settlements in the south. The Japanese targeted Bukchon as their next residential area. And by the late 1920s, land ownership in the capital consisted of 72 percent Japanese, 16 percent Korean and 12 percent other foreign nationals.

“When it came to the value of land, not the size, discrepancy between Koreans and Japanese was even steeper. People feared that Gyeongseong was becoming Keijo (the Japanese name of the city). The sheer fact that our nation had a property development company capable of mass production akin to Fordism was itself monumental,” wrote professor Kim Kyung-min of urban planning at Seoul National University’s Graduate School of Environmental Studies in his 2017 book “Builder King Shapes Gyeongseong.”

Jeong’s Geonyang Co., established in 1920, expanded quickly to provide some 300 houses annually in the 1930s. That was when annual housing construction in the city totaled some 1,700 units, about half of them in Japanese style.

Gonyang Co. purchased spacious mansions of financially strapped aristocrats and businessmen and divided their plots to build many small houses with a standard layout. To enable low-income, working-class people to own homes, payment for many of these houses was divided into annual or monthly installments. If the economy sagged, the dwellings were rented out.

At the same time, Jeong provided generous assistance to Korean nationalist organizations, including the Society for the Promotion of Korean Products and Singanhoe, a united association of right and left wings. He thus built camaraderie with such prominent figures as Yi Geuk-ro, leader of the Korean Language Society and a key figure behind the current Korean orthographical system, and An Jae-hong, publisher of the Chosun Ilbo.

Particularly, Jeong was deeply impressed by Yi’s dedication to compiling a comprehensive Korean dictionary, the first ever in history, as the ultimate manifestation of national culture. He built a two-story building for the Korean Language Society in 1935 and shouldered most of its expenses. Considering Japan’s effort to vanquish the Korean language and his business need to maintain good relations with the Japanese authorities, Jeong was extremely courageous in putting himself in a precarious position.

On Oct. 1, 1942, Japanese police raided the Korean Language Society’s offices, arrested scores of its researchers and confiscated their manuscript of a dictionary with over 160,000 entries, which was nearing completion. Two died of severe complications stemming from torture and hunger, while 11 other core members were sentenced to a maximum of six years in prison.

As the society’s primary donor, Jeong was also apprehended and tortured. The Japanese government-general seized the land that Jeong had reserved for development and canceled his company’s construction license.

In September 1945, weeks after liberation, the manuscript of the dictionary was miraculously discovered in a warehouse of Seoul Station. The first volume was published in 1947. The next five volumes were put out over the following 10 years, with support from the Rockefeller Foundation.

In April 1948, months before the birth of the two Koreas, Yi Geuk-ro decided to stay in Pyongyang after participating in a joint conference of representatives of political parties and public organizations in northern and southern parts of the peninsula. He later filled important offices of the North Korean government and was a leading decision-maker in the North’s language policies.

An Jae-hong, another of Jeong’s close colleagues, who served a one-year prison term for his role with the Korean Language Society, was abducted by the North during the Korean War. Jeong’s land development never recovered its former scale and vigor. Forgotten by society, Jeong returned to his hometown in South Gyeongsang Province, where he died in 1965.

On the 78th anniversary of the “Korean Language Society Incident,” the efforts of all those who struggled to preserve our language and script deserves remembrance. It is sad to recall, in particular, how many brilliant minds and brave souls fell into oblivion amid the turmoil of history. 

Lee Kyong-hee
Lee Kyong-hee is a former editor-in-chief of The Korea Herald. She is currently editor-in-chief of Koreana, a quarterly magazine of Korean culture and arts, published by the Korea Foundation. -- Ed.