February 21 marks the 100th anniversary of a nationwide movement by the Korean people to repay the debt incurred by the Korean government at the end of the Chosun Dynasty. On Feb. 21, 1907, the major daily Daehan Maeil Sinbo carried an article by Suh Sang-don and Kim Gwang-jae, two residents of Daegu, who set up the Daegu Gwangmunsa, an organization whose aim was to educate the Korean people. The article, titled "The Purpose of Repaying the Nation's Debt" called upon the people of Korea to take part in paying it back. "The W13 million national debt are a crisis for our country," they wrote. "It is difficult to repay the debt from the nation's coffers... no one with even a slight sense of patriotism can be opposed to this." The first region to respond to the call was Daegu itself. It was there that 100 years ago people rallied to solicit more donations to repay Japan.
The campaign spread rapidly throughout the country. Collection centers were formed across the nation, and Koreans from all walks of life took part in the fundraising, from government officials and aristocrats to traders, farmers, students, housewives, gisaeng and even monks. What started as a drive to donate cigarette money spread to women donating their jewelry. Korean students overseas sent back donations as well. One Westerner who admired the movement said it was a spectacle "unseen anywhere else in the world."
It was a true grassroots movement seeking to rebuild the country, which had grown weak and faced crisis due to the mistakes of its leaders. The movement still resounded in the 1920s with a nationwide campaign to buy local products and the nationwide gold collection drive in 1997.
In the 100th anniversary project, the city of Daegu chose "strengthening national competitiveness" as a new direction. Today's situation, with a government unaware of the need to get its act together to survive in the world of intense global competition, is similar to the 100 years ago. Where Korea 100 years ago was a country blinded by its isolationism, modern-day Korea, too, is stuck in the past, turning plowshares into ideological swords while the rest of the world is turning ideological swords into plowshares.
That is why the 100-year-old movement must not end simply as a commemorative event. The dream of the Korean people back then must be enacted now, to transform Korea into a global powerhouse. The reason we treasure the spirit of Daegu 100 years ago is because we know that spirit is the basis of building an advanced and democratic country.