(89) Postal Service Saddled with Foreign Pressure

By Yang Sung-jin

The Ministry of Information and Communication is now widely viewed to be at the forefront of the so-called Information Revolution typified by the Internet and high-speed wireless communications.

The ministry’s policies and regulatory moves have affected a wide range of telecommunication and Internet-related industries in recent years, even though it often blunders, as do other ministries.

Only several years earlier, the ministry had a relatively marginal role as the nation’s postal service provider, squeezed by other power-wielding government agencies.

Its greater influence now is a curious contrast to the ministry’s trouble-laden history which traces back to the Choson period.

The ancient origins of communication and postal service on the Korean Peninsula are very difficult to identify because of the lack of related documents.

What is certain, however, is that ancient Koreans also resorted to a range of basic communication methods such as letters and signal fires for personal and military purposes.

It was in the year 488 that the Silla Kingdom set up postal stations across the nation, marking the first version of a systematic communication network.

Since then, communication systems designed mostly for military purposes had largely remained as such, with little improvement throughout the Choson period.

The formal introduction of a full-fledged postal service based on stamps and an international network came only in the late 19th century when Choson was forced to open its ports to Japan.

In 1876, the reclusive Choson signed the Treaty of Kanghwa with imperial Japan. This treaty document mentions the introduction of a Western postal system but it did not immediately start here.

Korea learned about the “advanced” postal service thanks to an official named Kim Hong-jip, who traveled to Japan as part of a mission and observed the Westernized facilities including the postal system in 1880.

The following year, Kim and other officials were sent to Japan as members of a mission in a bid to survey a wide spectrum of Japan’s modernized facilities. Considering the remaining documents, the mission paid greater attention to Japan’s postal system.

As Choson needed a formal postal service with other countries, the government sent several officials to the United States and Japan to gain the know-how.

One official who had first-hand experience with Western postal systems was Hong Yong-sik, who later spearheaded the postal service project for the Choson court.

On March 27, 1884, King Kojong finally decided to adopt the modern postal system and appointed Hong Yong-sik as the director of the envisioned Postal Administration.

The headquarters were built in Kyonji-dong, Chongno-gu and five stamps were issued in concert with Japanese technicians. A total of 15 officials with backgrounds in foreign education were recruited and five-point regulations were written down.

On Oct. 1, the first postal service between Seoul and Inchon kicked off, heralding a new system of communication for the Choson public.

Yet such vision fell apart as fast as it sprang up because of a coup led by the progressives on Oct. 17, 1884.

The conspirators staged the coup on the day when Hong Yong-sik hosted a banquet to celebrate the opening of that new agency.

As a result, the postal service collapsed with the failure of the 1884 coup. A postal bureau was created anew on June 1 of 1895 to exchange mail with foreign countries.

For all the efforts of the Choson government toward the postal service, things did not go as smoothly as expected.

At the time, Japan was planning to make Choson its colony and it is no wonder that the Japanese Residency-General had devoted considerable effort to developing transportation and communication links of its own which Japan needed to further its objectives in Choson.

Choson’s telegraph service was also targeted by the imperial Japanese. Choson’s first telegraph facilities were installed in 1885, linking Seoul and Inchon with Uiju at the mouth of the Yalu River.

This line soon was extended to Feng-cheng in Manchuria in response to a need that was perceived by both Korea and Ching China for a means of rapid communication between the two countries.

But this Seoul-Uiju line was virtually controlled by China and its construction was a mere reflection of China’s aggressive policy toward Choson.

The Seoul-Pusan telegraph line was built in 1888 and was linked to Japan by undersea cable. The Seoul-Pusan facility initially was operated by the Choson government but during the Russia-Japan War it passed completely into Japanese hands.

It then was placed under the administration of the Residency-General and Japan completed its control over the telecommunication network of Choson in 1910.

It was decades before the nation could re-install its own postal and telecommunications service network after the country gained its independence from Japanese colonial rule in 1945 and then saw a total destruction of its facilities during the 1950-53 Korean War.

In consideration of the troubled history of the nation’s postal service, it’s a good idea to present a thank-you card to postmen who are set to struggle with millions of Christmas cards during the holiday season. Thank-you e-mails are also accepted.