Korea Herald, 19 May 2001
Ernest Bethell was no saint. He was a typical hard-bitten, hard-drinking, turn-of-the-century newspaperman. And he had a great future before him: He was a foreign correspondent for the London Daily News. He was dispatched to Korea in 1904 to cover the very important story of Japan's defeat of Russia, a story that, in its time, shook the world.
He never returned. He gave up his homeland, his career and his life. He gave them up, just as if he had been a saint, for faraway people he did not know. He gave them up for Korea.
Cynicism can be a cover for caring too much. So, perhaps, it was with Bethell. Or perhaps he was driven, as journalists are, by a story that needed to be told. He saw what Japan was doing, how, having eliminated its last rival, it was devouring Korea. He saw it as being done with brutality. Instead of leaving for England once his reports had been filed, he quit his job and stayed to struggle. He scraped up money somehow and launched two independent newspapers, the Korea Daily News and Daehan Maeil Shinbo, to argue the Korean case against Japan, locally and in the diplomatic salons of the world.
In this, he brought a prestige to bear that perhaps no Korean could. London newspapermen, at this time, were not easy to ignore. Churchill made his name as one. So did Stanley, seeking Dr. Livingstone in the dark heart of Africa.
As a good investigative journalist, Bethell must have known the risks. Nevertheless, something turned him into a sort of hero, into someone ready for sacrifice.
As Japan's influence grew month by month, Bethell grew more vulnerable, a greater irritant and danger to Japan. Yet he was protected by his British citizenship. Japan needed tacit British approval for its imperial ambitions, and all feared British gunboats, so Englishmen like Bethell could move and speak freely when native Koreans could not.
But Japan and Korea were the least of British worries in the years leading up to the First World War. German ascendancy was the greatest. Gradually, Britain calculated that good relations with Japan and stability in the Far East were worth more than the life of one troublesome journalist.
In terms of realpolitik, perhaps they were right: Japan, in the end, joined that war as a British ally and could threaten the German colonies in Shandong.
Ernest Bethell's immunity accordingly quietly ended, and the bothersome newspaperman was taken to the newly built Sodaemun Prison in 1908 for three weeks of intensive "interrogation." On release, he was deported to China.
He died a few months later. He was 37. There can be little question that his death was due to torture.
But Bethell was not finished. His friends buried him in Seoul Foreigners' Cemetery in Seoul, with a detailed epitaph explaining who he was and what he had done.
This did not please the Japanese. Soon after, the original dedication was thoroughly erased - something done to many monuments in Korea considered prejudicial to the interests and prestige of Japan.
You can see the stone, scraped clean of writing, for yourself, if you visit the tomb today.
In recent years, a new marker has been added to Bethell's grave, reproducing the inscription. Plans are afoot, as well, for a more substantial monument to one of Korea's earlier - and most improbable - foreign friends.
To visit the grave of Ernest Bethell, take the subway to Hapcheong Station, number 38 on the green No. 2 line or the brown No. 6 line, and follow the signs to Seoul Foreigners' Cemetery, down the hill toward the riverbank. Bethell's memorial is on the crest of a hill, close to Seoul Union Church.
By Stephen K. Roney. Korea Herald, 19 May 2001