Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Gold Mining in Korea

Prior to the mid-twentieth century, Korea was one of the greatest gold producing countries in the world. Even as far back as the 9th century, rumors of Korea’s great mineral wealth attracted Arab merchants and their agents who traveled to the peninsula and traded for gold and silver utensils along with copper, ginseng, paper and fans.

Although gold was found throughout the Korean peninsula, it was, for the most part, primarily mined and panned for in the mountainous northern regions and along the eastern coast using primitive methods. When Korea opened to the West in 1882, one of the first concessions sought by the Western powers was mining. Unfortunately, these early efforts failed, primarily because of the Korean government’s lack of finances, skilled labor, infrastructure and resolve.

It wasn’t until 1896, when the first large mining concession was granted to a couple of American businessmen, that “modern” gold mining began on the peninsula. This first concession eventually became the Oriental Consolidated Mining Company (OCMC) – the longest running in Korea and one of most successful gold mining concessions in the world. Other gold mining concessions were later granted to other Americans and citizens of the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy and Japan.

From 1896 until 1939 – when the OCMC was sold to a Japanese syndicate – large numbers of Westerners and their families lived on the concession and formed their own community. While life in the Korean wilds may have been exotic, it was also filled with dangers – not only those associated with gold mining but also disease, war, bandit raids and even tiger attacks.

Robert Neff, a long-term expat of Korea, presented on the early gold mining culture in the Koreas: pictures, anecdotes, and even a home movie taken at the concession in the 1930s which examined what life was like at the mines. Pictures of the mines, especially in the early 1900s, look as if they were taken from the American Wild West – only the Korean miners in the background dispel that illusion. The concession also had many famous or, in some cases, infamous people associated with it.

Robert Neff has a number of articles appearing in various local newspapers, magazines and RAS’s Transactions. He has authored or co-authored several books including: The Lives of Westerners in Joseon Korea, Korea Through Western Eyes and Letters from Joseon. He is currently finishing the manuscript for his next book tentatively entitled: Nodaji: A Century of Western Gold Mining in Korea (1882-1982).

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