A relationship taking off after 200 years

12th September 1997 at 01:00
In October 1797, Captain William Broughton, in HMS Providence, arrived off Pusan in southern Korea. British awareness of Korea went back to 1600, but Broughton and his crew were the first known British visitors. The Koreans were anxious that they should depart quickly. After two weeks resupplying his ship, Broughton sailed away. More British ships visited East Asia in the early 19th century, but all attempts to open contacts with Korea failed.

British missionary activity dates from 1832 when the Rev Charles Guszlaff arrived on an East India Company ship. The Koreans refused to trade. In 1866, a Welsh missionary, R J Thomas, tried to enter Korea on a US merchant ship, the General Sherman, but all were killed, and the ship burnt. In the early 1870s, the Rev John Ross (below) , a Scots Presbyterian in north-east China, met Koreans who had crossed the Yalu river to trade. From them, Ross learnt sufficient Korean to begin translating the gospel and to publish a Korean primer.

Only when Japan (1876), and the United States (1882) signed treaties with Korea, did London show real interest. The British never played a dominant role in Korea, but a steady trade developed. Many Britons worked for the Korean government. An Anglican mission opened in 1890, and the Salvation Army followed in 1908.

Britain's main interest was strategic, and concerned Russia. This led the British navy to occupy Komundo (Port Hamilton in English), from 1885-87. Komundo was abandoned, but continued fear of Russia lay behind the 1902 Anglo-Japanese Alliance. This allowed Japan a free hand in Korea, leading to annexation in 1910. A British consul general operated in Seoul, and the missionairies and traders remained, but, except when the Koreans rose in revolt in 1919, few Britons paid much attention. War in 1941 ended the British presence.

In 1945, the British returned to a divided Korea. They were now confined to the South, On 25 June 1950, came the Korean war. When Seoul fell on June 28, many Britons were captured, including the diplomats, the Anglican bishop, and the head of the Salvation Army. Meanwhile, Britain rallied to the support of the South. British ships were in action by July 1950, and the first British ground forces arrived in August. In September, the Royal Navy took part in the landing at Inchon which began the North Korean rollback. By late October, British troups were close to the Yalu. Forced back when the Chinese intervened, they regrouped south of Seoul, and played a prominent role in the fighting until the war ended in 1953. More than 1,000 British troups died.

Britain helped in the South's rehabilitation, and in the industralisation of the Sixties and Seventies, especially in car-making and shipbuilding. There has been a steady growth in trade, and much British investment in the South. Reciprocal investment in Britain began in the Eighties. Political links are close: three presidents of the South have visited Britain.

Although Britain now recognises the North, there are no diplomatic relations and few contacts. Cultural links with the South are good: many Koreans study in Britain, there is a long tradition of British scholarship on Korea, and Korean studies is taught in universities. Two hundred years after Captain Broughton, Britain's relations with the South are healthy and growing.

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