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Joseon’s First Female CEO, Kim Man-deok


Joseon’s First Female CEO, <b>Kim Man-deok</b>
A figure featured on a new banknote
In 2007, the South Korean government decided to issue 50,000 won banknotes. A survey was conducted in the nation to decide which prominent figure to feature on the new banknote. The Jeju provincial government suggested that the portrait of an 18th century woman named Kim Man-deok be featured. To many people, the name “Kim Man-deok” sounds unfamiliar. But she left enough indelible traces in the history of Jeju Island to become its symbol.

Jeju’s great merchant
Kim Man-deok was born in 1739 in an ordinary family. She lost her parents early in life and was raised by a kisaeng, or Korean Keisha, who made her one of the most famous entertainers in Jeju. When she grew up, Kim Man-deok reclaimed her social status and became a merchant. She set a precedent for her era because during the Joseon period, being a merchant and making money by doing business wasn’t easy for a woman. Kim Man-deok seized the right chance at the time when such non-conventional sectors as handcrafts, commerce and distribution emerged as promising business areas. She decided to delve into port trade by buying and selling rice brought from other areas and salt, which was not produced on Jeju Island at the time. Instead of using horses to transport her merchandise from the mainland to Jeju Island and vice versa, which was the most commonly used method back then, Kim Man-deok set yet another precedent by transporting her merchandise by boat despite the rough seas. She became Jeju’s best female entrepreneur, but that is not how she made her name known.

Donating all her assets to rescue Jeju residents
In 1792, scores of Jeju Island residents starved to death because of years of poor harvest and typhoons. To make things worse, in 1794 strong winds and floods wreaked havoc on the island, prompting Jeju residents to ask for humanitarian aid. Five of the 12 ships carrying food aid for Jeju were shipwrecked. As a result, 170,000 Jeju residents died from famine. Their bodies were piled up all across the island. To rescue her home island, Kim Man-deok sold all her assets to buy rice for starving Jeju residents. When people learned about her act, they praised her as their rescuer, while King Jeongjo promised to make any wish she had come true. Kim Man-deok’s wish was not a higher social status or tax exemptions. She asked the king to let her see the royal palace in the capital-city and tour Mount Geumgang, or the Diamond Mountain. Back then, Jeju residents were restricted from traveling outside the island, but the king willingly accepted Kim Man-deok’s wish and even ordered all government agencies to provide maximum convenience for her during her trip. All the way from Jeju to Mount Geumgang, Kim Man-deok was greeted by people who admired her for her noble actions. Her name became famous, and shortly afterwards great Joseon writers wrote stories and poems about her life. A highly revered businesswoman and social worker, Kim Man-deok died in 1812 after leaving a small amount of her assets to her foster children.

Jeju’s eternal mother
Kim Man-deok’s life inspired Jeju residents to create a proverb that goes, “Work like a dog, spend like Man-deok.” Kim Man-deok remains one of the most respected figures among Jeju residents, who still hold annual festivals and charity events dedicated to her. She was a shrewd entrepreneur, who knew how to foresee future trends, and a generous philanthropist, who stood apart from other great women of the Joseon era.

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