Story by: Walter J. Stucke, Photos by: Philip Jaisohn Memorial Foundation
The longtime patriot and medical doctor Seo Jae-pil — also known as Philip Jaisohn — was one of the most important figures in the fight for Korean independence from Imperial Japan. He was the first Korean to gain American citizenship, and returned to Korea in 1896 with the desire to instill into the Korean mind Western values and set in motion plans for the preservation of Korean sovereignty.
He organized the first Korean Congress, in Philadelphia from April 14-16, 1919. Jaisohn invited all Koreans in North America to attend this congress, and 200 out of the 300 Koreans in North America did that very thing.
Statesman, medical doctor, teacher, reformer, promoter of democracy, patriot, publisher — these are just some of the terms that can be used to describe Philip Jaisohn. He led the fight for Korean independence and sovereignty in many ways, but none more importantly than through the Independence Club and The Independent. He knew that the road to a free and better future was long and arduous but stated, “It may require more time and patience to achieve our aims in a democratic way, but it is the best and the only way.”
Today, the Philip Jaisohn Memorial Foundation finds its home in Philadelphia. The foundation stands to preserve the “medical, social, educational, and cultural” legacy of Jaisohn.
Groove Korea sat down with Kim Son-ho, former curator of the Jaisohn Museum, to talk about Jaisohn’s legacy.
The first Korean Congress was not Jaisohn’s first involvement in the Korean nationalist movement. He had been, according to Kim, involved in nationalist activities since he was a youth. Jaisohn participated in the failed Kapsin Coup of 1884. He did not act alone, but did manage to become a social pariah and had to flee to San Francisco.
Kim stated that Jaisohn lost everything in 1884, including his family, but found many important things in America, including Western ideas of equality and Christianity and even United States citizenship in 1888. Jaisohn had already embraced democratic ideals before coming to the United States, according to the president of the Philip Jaisohn Memorial Foundation, Dr. Whan Soon Chung. However, it was in America where Jaisohn’s newfound Christian faith made his democratic ideas concrete.
When Jaisohn embraced the Christian faith, he found that all mankind, whether great or small, was equal before God. As Kim noted in his interview with Groove Korea, in Jaisohn’s reasoning, democracy came from equality, which came from Christianity, which came from God. It must be remembered that Jaisohn was a man of his times and the egalitarianism he found in the United States, though nothing like equality in the West today, was leaps and bounds ahead of any notion of equality found in the rigid social structure of the Confucian-based hierarchical system of Korea. For in America, Jaisohn saw the push for universal education for all children of both sexes. He saw universal suffrage for all men. He encountered the intricate workings of a political system that involved the general public and also experienced America’s impressive industrialization. Through the generosity of some benefactors, Jaisohn obtained a fine education that culminated in his graduation from the National Medical College of Columbian University (George Washington University) in 1892.
During Jaisohn’s time in the United States, the sovereignty and security of Korea continued to erode. Japan flexed her muscles by defeating China in the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) and was complicit in the murder of the powerful Queen Min of Korea. Kim said that Jaisohn returned to Korea in 1896 with the desire to instill into the Korean mind Western values and to set in motion plans for the preservation of Korean sovereignty. According to Kim, Jaisohn felt two approaches were necessary to accomplish these ends. First, Korea needed to increase power through self-reliance in the areas of energy production and food vis-à-vis the development of the economy and democracy. Second, it was imperative for Korea to remain neutral in its diplomatic approach. If Korea ceded too much of its influence to China, Japan or Russia, then the threat of capitulation to one of its powerful neighbors was inevitable. Chung explained that there were many avenues in which Jaisohn intended to spread his ideas. First, Jaisohn spent substantial time teaching and lecturing at the Methodist school Pai Chai. Missionary Henry Appenzeller founded the school in 1885 in Daejeon and many future political leaders of Korea attended Jaisohn’s lectures. Jaisohn taught math, science, Western medicine, public hygiene, religion, American government, American history and economics. It was through Pai Chai that Jaisohn and Syngman Rhee became acquainted, as the latter was an alumnus of the school and worked as an English teacher.
However, Jaisohn’s second and third avenues for the propagation of his ideas were even further reaching. In 1896, Jaisohn began publishing The Independent. This newspaper was unique in that it was printed in hangul (Korean script). Kim stated that the paper contained six pages, four printed in hangul and two in English. This was significant because the official written language for the Koreans had been Chinese. Hangul was often deridingly referred to as women’s writing. Hangul was much simpler to master than the cumbersome Chinese. Thousands of copies were printed of each edition, but the number of Koreans who were exposed to the paper was much greater. With most Koreans being illiterate, each copy would be read aloud to large crowds. Kim suggested that the paper had a minimum of five to 10 times the audience and possibly more through this public reading. This paper expounded upon the ideas of Western-style democracy, Christianity, universal education, equality of the sexes, Korean independence, Korean nationalism and Korean sovereignty. It also publicly condemned corrupt public officials and demanded their removal from office.
Jaisohn’s third avenue of propagation was his establishment of the Independence Club. This club reinforced the ideas set forth in The Independent. Koreans from many different political and religious backgrounds became members of the club. One of the greatest functions of the club was the establishment of mock debates. In fact, the unofficial name of the club was the Yes/No Club. It derived this name from the mock debates, where an issue would be proposed and the participants would be divided into two opposing sections. Each side would present their arguments for a particular issue (for example, education) and then the other side would offer their rebuttal and own ideas on the topic. Then, the members would vote “yes” or “no.” Through this experience, many Koreans gained invaluable training in the democratic process of government. Chung pointed out that through this method of debate, club members were able to bounce ideas off each other. By combining the revolutionary ideas of Jaisohn’s newspaper and its condemning of corrupt public officials, coupled with the training of Koreans in the democratic process, it was not long before Jaisohn met stiff opposition.
Jaisohn’s first enemies were foreign, most notably Japan and Russia. Initially, Japan had a favorable view of the reformer’s work because Jaisohn had spent about a year in Japan being educated in Western methods when he was 18. It was this education that inspired the Kapsin Coup. However, it was not long before the Japanese came to distrust Jaisohn, according to Kim, and regard him as an enemy because he tirelessly fought to maintain Korean independence and Japan wanted control of Korea.
Chung and Kim both agree that the Russians absolutely hated Jaisohn. For some time, the Korean king (Gojong) had been governing the country while hiding inside the Russian Legation after the Japanese murder of Queen Min. Jaisohn greatly condemned this arrangement, along with speaking out against the increasing number of Russian soldiers and officers entering Seoul, the Russian oversight of the Korean Finance Ministry, Korean finances being put under the authority of Russia, and the establishment of the Russo-Korean central bank. The Russians wanted Jaisohn out of the picture. Kim stated that the Russians believed him to be a spy for the United States.
The Russians devised a ruse to get Jaisohn back to the United States. Before returning to Korea, Jaisohn married an American named Muriel Armstrong. Chung told the story of some Russians, no doubt at the behest of the Russian Legation, paying some Americans to write a letter stating that Jaisohn’s mother-in-law was extremely sick, even at the point of death. When Jaisohn and his wife returned to the States they realized that they had been deceived, as Muriel’s mother was in exceptional health.
Kim believes King Gojong was also suspicious of Jaisohn and his nationalistic activities. The memories of Jaisohn’s involvement in the Kapsin Coup were still fresh in Gojong’s mind and Gojong also wrongly assumed that Jaisohn wanted to abolish the monarchy and establish a republic. In truth, Jaisohn sought a constitutional monarchy.
Jaisohn’s main support came from some Western missionaries (a few opposed him) who, Kim noted, frequently contributed columns to The Independent. Furthermore, most of the missionaries came from the United States, and it would be the most suitable country for diplomatic cooperation since the United States did not wish to occupy Korea. The missionaries shared a common faith and common works of charity with Jaisohn. Kim also reiterated the point that cooperation with missionaries was essential to bring about needed reform, enlightenment and a realization of a modern consciousness. Being a medical doctor and having a zeal for educating the Korean people, Jaisohn wanted even more missionaries to come to Korea because they had already established many hospitals and schools.
In any event, the majority of influential people wanted Jaisohn gone and he departed Korea on May 14, 1898, not to return until 1947. The scene of Jaisohn’s departure in 1898 was a far cry from when he fled the country in 1884 after the botched Kapsin Coup. In 1884, Jaisohn scurried out of the country a pariah with a death sentence. By 1898, most Koreans would have been willing to shed their own blood to save him.
Philip Jaisohn’s legacy and contributions to Korea’s political and educational development cannot be overstressed. He brought Western education and democratic ideas to the Korean mind. He gave them an organization to voice their opinions and concerns and put the printed press at their fingertips in their native hangul. In honor of Jaisohn, the Korean government placed a statue of the reformer outside of the Korean Embassy in Washington, D.C. But the question remains, what can present-day Koreans and others learn from Philip Jaisohn?
Chung has four lessons that Koreans should learn from Jaisohn. First, he developed his ideas and ideals when he was young. Second, he took his religious faith and Western knowledge very seriously when in America and used them for the betterment of Korea. Third, he made his own money. Jaisohn saw the importance in being self-sufficient. Fourth, he passed on his ideals to the next generation.
Kim also has three lessons that Koreans and others can learn from Philip Jaisohn. First, Jaisohn was practically a prophet of Korea’s future. He understood what it would take for Korea to be successful and what would lead the country to failure. Second, he laid a foundation for future Koreans to follow. Third, he cautioned people that too much trust in the government is always dangerous and warned against having extreme political ideologies.
About the writer
Walter J. Stucke has an MA in Korean History. He will be writing a monthly column on Korean history. His opinions do not necessarily represent those of Groove Korea.
About this column
Korea’s History is a monthly column that features a prominent period of Korea’s history. Groove Korea will interview historians to provide insight into Korea’s past.