First Korean American

2008-04-14 : 17:36

Late Philip Jaisohn
By Jason Lim

In May, the Korean Consulate in Washington D.C. will hold an unveiling ceremony for the statue of Dr. Philip Jaisohn. Philip Jaisohn is the anglicized name of Seo Jae-pil, the noted champion of Korean independence and modernization during the first half of the 20th Century.

He was born in Korea in 1864 and died in America in 1951. He was the first person to be born a Korean and die an American. He was a patriot to both countries.

His lived a truly extraordinary life. He has many firsts to his credit, both as Seo Jae-pil and Philip Jaisohn.

Seo Jae-pil was one of the first Korean students to be sent to study abroad ― he led a group of 14 students to study at a military school in Japan in the early 1880s. Later, he became the founder of the first Korean and English language newspaper, ``The Independent'' ― published in Korea, the voice of Korea to the world.

Seo Jae-pil was also a key leader in the first reformist coup in Korean history in 1884. When he was just twenty years old, he realized that his beloved but feeble nation of Joseon and the Korean people would soon fall into the clutches of outside imperial powers and be relegated to the dust heaps of history if it didn't modernize and stand on its own two feet.

In a desperate attempt to change the destiny of his country, he participated in a bloody coup that failed after just three days. In the aftermath of the coup, his whole family died, including his wife and infant son. He was forced to flee to Japan and eventually made his way to San Francisco on board a frigate, without a penny to his name, in 1885.

As Philip Jaisohn in America, he added to his list of illustrious firsts. He was the first Korean to attend an American prep school. He was also the first Korean to earn a college degree and obtain a medical degree in America. He was the founder of the first Korean newspaper in America. He was the first Korea-born civil servant for the U.S. government. For his work as a physician during World War II, he was awarded a medal from Congress and a citation from President Truman, another first for a Korean.

Most of all, he was the first Korea-born naturalized citizen of the United States and, therefore, became the first Korean American far before the term was ever coined. As a Korean American, his life in America was a hugely successful one, with a thriving business, rising professional reputation, and loving family.

Yet, for all his mainstream success as an American, he was also the quintessential Korean patriot and hero to his native people. And his love for Korea never waned. He went back to serve Korea twice when he was needed, although not always welcomed by the powers that be.

When he returned to Korea for the second time on July 6, 1947, he was already an octogenarian and was given a returning hero's welcome. He was greeted in Inchon fifty Korean and American dignitaries. The road from Inchon to Seoul was thronged by thousands of everyday Koreans who waved and bowed as his car passed by. For his welcome ceremony a week later, fifty thousand Koreans filled Seoul Stadium to hear him speak.

They were stunned to hear him speak English because his Korean had gotten too poor for public speaking. Here he was, one of the most outspoken leaders of the Korean independence movement, a bona fide hero of the Korean people, and he couldn't speak Korean fluently. It would be another four months before he was confident enough to tape his radio addresses in Korean.

This episode is something that any Korean American today can relate to. In fact, Philip Jaisohn's pioneering journey represents the full topography of experience that a Korean American must navigate today: blood ties vs. legal citizenship, love of Korea vs. fidelity to America, achieving success in mainstream America vs. desiring recognition from fellow Koreans, native fluency in English vs. awkward facility with Korean, oath of allegiance to the United States vs. yearning to do good on behalf of the Korean people, and many more choices that seemingly have to be made.

But the most important lesson that Philip Jaisohn teaches us is that these are false choices. They are not choices since they can co-exist. One choice does not exclude another.

In fact, they must co-exist in order for a Korean American to fully experience the opportunities that he or she has been blessed with. Korean Americans are only wholly empowered when they realize that they can and must contribute fully as a Korean and American to the betterment of both societies. In short, Korean American does not refer to a dual identity; it refers to a holistic, united identity.

Just as Seo Jae-pil was Philip Jaisohn wholly and proudly, so are we Korean Americans.

Jason Lim is a research fellow at the Harvard Korea Institute, researching Asian leadership models. He can be reached at