Seo Jae-pil was a reformer, scientist, astute businessman, educator and visionary. He was well known as the founder of the first modern political party, the Independence Club, and first privately owned newspaper, The Independent. / Korea Times
By Andrei Lankov
The late 19th century was probably the most important and pivotal period in Korean history.
Like all such times, it produced more than its fair share of larger-than-life characters but even against such a background the life of Seo Jae-pil is one of the most spectacular and unusual.
But was it really one life? In a sense, the man reinvented himself a number of times, starting a new life from scratch to eventually achieve remarkable success, only to make another sudden U-turn.
Seo combined traits which seldom coexist in the same human being. An adventurer and stern realist, a pioneering scientist, an astute businessman, an educator, a visionary, a pragmatist — he was all these.
Seo was born in 1864 (or 1866 according to some sources) into a well-connected gentry family of moderate means. At the age of seven, he was adopted by a relative in Seoul. The relative was without a son, so the adoption of a boy from the same family was seen as a time-honored way to ensure the continuation of the family line.
In 1882, Seo, still in his late teens, passed complex civil service exams, making him eligible to work in the government. Nowadays this would be somewhat akin to entering Harvard Law School in your early 20s — an impressive achievement and the likely start of a brilliant career.
However, he was groomed to succeed in a world that was soon to fall apart. The millennia-old Confucian civilization, of which Korea was an important part, faced the challenge of the imperialist West. The skills of Confucian scholar-officials would be of no use in the new world of railways, machine guns and steam engines. Seo was one of the first to understand that the old system could and should not be sustained.
In the spring of 1883, he was selected to become one of the first Koreans to study overseas. In May 1883, Seo departed for Japan where he would study Japanese and modern military affairs. He spent a year in Japan and returned a fluent speaker of Japanese and a firm believer in the need for a radical modernization of his homeland.
In his reports to the king, Seo explained that in the new world, Korea’s armed forces were useless and obsolete. This annoyed powerful conservatives, however, it made Seo widely known and respected among fellow-minded young intellectuals. By that time, a small but growing number of young intellectuals understood that root-and-branch reform had to happen lest Korea not fall victim to the encircling imperialist powers.
In December 1884, the reformers staged a coup and Seo, barely 20 years old, was appointed the deputy minister of military affairs. Surprisingly, he was probably the best qualified person for the job in the entire country. But the reformist government collapsed in just three days and most of the reformers were either slaughtered or fled overseas.
Most of the 1884 revolutionaries fled to Japan. Unlike them, Seo moved to the United States. He saw Japan as essentially a conduit for Western knowledge and ideas, but preferred to deal with the source itself.
In the United States, a young, ex-vice minister had to earn a living doing odd jobs in San Francisco. Then he secured the support of a sympathetic missionary (he seems to be much liked by most of the people he came across) and went to a high school to acquire an understanding of Western culture. Then he moved to Washington and entered Columbian University, which in 1904 would change its name to George Washington University.
By that time, he was promised a scholarship but on the strict condition he would study theology. After some deliberation, Seo politely rejected the offer and chose to study medicine and microbiology instead. The life of a Confucian literati and conspirator was over. Seo became a scientist (arguably, the first modern scientist in Korea) in an era when science was virtually worshipped.
Money was an issue, of course, but when Seo enrolled at the university, he went to the Smithsonian Society and asked whether they had any jobs. The Smithsonian Society easily found a translation/cataloguing job for somebody fluent in English, Japanese, Korean and Classical Chinese. His work was to catalogue books and materials from East Asia.
Seo graduated in 1892. He became the first Korean to complete a full course of studies at a Western university. In 1890, he became a U.S. citizen and from then he was often referred to by his American name Philip Jaisohn.
It is not clear whether he was the first Korean to become a U.S. citizen but he was first one to marry an American woman. In 1893, Seo met Muriel Armstrong, a daughter of the U.S. Postmaster General and a relative of James Buchanan, the U.S. president in 1857-1861. They married in Washington, D.C. and in due time had two daughters (now descendants of Seo Jae-pil live both in Korea and the United States).
In late 1894, Seo decided to change his life again and moved back to Korean politics. He went to Korea, where many of his old friends were in power again (with much Japanese backing, admittedly). Seo believed that the new government would finally start the transformation of Korea into a modern, democratic state. Actually by that time, he had become a republican but did not mind cooperating with a monarchy, so long as it served the interests of the majority.
His two Korean years were full of hectic but fruitful activity. Among many other things, he established the first modern Korean political party (the Independence Club) and the first privately-owned Korean newspaper, The Independent. The newspaper is universally seen as the progenitor of the entire modern Korean media.
Seo’s goal was to ensure that Korea would drift away from the Chinese sphere of influence but without getting too close to Russia or Japan. Among many other things, he was also behind the construction of the Independence Gate, which was initially meant to symbolize the end of Korea’s ritual subordination to China.
One might think that the de facto leader of the nation’s most influential political party and editor of its most powerful newspaper would be too busy to do anything else. But this wasn’t the case with Seo, who was truly unstoppable. Apart from his journalistic and political activities, he delivered regular lectures on modern politics and the principles of democracy.
Among the young Koreans who attended — and admired — these lecturers, there was a young boy from a countryside aristocratic family named Syngman Rhee. In due time he was to become Korea’s first president — and also Seo’s nemesis.
But Seo felt increasingly uneasy about the course his country was taking. He saw how many of his erstwhile comrades were being transformed into stooges of imperial Japan. He also felt annoyed with the inefficiency and corruption of the government and court. His vision of an independent, modernizing Korea was not appreciated by the representatives of the encircling imperialist powers who had rather contrary aims regarding Korea. Russian, Chinese and Japanese diplomats — unlikely bedfellows indeed — strove to diminish Seo’s influence over the royal court.
His exit was sped up by the beginning of the Spanish-American War in 1898. As a loyal American citizen and medical doctor, he rushed back to serve as a military surgeon. After the war, he continued his research into micro-biology for a time but from 1905 he changed his life course again. He became a businessman.
For the next few decades, most of Seo’s energy was devoted to his family and his business ventures, which were quite successful. He did not become a millionaire, but nonetheless lived a very comfortable life while generously supporting the Korean independence movement.
The annexation of Korea had a very negative impact on Seo, but he became very active once again after the March 1st Uprising in 1919. He edited and supported newspapers and magazines, helped Korean political exiles (including Syngman Rhee) and did a lot to remind the U.S. public about the existence of Korea.
In the 1920s, Seo, who had just turned 60, returned to research and spent his 60s and 70s working as a specialist doctor and micro-biologist, as well as occasionally publishing in peer-review academic journals.
In 1945, the Japanese colonial regime collapsed and soon after, in July 1947, Seo returned to his native land once again. This time he was to act as an advisor to the U.S. military administration.
At first, Seo was welcomed enthusiastically. He had long been the sole survivor among the 1884 revolutionaries, and unlike many of them, he was not tainted with the group’s subsequent collaboration with Japan.
However, very soon he would find himself on a collision course with Syngman Rhee, whose dictatorial tendencies Seo was not approving of. The situation was reminiscent of the 1890s. Once again Seo felt disappointed about the path his country was on. His relations with the Korean politicians deteriorated and in September 1948, he departed from Korea for good. By that time, he was already in his mid-80s.
Seo Jae-pil died in January 1951, having lived a long and eventful life. Or should we say a number of eventful lives?
Professor Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.