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Americans in Korea in the late 1800's
A brief history of the US-Korea relations prior to 1945
Kim Young-sik, Ph.D.
8/5/2003



Photo: The first Korean delegation to America headed by Minister Min Young-Ik, seated center and also in the inset at right, in June 1883. (Republic, 2003, Digital, 2003)

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[This is an excerpt from the paper A Brief History of the US-Korea Relations Prior to 1945.]

There is a special cemetery in Seoul where some one hundred Americans are buried. These Americans came to Korea in the 1900s, worked for the Korean people as officials in the Korean government, as Christian missionaries, as medical doctors, as educators, as businessmen, and so on. They truly loved Korea and willed to be buried in their adopted country.

Lucius Foote became the first US "Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary" to Corea on February 27, 1883, and Foote presented his credentials to King Kojong on May 20, 1883. Foote's status was lowered to "Minister Resident/Consul General" in 1884. Foote resigned and left Korea on February 19, 1885, in protest. (US State - Korea, 2003)

Soon after Foote's arrival, King Kojong appointed dozens of Americans to key government positions: among them were Commander Fok (a US Navy officer), William McEntre Dye, and Gen. Charles W. LeGendre. The King appointed Yi Hah-yong the "Generalissimo" of his army and navy and tasked the American military advisors to build a powerful army and navy strong enough to conquer Manchuria. The King, who distrusted foreign powers, trusted Americans because he believed that America was too far away to interfere in Korean affairs, that America would share its wealth with poor Korea, and that America was a Christian country and so it would treat Korea fairly and morally.

In June 1883, King Kojong appointed Min Young Ik the first Korean ambassador to the United States. Hong Young Sik, Suh Kwang Bum, and other progressive officials were assigned to the Korean mission in Washington.

The first Korean diplomatic mission to America sailed on an American ship, carrying years' supply of Korean foods - kimchee, hot bean-pastes, dried fish, rice, and so on. They brought their own cooks who prepared Korean dishes during the month-long voyage to America. The Koreans met US President C. A. Arthur twice and presented him with a personal letter from King Kojong. They toured the Smithsonian Institution, farms, a textile plant, a pharmaceutical company, a naval yard, an electric power plant, the WestPoint Military Academy, and so on.
Three students from the Union Theological Seminary of New York - H. B. Hulbert, D. A. Bunker, and G. W. Gilmore - were recruited to come to Korea to teach at the newly created Western-style school, Yuk-young Public School. Years later in 1904, Hulbert returned to America as special envoy of King Kojong. The Koreans returned home with several typewriters, farm instruments, and other modern equipment. (Digital, 2003)

The Chemulpo Treaty guaranteed safety of foreign missionaries and soon the Korean Peninsula was flooded with American Methodist and Presbyterian evangelists eager to spread the Gospel among the Korean populace. King Kojong believed that, of all the foreign powers present in Korea, the United States was the only nation that had no hidden agenda and so, he hired a number of Americans to serve as advisers and officials in his court. The Americans, mostly Christian missionaries, effectively and enthusiastically introduced modern education, medicine, public health, technology, public administration, and democratic ideas. King Kojong truly believed that the United States would abide by the mutual defense clause of the Chemulpo Treaty and welcomed all Americans with an open arm.

Early in 1884, the Presbyterian Church appointed Dr. Horace N. Allen as the first missionary to Korea, while at about the same time, the Methodist Church appointed Dr. and Mrs. W. B. Scranton, his mother Mrs. Mary Scranton and the Rev. and Mrs. Henry Appenzeller as the first missionaries to Korea, who with A. B. Hall, founded churches as well as the first school for handicapped Koreans.

Dr. Allen arrived in Korea in September 1884 and became the first American missionary in Korea. He was also the medical officer at the US foreign affairs mission in Seoul. Most importantly, he became the King's personal physician and confidante due to an unusual incident. On December 4, 1884, Prince Min Young Ik was seriously injured in an assassination plot at a location near Dr. Allen's place of residence.

Upon hearing the commotion, Dr. Allen rushed to the scene to find a man bleeding to death. He administered an emergency care and the man lived. The man was Prince Min, the designated ambassador to the United States and a nephew of Queen Min (the King's wife - in Korea, married women retain their maiden family name). The grateful king made Dr. Allen the royal physician.

The King readily granted Dr. Allenís petition for the establishment of a Western hospital and on April 10, 1885, the first Western medical hospital, Kwanghyewon (Global House of Benefits) was opened for business. American medical doctors staffed it. In later years, Dr. Allen was instrumental in founding the Severance Medical Hospital and University, with the generous financial aids from an American philanthropist, Severance.

In 1887, Dr. Allen joined the staff of the Korean foreign affairs mission in Washington, DC. In 1890, he returned to Korea as a medical missionary but his ambition was to become an American diplomat. His ambition was realized in 1901 when he became the US ambassador (minister) to Chosun.
In June 1885, Mary F. Scranton, the mother of Dr. W.B. Scranton, came to Korea at the age of 52 and established the Ewha Girls School and later, the Ewha University. She died in Korea in 1909. Today, the Ewha University is one of the largest women's colleges in Asia and the most prestigious in Korea.

In 1888, the Korean Catholics brought on a calamity upon themselves. In May, the Korean Catholic Church began to build a cathedral at a site sacred to the royal family. The King had told the Church to pick another site but he was ignored, whereupon Kojong issued an edict prohibiting Catholicism in Korea. Anti-Catholic pogroms swept through Korea once again, and many Catholic heads were chopped off.
In 1888, Lillias Stirling Horton, MD, (1851-1921) came to Korea as a medical missionary. She was the first American woman doctor in Korea. Several other women medical doctors came later and cared for the sick and poor of Korea. Dr. Horton married Horace Underwood in 1889. Dr. Underwood (1859-1916) came to Korea in 1885 as the first Presbyterian minister. The Underwood family spent 30 years doing God's work in Korea. Dr. Underwood translated hymns and scriptures into Korean. He founded the Chosen Christian College in Seoul. The Severance College and Hospital were merged into the Yonsei University, one of the major private universities in Korea today. Dr. Horace G. Underwood established the first official Korean Presbyterian Church in 1887.

Brigadier General Charles William LeGendre, an American Civil War hero, was an advisor to the Korean Royal Household from 1890 till his death in 1899. He advised King Kojong on matters related to treaty negotiations with Japan, on account of his many years in the Japanese Foreign Service, and was a go-between the King and the foreign diplomatic community in Seoul. In addition, he served as a military advisor to the Korean Foreign Office. Col. F.J.H. Nienstead, an American, was a military instructor for King Kojong's army.

There were non-American Westerners helping out in Korea, too. For example, Dr. Julius Wiles, former British Deputy Surgeon General in the British Army, joined the English Mission in Chemulpo run by Bishop Corfe. With his own family money, he built the English Mission in Seoul. Corfe was a former British navy chaplain and was head of Britain's Korea mission from 1889 to the 1890s. A German, Paul George Von Mollendorffa, served as an adviser on foreign relations for King Kojong in the 1880s. (Republic, 2003)

By the time Japan annexed Korea in 1910, American missionaries had established about 800 schools for 41,000 students. The missionary schools, from kindergarten to college, were well staffed and financed. In contrast, the Chosen public schools had less than 20,000 students. Some of the American schools became well known for their quality education and some missionaries in China sent their children to Korea for education. For example, Rev. Billy Graham's wife, Ruth Bell, attended the Pyongyang Foreign School in North Korea.

American Entrepreneurs in Korea

One of the earliest recorded American firms in Korea is the Gulf of America, which took over copper mines in Kapsan, near Mt. Baiktu, in the 1890s. The mines had been in operation since 1782 and the Americans modernized and expanded the mining operation. When Korea was annexed by Japan in 1910, the Gugen Company of Japan took over the mines and more than 10,000 tons of copper were produced from 1914 to 1939.

Dozens of American businessmen, including General William Tecumseh Sherman of the American Civil War fame, scoured Korea looking for business opportunities. The Americans found the pickings rather slim because Chinese and Japanese got there first and picked the choice plumbs. The US trade with Chosen from 1890 until 1904, when Japan took over Korea, was insignificant, accounting for less than 2-3 percent of the total Korean foreign trade.

Americans opened gold mines, silver mines, tungsten mines, tin mines, and tons of precious metals found their way to America. However, the business activities of the Americans in Korea during this period were largely unsuccessful, and eventually, they were taken over by the Japanese. There were some notable exceptions, however: the firm of Thomas Edison introduced electricity in 1887: two American businessmen, Harry Bostwick and Henry Collbran, set up street cars and a commercial electric lighting system in 1898: James R. Morse, Walter Davis Townsend, and Collbran began construction on the railway from Seoul to Inchon in 1897 (later completed by a Japanese company): Morse opened a gold mine in Unsan, and so on.

In 1905, Japan took over Chosun's foreign affairs and all foreign missions in Seoul were ordered closed and all Chosun diplomats in foreign nations were recalled. Edwin V. Morgan was the last American ambassador to Chosun. He had the dubious honor of closing down the US mission in Seoul on December 8, 1905. (Wehry, 2000)

Although there was no American foreign office in Korea and the US officials left Seoul in 1905, American civilians stayed on and continued their activities. After the Pearl Harbor in 1941, Japan expelled all Americans from Korea. After Korea was liberated on August 15, 1945, some of the American missionaries, educators and businessmen - or their offspring - returned to Korea to pick up where they left in 1941.

* Kim Young-sik is the editor of Korea WebWeekly.

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