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Past & Present: 2
Homer Hulbert – A Foreign Korean Patriot
By Alan Timblick
President of The Seoul Times
Homer (Bezaleel) Hulbert (1863–1949) was an American missionary, journalist, and political activist who advocated for the independence of Korea from imperial Japan.

Today there are several thousand foreigners who come to teach English in Korea every year. And for the most part they enjoy their time here and leave the country when their contract eventually runs out.

But a century ago there were also a few who came with a view to teaching the English language or as missionaries and who decided they never wanted to leave.

On a low hill beside the Han River at Yangwhajin in Mapo-gu there is a small cemetery where lie the mortal remains of some of the foreigners who never left. Among them lies one man on whose tombstone is engraved the words “I would rather be buried in Korea than in Westminster Abbey.”

Homer Hulbert arrived in Korea in 1886. He became totally absorbed in the language and culture of the country, which became the focal point of the rest of his life. Instrumental in setting up an educational institute and publishing textbooks for his students, he also did much to introduce Korea and Korean studies to the West, helping to start scholarly journals which, among other subjects, explained in detail the usage of the Korean script which we now call Hangeul. He also composed an alternative version of the music for the folk song “Arirang”.

Hulbert was active in organising the intellectual youth of Korea and in 1903 he was apointed as the first National Director of the Korean branch of the YMCA, which was to become a meeting place for the future leaders of Korea to discuss the problems of the country’s emergence into the modern world.

In 1905 he published his own “History of Korea” and the following year, in protest against the signing of the treaty with Japan, known as the “Protectorate Treaty”, he came out with a book with the sad title “The Passing of Korea”.

Hulbert had gained the confidence of the Korean King Gojong and in fact was sent by the King on a secret mission to Washington in an attept to gain American support in holding back Japanese encroachment on Korean sovereignty. His mission was too late, but it set Hulbert on a course of championing the cause of Korean independence for the next 40 years.

His opposition to Japanese influence made it impossible for him to remain in Korea and so in May 1907 he was obliged to leave after 20 years.

In the US he never gave up the cause of Korea, declaring Japanese occupation to be illegal in a series of lectures across the country and in a string of publications about his beloved Korea. Finally, after the liberation of the country and the establishment of the Republic of Korea in 1948, Homer Hulbert, now 86 years old and in failing health, returned to his adoptive country in July 1949. Sadly and poignantly, within a few days his condition worsened and he died soon after.

More recently, a Memorial Society for Dr Hulbert has been formed and organises each year a commemoration service at his grave on the anniversary of his death. Hulbert is better known among Koreans than by today's expats. Perhaps he would have preferred it to be this way...

Episode three of Past and Present will follow soon and will feature another Westerner who championed the cause of Korean independence, the British journalist Ernest Bethel,

Watch this space!,

Alan Timblick OBE
President, The Seoul Times
Korea's only on-line English language Daily

Alan Timblick serves as President of The Seoul Times. He grew up in England, graduated from Oxford University, and has lived in Seoul for over three decades. A former banker, he also worked for the Korean gpvernment as head of Invest Korea and for Seoul City as head of the Seoul Global Center.






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