Making a Difference From a Distance

Media’s Philip Jaisohn had to flee Korea after a failed coup in 1884.

Sometimes, one accomplishes more from a distance. Korean-born Philip Jaisohn was scarcely out of his teens when he had to flee his homeland after participating in a failed 1884 coup. He ended up in  Delaware County where, as a physician, he practiced for years at a Chester clinic while working for Korean independence. 

“Dr. Jaisohn’s life was marked by a zeal for freedom and justice in his native land and for his adopted land,” observed the Chester Times upon his death. “In this, he differed from many stormy figures in the histories of nations whose actions are motivated by desires for personal power, and who are against systems of government that vest control in the people.”

Born Seo Jae-pil in Boseong County on Korea’s southern coast, Jaisohn was the son of an aristocrat, who was also a local magistrate. He wore silk robes and was constantly tailed by servants assigned to keep him from getting injured or dirty. He responded by evading the servants, playing with peasant children and complaining bitterly about his expensive, brightly colored attire. “Nobody else in this town wears this sissy stuff,” he told his parents.

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At age 7, Jaisohn’s father sent him to live with an uncle in Seoul. When the boy asked why, he was told, “As a fish cannot grow big except in the sea, so a great man is not made in a small town.”

The city was exciting, but Jaisohn found its slums depressing and came to hate the dull tutor hired to instruct him and the children of other relatives. Because the bored students’ attention wandered, the teacher’s focus was mainly on punishment. When Jaisohn discovered the man had a weakness for liquor, he devised a plan in which one student per day brought in a gift of wine. The teacher drank until he fell asleep, after which the students played.

Jaisohn, however, did not play. He finished the first lesson on his own, and then the second, which emphasized Confucian teachings. Eventually, those teachings, combined with his childhood experiences, deepened his disdain for the aristocracy and its excesses—wearing silk robes and riding about in chairs carried by peasants. “Did not the sages of old teach that man is man only because of his possession of the ethical concept?” Jaisohn later observed. “Did they have any ethical sense at all?”

At age 12, Jaisohn was one of 20 young aristocrats selected to take Korea’s civil service exam, which was administered in the presence of the king. He came in first. “Suddenly, he found himself the object of envy and admiration among the boys of his class,” wrote biographer Channing Liem in 1952. “His reputation as a genius spread throughout Seoul.”

Among his new associates, Jaisohn grew close to another young aristocrat, Kim Ok-kyun, who gradually became the nucleus of an underground group devoted to reform and westernization. Traveling abroad or reading foreign books was illegal, but a Buddhist abbot agreed to be the group’s conduit to the outside world.

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At the time, Korea was ruled by the Joseon Dynasty, which would end in 1892 after almost 500 years. But the country was dominated by China and Japan, both of which had troops there and self-interested supporters in the royal court. The courtiers, in turn, limited the ability of the king to resist such encroachments. “When [Kim’s group] discovered how free intercourse among the nations of the West had stimulated the growth of art, science, wealth and power, they were convinced more than ever that the greatest enemy of Korea was the reactionary ruling clique surrounding the king,” Liem wrote.

Killing all the court ministers seemed like the right thing to do. In the 1884 Gapsin Coup, Jaisohn was appointed “General of the Defense Forces,” with the primary task of insuring the safety of
the king. The cabinet ministers survived,
however, and the coup failed when Chinese
troops came to their support.

According to Liem, Jaisohn himself killed “dozens” of Chinese soldiers with roof tiles that he threw from the roof of the royal palace. Eventually, however, he was forced to flee and escaped from Korea with five other conspirators in the coal bunker of a Japan-bound ship. In Nagasaki, the group split up. Jaisohn and two others headed for San Francisco.

Jaisohn found a job distributing leaflets for a furniture store. His aristocratic companions shared the room he paid for and ate the food he bought, but were aghast that he could do such menial labor.  “So long as you remain slaves to that old-fashioned idea,” he told them, “you are not true reformers yet.” 

The two men soon returned to Japan, leaving Jaisohn in the United States.

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Jaisohn immediately admired the country’s egalitarian culture, its public schools, universal suffrage (for men), and a political system that included the active participation of the general public. He learned English at a local YMCA and Anglicized his name. 

Conversion to Christianity brought him into contact with J.W. Hollenback, a Pennsylvania coal-mine owner and philanthropist who paid Jaisohn’s tuition at a school in Wilkes-Barre. In 1890, he became a U.S. citizen—the first Korean ever to do so.

While studying in Pennsylvania, Jaisohn learned that his parents had been murdered in retaliation for his involvement in the coup. Kim Ok-kyun had been assassinated in Japan. Seeing no prospect of return, he found a job in Washington, D.C., translating Japanese and Chinese medical books. 

Jaisohn attended George Washington University, graduating in 1892. He was the first Korean to earn a western medical degree. Two years later, he opened a clinic and married Muriel Armstrong, a niece of President James Buchanan.

The clinic didn’t last long. In 1895, Japan won the First Sino-Japanese War and decided that a modernized, independent Korea was more to its interest than a weak state susceptible to Chinese interference. Through its influence, surviving Gapsin conspirators were pardoned, and Jaisohn returned. But he turned down a proffered position as foreign secretary to publish a newspaper, The Independent.

Jaisohn printed his paper in Hangul, the language of the common people, with a goal of making Koreans informed
citizens. He lectured on politics and
democratic principles, and helped organize an All People’s Congress, a public forum to debate political issues. Jaisohn was also a principal supporter of the Independence Gate, a 46-foot granite structure completed in Seoul in 1897 as a symbol of Korean sovereignty.

Perhaps he was too effective. In 1898, Korean conservatives accused Jaisohn of undermining the monarchy, and he was asked to leave the country. He returned to the United States just in time to accompany U.S. troops to Cuba in the Spanish-American War.

Back in Philadelphia, Jaisohn abandoned medicine for more than 20 years to partner with a friend in a printing business, which he later took over. In 1901, he bought a house in Media. But his main focus remained Korea. 

In 1919, Jaisohn organized the First Korean Congress, a gathering that attracted 200 of the 300 Koreans then living in the United States and led to the formation of the Korean Information Bureau and the League of Friends of Korea, which ultimately established 24 U.S. chapters, plus one each in London and Paris. The primary purpose of those groups was to publicize mistreatment of Koreans, particularly by Japan.

All of this took a toll. In 1924, Jaisohn’s printing company failed. Needing to earn a living, he entered medical school at the University of Pennsylvania to brush up on his skills, then began practicing at several area facilities. In 1936, he opened a private office in Chester.

Starting in the 1920s, everyone in the Jaisohn family was a peripatetic speaker on Korea and all things Asian. In 1924, the Chester Times reported on his discussion of U.S. politics before a group of Media businessmen. Surely, they sympathized with his position on the income tax, which “kept a strict account of your profits, but paid no attention whatever to your losses.” The paper also described him as “Japanese,” which must have stung.

In 1932, after Japan’s invasion of Manchuria, Jaisohn told the Rotary Club of Media,  “Japan is military mad, acting like one insane or drunk.” In the Philadelphia region, Jaisohn was the go-to guy for reporters needing quotes on news from Asia. During World War II, he assured the Times that Korea should be regarded as an ally in the struggle with Japan. “Every Korean is a hardened hater of the Japanese,” he said.

Meanwhile, his wife spoke often to community groups on her impressions of Korea. Their daughter, also named Muriel and an artist, talked of Asian prints. “Let us this afternoon,” she told the Media Women’s Club in 1938, “look through the clouds and see the real Japan—not the country gone temporarily insane, but the mother of an art sublime.”

Jaisohn made a final visit to Korea in 1947, following Japan’s defeat and the country’s division into U.S. and Soviet zones. By then, the sole survivor of the Gapsin conspirators had become a near-legendary figure. Many Koreans had thought him dead.

Jaisohn was appointed chief adviser to the U.S. military governor and was elected to a transitional parliament. However, he refused a petition to run for president, saying that he did not want to give up his U.S. citizenship. Anticommunist strongman Syngman Rhee rose to the position.

Jaisohn, however, remained hugely popular and was often pestered for public appearances, something he did not enjoy. Asked in 1948 to present “good wishes” to the Olympic team before its departure for that year’s Games, he instead called all the athletes into his office for a thorough physical. “I can be of more help to you this way than by just saying, ‘Best wishes,’” he said.

Increasingly, though, Jaisohn found that he wasn’t welcome in official circles. He considered Rhee unnecessarily auth-oritarian, but thought national unity a higher priority. “The government had come into being only a few days before,” he later said in explaining his decision to return to the U.S. “Regardless of its popularity, it was entitled to a chance to either prove or disprove its competence.” 

Hundreds saw him off at the pier in Incheon, including members of the National Assembly and common citizens. “Overcome by emotion, Dr. Jaisohn was unsteady for a minute,” wrote Liem. “Then, leaning on the arm of his daughter, he regained his poise and walked straight toward the ship, without looking back.”

In Media, Jaisohn practiced medicine for two more years before dying of a heart attack at the age of 86. In 1994, his ashes were returned to Seoul, where a statue of Jaisohn stands in front of the South Korean embassy.

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