Remembering Hulbert's love for Korea
By Kim Se-jeong
Although Homer B. Hulbert (1863-1949) is a household name in Korea, he's still underappreciated
when considering everything he did for the country.
As Korea's first modern educator, Hulbert studied Korean language extensively and wrote about it
academically within and outside Korea. He lamented the writing system of Hangeul was not in
widespread use and made a textbook for Koreans.
The missionary also gave the song “Arirang” its Western musical notation and shared it with the
outside world for the first time. He published the musical notes in the English periodical, “Korean
Repository” published in Korea in 1896, and helped it make into the History of Foreign Music, a
paper published in New York in 1908. He praised a turtle ship invented by Admiral Yi Sun-sin
during the war against Japan in the late 1500s and attempted to showcase it at an international
expo in the U.S.
As Joseon fell under Japanese rule, Hulbert helped Emperor Gojong reach out to the world to
protest Japan's taking control of the Korean Empire. He advocated Korea's stance in many writings
he contributed to U.S. newspapers.
Kim Dong-jin's biography “Homer B. Hulbert: Joseon Must Blossom!” narrates Hulbert's life-long
efforts as an advocate of Korea supported by historical documents Kim had collected over the
years. The biography is an updated version of his previous book published in 2010. This year marks
the 70th anniversary of Hulbert's death.
“I included more original documents and new facts about Hulbert's dedication to Korea,” the author
told The Korea Times.
Hulbert was born in 1863 in New Haven, Vermont, to a Christian family and studied at Dartmouth
College and Union Theological Seminary.
Hulbert first arrived in Korea in 1886. In 1891, he returned to the States and came back to Korea in
1893 as a Methodist missionary. In 1907, he left again under fear of Japanese persecution. From
then until 1945, he wrote extensively and spoke for Korean independence in the United States.
In a Portland lecture in 1909, he reaffirmed his determination to fight for Korea, “I stand for Korean
people, now and always. Despoiled of rights and possessions, my voice shall go out for them until I
The number of articles and speaking engagements Kim wrote is countless.
“The number of verified articles he contributed to media outside Korea was 75, but I guess the real
number could be at least 100. The number of public lectures about Korea between 1907 and 1945
was more than 1,000.”
Hulbert had always wanted to come back to Korea.
“I would rather be buried in Korea than in Westminster Abbey!” is one of his most famous quotes.
Syngman Rhee, the first president of Korea, invited him and he finally accepted the invitation in
1949. “He was 86 years old. His family members all knew very well that he would not make it back
Before leaving for Korea, he gave an interview with the local Springfield Union newspaper and said,
“Koreans are among the world's most remarkable people.”
On July 29, 1949, he arrived at the Incheon port. “He kissed the soil as he got off the military ship
and cried.” One week later, he passed away.
The book is a result of Kim's decades of work. As a former banker, he continued research in his
spare time and raised funds to carry on the project.
“Early on in my research, my heart was filled with admiration for Hulbert ― a stranger doing so
much for Korea. However, over the years, the admiration was replaced with sympathy for him ―
how hard it would have been for him to carry on the independence movement alone and how
lonely he would have felt all along. These thoughts make me feel deeply for him.”
On the topic of Hubert's sincere fondness for Korea, Kim wrote: “I would say his innately strong
sense of humanity was a basis. Meeting with the sincerity and amicability of Korean people sparked
the affection in him and the research on Korean culture and language nurtured the affection.”
The book is 22,000 won and available in bookstores.
2019-11-29 : 11:01
Passion for underappreciated hero, Homer Hulbert
Kim Dong-jin, chairman of Hulbert Memorial Society, speaks next to the Homer Hulbert tomb at Yanghwa Foreign Missionary Cemetery in Seoul on Dec. 16. Former President Kim Dae-jung had Hulbert's name inscribed in Korean on the tombstone in 1999. /Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk
Kim Dong-jin spent three decades researching Hulbert and calls on Koreans to remember him
By Kim Se-jeong
Back in 1989 when Kim Dong-jin was working in New York at Chemical Bank headquarters, he was called in for a meeting with Richard Hulbert, the senior standing auditor.
Hulbert presented a piece of paper to the worried young Korean banker.
“He said he was a grandson of Homer Hulbert, then asked me to translate it. The letter was from the Korean government, recognizing his contributions to the Korean independence and inviting him to Korea,” Kim explained to The Korea Times. He is now serving as chairman of the Hulbert Memorial Society.
“It was a total shock for me as Hulbert has been my hero since I was in college. I already knew about Hulbert through the book 'The Passing of Korea' and was amazed by him. And I always imagined meeting with his descendants someday. I explained to Richard that I had been deeply impressed by his grandfather's book and that I wanted to learn more about his grandfather.”
After their first meeting, Kim was invited to the grandson's New York home where he kept a few of his grandfather's belongings, including traditional furniture from Korea. Later, Kim also met Hulbert's other descendants, visited their homes and saw Hulbert's other belongings, including a letter from Emperor Gojong to Hulbert.
“The meeting with Hulbert's grandson in the office gave me a mission for the rest of my life. I felt this was God's mission for me to uncover Hulbert's story.”
For the next 20 years, he spent his personal time and money collecting Hulbert's belongings and finding ways to commemorate him.
Since his retirement 10 years ago, Kim has had more time to research Hulbert and restore his legacy. The Korea Times met him in the office of the Hulbert Memorial Society in western Seoul to talk about his passion for studying Hulbert's life.
Who was Homer Hulbert?
Homer Hulbert was born in New Haven, Vermont, in 1863. His mother Mary Elizabeth Woodward Hulbert's great grandfather was Eleazar Wheelock, founder of the prestigious Dartmouth College. Hulbert went to Dartmouth College before attending Union Theological Seminary.
In 1886, he came to Korea as a teacher at Royal College, Korea's first Western school. In 1891, he resigned from the teaching position and returned to the U.S. Two years later, in 1893, he returned to Korea as a Methodist missionary and stayed until 1907. In 1949, at the invitation of the Korean government, he returned to Korea and died one week later. Altogether, he stayed in Korea for 20 years.
Modern educator and Hangeul advocate
Hulbert came here to teach Western knowledge to Koreans. He sought to expand the minds of young students through his teaching of mathematics, geography, world history, English and other subjects.
But Kim also calls Hulbert a Hangeul _ Korean alphabet _ advocate. According to Kim, Hulbert had linguistic talents and studied as many as seven languages before coming to Korea.
In 1889, he published an article, “The Korean Language,” in the New York Tribune, explaining the characteristic of the Korean language,” Kim explained, showing the copy of the published article.
In his memoir, Hulbert wrote that a week after learning to read and write Hangeul he began to realize how underutilized and underappreciated it was by the Koreans he encountered, despite the native script's excellent characteristics. At the time Hanja was still the predominant official script.
He began advocating for its greater use.
An excerpt from Saminpilji, the textbook Homer Hulbert wrote for his students using Hangeul. Kim obtained the original copy of the book from Hulbert's grandson Bruce. /Courtesy of Kim Dong-jin
In 1891, he authored “Saminpilji,” a textbook for his students written only in Hangeul, in an attempt to spread the use of the native Korean alphabet. In the book's preface, Hulbert made his case for Hangeul ― that the Korean alphabet is easy to read and to understand and that using Hangeul would contribute to abolishing social classes in Korean society.
Kim said he initially doubted Hulbert was fluent in Korean.
“I had a doubt whether his Korean could have been so good to write Saminpilji. But, through research, it became clear that he was very fluent in Korean.”
In 1903, he published a writing on Korean language in the Smithsonian Institution's Annual Report, saying “Korean surpasses English as a medium for public speaking.”
Hulbert compared the Korean language with the Dravidian language used in southern India and the language of Efate, currently the Republic of Vanuatu, and published his findings in “Korea Review,” an academic magazine which he published 1901-06.
Kim said Hulbert also had a great interest in Korean culture.
Korean song, Arirang, with western musical notation published in The Korean Repository, English periodical in February, 1896. /Courtesy of Kim Dong-jin
Hulbert gave the traditional song “Arirang” its Western musical notation and shared it with the outside world for the first time. He published it in the English periodical “Korean Repository” in 1896 and helped it find its way into “The History of Foreign Music,” a paper published in New York in 1908. He also translated 123 Korean proverbs into English. In translation, he also explained the context in the meanings of the proverbs.
Expert on Korean history
Kim said Hulbert studied Korean history very seriously and wrote prolifically about it.
In 1898, 12 year after arriving in Korea, he published his first long article on Korean history titled “The Mongols in Korea.”
That was followed by “The History of Korea” (1905) covering the entire history of Korea from Dangun, the legendary founder of Gojoseon, through to the Daehan Empire.
In 1906 he published the contemporary history book “The Passing of Korea” in an attempt to make Japanese atrocities known to the world. In it, he criticized the U.S. government of indifference to injustice in Korea. Kim read this book when he was a college student.
Fight for Korea's independence
“Hulbert's children and grandchildren are proud of the grandfather as an educator in Korea. But for me and many Koreans, he should be remembered for his fight for Korea's independence,” Kim said.
Hulbert stayed in Korea during turbulent times. Korea was forced to sign the Eulsa Treaty in 1905 which put Korea under Japan's protection before becoming an official colony of Japan.
Hulbert became close with Emperor Gojong and was asked to speak on behalf of Korea.
Right before Eulsa Treaty was signed in 1905, Hulbert delivered the emperor's hand-written letter to then-U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, which fell on deaf ears.
Emperor Gojong's letter of appointment for Homer Hulbert as a special envoy to the Hague Peace Conference. Kim obtained the original document from the Dartmouth College. /Courtesy of Kim Dong-jin
In June 1906, Hulbert was again called in to become the emperor's envoy to visit state heads of western superpowers, as well as to assist three Koreans set to attend a peace conference in the Hague the following year. The names of three Korean envoys ― Yi Tjoune, Yi Sang-seol and Yi Wi-jong ― are well-known, but it's not so well-known that Hulbert was also an envoy to the Hague peace conference.
Their mission failed as a result of Japan's lobbying toward the world's powers against allowing the three to attend the meeting.
After the Hague, Hulbert couldn't return to Korea due to Japan's frontline efforts to keep him out. He returned to the United States and settled in Springfield Massachusetts. But his fight for Korea's independence continued at home.
The New York Times carried an interview with Homer Hulbert in its article published July 20, 1907. Kim obtained the copy from the Times archive. /Courtesy of Kim Dong-jin
“Between 1907 and 1945, the number of public lectures he gave on Korea was more than 1,000 and of his newspaper articles and interviews was almost 5,000,” Kim wrote in his recent book.
The papers in which he published articles included the New York Times, the New York Herald, the Salk Lake Tribune, the Pacific Monthly, Harper's Magazine and the San Francisco Call, etc.
In August 1945, Imperial Japan surrendered ending World War II and Korea finally won its freedom.
Hulbert's return to Korea took a few years because he wanted to stay with his ill wife, May. After she passed away in 1948, Hulbert set off on his journey to Korea in 1949.
An article on Homer Hulbert carried by the Springfield Union, a local paper in Springfield, Massachusetts on July 2, 1949, right before his final journey to Korea. It was one of the last interviews Hulbert gave to local media. /Courtesy of Kim Dong-jin
Before leaving for Korea, he gave an interview with the local Springfield Union newspaper and said, "Koreans are among the world's most remarkable people." In a separate interview with the Associated Press, he famously said: “I would rather be buried in Korea than in Westminister Abbey!”
People gather outside Bumingwan, currently the Seoul Metropolitan Council, in Seoul, where Homer Hulbert's state funeral ceremony took place on Aug. 11, 1949. Kim obtained the picture from Hulbert's granddaughter, Judith. /Courtesy of Kim Dong-jin
He arrived in Incheon on July 29, 1949. Fatigued by a long boat journey, the 84-year-old passed away on Aug. 5, just a week after his arrival. A state funeral ceremony honoring his achievements was held and his body was laid in the Yanghwajin Foreign Missionary Cemetery. In 1950, the Korean government posthumously awarded Hulbert with Taegeuk Order of Merit for National Foundation, the highest award for foreigners, for his contribution to independence.
Collecting Hulbert's belongings
Leaving New York in 1991, Kim took away some of Hulbert's belongings given to him by his family members and has collected others since then.
“I am hoping to open the Hulbert Museum sometime,” Kim said.
He traveled around the world to collect his belongings, mostly his writings. He went to the Dartmouth College Library where he was able to get a photocopy of Hulbert's special envoy appointment by Gojong.
“But when there was no technology, I had to make a hand-copy of every document,” Kim said.
He added gathering Hulbert's belongings was a big challenge. “He left Korea suddenly and the Japanese seized his properties and belongings.”
One of the latest additions to his collection was the document filed by the Japanese Office of the Resident-General in which Ahn Jung-geun, a heroic Korean independence fighter who in 1909 assassinated the resident-general of Korea, Ito Hirobumi, mentioned Hulbert.
“In the writing, an interrogator asks Ahn if he knew Hulbert and his answer is this: 'I never met Hulbert. But Koreans must not forget his name even for one day.' I think this quote speaks volumes to who Hulbert is.”
Books on Hulbert
Kim wrote four books on Hulbert. The first book was published in 2006 ― a facsimile of Saminpilji, the first Hangeul textbook Hulbert wrote for his Korean students.
In 2010, his second book, “Crusader for Korea, Homer B Hulbert,” was published. In 2016, he translated 57 writings, mostly written in English, of Hulbert into Korean and made them into a book. The latest book “Homer B. Hulbert: Joseon Must Blossom!” was published in November and is an enlarged and deepened version of his 2010 book.
Hulbert Memorial Society and tombstone
In 1999, Kim founded the Hulbert Memorial Society, which gave him a systematic approach for carrying out research and commemorating activities on the important historical figure.
That year was also significant because Hulbert's tombstone in Yanghwajin was finally completed.
“When he died, then-President Syngman Rhee promised to write Hulbert's name on the stone, but it didn't happen because of the Korean War. In 1999, the Hulbert Memorial Society made an official request to then-President Kim Dae-jung to do it and the president accepted the proposal,” he said showing the tombstone at the cemetery.
Kim Dong-jin, chairman of the Hulbert Memorial Society, speaks during an interview in his office in Seoul on Dec. 16. /Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk
Studying Hulbert's achievements, Kim has been disappointed that Hulbert is greatly underappreciated in Korea.
“Right after independence, Hulbert was quite a respected name in the intellectual community and they did many things to commemorate him. But in the next generation, there was no younger intellectual who knew about him. Other missionaries like Horace Grant Underwood and Henry Appenzeller had the Korean churches in the back continuing to herald their legacies but Hulbert doesn't have any support.”
Kim believes Hulbert had genuine fondness for Korea and that it should be recognized adequately.
Where did this fondness come from? “His innately strong sense of humanity was a basis. Meeting with the sincerity and amicability of Korean people sparked the affection in him and his research on Korean culture and language nurtured the affection.”
Asked about his motivation for Hulbert research, Kim said: “He was an ordinary person like me with a family to support and struggles in life. But, these challenges didn't make him give up on acting upon important values like justice and humanity. The more I researched, the more I became drawn to him.”
In 2020, he plans to publish “Saminpilji” in contemporary Hangeul “so that people can understand it. Hangeul from Hulbert's time is still too complex to comprehend.”
He also wants to reach out to today's teachers so that “children can learn about Hulbert.”
Together with that, he is working to make a place for Hulbert in Korean history. He sent copies of his most recent book to historians and linguists and is organizing a talk at the end of January to hear “their evaluation of Hulbert.”
2020-01-02 : 16:42