Homer Hulbert Biography
By Brother Anthony, president of the RAS Korea. More information about the early history of the RAS can be found here.
Probably the most admired by later generations of Koreans, for his support of Korean autonomy, Homer Bezaleel Hulbert was born on January 26, 1863 in New Haven, Vermont, graduated from Dartmouth College in 1884, then entered Union Theological College. While he was studying there, the Korean government announced plans to establish a school in Seoul teaching English and asked the American government to send teachers. As a result, Homer B. Hulbert arrived in Korea in 1886 with a few others to act as “professor” in the Royal English School, where the sons of high officials were to learn English. However, seeing no future in his role as teacher of a narrow-minded elite with no interest in English, he left Korea at the end of 1891.
Appenzeller encouraged Hulbert to return as a member of the Methodist mission. The Methodists had established the Trilingual Press in Seoul, at the time in question under the management of the Rev. Franklin Ohlinger. In the summer of 1893, Ohlinger left for Singapore and Hulbert was invited to replace him at the press. He felt that his knowledge of Hangul would enable the Press to produce the general educational materials the country urgently needed. So he returned to Korea in 1894 to take charge of what was already a major printing house and in the years that followed he worked hard to improve its equipment. Early in 1892, encouraged by George Heber Jones, the Ohlingers had begun to produce the monthly Korean Repository, and although it was not published for one year after their departure, it was published again from 1895-8, with Appenzeller and George Heber Jones as co-editors. Hulbert became its editorial manager by virtue of his position at the Press and began to contribute articles about aspects of Korean culture and life.
In 1897, the King decided that Korea needed to train teachers who would teach in the western-style schools that were to be established across the country. He asked Hulbert to serve as the Principal of the Royal Normal School and prepare the necessary textbooks. Hulbert therefore passed management of the Trilingual Press (and the Repository) to another Methodist missionary, D. A. Bunker, who had formerly taught at the English School and was now head of the English Department at Pai Chai. Soon after the Royal Normal School was founded, its name changed to the Imperial Normal School with the proclamation of the Daehan Empire in the autumn of 1897. Later it became known as the Imperial Middle School.
In 1901 Homer Hulbert founded The Korea Review, which was very similar in format and scope to the Korean Repository. However, the editorial policy of the Review was perhaps more strongly oriented by its editor’s vision than the Repository had been. His main ideas included the affirmation that Koreans were capable of the highest achievements but oppressed by ignorance; therefore widespread education conducted in Hangul was essential. The most controversial idea, one that he nourished almost to the end, was an idealistic view of Japan as a source and model of enlightenment and social progress, to which he opposed the Russian model of autocracy and stagnation.
Hulbert’s positive vision of Japan prior to 1905 and some other of his ideas, as well his relatively outspoken manner of writing, were strongly opposed by another of the founders of the RASKB, the American diplomat Dr. Horace N. Allen. Allen was increasingly convinced that Russian domination in Korea would be better than a Japanese takeover, and his conflict with Hulbert reached a peak during the Russo-Japanese War (February 1904 - September 1905), during which Hulbert continued to maintain an idealistically pro-Japanese position in the Review, only criticizing the negative activities and attitudes toward Korea of individual Japanese. Allen’s support for Russia displeased the State Department in Washington, who strongly supported Japan, and perhaps led to his being recalled in 1905.
Throughout the same period, Korean ministers acting without the King’s permission were signing a series of treaties with Japan, a process that would culminate in the notorious Japan-Korea Treaty of 1905, also known as the Eulsa Treaty, signed by just five ministers on November 17, 1905. This gave Japan complete responsibility for Korea’s foreign affairs, and placed all trade through Korean ports under Japanese supervision, in effect making Korea a protectorate of Japan.
It was not until the September 1905 issue of the Korea Review that Hulbert finally denounced plainly the Japanese plans for reducing Korea to a protectorate. Then, early in October, he left for the United States, secretly carrying a letter for the American President signed by the Emperor, asking the United States to prevent Japan from taking control of Korea. At the time, nobody in Korea knew of the conversations that had been held late in July 1905 between the Japanese prime-minister Katsura Taro and the United States Secretary of War William Howard Taft, during which the American encouraged the Japanese plans to take full control of Korea.
Hulbert arrived in Washington at almost exactly the same moment as the Korean foreign minister signed the Eulsa Treaty in Seoul, which the Japanese claimed was sufficient to ratify it. The pro-Japanese American government therefore refused to accept the Emperor’s letter, claiming that the ratification of the Treaty was a matter of fact, even though the Emperor himself had not signed it. After trying in vain to alert American public opinion through the press, which was also largely sympathetic to the Japanese, Hulbert returned to Korea in the summer of 1906. By the time he returned, all the foreign legations in Seoul had been reduced to the level of consulates.
When Hulbert returned to Korea in 1906, the Emperor immediately asked him to prepare to go as his ambassador to the nations due to attend the Second International Peace Conference to be held in The Hague in June 1907. His task was to contact the major powers, asking them to support the independence of Korea. His role was to be secret, behind the scenes, and in April 1907 the Emperor secretly appointed three Korean representatives. They were all unable to gain access to the conference and Hulbert left The Hague only a day or so before the Emperor was forced to abdicate on July 19, 1907. He was succeeded by his feeble fourth son, who became known as the Yunghui Emperor, or Sunjong. On July 24 1907 the new ruler signed over control of the country’s internal administration to Japan. On 22 August, 1910, the Empire of Daehan was annexed by Japan under the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty, a final formality.
Hulbert knew that he could never again live in Korea. He made a final visit to Seoul in the autumn of 1909. He was there when the Korean patriot An Jung-geun assassinated the former Japanese premier Ito Hirobumi in Harbin in October. A year before, in March 1908, Korean nationalist patriots had assassinated Durham White Stevens in San Francisco. Stevens had been an American diplomat stationed in Japan since 1873 then became a Japanese diplomat in 1883. In November 1904, Stevens was appointed as adviser to the Korean Foreign Office. He was intensely pro-Japanese and advocated the annexation. Previously, in July 1907, an attempt had been made by some Koreans to murder George Heber Jones for having praised the Japanese police for putting down a nationalistic demonstration. All these violent expressions of Korean resistance only served to drive the foreign community in Korea, whether missionaries or diplomats, towards stronger support for Japan, since they reinforced the feeling that Koreans were a violent, anarchic people incapable of governing themselves. Hulbert continued to support Korea's wish for independence in various ways throughout his life. In 1949 he finally returned to Korea, by train across Russia, and died a week after his arrival.
Books etc by Hulbert available online
Homer B. Hulbert (editor) The Korea Review, Volume 5 (1905)
Hulbert, H.B. Itu.
The Korean Repository, Vol.V (February, 1898), pp.47-54.