Philip Jaisohn

By Olivia Schuette and Acadia Broussard

Philip Jaisohn (née Seo Jae Pil) was a Korean-American activist for Korean  Independence. Throughout his life, Jaisohn spent extensive time abroad, including education in both Japan and America. Jaisohn’s time in various countries was integral to his work towards Korean independence from Japanese colonial rule. Jaisohn’s time abroad allowed him to expand his activism for the Korean Independence movement by changing his thinking regarding Korea’s strategy towards how to gain sovereignty, earning him certain protections, and allowing him to ignite homeland activism. 

Jaisohn’s time abroad in Japan was influential towards his participation in the Kapsin Coup, one of his earliest involvements with activism. While studying in Japan, Jaisohn realized that in order to protect themselves against Western powers, Korea needed to modernize by embracing Western ideas and technology. Jaisohn and the other members of the coup, all of whom had been abroad, wished to overthrow Chinese power within Korea and establish Korean Independence. These members of The Independence Party staged the Kapsin Coup in December 1884 in order to achieve these goals and establish equality in Korea. China struck back, ending the coup and killing the members of Jaisohn’s family, causing him to flee to the United States for safety where he wed Muriel Armstrong and became both the first Korean to earn a US medical degree and the first Korean to gain United States citizenship. 

A copy of THE INDEPENDENT (source) and a commemorative stamp for the centennial of the newspaper (source)

In 1895, Jaisohn was able to return to Korea, and with his status as a U.S. citizen granting him protection, he was able to organize without fear of persecution. While in Korea, he disseminated his ideas to the general Korean population through starting his own newspaper, The Independence. This newspaper was created so that the Korean public could become an “informed citizenry,” and promoted Korean independence from Japan’s colonialism, working to expose government corruption. Jaisohn fought to ensure The Independence was available to all; in addition to spreading the newspaper to all eight provinces of Korea, Jaisohn was the first Korean to publish using hangul, the native Korean script. This was very important as it allowed him to bypass censorship and expose his ideas to lower classes and women. Because these ideas were available to the common people, Koreans were able to respond to the newspaper, writing letters about government corruption. Jaisohn responded to these letters in his newspapers and spurred people to call for justice. Jaisohn also started the Independence Club, where Koreans could gather and discuss the Korean Independence movement. By providing a space for political organizing, Jaisohn’s work deeply affected Korean politics. Due to his impact, the Korean government orchestrated a plot to force his return to the United States. Jaisohn received a fabricated emergency telegram that said that his wife’s mother was dying. Jaisohn and his wife returned to America to find Muriel’s mother healthy. Meanwhile the government arrested many of his colleagues in the Independence Club, intending to repress any thoughts of political revolution. 

Philip Jaisohn and his wife, Muriel

After returning to the United States, Jaisohn never abandoned his activism. Around the time he returned to America, imperialistic Japan had gained full power over Korea, making the need for independence even stronger.  Jaisohn founded a successful stationary business in America and put all the profits towards the independence movement. In 1919, he founded the First Korean Congress in Philadelphia, creating a space for transnational activism by allowing Korean immigrants and Korean-Americans to participate in the Independence Movement from America. In addition to organizing Korean Americans, Jaisohn hoped to educate Americans about the plight of his homeland. While still living in the United States, he established the Korea Review, through which he fought to persuade the US government to support freedom for Korea. Because of his ardent commitment to activism, Jaisohn eventually went bankrupt, and had to return to practicing medicine for financial support. He briefly returned to Korea and involved himself with politics, eventually turning down a presidential nomination in hopes that Korea would choose someone who could bring more political unity to the state. Jaisohn returned once again to the United States, and spent the last years of his life there.

Philip Jaisohn was a unique Asian American activist, who spent extensive time abroad, allowing him to spur transnational activism. He fought relentlessly for Korean Independence both in his home country and in America, uniting Koreans across the globe.





[1] Daniel M. Davies, “The Impact of Christianity upon Korea, 1884-1910: Six Key American and Korean figures,” Journal of Church & State 36, no. 4 (Autumn 1994) : 795-822.

[2] Yong-ho Ch Oe, “The Kapsin Coup of 1884: A Reassessment,” Korean Studies 6, (1982): 105-124.

[3] New World Encyclopedia, s.v. “Philip Jaisohn,” last modified April 27, 2014.

[4] Richard S. Kim, “Inaugurating the American Century: The 1919 Philadelphia Korean Congress, Korean Diasporic Nationalism, and American Protestant Missionaries,” Journal of American Ethnic History 26 (2006): 50-76.

[5] “The Life of Philip Jaisohn (1864-1951),” Philip Jaisohn Memorial Foundation, accessed September 10, 2016.





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