Yu Kil-chun (유길준): Korea’s First Student in the United States

The first official Korean delegation to the United States, 1883. Yu Kil-chun is positioned in the back row, third from left. Image: The Peabody Essex Museum.

The 1883 New York Times report of the first Korean delegation to visit the United States reads somewhat awkwardly today. According to the article, “The 10 members of the Corean Embassy arrived here from Washington on the Pennsylvania Railroad yesterday at 5:30 o’clock. They presented a strange appearance. Their dresses were similar to those worn by high priests in an opera chorus and were surmounted with high sugarloaf black hats, such as Alpino peasants are usually supposed to wear. They have Mongolian features and some of them wore sparse black beards, and few affect long mustaches.” One member of this “Bo-Bing Sa”(보빙사) delegation was an aspiring 27 year-old student named Yu Kil-chun who would become the first Korean to study in the United States. Today, there are over 70,000 Korean students in the United States.

At the time of Yu Kil-chun’s visit, Korea was just beginning to interact with Western powers, including the United States, at a time of intense domestic debate over whether it was appropriate for the country to engage with unfamiliar cultures. Yu was one progressive voice who passionately advocated that Korea should adapt Western ideas. He was somewhat familiar with American culture from his interactions with the famous American marine biologist, Edward S. Morse, whom he met in 1881 while a student at Keio University in Tokyo. Morse, director of the Peabody Museum at Harvard University, befriended the young Yu and encouraged him to further pursue his studies in Boston.

Yu Kil-chun's letter to Edward Morse when he was in Dummer Academy. Image: The Peabody Essex Museum.

Rather than return to Korea in 1884, Yu decided to remain in the United States to study mathematics at the Governor Dummer Academy, today known as The Governor’s Academy, the “oldest continuously operating boarding school in America.” Yu wrote about his U.S. experiences in his book, Soyu kyonmun(서유견문)—“Observations on Travels in the West”—published in 1895. Today, this book is recommended reading for all Korean high school students. It was in this book that Yu explained American and European perspectives on sovereignty, independence and equality to his fellow citizens.

Following in Yu’s footsteps, many prominent Koreans have studied in the United States. South Korea’s first president, Ryee Syungman, studied at George Washington University (B.A), Harvard University (M.A.) and received his Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1910. Ban Ki-moon, Secretary General of the United Nations, also studied at Harvard University, as did Kim Young, Governor of the World Bank who was born in Seoul and moved to United States when he was at five years old. Furthermore, according to this author’s research, approximately 15% of current Korean National Assembly members have studied in the United States.

The number of Korean students choosing to study in the United States has risen dramatically since the 1950s when there were 258 Korean students for the 1949/50 academic year. Today, that number exceeds 70,000; Korean students currently rank as the third largest number of international students studying in the U.S, behind only China and India. There is no doubt that the vision that Yu Kil-chun shared with his fellow citizens back in the early 20th century has transpired, and it is accurate to say that his legacy continues to this day.

JIsoo Lee is an Asan Academy Research Intern at the East-West Center in Washington.