A relationship forged in song, science, sport

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A relationship forged in song, science, sport


Who composed Korea’s first national anthem? The answer: Franz Eckert, a German-born musician.

Eckert spent a significant portion of his life in Asia. He spent his last days in Korea, where he died of stomach cancer at age 65 in 1916.

He served as the director of the Japanese Navy Band from 1879 to 1880. During his time in Japan, Eckert composed harmonies for the Japanese national anthem.

Then the Korean government invited Eckert in 1901 to write the music for its national anthem. Working as the military band director here, Eckert finished the anthem in 1902. It was called the “Anthem of the Korean Empire.”

Korea and Germany first came into informal contact in the 17th century. In 1644, Crown Prince Sohyeon, the first son of King Injo during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), was held captive in Manchuria, where he befriended Adam Schall, a German Jesuit missionary. Sohyeon was interested in Western science, and Schall became his teacher, also giving him books on Catholicism.

Schall hoped Sohyeon would spread Catholicism in Korea once he returned. But the crown prince was murdered, cutting short the budding Korean-German relationship.

It would take over 200 years to establish formal ties. According to the Korean Embassy in Germany, in 1869, Max von Brandt, then the German diplomatic minister to Japan, traveled to Busan to sign a trade agreement with Korea, but was rejected. An agreement was reached in 1882, but the German government refused to ratify it for fear its ambiguous language would endanger German extraterritoriality.

The deal was revised in 1883 and ratified in both nations in November 1884. The German Consulate General in Seoul was established in the same month, and Korea sent its first consular general to Germany in 1901.

At the turn of the 20th century, Franz Eckert wasn’t the only German working in Korea. According to the Korean Embassy in Germany, Paul Georg von Mollendorff served as a diplomatic advisor to Emperor Gojong starting in 1883. Mollendorff helped the late Joseon Dynasty government establish foreign policy, build English-language schools and set up a mint to facilitate currency reform.

Johann Bolljahn in 1895 founded a school that taught Germany’s military system. Richard Wunsch was Emperor Gojong’s personal physician from 1901 to 1904, according to the embassy. Since 1990, the local unit of the German pharmaceutical maker Boehringer Ingelheim has presented the Wunsch Medical Award to Korea’s top doctors.

Eckert’s anthem never caught on. In 1905, only three years after Eckert wrote the piece, Korea was forced to sign the Eulsa Treaty with Japan and was stripped of its independence.

During Japan’s occupation of Korea, Germany lost its diplomatic ties, but it continued to maintain contact on the civilian level. According to the Foreign Ministry in Seoul, Andre Eckardt led German missionaries to Korea in 1908. Eckardt helped build a theological school, despite Japanese persecution of foreign religious movements. Eckardt stayed in Korea until 1929, studying Korean culture, arts and history. After returning home, he continued his research and is regarded as the first scholar of Korea in Germany.

Meanwhile, the Foreign Ministry estimates that about 30 Koreans went to Germany to study subjects such as philosophy, theology and the humanities during the colonial period.

Li Mi-rok was one such student. While in Germany in 1946, Li published an autobiographical novel, “The Yalu River Flows” (“Der Yalu Fliesst” in German). The acclaimed book was later adapted into a three-part television series co-produced by Korea’s SBS and Germany’s BR in 2009.

Since signing a cultural treaty in 1970, Germany has hosted events related to Korean arts and culture. When Germany hosted the FIFA World Cup in 2006, it took a cue from Korea during the 2002 games, when passionate Korean football fans spilled out onto city streets to watch the matches on giant outdoor screens. Two similar screens were set up in Frankfurt.

At the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Korean marathoner Sohn Kee-chung won the gold and his compatriot Nam Sung-yong took the bronze. Korea was still under Japanese rule, and Sohn and Nam were forced to compete for Japan under their Japanese names. Nonetheless, Sohn is widely regarded as Korea’s first Olympic gold medalist - and he accomplished the feat in Germany.

By Yoo Jee-ho [jeeho@joongang.co.kr]

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