Ernst Jakob Oppert (December 5, 1832 – September 19, 1903) was a Jewish businessman from Germany best known for his unsuccessful attempt in 1867 to remove the remains of the father of regent Yi Ha-eung from their grave in order to use them to blackmail the regent into removing the Korean trade barriers.
Oppert was born into a wealthy banker family in Hamburg. Two of his brothers, Julius and Gustav, became leading German orientalists, while Ernst opened a trading business in 1851 in Hong Kong. When that company went bankrupt in 1867, he became interested in trading with Korea, which at that time followed a strict isolationist policy and was a closed market for westerners. Oppert visited the country clandestinely several times. Although Oppert himself had no experience in learning the Korean language he judged the Korean language to be much harder to learn than either Chinese or Japanese. It has to be said that Oppert based this judgment on a scarcity of sources and that the arguments to prove this statement, as mentioned in his book: A Forbidden Land: Voyages to the Corea, are in fact non-factual and based upon opinions:
- "The difficulties in acquiring and properly speaking the Corean language are by no means inferior to those which beset the study of the Chinese; they are even considered by many to be infinitely greater, and they cannot be likened to the comparatively easy manner with which even foreigners are able to acquire a knowledge of Japanese in a proportionately short time.
On one visit, he met a French priest named Féron, and together they devised the plan to excavate and remove from the country the bones of the father of regent Yi Haeung, who ruled the country for his son, king Gojong, to use them to blackmail him into opening the country for trade. Supplied by an American, E. F. B. Jenkins, with money and arms, they set out on April 30, 1867. When they reached the tomb, they tried to rob it, but were stopped by the massive stone slab that covered the former king's remains and had to leave without having achieved their objective. That stone was thought to be steel, but it was in fact quicklime. On their way back, they were engaged by Korean soldiers in a battle and their party had to flee the country. The incident enraged the Koreans, who were now even less inclined to trade with the foreigners.
According to A. H. S. Landor, the tale of Oppert's unsuccessful tomb raiding was still well known in Korea around the end of the 19th century and was being told to foreigners on arriving, with one member of the raid party allegedly still living in Chemulpo.
Oppert returned to Germany, where he henceforth lived an unremarkable businessman's life. Some sources claim that he spent a few months in jail for this grave robbing episode. In 1880 he published a book about Korea titled Ein verschlossenes Land. Reisen nach Corea. It was originally published by Brockhaus in Leipzig and was also translated into English.
- Bräsel, S.: Ernst Jakob Oppert: "Ein verschlossenes Land" - Die erste Reisebeschreibung eines Deutschen über Korea, project description, University of Erfurt, 2002. URL last accessed April 26, 2006.
- Lankov, A. A Grave enterprise, The Korea Times, January 20, 2005. URL last accessed April 26, 2006.
- Oppert, Ernst (1880). A Forbidden Land: Voyages to the Corea. S. Low, Marston, Searle, and Rivington.
- Williams, S. W.: Oppert's Kingdom of Corea, book review of Oppert's book A Forbidden Land: Voyages to the Korea (G.P. Putnam's Sons, New York 1880), in New Englander and Yale review 39(157), September 1880, pp. 509 – 521. URL last accessed April 26, 2006.
- Neff, R.: The Ghouls of Choson, The Korea Times, October 29, 2004. URL last accessed April 26, 2006.
- Landor, Arnold Henry Savage, 1895. Corea or Cho-sen, Chapter 1, Book online at Project Gutenberg
- Kleiner, J.: Korea – A Century of Change, World Scientific Publishing Company 2001, ISBN 981-02-4657-9; in particular Chapter 1: The Hermit Kingdom, "Oppert's Act of Piracy" (p. 10). URL last accessed April 26, 2006.
- Ein verschlossenes Land. - Brockhaus, Leipzig 1880 (Digital)
- Kneider, H.-A.: Ernst Jacob Oppert: Ein deutscher Kaufmann auf Raubzug im alten Korea, 2003. URL last accessed April 26, 2006.
- Jewish Encyclopedia: Oppert, Ernst Jacob. URL last accessed April 26, 2006.
- Neff, Robert: "German merchant's Bodysnatching Expedition in 1868," The Korea Times July 22, 2010, p. 15.