Ernst Oppert

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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 Korean trade barriers.


Oppert was born into a wealthy banker family in Hamburg. Two of his brothers, Julius and Gustav, became leading German orientalists,[1] 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 hermit kingdom, and a closed market to westerners. Oppert visited the country clandestinely several times.[2] 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. Oppert based this judgment on a scarcity of sources and in his opinion,

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.

— A Forbidden Land: Voyages to the Corea[3]

Namyungun body snatching incident[edit]

Whilst in Shanghai, Oppert met a French priest named Féron, who had devised a plan to excavate and hold hostage 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.[4] 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 steal the body, but were stopped by the massive stone slab that covered Prince Namyeon's remains and had to leave without having achieved their objective.[5] 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.[6] 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.[7]

Later life[edit]

Oppert returned to Germany, where he thereafter had an unremarkable businessman's life, socialising with his peers such as the family of Paul Julius Reuter, the Warburg family (owners of M. M. Warburg & Co., Alfred Beit (owner of De Beers diamond and gold company, the Oppenheimer family in Hamburg (cousins of David Oppenheimer), and other persons of interest. Some sources claim that he spent a few months in jail for this grave robbing episode.[6][8] In 1880 he published a book about Korea titled Ein verschlossenes Land. Reisen nach Corea.[9] It was originally published by Brockhaus in Leipzig[1] and was also translated into English.[3][5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b 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.
  2. ^ Lankov, A. A Grave enterprise, The Korea Times, January 20, 2005. URL last accessed April 26, 2006.
  3. ^ a b Oppert, Ernst (1880). A Forbidden Land: Voyages to the Corea. S. Low, Marston, Searle, and Rivington. 
  4. ^ Neff, Robert (21 July 2010). "German merchant's bodysnatching expedition in 1868". The Korea Times. Archived from the original on 23 June 2015. Retrieved 22 June 2015. 
  5. ^ a b 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.
  6. ^ a b Neff, R.: The Ghouls of Choson, The Korea Times, October 29, 2004. URL last accessed April 26, 2006.
  7. ^ Landor, Arnold Henry Savage, 1895. Corea or Cho-sen, Chapter 1, Book online at Project Gutenberg
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^


  • Ein verschlossenes Land. - Brockhaus, Leipzig 1880 (Digital)

External links[edit]