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World Review
 july 2005

Korea on the Brink:

The Late 19th Century Crossroad of East Asia


Avram Agov

This is a summary of paper outlining the objectives and the findings of a research on the late 19th century Korea. It casts light on decisive developments in East Asia centered on the Korean Peninsula.

     This research project examined the origins of the annexation of Korea by Japan in 1910. This topic included three major aspects of Korean and regional developments at the turn of the century: 1) the problems in the traditional military and financial systems that hindered the Choson dynasty’s attempts at reform and strengthening the state in an international milieu of increasing threats to Korea’s sovereignty; 2) the regional power struggle and the rise of Japanese might in the wake of the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95); and 3) the Russian role in Asia between 1896 and the Russo-Japanese War (1905). My focus and contribution in this work was the analysis of the Russian involvement in Korea at the turn of the century by using Russian archival and secondary sources. The Russian-Korean relations mirrored all the major factors that precipitated the annexation of Korea in 1910: both internal Korean weaknesses and external pressure.
     In its relation to foreign powers, the late Choson government manifested the major vulnerabilities that precipitated the collapse of Korean statehood. I examined the Korean military and financial systems because of their vitality for the normal function of a government. The paralysis of Korea's financial and military systems precipitated the Japanese annexation of the peninsula by creating a political setting that was susceptible to deep foreign penetration and manipulation. The patterns of external control in Korea through finance and military was set by the Chinese (1884-1894), deepened by the Japanese (Kabo reforms, 1895-1896), shaped by the Russians (1896-1898), and fully utilized again by the Japanese after they established a protectorate in Korea in 1905.
     By and large, the lack of an articulate Korean internal policy, pertinent instruments to carry out modernization reforms, and adequate vision of the ruling elite were chiefly attributable to the poor state of the military and financial systems at the turn of the century. These domestic factors contributed to a steady foreign penetration, which engulfed and shaped to a large degree the politics of late Choson dynasty. The Korean state continued to weaken in this the background of a growing urgency that demanded better internal and external performance.
     The period between the Sino-Japanese and Russian-Japanese wars is one of crucial importance for Korea, as the two wars were caused primarily by regional rivalries over the Korean peninsula. At the same time, these two wars were also turning points for all the countries involved. The Sino-Japanese War marked not only the defeat and humiliation of China but also the break up of the Sino-centric regional order and the demise of the imperial system in China in 1911. It also signaled the rise of Japanese might. The Russo-Japanese War solidified Japan’s regional assertiveness and threw Russia into a chain of dramatic internal shifts that ultimately led to the revolutions of 1905 and 1917.
     Another objective of this research was an examination of the financial and military systems in Korea at the turn of the century. The military and financial systems are major pillars of a functional government (defense and resources). Since this topic of research was related to the extinction of Korean statehood, these two fields served to illustrate the factors that precipitated the annexation by Japan, as they were reflected in the Russo-Korean relations. At the same time, the financial and military systems are the foundation of a nation's capacity and its logistical power, which in turn are foundation for its foreign relations and international interactions. Therefore, an examination of these two fields provided the best insight into the linkages between domestic and international development, for the financial and military systems were the primary channels that the regional powers used to influence and penetrate the Korean peninsula.
     Conclusions. My thesis findings offered four observations about the factors that led to the demise of Korea. First, the major social and political disturbances of the late 19th century occurred as a result of a deep financial crisis. In general, a financial crisis unleashes a process that affects all layers of a society. It causes chaos, desperation, and radicalism that ultimately undermines the foundation of the existing order. Since the Korean government was unable to cope with its persistent financial problems, it became an easy target of outside pressure and manipulation. In effect, it was the particular timing and sharp logistical disparities between Korea and its three neighbors that determined Korea’s annexation.
     Second, the military capability of a nation is very indicative of the state of its society, its traditions, and the leadership's visions for nationhood and its defense against outside threats. The Korean military’s weakness on the eve of annexation is particularly striking given the persistent external threats and the country's strategic vulnerability. Under the Chinese cultural inspiration, tributary ties, and security assurances, Korea did not trouble itself to develop a reliable defense system during the last two centuries of the Choson dynasty. It was mainly the inertia of Confucian values, structures, and elite that led to a complete neglect of the military.
     Third, since it is basically power that defines the limits and characteristics of international interactions, the delay in restructuring Korean society proved fatal for its independence. Indeed, Korea could not choose its neighbors. One of them, the Middle Kingdom, had pretensions to be the center of universe (not only of the world); the other, Japan, was on steady rise; and the third giant, Russia, had just appeared in the north and was struggling to solidify its vast Asian territories. This research paid special attention to the Russian-Korean relations at that time, for this aspect is usually under-examined or grossly simplified in American scholarship. Russia was neither an evil empire nor a philanthropic organization. It pursued its interests in the Far East, as far as they could be considered important for the overall czarist foreign policy, which remained centered in Europe rather than in Asia. In addition, Russian foreign policy was based on the perceptions of its neighbor’s intentions rather than on its neighbor’s real motivations.
     Fourth, the political paralysis in Korea invited deeper foreign involvement that, in turn, deepened the divisions in its society. The perpetuation of the crises triggered the processes that led to an antagonistic confrontation between two major visions in Korea. One was a reclusive, inward-looking perception of the future; the other was an outward-oriented and linked to Western values of progress and modernity. The delay in the reformation of Korean society, in fact, was to create the setting for a political polarization in modern times that further crystallized in the March First Movement of 1919 and during the colonial period (1910-1945). This antagonism was to reach a fatal culmination during the Korean War (1950-53). The "Hermit Kingdom" would remain in the north, while the south would remain a piece of the larger world order. The origins of such a social polarization could be found deeper in Korean history, but its actual formation took place at the turn of the century, when both the internal and external situation demanded resolute choices. The political orientation in Korea was usually based on domestic forces that were either pro or against Korea’s neighboring regional powers that, in turn, represented the aspirations of various Korean groups. The attitudes toward Japan became a litmus test for defining the political colors in Korea. The ambiguity of Korea’s image of Japan related to the dual role of Japan in Korea—both as an engine of reformation and as a direct threat to Korean sovereignty. To identify these conflicting forces was the other major task of this research.
     Some scholars argue that the Korean leadership lacked a vision for strengthening the state. Others tend to blame king Kojong for the reforms' failure, arguing that he was not the strong king that the country needed. Kojong’s chief responsibility was to save the dynasty. In doing so, however, he could not put to an end the very system at which pinnacle he was placed. The problem was not a lack of vision or a strong leader. Rather, a new political force with social backing was needed to change the system. The power consolidation of such a new force would have signified radical change and faster response to internal and external challenges.
     Both Koryo and Choson dynasties were founded as a result of insurgencies of regional power centers (led by Wang Kon--he founder of Koryo dynasty, and Yi Song-gye--the founder of the Choson dynasty) which challenged the central authority and saved the nation from external perils. According to a historical pattern, major security crises on the Korean peninsula usually led to the disappearance and establishment of states as adjustment to new strategic realities in East Asia. The Late Choson dynasty survived domestic challenges but collapsed in the face of foreign pressures. It may have been better for Korea if the dynasty had failed to survive domestic insurgencies. As it turned out that after the Japanese victory over Russia in 1905, Korea’s destiny was eventually determined by foreign powers. My research examined the factors that preempted the emergence of the forces that could have potentially brought on the changes that Korea required at the time.
     Although Russia was late Choson Korea’s neighbor, it did not match the other powers in terms of influence and presence on the peninsula until 1895. By then, the Chinese defeat by Japan and the latter’s disastrous mishandling of its domination in Seoul, which culminated with the murder of Queen Min, drew St. Petersburg into the central stage of political developments in Korea. Even king Kojong’s one year stay in the Russian legation in Seoul (1896-97), however, did not translate into immediate Russian benefits. The Russian leverage in Korea triggered policy debates in St. Petersburg. Generally, the czarist interests were not identified with an active presence in East Asia and Korea in particular. Nevertheless, the Russian government adopted a more active approach in 1897-98 as a result of increased pressure from the War Ministry and local officials and adventurers in the Russian Far East. Furthermore, the Korean government asked for assistance during a special mission to Russia for the inauguration of Czar Nicholas II, who was personally keen on an active East Asian policy.
     Russia was forced to withdraw its military and financial missions from Seoul in 1898 in the face of growing hostility among Korean officials and intellectuals. Russia was careful not to confront Japan directly over Manchuria and Korea. However, St. Petersburg could not avoid a major conflict with Tokyo in 1904, when the schism between the local Russian interests and ambitions and the central government’s policy widened. Consequently, the handling of the crises with Japan in 1904 went out of control. The Russian military defeat by Japan in 1905 was the most decisive international factor that contributed to the fall of Korea into Japanese protectorate in 1905 and into a colony in 1910.
     Development gives rise to conflicts, because it creates differences and disparities in power. Each state has a special mission: preservation and the continuation of its existence. The problems of development in a modern nation-state became the determining factors in shaping a nation's role in the wake of the industrial revolution. Economic and military power became the measurements of a state’s international status in the context of accelerated competition among nations. This trend reached Sino-centric Asia in the form of western pressures and infringement of sovereignty. Japan responded by adopting "barbarian" ways in order to fight the "barbarians." The Qing dynasty fell in the face of internal and external challenges and China was ravished by warlords and social chaos until the Communist People's Liberation Army swept the whole country in 1949. The price for Korea was probably the greatest one: a loss of sovereignty. Colonialism brought modernity, but also internal schism that devastated the country after the Liberation in 1945.
Boston-Seoul, 1996

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