Late 19th Century Crossroad of East Asia
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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