The Russo-Japanese War of 1905

The Russo-Japanese War of 1905

With the defeat of China in its war with Japan in 1894, the only other major power in the region was Russia. Russia had set up Port Arthur (Chinese: Lushun) on the Liaodong Peninsula as a base for its own expansion southward, connecting the city with Siberia via the South Manchurian Railroad that ran through Manchuria and the city of Mukden (Chinese: Shenyang).

Japan and its European ally, Great Britain, did not want to see Russia, under Czar Nicholas II (1868–1918), further expand its influence in the area, and although Great Britain did not get involved in the hostilities, it encouraged Japan in the war.

On February 8, 1904, Japan launched a surprise attack on Port Arthur, one of the largest armed conflicts the world had ever witnessed. It saw the first large-scale use of automatic weapons and was the first time in modern history an Asian country defeated a European power. Most of the battles were naval battles; only two were close to Korea, the Battle of Chemulpo (the old name for Inchon) and the Battle of the Yalu River.

Once the Russians were driven out of Port Arthur, they retreated to Mukden, where they were surrounded and defeated at great cost (more than 26,000 Russians killed, 25,000 wounded, and 40,000 captured). The final battle was another naval battle, this time in the straits of Tsushima between Korea and Japan, where the Russian navy was completely destroyed, including eight battleships.

Russia did not have the will to pursue the war any longer, largely because of domestic unrest. Widespread demonstrations all across Russia required the czarist government to pull back from any exter-nal dispute to try to control the unrest at home. Thus, the Russians were amenable to a quick settlement.

The peace talks were held at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, under the auspices of U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919). After the war Korea had no allies to turn to. Japan declared Korea its protectorate, meaning that it took over Korea’s foreign relations. In reality Japan began to control Korean domestic issues as well, leading to outright annexation in 1910.

The Japanese takeover of Korea was gradual. The protectorate was proclaimed in 1905, but Kojong refused to sign the required docu-ment agreeing to the move. Koreans were split in their reaction to the Japanese overtures. Some took up armed resistance; the movement was suppressed by the Japanese military and eventually pushed off the Korean Peninsula into Manchuria. Some welcomed the Japanese and tried to find a place for themselves in the new order.

Later to be called collaborators, they appreciated the news that an Asian power had defeated a European power, seeing it as an encouraging sign of Eastern autonomy. To them Japan represented progress and modernization, while the lingering Choson royalty represented stagnation, corruption, and poverty. The majority of Koreans were somewhere between the two poles, just trying to get by.

In 1907 Emperor Kojong made his last desperate move to restore Korean sovereignty. Learning of an international meeting, the sec-ond World Peace Conference, to be held that year at The Hague, Netherlands, he sent a secret delegation—secret, at least, from the Japanese, who would have blocked their participation had they known.

At the conference the delegation presented itself as the true represen-tative of Korea with credentials from Kojong. It was an open repudia-tion of the Japanese protectorate. The June 30, 1907, New York Times reported that it had been a dull day at the conference except for the appearance of Yi Sangsol, former premier; Yi Chun, former judge of the supreme court of Seoul; and Yi Wijong, former secretary of the Korean legation at St. Petersburg:

The protest says . . . the Japanese are violating [Korea’s] rights and trampling on international law, depriving them of their national independence and even resorting to violence. It adds that the Korean Emperor gave the delegates full powers which they will put at the disposal of the delegates to the conference, asking their intervention for admission to the conference. They wish, the protest says, to defend their rights, and expose the Japanese methods. . . .

One of the Korean delegates said in an interview today:

“The Japanese are behaving in Korea like savages. They are committing all kinds of barbarities against property and against the people, especially the women. [The conference’s] refusal to receive us was astonishing and painful, as our relations with Russia, as well as with America, are so good that we thought they could not refuse to assist us. We intend to go to America to appeal to the generosity of that noble country for help . . . .” (New York Times, June 30, 1907)

When Kojong’s representatives appeared at The Hague, asking to be seated at the conference as the delegates from Korea, their credentials were rejected by the other delegates, who were bound by the Treaty of Portsmouth. To show their displeasure the Japanese forced Emperor Kojong to abdicate the throne. His son, who was reportedly mentally deficient, became Emperor Sunjong (1874–1926, r. 1907–10). His pri-mary duty was to do the bidding of the Japanese, a humiliating task but one that would last only three years. The Choson dynasty was all but over.

The Japanese governance in Korea was under the leadership of a resident-general, and the first resident-general was none other than Ito Hirobumi (1841–1909), a former prime minister and one of the fathers of Japanese democracy. His is one of only four statues today in the main hall of the Japanese diet (parliament building). Until recently his image was on the smallest denomination and most-used unit of currency in Japan, the 1,000 yen note. Ito had liberal ideas for his time.

He had been one of a small group of former samurai who created the consti-tutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy in Japan. While some Japanese argued for the annexation of Korea, Ito initially favored a kind of confederation in which Korea would have a degree of autonomy. His policy changed as a wave of violent resistance swept Korea.

Upon the abdication of Kojong, when the Japanese had disbanded Korea’s military forces, an angry crowd clashed with Japanese guards outside the palace, and another crowd destroyed the building of a pro-Japanese newspaper. Soldiers from the disbanded Korean armed forces fought a pitched battle with the Japanese in Seoul.

They were defeated, but the survivors joined the rebels who were already fighting Japanese rule in the provinces. Korean guerrillas based in inaccessible moun-tain regions raided Japanese installations, damaging railroad tracks and telegraph lines. “The Japanese response,” writes Han Woo-keun, “was indiscriminate slaughter and destruction” (Han 1970, 453).

The Japanese themselves estimated that there were 69,832 Korean guerrillas in 1908, with nearly 1,500 clashes that year between Korean irregulars and Japanese troops.

The number fell to 25,000 in 1909, and to 2,000 in 1910 (Cumings 2005, 146). As the Japanese solidified their military control of Korea, the guerrillas moved their bases across the border into Manchuria.

In 1909 Ito Hirobumi made a trip to Manchuria to discuss the possi-bility of Korean annexation with Russian diplomats. At the train station in Harbin he was shot and killed by a Korean assassin.

On August 22, 1910, Korea officially became a part of the Japanese empire. The last Yi ruler was forced to abdicate. Not only did the dynasty end, Korea as an independent nation ceased to exist.