Did Russia support Japan's occupation of South Korea?

Japanese soldiers marching in Seoul in the 1920s.

Japanese soldiers marching in Seoul in the 1920s.

In August 1910, the independent Korean state ceased to exist. On the 22nd of that month, Korea, which had been under de facto Japanese control from 1905, was formally annexed and became a colony of the Japanese empire. How did the Russian government and public react to this news?

It is often assumed that after the then still recent Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, which was lost by Russia, Russians must have been supportive of Korean independence. To a large extent this was indeed the case but the actual situation was far more complex.

To start with, from end of Russo-Japanese War, the Russian Foreign ministry was dominated by supporters of reconciliation with Japan.

These people (including, among others, the foreign ministers Alexander Izvolsky and his successor Sergei Sazonov) grudgingly accepted Japanese hegemony in Northeast Asia as a fact of life and did not want Russia stay involved in economically burdensome military competition with Empire of the Rising Sun.

They did not dream of revenge, and believed that Russia’s long-term interests would be better served by peaceful relations with Japan. Perhaps, they were correct.

Therefore, many Russian diplomats believed that Russia should not sponsor or actively support Korean resistance to annexation.

They reasoned that the resistance forces had little chance of success, while such support would unavoidably lead to tense relations and unnecessary frictions with Japan – and, pof course, they hardly saw imperialism as an unconditionally evil force.

Korean guerillas

Not everybody agreed with this position. The Russian military, still fresh from the humiliation of 1905 was far more adventurous.

For example, in 1910 Vladimir Sukhomlinov, the then minister of war, in his confidential letter to the Russian prime minister, suggested that Russia should clandestinely support Korean guerrillas and secretly subsidise Korea’s armed struggle for independence.

However, such ideas did not win much sympathy outside military circles and were ultimately rejected as exercises in unnecessary and futile adventurism.

Nonetheless Russia was not as impartial as Alexander Izvolsky and his people would have liked it to be. The Russian authorities in the Maritime province were quite willing to provide asylum to Korean guerrilla groups which after 1910 often crossed to Russian territory.

In many cases in fact, the local authorities turned a blind eye to military training and other activities which they were not supposed to tolerate – and of course, they did not see much problem with non-violent resistance which flourished in the area.

Around the same time, Korea town in Vladivostok became a hot bed of nationalist movements and anti-Japanese resistance. Former guerrilla commanders, being exiled from their native land spent much time in Vladivostok dreaming about future rebellions and working hard to keep their soldiers ready for future battles. 

Supporting ambassador

The former Korean envoy to Russia, Yi Bom-chin, was allowed to remain in St. Petersburg where he received from the Russian government a monthly stipend of 100 roubles.

At the time, this was a solid middle-class income (similar to that of a successful school teacher or a countryside doctor) – not enough to subsidize any significant political activity, but quite enough to allow this symbolically important figure to pay his bills with ease.

When, in January 1911, Yi Bom-chin committed suicide as a symbol of protest at Japan’s takeover of his country, the Russian government decided to pay for his funeral and also provided his family with some material support (his descendants still live in Russia).

His suicide, even though a bizarre act by the Christian standards, was much discussed in the Russian media which universally treated him as a fallen hero.

And quiet flows the Han is a blog about the historical and contemporary interactions between Russians and Koreans. In most cases, but by no means always, political issues are studiously avoided by the author, whose major interest is everyday life, culture and the lives of individuals. In this blog, Dr. Andrei Lankov explores how Russian culture was (and is) seen in Korea. He talks about migration, inter-marriage and even cuisine.

Dr. Andrei Lankov, born in 1963, is a historian specializing in Korea. He is also known for his journalistic writings on Korean history. He has published a number of books (four in English) on Korean history. Having taught Korean history at the Australian National University, he now teaches in Kookmin University in Seoul.

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