Lessons from a monumentRussian President Vladimir Putin made a one-day visit to Korea, and during the brief stay, he visited the memorial for the Russian Navy in Incheon’s Yeonan Port. The black granite monument was brought from St. Petersburg in 2009, and the monument is a reminder of the first battle of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904. What happened in that battle? What lessons and warnings does the memorial give us?
From 1895 to 1905, Joseon was the center of a power struggle among China’s Qing Dynasty, Russia and Japan. As the First Sino-Japanese War ended with Japan’s victory, the China-centered order in Joseon collapsed and there was a brief power vacuum. While Japan attained half of its ambition to dominate Joseon after the Sino-Japanese War, Russia made a southward move to stop Japan. Japan proposed that it would acknowledge Russia’s special interests in the railway enterprises in Manchuria in return for Russia’s recognition of Japan’s interests in Korea. Russia counter-proposed that the part of Korea lying to the north of the 39th parallel be established as a neutral zone.
While the diplomatic negotiations between Russia and Japan made little progress at the turn of the century, military authorities and war supporters gained influence in Japan. Russian military leaders were eager to engage, and they were confident that the battle against the “yellow monkeys” was more of a “military pleasure stroll” than a war. By the end of 1903, the rising empire of the East and the waning empire of the West were like two locomotives bound to run into each other on the same track. A crash was inevitable.
However, due to the poor communications at the time, the Russian legation in Joseon, the Russian cruiser Varyag and the gunboat Korietz at Chemulpo Bay were not aware of the development. Japan had declared war on Russia on Feb. 10, 1904, and notified all foreign vessels to leave Chemulpo. It was a critical moment because Japan’s attack on Russian ships could also damage the vessels of other countries. In order to prevent collateral damage, the Korietz and Varyag left Chemulpo and headed to Dalian, China. Waiting near Chemulpo Bay, the Japanese Navy launched torpedoes at the Korietz and Varyag. About 690 Russian Naval troops were on board the two ships. More than 3,000 torpedoes were shot in 30 minutes, but they all missed the Korietz and Varyag. As the two ships gave up, crossing the Yellow Sea and sailing back, three torpedoes hit the Varyag. The ship took on water and 40 were killed and hundreds were injured.
Commanders of the Varyag and Korietz managed to arrive at the outer bay of Chemulpo while the Japanese warships chased them, and they chose not to hand over the naval vessels of the Russian Empire. After having the surviving crew escape the ships, powder rooms in the Korietz were blown up, and the Varyag rolled over and scuttled. The explosion of the Korietz stunned local people. In the meantime, the Japanese army landed on Chemulpo. France’s Pascal and Great Britain’s HMS Talbot rescued the Russian soldiers and helped them to return home. Japan demanded the captains of the U.K., French and Italian vessels hand over the Russian soldiers as prisoners of war. But the captains of the European ships denounced Japan for attacking the Russian warships without declaring war, calling it a violation of international laws.
However, the protest of the three European countries against Japan stopped there. The United States was negotiating the Katsura-Taft Agreement, a discussion in Tokyo on July 27, 1905, between U.S. Secretary of War William Howard Taft and Japanese Prime Minister Taro Katsura. It acknowledged Japan’s interest in Korea and America’s acquisition of the Philippines. The USS Vicksburg was in Chemulpo, but the United States turned away coldly. The United Kingdom fully supported Japan as an alliance was made two years before and it wished to stop Russia’s advance in East Asia. France had colonial enterprises in Indochina and had no reason to help Russia. To Italy, friendly relations with the United Kingdom and France were more important. When the Russo-Japanese War broke out, the Western powers’ positions were strictly based on geopolitical interests.
In fact, they were not concerned about Joseon at all. Just like hyenas dashing to a dead animal, the Western powers fought over interests in China and decided that handing Joseon to Japan would not undermine their interests in the region as Japan had just joined the ranks of imperial powers. The destiny of Joseon was designed by neighboring giants, and the incompetent kingdom had little say in its own fate. The memorial visited by Putin warns us today that no country sacrifices its own geopolitical interests to help a feeble country.