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.