Perspective: Understanding Korea’s History, 1884 to 2017
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 16 Feb , 2018

Japan’s Annexation of Korea

After the Meiji restoration in the latter half of the 19th century, Japan sought to be competitive with the Western colonial powers in power and style.   Consequently, Japan sought hegemony over Korea, in addition to later expanding to other nations. Around 1884, Japan planned a coup in Korea, but the Koreans quickly sought Chinese help, and the coup was crushed by Chinese troops.   Consequently, a Chinese residency was established in Seoul under a Chinese General.  But, aggressive Japanese sentiments encouraged expansion under the Samurai tradition of “honor, king, and nation first.”  So, when a peasant rebellion around 1894 rose in Korea, and the Korean emperor asked China for troops to crush the rebellion, Japan sent in its own troops on behalf of the peasants and defeated the Chinese in 1895, with a Chinese General surrendering to Japan in Pyongyang.   Consequently, the Liaodong Peninsula came under Japanese authority, but the Germans, French, and British joined forces to compel the Japanese to vacate Liaoding Peninsula, which returned to the Chinese.  Thereafter, the Russians coerced a relatively weak Qing dynasty of China in 1898 into signing a lease for the peninsula, mainly to get access to the warm port of Port Arthur (modern day Dalian) for their naval power and maritime trade.

Russo-Japanese War, 1905

During the Boxer rebellion of 1900, Japan and Russia contributed troops for the downfall of the Qing dynasty, after which Manchuria passed firmly into Russian hands.  Russia posted 100,000 soldiers in Manchuria and began the development of the Harbin-Mukden-Port Arthur railway, as well as the most amazing Trans-Siberian Railway.   Russia had also started around 1898 to make inroads into Korea by acquiring mining and forestry concessions in the vicinity of the Yalu and Tumen rivers.  But, thiscaused the Japanese unending anxiety.

So, Japan, fearing that a Russian presence in Manchuria threatened its colony in Korea[1], owing to Russia’s reputation for expansionism, proposed in 1904 to recognize Russian presence in Manchuria in exchange for Russian recognition of Japanese authority over Korea.  Japanese anxiety was for a firm reason:the Russians had behaved ambitiously from Central Asia to the Far East.  But, the Russians countered by asking for the northern half of Korea north of the 39th parallel, which roughly divides Korea in half.   When the negotiations broke down, and seeing Russia’s obvious intent to covet Japanese assets in Korea, Japan launched a surprise, pre-emptive raid on Russian ships in Port Arthur, eventually destroying Russia’s Far East fleet.  Thereafter, the Liaodong Peninsula came under Japan’s control.  It should be noted that the Russo-Japanese war of 1905, where an East Asian power defeated a mighty Western power, was basically a war that had its raison d’etre in Korea.

The peace treaty of Portsmouth between Japan and Russia was negotiated by US President Theodore Roosevelt at Portsmouth, USA.  The treaty made Russia recognize Japan’s claims to Korea, andPort Arthur and Taliencame under Japanese control.  “Both sides agreed to evacuate Manchuria and return its sovereignty to China, but Japan was able to coerce a lease for the Liaotung/Liaodong.” [2]

Russia turned over the South Manchuria Railway and its mining concessions to Japan, while Russia retained the Chinese Eastern Railway in northern Manchuria.Russia refrained from paying indemnities to Japan in exchange for the lower half of Sakhalin, a move that Theodore Roosevelt supported[3].


Between 1905 and 1931, Manchuria was under Qing suzerainty, but effectively controlled by Japan.  The Qing emperor was too weak to challenge Japan, while Russia was still licking its wounds from the 1905 defeat.  Hence, Japan exploited Manchuria, installing the puppet Munoko monarchy as a vassal state to Japan.

Tehran Conference, 1943, and Yalta Conference, 1945: Invasion of Korea and Japanese Territories

At the Yalta conference in February 1945 when Germany’s defeat was imminent, but the conquest of mainland Japan appeared difficult, the three superpowers of the time – Britain, USA, and the Soviet Union agreed with each other that the Soviets would invade Japanese territories in Manchuria and Korea and declare war on Japan.  This was beneficial for all the allies: for the West, it would hasten Japan’s defeat, largely because the atom bomb had not been tested then, and for the Soviets because it would help them capture easy territory.

Planning for a Soviet invasion of Japanese territories actually started after the Tehran conference of 1943, but the Soviets generally could only muster enough resources till the summer of 1945 to deter a possible Japanese invasion rather than launch an invasion of their own.   The Soviet Union was somewhat paranoid of the Japanese anyway, after the 1905 naval defeat of Russia by Japan, which paved the way for Japanese occupation of the Koreas and Manchuria.  Hence, the Soviets did not let down their defenses in the Far East, but neither could they build up to an invasion force till so long as the war with Germany was ongoing.  The same thing went for Japan that they could not build any offensive posture against USSR so long as the war with the USA was ongoing.  Besides, the Tehran Conference specifically spoke to Russia’s entry into the war with Japan “after Germany was defeated.”

Everyone, including the Japanese, knew that a Soviet invasion was in the works.  In any event, the easier path to Korea went through Manchuria.   The Yalta plan was to invade Manchuria within two to three months after the surrender of Germany (09 May 1945, Moscow time). That took the invasion’s time period to early August, but the Japanese somehow felt that the Soviets would not be ready till September.  However, the Soviets worked tirelessly to strengthen and replenish its Far Eastern Forces after Germany surrendered.  A Soviet force of 1.5 million troops, 5,500 tanks, 3,700 aircraft, and 27,000 artillery pieces faced off 700,000 troops of the regular Imperial Japanese army along with about 200,000 additional troops of the puppet Manchurian forces.

At 11 pm on Aug 8, 1945, the Soviet Union declared war on the Empire of Japan, and at 12:01 am on 09 August, the Soviets launched an all-out attack on three fronts in a massive pincer movement.  The Japanese forces had already been dwindled in strength with their most elite forces having been sent to face the Americans in the Pacific theater, so the Soviets were able to walk over Manchuria by 20 August.

The Soviets were caught off-guard by the first atom bomb on August 6, and actually brought forward their invasion date.   The Soviets also did not know about the planned Nagasaki bombing on 9 August, so the Manchurian invasion date of 9 August was partly coincidental to the atom bomb on Nagasaki.  However, fearing that the international community might call a halt to the Manchurian invasion soon after a Japanese surrender, Stalin actually accelerated the pace of advancement of his invasion, with an aim to take over all of Korea, as well, before anything stopped him.

Fate Intervenes

It was fate that intervened against the unified destiny of the Koreas.  Seeing the rapid expansion of the Soviet forces into Manchuria, the US Department of State assigned two young analysts – Charles Bonesteel and Dean Rusk – to see if the Americans could occupy a part of Korea.  They proposed the 38th parallel should divide the Soviet zone from the American zone.  To their surprise – and the surprise of the US – Josep Stalin accepted that proposal.  There were the following reasons that presumably propelled Josep Stalin into accepting:

  • He would have no further opposition from the allied powers, making his task straightforward.
  • He would be assured half of Korea
  • He had just witnessed two atomic bombs dropped on Japan, and didn’t wish to argue with the Americans, lest they bomb him, as well
  • He was assured of exacting revenge on Japan for the 1905 defeat.

1950-53 Korean War

The result was that the Koreas were divided into a North Korea and a South Korea.  Initially, both the north and the south wanted unification, and the United Nations worked towards that end.  But soon, internal conflicts erupted over who would lead the united Korea.  The North adopted a more central, Russian style of government, while the South followed the more liberal, American lead.  Each side further entrenched themselves in their perspectives.  Realizing that politics would not succeed in unifying the country, the North launched an all-out invasion of the South in 1950, starting the Korean War.

Though the North made very significant gains in the early part of the war, US General, Douglas MacArthur, was credited with having planned the landing at Incheon, a bold invasion plan envisioned and enacted with courage and confidence.  In a single stroke, MacArthur had the North Korean army withdrawing, for fear of getting cut off from its bases and supply lines in the North.  Many attribute MacArthur’s plan as a stroke of genius.

However, MacArthur insisted on then capturing the whole of North Korea – an initiative that President Truman did not favor.  But, MacArthur persisted and then got beat by the Chinese at the northern Yalu River in the middle of a cold and snowy winter.  US troops found themselves routed, overpowered, hungry, and defeated.  MacArthur’s response was to suggest war against China, but Truman sacked MacArthur before that could happen.  In many ways, MacArthur’s recommendation mirrored Lt Gen George Patton’s proposal to attack the Soviet Union at the end of the war in Western Europe.  Of course, neither Gen Eisenhower, nor Franklin Roosevelt or President Truman after, felt the same about attacking the Soviet Union in 1945, an ally.  Hence, the invasion of the Soviet Union never happened.[4]

At the end of the armistice in 1953, the two sides virtually came to a halt at the very 38th parallel they had started out at. By then, unification reached a virtual point of no return, because a political settlement was impossible, while a military victory had escaped both sides.

1953 to the Present

After the Korean War, the two Koreas went their different ways.  The North followed the Russian model with emphasis on agriculture, deepening the communist influence and control of its people.  But, “North Korea developed into perhaps the most isolated and controlled of all communist states” showing no signs of “political and economic liberalization despite severe economic hardship.”[5]

The South followed the US model of capitalism, freedom of speech, and liberty.  In addition, the South was greatly influenced by American pop culture, and in a subtle way, by Japanese technology advancements.  Today, S. Korea ranks among the industrialized and developed nations of the world.  However, the South is troubled by regional conflicts, pitting the Southeastern Kyongsang region against the Southwestern Cholla region.  This regional divide goes back to the days of General Park, President of S. Korea, who came from the Kyongsang region, and hence directed more development to the Southeast than any other region.[6]

A quick timeline of significant milestones reveals the following in South Korea, while North Korea steered towards becoming a hermit kingdom where liberties of speech and expression were heavily curtailed.

South Korea

In 1961, General Park Chung-Hee seized power in South Korea, taking South Korea firmly down the road of technology improvement.  But, he was assassinated in 1979 while on a visit to Myanmar.  General Chun Doo-hwan seized the reins of power the following year, increasing the shift to high-tech technology, but was pushed out of office in 1987 by student unrest.  The biased, nepotist, and high-handed dealings of the military regimes led to their downfall.

The South (and North) joined the United Nations in 1991, and the first freely elected civilian president of South Korea came aboard in 1993.  But, 1998 saw the President of South Korea, Kim Dae-jung offer unconditional economic and humanitarian aid to North Korea.  After a North-South summit at the President level in 2000 and reopening of border liaison offices, Kim Dae-jung was awarded the Nobel peace prize.

Passenger trains crossed the North-South border in 2007 for the first time since the onset of the Korean War.  Though this signaled some hope, the North scrapped all military and political deals with the South in 2009.  And, in 2010, the South broke off all trade deals with the North after one of their naval ships was sunk by North Korea, but the North retaliated by severing diplomatic relations with S Korea.[7]

A most significant and far-reaching step of immense future consequences is the decision in 2012 by S Korea to move its ministries 120 km south of Seoul.  This will effectively get much of the S Korean government out of reach of N Korean artillery shelling.   Nevertheless, this must be followed by moving the civilian population out of Seoul, but such a step is economically hazardous.

Oct 2016 saw a media coup by S Korea, which resulted in President Park being impeached, an allegedly unconstitutional measure.  The new President, a relative leftist, swore to bring a thaw in North-South relations, supposedly assisted by China.  At the Winter Olympics this month, N and S Korea marched under the same flag, which was widely seen as a thaw in relations and an expression of relatives across the border to see peace.[8]

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Dr Amarjit Singh

is an independent security analyst.

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One thought on “Perspective: Understanding Korea’s History, 1884 to 2017

  1. Another two generations and Japan will be back in its aggressive posture. It will dump its pacifist constitution. Then the question is – who is their enemy no. 1.

    Is it China or USA. The former is their enemy for generations. The latter is an enemy because they nuked them in WW2.

    It is fast moving in the aggressive direction. Chinese watch out. You are not afraid of US but Japan will scare the hell out of you.

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