3,000 years of East Asian history in Korea, China, Japan, Mongolia, and Russia
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Ch 32 - The Russo-Japanese War


Securing a Foothold

Japan occupied Korea and strengthened its diplomatic and military control over the country in preparation for a major land attack against the Russians near the Yalu River.


The Russo-Japanese War sharply focused concerns in the United States and European capitals about the shifting East Asian balance of power. Nevertheless, not one of the major powers in the region was eager to join the battle. Japan was at war with only one power:  Russia. Great Britain had no obligation under the Anglo-Japanese Alliance to jump into the fight. The Triple Alliance was not involved, which meant that France would not come to Russia's aid. China also remained neutral, despite of its secret 1896 defensive treaty with Russia. The United states felt no reason to get involved, particularly since Japan had so quickly asserted itself militarily.

Russian actions in Manchuria thoroughly aroused and irritated President Theodore Roosevelt, who found no small measure of joy in Japan's victory at Port Arthur. In a letter to his son written on February 10, 1904, Roosevelt described his feelings on Russia's early defeats, noting "I was thoroughly pleased with the Japanese victory, for Japan is playing our game."

Given the growth of its territorial and economic stakes in the region over the previous ten years, America was more interested in protecting its commercial interests and preserving the Open Door Policy in China than in protecting or even defending the principal of Korean sovereignty. In March, President Roosevelt remarked to the Japanese ambassador that he could see no reason why Japan should not have a relationship with Korea "just like we have with Cuba." An interesting comment when you consider that in 1902, the United States established a nominally independent republic in Cuba under American "protection" and completely bound it to the American economy through investments.

The Japanese government's earliest goals in Korea were to forestall any Russian occupation of the peninsula and simultaneously advance north into Manchuria. The Japanese military, particularly Imperial General Headquarters in Japan, advocated a hard-line policy towards Korea. In December 1903, while negotiations with Russia were still underway, the military had already begun drawing up plans to occupy Korea.

The Japanese Cabinet reached a decision regarding the new course towards Korea on December 30, 1903, and a conflict emerged almost immediately between the military and the government. The Minister of Defense and the Imperial General Headquarters debated the vital issue of who would have operational control over the military in Korea and from whom would the army and navy take their orders;  the military or the government. The government's decision to strike a balance between military and political strategies seemed to settle the argument, but it left in place the seeds of future conflict between the government and an increasingly independent-minded military, which believed its allegiance was to the emperor, not the government.

Totally ignoring the Korean government's well-published declaration of neutrality in the case of any Russo-Japanese conflict, Japan quickly took steps to isolate Korea and secure a strategic advantage in the war against Russia. After disembarking and establishing a firm beachhead at Inchon, on February 9 four infantry units of the 23rd Infantry Brigade, 12th Infantry Division, marched into Seoul and occupied a number of buildings. Emperor Kojong's court was ill-equipped to deal with the sudden arrival of the Japanese army and it quickly became evident this was no friendly visit. This action, from the Inchon landing to the rapid advance into Seoul, closely resembled Japanese actions at the outset of the Sino-Japanese War a decade earlier.

Within days, a Japanese delegation presented the Yi court with a skillfully crafted protocol agreement that contained the by now ritualistic provision that Japan's presence in Korea was necessary to maintain the country's territorial integrity and honor its independence. The agreement masked Japan's true intentions. The protocol agreement called on the royal court to openly accept Japanese counsel concerning government reforms. Article 4 of the protocol was particularly problematic. It stated,

In case the welfare of the Imperial House of Korea or the territorial integrity of Korea is endangered by the aggression of a 3rd power, or internal disturbances, the Imperial Government of Japan shall immediately take such necessary measures as circumstances require, and in such case the Imperial Government of Korea shall give full facilities to promote the action of the Imperial Japanese Government.

Article 4 not only permitted the Japanese to occupy the peninsula and make use of strategic locations throughout the country for military operations necessary to secure the Emperor's safety, it also prohibited the Korean government from concluding a treaty with any other government without Japanese consent. The inclusion of such an article was blatantly transparent, since Japan plainly intended to use Korea as a staging area for military operations against the Russians. It essentially gave the Japanese military a pretext for an all-out invasion of Korea.

Kojong's diplomats found a number of provisions in the agreement extremely distasteful and refused to sign it. For two weeks the court tried to stall Japanese efforts to force the issue. Faced with the Japanese army positioned around Seoul as a virtual occupation force however, the implied threat ultimately pressured the court to relent. On February 23, 1904, Emperor Kojong signed the First Korea-Japan Protocol. In commenting on the agreement, Kojong expressed his desire to place full confidence in the Japanese imperial government and began to institute a number of reforms in the internal affairs of his own government. In exchange, Kojong had only a superficial promise from the Japanese government to guarantee his country's independence and territorial integrity. Kojong's signature on this "treaty of alliance" effectively kicked open the door for Japan to do anything it pleased or needed to do in Korea, all under the umbrella of advancing the war effort against Russia.

Prior to the landing of occupation troops in Korea, near constant negotiations between Gonsuke Hayashi, Japan's minister in Seoul, and Ijichi Kosuke, Japan's Military Attaché to Korea, helped the government maintain a balance between the political and military forces in Korea. Once the troops went ashore however, this carefully structured balancing act started to come apart as General Haraguchi Kanenari, commander of the Korean occupation forces, and Minister Gonsuke Hayashi clashed over who controlled what.

In February 1904, Ijichi Kosuke submitted a proposal to Imperial General Headquarters in Tokyo that argued for the outright annexation of Korea, or at least to establish the peninsula as a Japanese protectorate in order to take control of Korea's military, diplomatic and financial functions. He also argued for the creation of a governor-general in Korea.

A military general or lieutenant should be appointed to the position of Governor-General, and this Governor-General should take his orders directly from the Emperor, while assuming control over the occupational forces and Japanese Legation in Korea. Moreover, he should also be responsible for the running of day to day affairs in Korea.

Military Attaché Ijichi added to the growing debate, claiming that,

The military officials in Japan often take actions that go beyond the guidelines proscribed by the legation and often interfere directly in Korean politics through the Commander of the Occupation Forces or the Korean Army. ... In Seoul these days, a tripartite power structure has emerged between the legation, the military attaché stationed in the legation and the Commander of the Occupation Forces in which all three bodies vie for influence. Thus, a unified structure will be hard to achieve in Korea.

Minister Ito Hirobumi paid a visit to Korea in March 1904, literally within days of Emperor Kojong's signing the protocol with Japan. Following his reports to Tokyo on conditions in Korea, the Japanese government began a series of discussions and debates regarding Korea's future status. By March 10, the government had decided on the general command structure, regional command centers and facilities related to the occupation forces that would be stationed in Korea.

Japanese forces assembled in Korea took on a dual role;  combat operations against the Russians and occupation duties, which included providing logistics and support functions and securing law and order. On March 17, General Kuroki Tamemoto moved his command headquarters from Inchon to Namp'o on the north shore of the Taedong River estuary. Close behind this command move, troops and equipment of the Japanese 2nd Division and the Guards Division landed at Inchon. Almost as soon as they arrived, General Kuroki combined the 12th, 2nd and Guards divisions to form the Japanese 1st Army.

Saito Rikisaburo, a former member of the occupation force command staff, replaced Ijichi Kosuke as the military attaché in Seoul on March 19. His appointment reflected a move toward "cooperation-based relations" between the Japanese Legation and the military occupation forces in Korea. Still, General Haraguchi kept trying to strengthen his position.

The Japanese government made two significant decisions in May:  first, at the proper time Korea would be made a protectorate;  second, until such time as the right opportunity presented itself, Japan would endeavor to achieve practical results in giving political, diplomatic and military protection to Korea and develop Japanese interests on the peninsula. The decisions made in Tokyo in May 1904 demonstrated that Ito Hirobumi, described by some scholars and missionaries of the period as a friend of the Korean people, was actually a driving force behind Japanese plans to annex Korea.

Amidst great concerns about objections from the Western powers in the region and their potential for interference, Prime Minister Katsura Taro and Minister of Foreign Affairs Komura Jutaro argued against announcing these decisions at once. In view of the declared purpose behind Japan's war against Russia, it was important for Japan to proceed carefully. Until the right opportunity arose, Japan adopted a plan that provided a more gradual introduction of their intentions. Japan's ultimate intentions in Korea were successfully masked by an irrelevant issue that was taken to heart by a number of contemporary Western writers. They explained to the people of the United States and Great Britain that Korea's annexation was necessary because the Korean's had stubbornly refused all previous efforts to be "reformed" and improved.

Japan wasted little time in securing a major foothold in Korea. General Haraguchi's command was charged with maintaining supply routes, defending occupied territories and assuring public security. His occupation forces initially operated in the area between Seoul and Pyongyang, but by May 1904, Haraguchi's area of operations expanded to include the entire peninsula. His command included a general command staff, a quartermaster general, supply units, transportation and logistics personnel, engineers to build temporary railroads and communication lines, provost marshals, and military hospital personnel.

The Korean occupation operated under specific orders set by military headquarters in Tokyo. All diplomatic issues were to be referred to the Japanese ambassador in Seoul. The quartermaster general had responsibility for logistics and communications, hygiene and the construction of military railroads. Most of the Japanese army's supplies, including food, human resources and transportation, were confiscated from the Koreans whenever possible. The high priority given to moving military units and supplies led the Japanese to monopolize Korea's transportation networks to such an extent that it created serious rice shortages in the area around Seoul and Inchon. The lack of civilian ships in the region effectively paralyzed the normal distribution of consumption goods, which further increased the pressure on local Koreans.

In late May 1904, Japan concluded the "Principles Concerning Facilities in Korea." Under the terms of this agreement, Japan acquired the right to station its troops in Korea, even beyond the end of the Russo-Japanese War. Japan was now free to expropriate land for military use, supervise Korea's diplomacy and financial administration, seize Korea's transportation and communications facilities, and exploit concessions in agriculture, forestry, mining and fisheries. The Japanese also forced local officials to gather intelligence on Russian activities in Korea and report their findings to military headquarters.

Due to the lack of any railroad infrastructure in northern Korea, operational planners in Tokyo made no provisions for using Korean railways for military transportation. The Korean Railway Bureau had started construction of the Seoul-Sinuiju and Seoul-Wonsan railroads in 1902, but there was no rail line in the Seoul-Yongsan-Sinuiju corridor. General Haraguchi's command notified the Korean government that,

It is a matter of great urgency that a military railway linking Seoul to Sinuiju be constructed so as to facilitate the transportation of military units and supplies needed to speed up military operations. ... Thus, the assumption of the construction of this railway by the Imperial Government of Japan is deemed to be a military necessity. The Government of Choson should not differ on this matter and readily provide the facilities needed to construct this railway.

Japan commandeered the Korean Telegram Department as part of its plan to secure communication and supply lines and proceeded to censor all communications. Intelligence officers immediately confiscated any message deemed unflattering to the Japanese. The Japanese even tapped the telegraph lines inside their own bases in order to monitor, control and censor information and communications. In effect, the Japanese controlled all telegraph lines entering or leaving Korea, a capability they considered essential to the war effort. The Korean government and foreign diplomats in Seoul took strong exception to this measure, but there was nothing they could do about it.

Japan also demanded the right to open all uncultivated state-owned land to development by Japanese colonists. Reaction to this demand came quickly. Yi To-jae, founder of the Korean Agriculture and Mining Company, acting in collaboration with a number of powerful government officials and businessmen, asserted that opening new lands to cultivation was a task that rightfully belonged to the Korean people, not a matter to be placed in the hands of the Japanese. The Korean Preservation Society, Poanhoe, joined the opposition and started a public campaign against the Japanese proposal through public pronouncements and lectures. Faced with strong resistance from both the Korean government and the general public, Japan withdrew its demand.

In July 1904, General Haraguchi took drastic action to protect Japanese military facilities and preserve public order in the occupied areas. He established a military governing structure in Hamgyong Province and announced the imposition of martial law in the Seoul-Wonsan, Seoul-Pusan, Seoul-Inchon and Seoul-Pyongyang corridors, areas where vital communications and transportation networks were located. He ordered the generals in command of each region and those responsible for logistics, to assume responsibility for implementing martial law in their local jurisdiction and informed the Korean government that local governors had to adhere to these new laws.

At the time he proclaimed martial law, General Haraguchi announced that those guilty of damaging or tampering with military communication or railroad lines or the theft of military equipment would be prosecuted and punished accordingly, including summary execution. Haraguchi justified the drastic action as necessary to protect Japanese military facilities and preserve public order in the occupied areas. He usurped Korea's right to police its own population by creating a Military Police System in Seoul and Kyonggi Province. Shortly afterward, the military police role in Korea expanded throughout the country and gradually took over the tasks of regular policemen to provide protection for railroads and communication lines. This infringement of Korean sovereignty, taken without the consent of the Korean government, marked the beginning of a process to actually colonize Korea.

General Haraguchi noted in a report submitted to Japanese military headquarters in Tokyo in August, "It will be impossible to implement our policy of bringing Korea under our thumb for as long as the power of the Commander of the Occupation Forces is not brought into line with that of the legation's." Headquarters agreed and immediately began pressuring the Japanese government to strengthen the standing of occupation forces in Korea, arguing the move was necessary for the efficient conduct of combat operations against Russia.

On August 13, the "Law Governing Occupation Forces in Korea" was amended to read, in part,

The Commander shall receive his orders directly from the Emperor and shall assume responsibility for the overall command of the forces stationed in Korea; moreover, the Commander shall be responsible for the protection of the Legation, of Japanese counsels and nationals residing in Korea, as well as for the maintenance of public security in those areas where occupation forces were stationed.

Prime Minister Lieutenant General Katsura Taro, Foreign Minister Komura Jutaro and Defense Minister Terauchi Masatake held a meeting on August 21 in which they approved an amended version of the "Law Governing Occupation Forces in Korea." The amendments included an expansion of the occupying force in Korea to two full divisions plus a select number of special forces. One division would be stationed in Pyongan Province and the other would be broken into smaller units and deployed in every Korean province. The occupation general command headquarters would be established in Seoul and a headquarters office for each division would be established in Seoul and Pyongyang.

In August 1904, Lieutenant General Hasegawa Yoshimichi was promoted to the rank of general and replaced General Haraguchi as commanded of the occupation forces in Korea. Under the amended "Law Governing Occupation Forces in Korea," Japan assumed the responsibility for defending Korea and expressed its intention to impose military rule over the peninsula. General Hasegawa became not only the commander of Japanese occupation forces, but the highest-ranking Japanese official in Korea. Although Hasegawa was supposed to receive his orders directly from the emperor, the Defense Minister issued directives related to affairs of military governance. Actual military orders came directly from Imperial General Headquarters.

With the military now in firm control of the country, the Japanese insisted the Korean government sign the First Korea-Japan Convention, a document that wold permit Japan to install its own advisers in key ministries of the Korean government. Japan first pressed the issue in July with the implied threat of force and, once again, Emperor Kojong reluctantly agreed. The convention stipulated that Japan would appoint a Japanese financial consultant and a diplomatic consultant from among a group of foreign nationals recommended by the Japanese government. By design and intent, the First Korea-Japan Convention signed on August 22, 1904, was a potent tool used by Japan to deprive Korea of its national and diplomatic rights.

Shortly after the second agreement was signed, the Japanese government appointed Megata Tanetaro, a financial expert from the Japanese Finance Ministry, to the post of Financial Adviser. Megata assumed full authority over Korea's financial administration. Under the terms of the August convention, Korea agreed to conduct all matters related to fiscal administration entirely according to Megata's advice. In a bold move, Megata's currency reform devalued Korean currency between 20 and 50% in order to facilitate the acquisition of Korean property.

The Japanese appointed Durham W. Stevens, an American officer in the service of the Foreign Office in Tokyo, to be Korea's first Diplomatic Adviser. Stevens' responsibilities included concluding treaties with foreign governments and handling other matters of diplomatic importance. Tokyo took a further step toward the dominance of Korea when it abrogated all agreements then in force between Korea and Russia and expropriated all economic concessions granted to the Russians. The impact of Korea's sudden change in diplomatic status became apparent with the recall of Korean foreign ministers accredited to Germany, France, Japan, China, and many other nations.

Though not specified in the agreement, Japan also installed advisers and "consultants" in the Korean Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Police and the Department of Education. There was even a Japanese court adviser for affairs of the Royal Household. Japan's foreign minister in Seoul, Gonsuke Hayashi, held inordinate powers for his position. He was not only authorized to exchange views with the Korean government, but to supervise the entire government as well as all special Japanese advisers. In effect, Japan created in Korea what was referred to at the time as a "government by advisers." The net result was the same as if the Yi government had handed actual administrative authority over to Japan.

Japan treated Korea not as an ally, nor as a friend, but as a vast storehouse of resources and labor to be used as the springboard for an attack against the Russians in Manchuria. By late summer 1904, Korea had become, in all but name, a part of the Japanese Empire.

 

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