28.02.2024 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Lessons of History: when Korea’s King ruled from inside the Russian Mission

Lessons of History: when Korea’s King ruled from inside the Russian Mission

On February 8, on the eve of Diplomatic Worker’s Day, Russia’s Ambassador to the Republic of Korea, Georgy Zinoviev, together with Embassy staff, the Russian Military Attaché and a Russian trade delegation, visited the site of the former Russian Imperial Mission in Seoul.

This building, designed by the Russian architect Afanasy Seredin-Sabatin, was built in 1890 but was destroyed during the 1950-1953 Korean War. Only a fragment of the building, the watch tower, still stands. It is protected as a historical heritage site of the Republic of Korea. The Korean authorities have recently completed the restoration of the building.

In his speech Ambassador Zinoviev reminded his audience that “in 1896-1897 it was in the Russian Mission that King Gojong of Korea found protection, and this was made an important contribution towards strengthening and stabilizing his power in those difficult conditions. This confirms the important and constructive role played by Russia on the Korean Peninsula, and our country continues to play this role to this day.”

However, one particularly interesting aspect of the Korean sovereign’s stay in the Russian mission is the way this story is often used as part of anti-Russian propaganda in the United States and South Korea.

In 1864, the young Wang Gojong became the ruler of Korea. During his reign Korea found itself at the intersection of the interests of four major world powers: China (its traditional protector), Russia and Japan (its closest neighbors, who saw Korea as a strategic springboard in their growing rivalry in the region), and the United States, which also had its own interests in Korea. Gojong himself was an indecisive and conservative ruler, unlike his ambitious wife. In her ability to secure power for her favorite, Queen Min was a match for Cersei Lannister, although it is debatable whether she ever did anything for her country, rather than just for herself.

The court was opposed to any reforms that would limit its omnipotence and remained focused on China, while the proponents of reform, in line with their factional struggle, placed their hopes in other countries, most notably Japan, which won a quick victory in the Japan-China War of 1894-1895. Under the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895, both powers recognized the independence of Korea, but Japan retained the pre-eminent right to control its government. Thus, China lost its ability to influence Korean affairs, and the reform party, supported by Japan, took power in Korea.

During the so-called Gabo Reforms, the Korean national flag with the Taegeuk (yin and yang symbol) and the four trigrams, which is still the flag of the Republic of Korea, was officially introduced, along with a new European-style government structure, a new army, and European-style schools. The privileges of the nobility, the Confucian practice of appointing officials based on state examinations, torture, slavery (over 35% of the population were slaves at the end of the 18th century), the carrying of officials in palanquins, and the practice of punishing a whole family for a crime committed by one of its members were all abolished.

However, the ambitious Queen Min did not want to be a hostage of the Japanese and threw herself into the arms of Russia, which was concerned about the strengthening of Japan and took a number of diplomatic initiatives aimed at weakening its power (the so-called Tripartite Intervention by Russia, France and Germany). Pro-Russian and pro-American factions began to gain influence in government circles.

Fearing the loss of all their political gains, the Japanese raided the Royal palace on October 8, 1895, and the queen was assassinated. Thereafter, the Japanese carried out a second set of reforms, characterized by a faster pace and more forceful methods. For example, on December 30, 1895, a decree was promulgated on compulsory hair cutting and prohibiting traditional hairstyles, which dealt a very strong blow to the traditional Korean self-image.

But on February 11, 1896, under the influence of members of the pro-Russian and pro-American parties, Gojong fled from the palace and took refuge in the Russian mission in Seoul, where he spent almost a year, until March 1897. The emperor and his son arrived at the mission in a closed palanquin dressed in women’s clothes. The day after their escape, Gojong revoked the decree on haircuts and appointed a member of the pro-Russian party as prime minister.

Western historians tend to see Gojong’s flight to the Russian mission a kidnapping, equating it with the assassination of Queen Min, and seeing it as an equally gross interference in the country’s internal affairs. In many respects, this interpretation is a reflection of the times, especially the post-WW2 period when Soviet troops entered Korea, and given the confrontation between the USSR and USA it was felt necessary to emphasize Russia’s perennial aggressiveness towards Korea.

But in reality things were rather different. Shortly after the assassination of the queen, Gojong wrote to Nicholas II: “A cabal of treasonous Korean officials, supported by Japanese troops, have entered into a criminal conspiracy and carried out a coup d’état. The Queen has been murdered, and I myself have reason to fear for my life. Once again I turn with full confidence to your Consul, Mr. Weber, for assistance. Nowadays, not a single day passes in which we can be assured that there will not be another coup in Korea. I am therefore sending this message by telegraph, in the hope that you will telegraph your Consul and that he will be pleased to deploy military force to protect me.”

On January 20, 1896, Gojong, via a confidant, notified the Russian diplomats that “the situation for him personally was becoming critical,” as he was caught between the pro-Japanese forces in control of the palace and the traditionalist rebels.

On February 2, 1896, Gojong sent another letter to the Russian diplomats, which reads as follows: “A gang of traitors is surrounding me constantly. Recently, foreign hairstyles have started to trigger rebellions. Traitors may use this opportunity to ruin me and my son. Together with my heir, I intend to flee from the danger awaiting me and seek protection in the Russian mission. I have no other means of escape.”

Later Gojong explained the circumstances of his flight to the Russian mission as follows: “The king is the stronghold and defense of his people. If there is no king, the people are defenseless. I therefore need to explain why I left the palace. The main reason why I, together with my heir, took refuge in the Russian mission is that I was afraid of disorder breaking out when the traitors were arrested… After this, it seems superfluous to explain in greater detail, why and where I moved[1].”

What is more, this “kidnapping” could not have been done against the ruler’s will. For several nights in a row, a maid of honor had been led out of the palace in the direction of the Russian embassy in order to allay the vigilance of the sentries, so that when, in her place, Gojong, dressed as a woman, was taken out of the palace no-one suspected anything was wrong.

It is absolutely clear from historical records that although the Russian mission could not provide the sovereign with a level of comfort equal to that of the palace, he was certainly not held there in the humiliating position of a hostage. It is also known that the Russian diplomats themselves insisted that the king leave the mission, if only because it put them in a difficult position. However, Gojong did not want to return to the palace, and kept putting his return there off, arguing that the new palace complex was still under construction.

Numerous reports from the Russian chargé d’affaires and financial advisers show that the Russian diplomats were not overly insistent, and that Gojong was advised to leave rather than pressured into leaving. Moreover, even while in the mission, Gojong continued to communicate with his American friends, as he was more motivated by his dislike of Japan than his love for Russia. Moreover, the core of the pro-Russian party in Korea consisted of former members of a pro-Chinese faction that had simply transferred their allegiance to a new power after China’s defeat by Japan in the War of 1894-1895 had knocked it of the game. Until recently, none of this faction had shown particularly strong pro-Russian sentiments.

Meanwhile, while Gojong was in the Russian mission, Tokyo and Saint Petersburg were trying to reach an agreement, and on June 9 1896 they signed the so-called Lobanov-Yamagata Agreement, which finally enshrined the formal equality of Japanese and Russian interests. As Russian historians see it, this treaty deprived Japan of the advantages it had gained after the Japan-China War of 1894-95 and postponed the Japanese subjugation of Korea, which finally occurred after Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese War of 1903-1905.

Naturally, in 1896 Russia’s position in Korea was stronger than that of other countries. One important factor in the relations between the two countries at that time was the sending of a Korean diplomatic mission headed by Min Young-hwan to Russia for the coronation of Emperor Nicholas II. After the end of the festivities, negotiations were held in which Korea allegedly requested to the Russian government to declare it a Russian protectorate. However, Russia was unable to take such a drastic step. In Saint Petersburg’s view even providing Russian guards to protect Gojong in his palace would be incompatible with the principles of Korean independence, and would risk arousing the obvious displeasure of the other powers.

The Russian-trained Royal Guard Battalion made a good impression, even though its commands and even marching songs were in Russian. Moreover, the payment (in full and on time) of regular salaries created a sensation among the Korean soldiers.

Nevertheless, even the Russian officers themselves noted that “the Royal Guard Battalion could justify its name in the event of an attack on the palace, but it would be a mistake to treat this battalion, which has been in existence for less than a year, as a combat unit able to play a serious role on the battlefield.”

Due to the lack of regular officers, the Royal Guard Battalion could not be considered a full-scale military unit, nor could it serve as the basis for a new type of army, and Russia had no plans to prepare a field army. Its introduction was a limited intervention aimed at preventing a repeat of any incidents such as the assassination of Queen Min.

A Russian commercial agent, Kir Alexeev, who served the Korean government as a financial advisor, very colorfully describes the situation he encountered when trying to organize financial affairs in the country: “complete impotence, absolute chaos and, as always in Korea, bribery.” According to Alexeev, everyone was stealing, and the Japanese envoy openly told him that after his departure everything he had collected for the treasury would be plundered. Nevertheless, Alexeev managed to bring the country’s financial affairs into relative order.

Thus, even during the period when Russia’s influence in Korea appeared to be at its greatest, it never attempted to control the country, and there are several reasons for this. First, Russia’s influence was undermined by American and British intrigue and by many military officers and officials who saw Russia’s policy as a blow to their own self-interest.

Secondly, Korean nationalists and foreign authors who favor their interpretation of events to talk about the Russian “geopolitical threat”, but the Russian Foreign Ministry’s instructions clearly state that it had no plans to annex Korea and incorporate it into the Russian Empire. Russia sought not so much to occupy this country as to gain an ice-free port in the region (and not necessarily in Korea) and to prevent the Japanese from gaining a foothold there.

 Broadly speaking, in terms of Russia’s policy in the Far East there were two points of view on where it should try and establish itself. Some thought that Russia should focus on Manchuria, and develop this region through the construction of the Chinese Eastern Railway. Others paid more attention to Korea, but after Russia leased and effectively annexed Port Arthur on March 15 (March 27 New Style) 1898, Saint Petersburg’s interest in Korea declined somewhat.

Gojong’s return from the Russian mission was organized by the Independence Society (1896-98), whose spiritual leader, Seo Jae-pil, actively opposed Russian influence. There were several reasons for this sentiment. Firstly, from the point of view of factional struggles, the Independence Society should be seen as a pro-American group that naturally attempted to rein in Russian interests.

Secondly, the royal court focused on Russia because, of all the remaining candidates for the role of suzerain, the Russian Empire was the most acceptable to the traditionalists, as it was an absolute monarchy that preserved a traditional structure of society, including a system of class privileges[2], while the Society favored continued reform.

From February 1897, following the government’s appointment of Russian financial advisor and military instructors, members of the Society staged sit-in meetings and bombarded the court with anti-Russian petitions: “If you, as the ruler of the country, do not live in (your) palace, but continue to stay in a foreign mission, not only will it be a stain on your reputation, but it will cause foreigners to despise us.”[3].

By February 1897, Gojong’s relations with the Russians had finally deteriorated, and without even a farewell audience, he “moved out” of the Russian mission, although he had planned to remain there until spring.

The correspondence between Russian Consul General Alexey Nikolayevich Shpeyer and Foreign Minister Mikhail Nikolayevich Muravyov reveals that the king’s departure from his pro-Russian position was seen as a painful blow, but, according to Muravyov, “it have never been our goal to intervene directly in the various branches of the country’s administration”. In a letter to Shpeyer dated February 19, 1898, Muravyov proposed to ask the king directly what position he held, and if he no longer required Russian assistance in the form of palace guards, instructors, and a financial advisor, to take the appropriate measures. In a reply telegram dated February 28 Shpeyer suggested that Russian troops should occupy the northern provinces of Korea along the Pyongyang-Wonsan line, “otherwise we cannot hope to emerge honorably from the present predicament.”[4].

Muravyov, however, explained that “to lower the flag and occupy the northern provinces is absolutely not in accordance with the views of our august monarch.” “The highest precepts of the Emperor do not include the thought of occupying Northern Korea with our troops, which would be a clear violation of the independence of that country, a principle which we have repeatedly proclaimed, and the protection of which has been our constant concern.” But if Korea believes that it has reached a level of autonomy that will allow it to do without advisers, so be it, but then “our dealings with the Korean government should be ended.”[5] On March 19, 1898, the financial advisor and military instructors left Seoul.

Thus, Russia did not make any plans to annex Korea and incorporate it into the Russian Empire. Up to a certain point in time, Korea was not considered worth a confrontation with China and the other Far Eastern powers, and when the Russian Empire acquired the ice-free port of Port Arthur as a result of the trilateral intervention, the value of Korea for it decreased even further, as it had already achieved its main geopolitical goal in the region. On the other hand, the Korean court’s position was really anti-Japanese rather than pro-Russian. This becomes clear when we ask the question, “Did the king pursue a pro-Russian policy when he had a choice?” Gojong tried to find a new suzerain and protector, and in doing so choose a country whose state system would be the least likely to encourage Seoul to make structural changes. In this context, a certain pro-Russian sentiment among Korea’s conservatives is understandable: Russia, as an absolute monarchy in which class privileges were preserved was seen as a preferable suzerain to the United States (a republic) or Japan (a constitutional monarchy), even if we put aside factors related to historical memory and previous tensions between Japan and Korea.


Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences and Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies at the Institute of China and Modern Asia of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

[1] Royal proclamation of February 15, 1896. – Russian Empire Foreign Policy Archive, Fund 150 “Japan Desk”, matter 5, page 49.
[2] Ibid. pages 461-462
[3] Dispatch No. 5 from State Counselor A.N. Shpeyer, dated February 14, 1898, from Seoul
[4] Korea seen through Russian eyes (1895-1945). Pages. 64-66.
[5] Russian Empire Foreign Policy Archive, Fund 560 Record 28. Matter 109. Pages 92-93 quoted in Korea seen through Russian eyes (1895-1945). Pages 64-66.
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