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It was inevitable that the fate of Korea would be involved in any such readjustment. Korea is one of those tragic areas of the earth’s surface which are destined in all ages to be a doorstep of strategy. As the focal point of the China-Russia-Japan triangle, the peninsula offers each of these powers a threshold for aggression against either of the other two. Possession of Korea has been for centuries an aim of aspiring conquerors in the Far East, and all three rival nations have had a turn.
China was first. From ancient times down to the last quarter of the 19th century, the Chinese Empire held a loose suzerainty acknowledged by the Koreans. Japan won a brief foothold in the 16th century under the great war lord Hideyoshi, only to learn the painful lesson that control of the sea is requisite to a seaborne invasion of a peninsula. Naval victories by the Koreans cut Hideyoshi’s line of communications, and he withdrew after frightful devastations which left an enduring tradition of fear and hate. Both Japan and Korea then entered upon a period of self-imposed isolation lasting until their political hibernation was rudely interrupted by Western nations clamoring for trade.
The United States took the lead in inaugurating a new era in the Far East. Commodore Perry and his American warships opened up Japan to commerce in 1853. Several persuasive bombardments of coastal cities by American, British and French naval guns were required to end Japan’s seclusion; and in 1871 an American squadron was sent to Korea after the destruction of an American merchant ship and massacre of its crew. United States Marines and bluejackets stormed Korean river forts defended by cannon. All objectives were taken and heavy casualties inflicted, but it remained for Japan to open up the “Hermit Kingdom” to trade 4 years later with the threat of war.
Russia had not been a disinterested bystander during this era of cannon-ball diplomacy. Her participation in Far Eastern affairs dated back to the 17th century and had once extended to the North American mainland. The sale of Alaska to the United States in 1867 indicated a renunciation of this phase of expansion, but Russia had no intention of abandoning her ambitions in the Far East. Shortly after Japan compelled Korea to sign a treaty of amity, the Russians offered to train Korean officers and lend military aid to the faction-ridden kingdom.
At this point China took a hand. Suspecting that the two rival nations were dabbling in Korean affairs for purposes of their own, the Celestial Empire attempted to restore her suzerainty.
This policy was bound to lead to a collision. Western nations were not surprised when Japan and China resorted to arms, but few observers expected the supposed dwarf to beat the giant with ease. Japan’s well led army, equipped with the best modern weapons, landed at Chemulpo (Inchon) and captured the Chinese fortress at Pyongyang in northwest Korea. Sweeping across the Yalu into Manchuria, the invaders overran the strategic Liaotung Peninsula, taking Port Arthur and Dairen.
It was all over in a few months. When the Empire proper was threatened with invasion, the Chinese government sued for peace in 1895.
The Japanese terms were more than severe, they were humiliating. They included: (1) a large indemnity; (2) the cession “in perpetuity” of the Liaotung Peninsula as well as Formosa and the Pescadores group; and (3) Chinese recognition of what the Japanese were pleased to call “Korean independence.”
But the victors had overdone it. Russia, Germany, and France formed the Triple Intervention which compelled Japan to relinquish the Liaotung Peninsula. The three European powers preferred that this strategic bastion remain in the possession of China, which was ripe for despoiling at the convenience of the Western nations.
Russia now assumed the role of a friend binding China’s wounds. The secret treaty of alliance signed by the two empires in 1896 was aimed like a pistol at Japan. In return for promises of support in the event of further Japanese aggressions, China gave Russia the right to extend the Trans-Siberian Railroad to Vladivostok across Chinese territory in Manchuria.
The precept was not lost upon other European nations. England, Germany, and France also established spheres of influence in China after forcing the government to lease territory or grant special privileges. And Russia added to former gains by a 25-year lease of the Liaotung Peninsula.