April 2018--Korea, Historically Troublesome?

John T Kuehn's picture

April  2018--Korea, Historically Troublesome?

by John T. Kuehn

All eyes, or at least many eyes, are focused on Korea these days, especially its northern component.  Recently, I, too, wrote about a war that might erupt, although not the one many forecaste.  https://taskandpurpose.com/china-russia-2020-war/ 

125 years ago Korea entered the spotlight of military history, for the first time for many westerners, during the Sino-Japanese War, a war about who would come to dominate Korea.  Japan won that one, but it only caused another power to intervene, Russia.  Another war was fought a few years later, in 1904-1905, the Russo-Japanese War, and again Japan came out on top, although that war was also about Manchuria as well as about Japan's presence in Korea.

Today the only new player in all of this is the United States.  However, the Russia-China relationship here has always seemed to elude observers and writers. A US President even won a Nobel Peace Prize as a result (Teddy Roosevelt).  It was the veritable "middle east" hot spot of its day. Why is it so many --at least in the West--are unfamiliar with this vital miltiary history of the region, that history running from 1894 to 1905? 


John T. Kuehn

Sheila Miyoshi Jager, modern East Asia historian at Oberlin College and author most recently of Brothers At War: The Unending Conflict in Korea, is writing a book on the very subject titled The Other Great Game: The Opening of Korea and the Birth of Modern East Asia, 1876-1905. It is due out from Harvard University Press in a few years.


Jiyul Kim
Oberlin College

I had a clever reply to this, so of course my government computer ate it. And I'll never be that clever again.

The thrust of my point was that, when Korea entered the spotlight of military history over a century ago, the Western countries with interests in the region were arguably distracted by other affairs. Dutch influence had long declined in southeast Asia; Britain was getting over the harder-than-expected Boer War; France was stirring up trouble with Siam; and the United States had just wrapped up a long counterinsurgency in the Philippines.

Then World War I broke out. The West became intensely focused on trench lines in Belgium and France. Following that war, many European countries struggled with domestic economic problems, and the United States, after a boom decade, joined them. Then came World War II, a larger distraction from Korea than the first war.

One could argue that Korea only gained the importance it did in 1950 because Western countries, after a long stretch, had no domestic or military concerns of greater importance to distract them.

Maybe so. Not certain can accept the way this conclusion is worded.

One of my Professors who talked with Sec. of State Dean Acheson at the time of Korea in the 50s, used to tell a story how he asked about Korea.

Acheson's answer to him was we were distracted by the Soviets and possible events or war on the Central Front, ie, Germany and Europe. Their thinking at the time of Korea was invaded, that was only a diversionary thrust to draw their attention away from the Central Front and not the main show.

Given this judgement of the Far East situation and US position in Europe, Korea was something of a surprise, expecting important events to take place elsewhere.

That is the generalized evaluation relayed back in the 1960s.