H-Diplo Article Review 1018- "Revisiting Russo-Japanese Hegemonic Rivalry in East Asia before 1904"

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H-Diplo Article Review 1018

10 February 2021

Sangpil Jin.  “Revisiting Russo-Japanese Hegemonic Rivalry in East Asia before 1904: Korean Railroads.”  Diplomacy & Statecraft 31:2 (2020):  209-230.  DOI:  https://doi.org/10.1080/09592296.2020.1760032.

Review Editors: Thomas Maddux and Diane Labrosse | Production Editor: George Fujii

Review by Mark Sokolsky, Royal Military College of Canada

In “Revisiting Russo-Japanese Hegemonic Rivalry in East Asia before 1904: Korean Railroads,” Sangpil Jin provides an account of the contest over Korean railroad concessions around the turn of the twentieth century.  The article examines the interactions between Japan, Russia, and Korea between roughly 1880 and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), and also touches on the role of other powers, including Britain, France, and the United States, in Korean railroad concessions and regional policy more broadly.

In some ways, Jin’s article represents a new perspective on the Russo-Japanese contest in northeast Asia.  The existing literature does not give much attention to the Korean government’s role in the Russo-Japanese conflict over the Korean Peninsula, at least insofar as it concerns railroad diplomacy and the prospect of neutrality.[1] Jin, in contrast, argues that railroad concessions played a critical role in shaping Russo-Japanese interactions before 1904. He also contends the geopolitical landscape in which this occurred was highly complex, and that the Korean government’s pursuit of neutralization was one—previously ignored—aspect of this complexity. Ultimately, he argues, Korea was unable to protect its railroads (or railroads-to-be) from foreign powers because it lacked the resources to build them itself, and therefore had to rely on concessions to self-interested great powers. Neutralization was one possible mechanism for protecting Korea’s railroads (and its independence more generally), but the Korean government under King Gojong was not able to gain international support for neutralization. (The Russians, once they were losing the contest to the Japanese, also belatedly sought neutralization but were equally unsuccessful.) 

Jin presents a wealth of fascinating information on railroad diplomacy in Korea, and he certainly shows that the situation was highly complex.  Most of the paper details the extensive official and unofficial machinations on the part of foreign powers to win Korean railroad concessions, drawing on an impressive range of materials (in Korean, Japanese, and English), including letters, diplomatic cables, memoirs, and a variety of published sources. This blow-by-blow account is somewhat convoluted, so I will attempt to summarize it here.

Jin traces the Russo-Japanese contest over Korea over several decades, focusing primarily on the 1890s and early 1900s.  At first, in the mid- to late-nineteenth century, Russia was ascendant in northeast Asia. The tsarist empire had acquired what became known as the Maritime Province—eastern Manchuria—from the Qing Empire through the Treaty of Beijing, which ended the Second Opium War, and began building the Trans-Siberian Railroad (TSR) in 1887, in part to better defend the new territories and to project power in the Far East. Though it took until 1904 to finish most of the TSR (and, even then, a section around Lake Baikal, was not complete), Japanese officials were understandably wary of the capabilities for power projection that the TSR would confer.  Partly for this reason, the Japanese sought control over Korean railroads. Japanese victory in the Sino-Japanese War (1894–5) initially opened the door to greater control over the Korean peninsula, but the Triple Intervention by European powers clawed back many Japanese gains. Soon afterward, Russia also won an agreement with the Chinese to build a railroad across Manchuria, the Chinese-Eastern Railroad (CER), which allowed them to temporarily circumvent the most difficult portion of the TSR construction route. The Russians also agreed to a protocol with Japan that recognized the legitimacy of the Korean government while allowing a certain degree of Russian involvement in the country.

For the next several years, Jin shows, both powers (and their allies) jostled for control over Korean railroads.  Throughout the 1890s, there was a tug-of-war for influence in Korea and for railroad concessions, including much back-and-forth over track gauges. Eventually, Japan gained the upper hand.  Under cover of the Nishi-Rosen protocol of 1898, the Japanese were able gain financial leverage over the Korean government, promote their faction in the Korean court, and, ultimately, gain an edge in railroad concessions. The Russians (and their French allies), in contrast, waffled on their involvement in Korean railroads and lacked the capital to acquire concessions or actually build the lines, as did the Korean government itself. The Russians sought to renegotiate the status quo in Korea, beginning in 1901, but by this point the ascendant Japanese had little reason to do so. The Russians even tried to enlist American support for Korean neutrality, but the Japanese got wind of the effort and it went nowhere. In any case, Jin points out, American officials were generally more favorable toward Japan. The British, meanwhile, provided overt backing, culminating in the 1904 Anglo-Japanese alliance.

In the context of this scramble, there were some murmurings of neutralization.  A group of Korean notables calling themselves the Independence Club advocated for greater independence and even neutrality. In 1897, King Gojong also began to seek independence, self-strengthening, and some kind of neutrality to preserve Korean sovereignty. In 1899, one former official even recommended a policy of neutralization, modeled on the successful examples of Switzerland and Belgium, but Gojong did not pursue neutralization at this point. As Japan’s influence mounted in the early 1900s, Gojong made a last-ditch effort at neutralization, sending emissaries to Europe to seek support, but nothing came of it.

Soon afterward, Japan simply built one of the disputed railroads to move troops and attacked Port Arthur, initiating the Russo-Japanese War.  Throughout the war, Japan enjoyed better logistical support than Russia, thanks in part to their control of Korean railroads. The Russians had only the enormous and incomplete TSR (plus the CER, completed in 1903) to shuttle troops and matériel to the east, while Japan had short supply lines and access to railroads in Korea. Thus, the picture that emerges is of a Korean regime that was aware of the dangers but was ultimately unable to act to counter great power pressure. It seems like there might have been a chance to achieve neutrality if Gojong had pursued it forcefully in the 1890s, but that was not the case.

While there is a great deal of interesting information in Jin’s account, the article would benefit from greater context and clearer exposition.  Among the article’s strengths are inclusion of the Korean government’s point of view (rather than just treating Korea as a passive arena of great power competition) and the fine-grained detailing of how the Russo-Japanese contest played out on a day-to-day level. But both aspects of the article would be strengthened by the inclusion of more context. For instance, Jin writes that under the Nishi-Rosen protocol, the Japanese were more successful at peaceful penetration, giving them an edge in railroad diplomacy (218). But he does not explain why they were successful—what they did—except to say that the Russians were disorganized and distracted by other matters, or what the Koreans thought of Japan’s ‘peaceful penetration.’ Similarly, he observes that that Katō Matsuo, the Japanese minister to Korea, “played a critical role” in getting Gojong to give the Japanese a key railroad concession (218) but leaves it at that.  Later, he writes that the Japanese were able to expand their influence in Korea due to a “pro-Japan faction in Seoul” that had “become the dominant political force, pushing through its hegemonic agenda for Korean railroads” (221). This seems critical, but who this faction was and how they became dominant is not explained. On the subject of neutralization—the focus of the paper—Jin writes that the king deemed a proposal for neutralization along Swiss or Belgian lines ‘appropriate,’ but did not pursue it. The author suggests that Gojong may have “baulked at neutralisation’s effectiveness as a balancing mechanism” (219). While no scholar can be expected to know Gojong’s thoughts on the matter, it is not evident why the author thinks Gojong would not regard neutralization as an effective balancing mechanism.

More broadly, it can be difficult for the reader (for this reader, anyway) to follow the course of events and the author’s arguments.  For example, Jin writes that, in the late 1890s, Russia was “making little headway” outside Korea in its contest with Japan (216). Then, by way of explanation, he writes that although one rail line in eastern Russia was completed in 1897, Russian officials “proved reluctant to pursue a more interventionist policy; the Finance Ministry still embraced a hard line. In an important sense, there seemed to be no ‘government’ in Russia” (216).  Presumably, he is referring to the conflict between the ministries of finance and foreign affairs in the tsarist government, but readers not familiar with that conflict would surely find this confusing. Moreover, the statement does not support the assertion that Russia was making little headway outside Korea, and it is not evident where Russian officials were reluctant to pursue a more interventionist policy, or, indeed, what constituted the Finance Ministry’s “hard line,” if not interventionism.

Similarly, the author notes that at one point Russian Finance Minister Sergei Witte did not want to buy a Korean rail line from a French firm, for fear of antagonizing the Japanese, but thought having a Russo-Korean bank do so would be better. Why this would be less antagonistic to the Japanese is not evident to me (because the Russo-Korean bank was not obviously a front for Russian interests?). Then, Jin writes, “Perhaps frustrated by the continued confusion surrounding ownership rights of the Seoul-Incheon railroad, [Witte] … opposed any Russian investment in Korean businesses, a decision officially couched in business terms, although the detrimental impact of persistent confusion amongst Russian officialdom surrounding a railroad concession was taking its toll” (217). Although Jin’s point is well taken, the reasons underlying the confusion among Russian officials could be spelled out in more detail.. In another passage, Jin writes:

King Gojong held an audience with French minister to Korea, Victor Collin de Plancy.  He called for an equal distribution of railroads amongst the major Powers to draw foreign capital and strategic focus to Korea, claiming that multilateral engagement could constrain Japanese and Russian infringement on Korea’s sovereignty; he did not mention that Korea would remain dependent on the imperial Powers (215).

Presumably, it was de Plancy, not Gojong, making this proposal, but why he (de Plancy) did so and what Gojong’s reaction was are not addressed.

Some of the terminology used in the paper is also confusing.  The author refers to railroads by their Korean titles (Gyeongui, Gyeongbu, etc.), but also by their routes (Seoul-Incheon, Seoul-Busan, etc.). Using one or the other would make it easier to keep track of the various concessions. I also found the use of the term ‘hegemony’—which is in the title—somewhat perplexing. For instance, Jin regards Japanese interest in commercial use of the TSR as evidence of a desire to “expand Japan’s hegemonic presence in continental Asia” (211). This strikes me as a strange statement, given that the advisor was writing in 1892, when Japan’s presence in continental Asia was hardly hegemonic.  Similarly, Jin writes that the Treaty of Portsmouth, which ended the war, gave Japan “economic and political supremacy” over Korea, which it used as a “stepping stone” to consolidate its hegemony (225). It seems to me that “economic and political supremacy” and “hegemony” are more or less the same thing. If the author is referring to a hegemony in some other sense, he does not identify it.

Finally—and more substantively—while Jin’s argument that railroad concessions played a role in shaping Russo-Japanese interactions is certainly well-founded, I am not entirely convinced of their broader importance.  The author concludes that Russo-Japanese rivalry over Korea “occurred within context of railroad concessions, with neutralisation playing a complementary role” (225). While railroad concessions clearly played an important role in that rivalry, the evidence presented in the paper suggests that geopolitics and Korea’s internal politics shaped railroad concessions, rather than the other way around. Thus, it might be more accurate to say that the conflict over railroad concessions occurred in the context of the Russo-Japanese rivalry. Put another way, the author concludes that Korea’s inability to build its own railroads (or at least do so with foreign capital but under the umbrella of neutralization) undermined its independence. Yet it seems that Korea lost its independence amidst great power rivalries, and railroads were one of the ways that the powers undermined it.

On the whole, Jin’s discussion of the possibility of Korean neutralization and its relation to railroad diplomacy represents an interesting contribution to the study of international relations in northeast Asia around the turn of the twentieth century. The article certainly provides scholars with a “nuanced understanding of Korea’s close connexion with Far Eastern geopolitics, imperial rivalries, and the balance of power,” as Jin writes (225). The article’s arguments, though interesting and largely well-supported, would benefit from greater clarity and context.  


Mark Sokolsky is a historian specializing in Russian and environmental history. He obtained a Ph.D. in History from the Ohio State University and is currently an instructional designer at the Royal Military College of Canada. His research focuses on colonization and environmental change in the Russian province of Primor’e (the Maritime Territory), during the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He is the author of several chapters and articles on the Russian Far East and editor, along with Nicholas Breyfogle, of Water History: Readings and Sources (San Diego: Cognella Press, 2021).



[1] Korean neutrality in general has received some attention: see Seung-young Kim, “Russo–Japanese Rivalry Over Korean Buffer at the Beginning of the 20th Century and Its Implications,” Diplomacy & Statecraft 16, no. 4 (December 1, 2005): 619–50, https://doi.org/10.1080/09592290500330941. On the Russo-Japanese rivalry in Korea more generally, see Ian Nish, The Origins of the Russo-Japanese War, 1st Edition (London: Routledge, 1985); S.C.M Paine, Imperial Rivals: China, Russia, and Their Disputed Frontier (Armonk and London: M.E. Sharpe, 1996), 182-197; Felix Patrikeeff and Harry Shukman, Railways and the Russo-Japanese War: Transporting War, 1st Edition (London: Routledge, 2007); Huajeong Seok, “International Rivalry in Korea and Russia’s East Asian Policy in the Late Nineteenth Century,” Korea Journal 50:3 (September 2010): 176-201, https://doi.org/10.25024/kj.2010.50.3.176.