The Korean Peninsula and Great Power Geopolitics: Then and Now

By | November 05, 2018 | No Comments

A memorial at the point where China, the DPRK and Russia meet. History suggests that here in East Asia, competition rather than collaboration will remain the norm. | Image: Wikicommons

In 2014, Foreign Policy magazine hosted a discussion featuring academics from the US’s top schools of international affairs. At the heart of the discussion was the perennial question at the heart of the academic-policy divide; how academic disciplines can inform policy prescriptions in foreign affairs. One of the key points the discussants raised was the utility of history in helping to construct informed views of today’s most pressing issues.

Continuing with his analyses of Sino-Russian relations in the context of the Korean Peninsula, Anthony Rinna brings us a perspective on how the history of international relations in late 19th and early 20th Northeast Asia can help inform us of the possible future trajectory of Beijing-Moscow ties. Based upon readings of research produced by Russian historians, largely unavailable in English, Rinna offers insights into parallels between Russia’s assertiveness toward the Korean Peninsula at the turn of the 19th century and Moscow’s current push for influence in Korea. – Christopher Green, Senior Editor.

The Korean Peninsula and Great Power Geopolitics: Then and Now

by Anthony Rinna

In the context of the Korean security dilemma, by all appearances inter-state relations in Northeast Asia are roughly divided in two: a Sino-Russian partnership in support of the DPRK on one side, and a US-led bloc including Japan and the ROK on the other. But the reality is rather more complex.

One issue that has received little attention is the possibility of a fracturing in the Sino-Russian partnership vis-à-vis Korea. Although Russia has never enjoyed a particularly strong position in East Asia, it does have long-running, geographically-rooted interests on the Korean Peninsula. East Asian international relations in the late 19th century included a Russian Empire that asserted itself (specifically in Korea) at a time when the balance of power in the region was shifting away from Qing China, with Japan emerging as the ultimate victor. With modern, post-Soviet Russia emphasizing its role in the Asia-Pacific once again, against the backdrop of a shift in the balance of power in East Asia as a whole, the parallels between then and now, imperfect as they may be, are clear.

Across the reigns of czars, commissars and presidents, access to an Asian port has been a perennial Russian interest. Yet the Russian Empire’s right to use Port Arthur (part of modern Dalian), pictured here, did not put an end to St. Petersburg’s interests in Korea. | Image: Wikicommons

Korea, Russia and East Asia: Late 19th Century Balance of Power | Having solidified its foothold in the Asia-Pacific following the 1860 Peking Convention, 19th century Russia’s priorities in Siberia and the Russian Far East lay in creating a sphere of influence in East Asia, prompting the imperial court in St. Petersburg to enact a Far Eastern policy in earnest. There was a range of viewpoints and perspectives among those Russian élites who drove the empire’s policies toward East Asia. Some, such as geographer and explorer Nikolai Przhevalsky, promoted a wariness of Qing designs for the region. Others, following a line of thinking known as Easternism (Russian: Восточничество), promoted the idea that Russia was destined to be an Asian power, and that the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railroad, beginning in 1891, marked the beginning of the culmination of Russia’s eastward destiny.

Czar Nicholas II (r. 1894-1917), who made a so-called “tour of the east” three years before ascending to the throne, embarked upon what was labeled an “Asiatic program”. One goal of the program was to ensure Russia’s eastern coast, largely sealed off from the high seas by ice, had access to a warm-water port. One possibility for Russia was to take advantage of Joseon’s recent diplomatic opening to gain access to Korean territory. Having established relations with Joseon in 1884, the Russian Empire began to pursue its interests on the Korean Peninsula in earnest, a fact that brought about friction between the imperial court at St. Petersburg and other great powers.

Russia was certainly not alone in its desire for influence in Korea. Indeed, both the encroaching Russian Empire and the declining Qing faced another major contender, the Japanese Empire. During the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), Russia’s overall policy toward the conflict was to sit on the sidelines and await the outcome, as the government assessed that attempting a military occupation of Korea to defend Russian interests would not be beneficial.1)Seok, Huajeong, “Great Power Rivalries over Korea as Reflected in Political Cartoons.” Korea Journal (2013). In an attempt to stake out influence without becoming involved militarily — a stance it has adopted repeatedly in more recent times — Russia at one point offered to act as a mediator to end the conflict. Japan turned the proposal down.

Japan’s victory over China and subsequent acquisition of a foothold in Manchuria led to a direct Japanese threat against Russian territories. Japan and Russia were subsequently locked in competition over Korea and Manchuria. Japan considered these territories to be part of its exclusive sphere of economic influence, and reacted unfavorably toward Russian economic encroachment. Russia, for its part, had previously gained both the rights to lease the Chinese port at Lüshun2)A district of modern Dalian, then known as Port Arthur., a year-round warm water port, as well as forestry and mining concessions in Korea. Even after the Japanese victory in the Sino-Japanese War, Russian pressure kept Japan from completely taking over Manchuria and Korea, at least temporarily.

In the years between the First Sino-Japanese War and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), however, Russia found little appetite for containing Japanese expansionism.3)Балакин, Вячеслав Иванович (Bakalin, Vyacheslav Ivanovich). “Причины и последствия русско-японской войны 1904-1905 годов. (Causes and consequences of the Russo-Japanese War, 1904-1905)” Новая и новейшая история (New and Newest History) 6 (2004): 57-65. In 1898, Japan and Russia reached an agreement whereby Russia would be allowed to use Port Arthur, but would in turn rescind all plans for a Russian port in Korea. The agreement, however, did not automatically end Russia’s actual interests in Korea, and in light of the ongoing tensions between Japan and Russia, officials in St. Petersburg debated the best course for the Russian Empire’s policy toward the Korean Peninsula.

Figures such as Roman Rosen, who served in a diplomatic capacity for the Russian Empire in Asia, wished to see a reduction of Russian activities in Korea so as to avoid conflict with Japan. Conversely, Yevgeny Alekseev, a representative of the Russian tsar in the Russian Far East, didn’t see it as advantageous for Russia to sacrifice its interests in Korea. Tensions between the two empires culminated in Russo-Japanese hostilities in 1904, with Russia resoundingly defeated the following year. The Russian Empire’s program of building increased influence in Asia effectively ended with the Treaty of Portsmouth that concluded the war. Subsequently, Russian influence in East Asia diminished considerably.

In the midst of a tight neighborhood dominated by China and the US, the North Korean port of Rason constitutes a crucial toehold on the Korean Peninsula for the Russian Federation. | Image: Wikicommons

The Return of Geopolitics in Russia | Given the role of geography in Moscow’s historic and current interests where Korea is concerned, geopolitics can be useful for understanding the Russian Federation’s policies. Geopolitics, a concept that has been extensively misused and confused with other analytical frameworks in modern international relations discourse, enjoys an increasing vogue in the Russian policy community. Of course, the lack of a consistently ice-free port in the Russian Far East, necessitating Russian access to warm-water port infrastructure all year round on the Korean Peninsula, highlight the fact that modern Russia’s foreign policy toward the Korean Peninsula is influenced in large part by geography. One need not look further than North Korea’s special economic zone at Rason to understand that.  

As for parallels between the situation at the turn of the 19th century and our own time, one may imagine that the main geopolitical rivals jostling over the Korean Peninsula are Russia and the United States. Yet the much-touted “rise of China” likewise has the potential to influence Moscow’s geopolitical interests in Korea. Today, the Kremlin has to contend with China’s rising economic and military prowess, a shift that has led to an East Asia characterized by Sino-American bipolarity at the Russian Federation’s expense.4)정 종기, 최락인 (Chŏng, Jonggi, and Choi Ragin). “한반도 주변 국제 정세 변화에 따른 한국의 안정화 전락 반향 (Korean Stabilization Strategic Deployment Around the Korean Peninsula: Changes in the International Situation)” Asia-Pacific Journal of Multimedia Services Convergent with Art, Humanities, and Sociology, Vol. 5, No. 4, August, 2015.

Of course, the modern People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation are strategic partners, and are more-or-less on the same page in terms of Korean security. This does not mean, however, that the sum total of Beijing and Moscow’s interests in Korea are in perfect alignment. With China and Russia both coveting Korean Peninsula geography, tensions between erstwhile partners Beijing and Moscow over the Korean Peninsula have the potential to rise as both countries seek to find their footing in the new regional power distribution.

Indeed, scholars have already begun to note the potential for Sino-Russian tensions as Beijing and Moscow pursue interests in Korea outside the scope of the current security crisis. Underlying the potential Sino-Russian competition for influence on the Korean Peninsula are questions of influence over areas of particular strategic value, such as the Tumen River basin. Furthermore, both China and Russia covet Korean geography for the access to the East Sea/Sea of Japan it allows, access to which is critical for both countries’ economic growth.5)이영형(Lee, Yŏng-hyŏng), “중국과 러시아 북한 북동부 진출과 동해의 지전략 의미(China and Russia’s Northeast Debouchment and the East Sea’s Strategic Significance)” 아태 연구 (Asia-Pacific Research), 2013, vol. 20, no. 3: 35-67. In addition to potential Sino-Russian friction over accessibility to the sea, China and Russia could also end up as contenders for access to long-mooted inter-Korean rail lines.

Historians and political analysts have long distinguished between land and maritime powers. As this map of battlefields during the Russo-Japanese War demonstrates, the Korean Peninsula is a nexus between the Eurasian landmass and the high seas of the Pacific. | Image: Wikicommons

The Muffled Echoes of History | The Korean Peninsula plays a central role — indeed, it is once again at the crossroads — of shifts in the Northeast Asian balance of power. The Russian Federation’s current course of “turning to the East” is not unlike the “Asiatic Program” of the late imperial era. Furthermore, while it seems unlikely that China will fully displace American strength in East Asia for the foreseeable future, there is little doubt that the balance of power in the region is shifting more in China’s favor, a state of affairs with echoes of the decline of Qing China and the rise of Japan. With Moscow asserting its interests in Asia once again, buttressed by a growth in geopolitically-oriented thinking in Russia, the potential for tensions between China and Russia over their respective interests in Korea has the potential to, at the very least, simmer at a low boil. Beyond the context of today’s security concerns, the Korean Peninsula may constitute a litmus test for the strength of the Sino-Russian partnership.

To be sure, the current spirit of cooperation between Beijing and Moscow with regards to the Korean Peninsula could possibly continue in the ensuing decades, depending on how Sino-Russian relations evolve. The current state of relations between the PRC and Moscow, however, is not a reliable guide to the future trajectory of the two powers’ interests in Korea. Of course, history cannot be used as a rubric to foretell the future. Yet, given the massive implications that the shift in the power structure of late 19th/early 20th century East Asia had on the region, it is a historic parallel worth taking seriously.

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1. Seok, Huajeong, “Great Power Rivalries over Korea as Reflected in Political Cartoons.” Korea Journal (2013).
2. A district of modern Dalian, then known as Port Arthur.
3. Балакин, Вячеслав Иванович (Bakalin, Vyacheslav Ivanovich). “Причины и последствия русско-японской войны 1904-1905 годов. (Causes and consequences of the Russo-Japanese War, 1904-1905)” Новая и новейшая история (New and Newest History) 6 (2004): 57-65.
4. 정 종기, 최락인 (Chŏng, Jonggi, and Choi Ragin). “한반도 주변 국제 정세 변화에 따른 한국의 안정화 전락 반향 (Korean Stabilization Strategic Deployment Around the Korean Peninsula: Changes in the International Situation)” Asia-Pacific Journal of Multimedia Services Convergent with Art, Humanities, and Sociology, Vol. 5, No. 4, August, 2015.
5. 이영형(Lee, Yŏng-hyŏng), “중국과 러시아 북한 북동부 진출과 동해의 지전략 의미(China and Russia’s Northeast Debouchment and the East Sea’s Strategic Significance)” 아태 연구 (Asia-Pacific Research), 2013, vol. 20, no. 3: 35-67.

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