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South Korea

The Choson Dynasty and the Japanese Colonial Period


Korean archer, late nineteenth century
Courtesy Carpenter Collection, Library of Congress

In 1592 Japan dispatched a force of approximately 170,000 men in 700 ships to conquer Korea. The Japanese army landed at Pusan in March and controlled most of the Korean Peninsula by July. The small Korean navy under Admiral Yi Sun-sin used ironclad battleships known--because of their appearance--as turtle boats to make frequent attacks on the Japanese fleet attempting to resupply Japanese forces in Korea. King Sonjo requested military assistance from Beijing and, as the Chinese and Korean armies gradually pushed the Japanese south, the Korean navy frustrated Japanese efforts to initiate new attacks on the Korean Peninsula. Although Japan's first attempts to subjugate Korea were unsuccessful, many of the central organizations of the Korean imperial military system were weakened by the impact of the invasion.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Korean rulers generally devoted little attention to the military, although King Injo (1623-49) did reorganize the army and establish five permanent military bases in the country. Military service became unpopular after the Japanese invasion. The yangban (see Glossary) class no longer provided a large source of strong military leaders, and the lower classes generally preferred to pay a tax that exempted them from conscription. Because Korean rulers had little contact with the outside world, the Korean military establishment remained uninformed about developments of new weapons and modern battlefield tactics until the middle of the nineteenth century.

In the late 1860s, the advisors of King Kojong (1864-1907), alarmed by the interest of the United States, France, Russia, and other Western countries in opening Korea to foreign trade, convinced him to modernize the Korean army. During the next two decades, Korean military missions travelled to China and Japan to study modern warfare. King Kojong had neither the money nor the will to establish a large army, and he continued to rely primarily on the Chinese for military protection. In the 1880s, Chinese advisors trained 2,000 Korean troops and organized them into four elite units that were intended to be King Kojong's palace guard. The Tonghak Rebellion in Cholla Province in 1894 provided Japan with an excuse to dispatch troops to Korea, and Japanese forces were sent in July with the dual mission of eliminating Chinese influence on the Korean Peninsula and laying the foundation for the eventual colonization of the country.

Japanese victories in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5)--both partially fought in Korea--left Korea without any foreign powers willing to oppose the Japanese annexation of Korea. Soon after the Treaty of Portsmouth was signed in July 1905, formally ending the RussoJapanese War, Japan stationed large contingents of police and army units in Korea and disbanded the Korean army. Korea became a Japanese colony in August 1910.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the main staging areas for Korean military groups whose aim was to end Japanese rule in Korea were in Nanjing, China; along the Korean border in Jilin and Liaoning provinces; and in Irkutsk in the Soviet Union. The Nanjing-based groups received military training from and supported Chiang Kaishek 's Guomindang (Kuomintang or KMT--the National People's Party, or Nationalist Party). Until 1939 there were several small Nationalist and communist military groups that used guerrilla tactics to harass the Japanese in Korea and Manchuria (as northeast China was then known). By the end of 1940, the Japanese Imperial Army had destroyed most organized resistance along the Korean border with China; many Korean communists who had belonged to these groups joined the Northeast People's Revolutionary Army of the Chinese Communist Party (see Korea under Japanese Rule , ch. 1). A small number of Soviet-controlled Korean military units were organized in Irkutsk as early as 1921.

Data as of June 1990

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