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Images of Russia and the Soviet Union in modern Korea, 1880s-1930s: an overview

Kyujanggak Institute for Korean Studies
Publication Date
  • Economics
  • Political Science


In early modern Korea, the image of Russia/the Soviet Union tended to vacillate between two extremes. On the one hand, there was a strong tendency to see Russia as an immediate threat to Korea. This view – to a certain degree influenced by the hostility towards Imperial Russia common in the governmental spheres and media of Meiji Japan – was largely shared by many pro-Japanese reformists in the 1880s-1890s (Yu Kilchun and his characterization of Russia as a “predatory wolf” typifies the ideas of this group), and prompted calls for cooperation with Japan and/or unifying all three main East Asian states (Japan, China, Korea) into a “Yellow coalition” able to fend off “the white Russian predators.” A good example of such a view was the treatise On the Oriental Peace penned by Ito– Hirobumi’s (1841-1909) assassin, An Chunggŭn (1879-1910). This view was inherited by some of the right-wingers of the colonial period who developed it into fierce anti-Sovietism, typically Yun Ch’iho (1865-1945) and Yi Kwangsu (1892-1950). Yun Ch’iho went as far as to welcome Mussolini’s success in “protecting Italy from Bolshevism” and wishing Hitler a victory over Soviet Russia. On the other hand, there were always political forces that tended to view Russia/the Soviet Union as Korea’s potential protector or even savior. Emperor Kojong (r. 1864-1907) pinned great hopes on Russian help several times during his turbulent reign (notably, in 1885-86, 1896-97 and 1904-07) and a number of Korean nationalists found sanctuary in Russia after their country was annexed by Japan in 1910. After 1917, some of them (notably Yi Tonghŭi) reinvented themselves as Communists, and launched upon a course of struggle for Korea’s liberation with Soviet assistance. For the Communists, the Soviet Union was utopia itself in the process of materialization, and criticism of the USSR (Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics – Soviet Union) was often deliberately avoided. Some radical nationalists, however, managed to balance their respect for Socialist ideals with healthy criticism of certain Soviet politics – especially those seen as betraying the USSR’s own proclaimed ideals of anti-imperialism and solidarity with the colonial and semi-colonized nations (for example, a military conflict with republican China in 1929). Some of the Soviet policies of the late 1930s, typically the forced deportation of the Soviet Koreans in 1937, were met with frustration and a sense of betrayal. But on balance, the general view of the Soviet Union was much more positive than that of Imperial Russia – undoubtedly both on account of the USSR’s avowed anti-imperialist and anti-colonial policies and due to the enormous hopes pinned upon the socialist road to “progress” by Korean intellectuals frustrated by the colonial capitalism of the Japanese Empire. This unrealistically positive view of the USSR was the background against which many Korean non-Communist intellectuals chose moving to North Korea after the division of the country in the late 1940s – a decision which often led to personal tragedies afterwards. The tendency to idealize the USSR was also strongly discernible in the progressive movement in South Korea in the 1980s, and as a result of this, the implosion of the Soviet bloc in 1989-1991 largely destroyed the intellectual credibility of South Korean radicals.

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