(75) Russian military advisors
By Robert Neff
At different times during the late Joseon era, Korea employed military advisors first from China, Japan, the United States and, for a short time, England.The final group of military advisors was from Russia.
Following King Gojong’s escape to the Russian legation in February 1896, Japanese influence in Korea waned to the point that the Russians were able to begin training first the Korean Royal Body Guard and then part of the Korean army.
The Russian press took great delight in the turn of events and assured its public that the Russian advisors were there to actually train Korea’s soldiers how to defend their nation where as “the former teachers of this little army (the Korean army) were Americans and Japanese, who had no interest in raising its efficiency.They were satisfied to draw their pay, and glad that the Koreans did not ask them to do more.”
Despite language differences, the Russian advisors were so effective that within three months The Independent, an English-language newspaper in Seoul, declared:
“The new regiment is composed of 800 men who were picked from the different regiments after a thorough physical examination by Dr. Chervinsky of the Russian Army.They are drilled every day from 9 to 12 o’clock in the morning, and 2 to 5 in the afternoon at the 4th and 5th regiment barracks.They carry the Berdan rifles and the commands are given in Russian. It is really remarkable that the men understand the Russian commands so readily having been instructed for so short a time under the foreign teachers.”
It may have been remarkable to the newspaper reporter but actually the Korean military had an excellent reputation for acquiring languages.In the early 1880s, the Chinese instructors used English commands as well as the Americans in the late 1880s through the mid 1890s.The British naval advisors also probably used English in the mid 1890s.
Of course, in the beginning, many Korean soldiers did not want to be instructed by the Russian advisors and tried in every way not to be chosen [as members of for the new Russian trained units]. Many made pitiful grimaces, many claimed to be ill or old, many simply fled from their ranks and had to be chased out of the barracks.”
The Korean soldiers were afraid of the Russians who were known to be notoriously strict in the enforcement of rules.The Korean soldiers were further alarmed when the Russians built gymnastic equipment.The Russians intended the equipment to be used as part of the Korean soldiers’ daily physical training program but the Koreans misunderstood and thought that they were instruments of torture. There were also rumors that the Russian advisors beat their Korean subordinates and even struck a Korean colonel in the head with a sword for a minor offense.
Eventually politics ended the role of the Russian advisors in Korea. In 1898, alarmed at the growing influence and allegations that Alexis de Speyer, the Russian charge d’affaires, was meddling in Korean affairs, the Korean government thanked the Russian government for its “most effective assistance” and basically asked the advisors to leave.
Despite Russia’s successful training of part of the Korean army, it was not enough to protect Korea from its stronger and more aggressive neighbor — Japan. A little over a decade later, Korea ceased to be an independent country.
Robert Neff is a contributing writer for The Korea Times.