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Korea's First Russian Military Advisors
Many felt confident that Korea's small army would be able to cope with any internal disorder
Robert Neff (neff)     Print Article 
Published 2007-12-14 12:12 (KST)   
This article is one in a continuing series of Korean firsts by historian and long-time resident of Seoul Robert Neff.  <Editor's Note>
Korean soldiers with their Russian advisors. Isabella Bird Bishop, "Korea and Her Neighbours," 1898
©2007 Robert Neff Collection
Following the escape of King Kojong and the Crown Prince from Gyoungbok Palace to the Russian legation in February 1896, Japanese influence in Korea waned while Russian influence increased. In the summer of that year, the Russian government began to train the Korean Royal Body Guard and part of the army, first through the efforts of Lieutenant S.L. Hmeleff, a Russian naval officer attached to the Russian legation, and then in October with the arrival of Colonel Potiata, three lower officers, and 10 enlisted men. The following year in August, 13 more Russian soldiers augmented the previous advisors.

The Novoye Vremya newspaper in St. Petersburg claimed that "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." The Russians, however, were there to improve the army so that it could defend itself from Japanese aggression.

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The first step in training the army was to train a group of cadets and officers to assist the Russian military advisors. To assist in communication, there were 10 interpreters who were mostly Korean-Russians from the northern part of the country near the border of Russia and Korea. However, all commands were given in Russian, and the Korean soldiers quickly grasped the language.

Three months later, after the cadets and officers had completed their training; they were utilized to assist the Russians advisors to train the first regiment of body guards. A reporter for The Independent proudly boasted:

"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."

Not only were the soldiers taught standard D & C (Drill and Ceremony), marksmanship, and proper military courtesy, but also the fundamentals of signaling with bugles and drums. When the cadets marched to their barracks they did so with the "national colors headed by a band of buglers and drummers presenting altogether a very military-like appearance."

Housing and Provisions

The original barracks for the 33 cadets and their seven officers who later formed the nucleus of the Royal Body Guard were located just behind the Russian legation. They were described as being neat little tile-roofed Korean buildings with new wall papering and very clean. Everything in the rooms was orderly and systematically arranged. The cadets were well fed by their own kitchen and drilled on a parade field that "was remarkably clean and fresh in its appearance."

Later, when the new barracks were built just inside the Little West Gate, the soldiers were housed in 16x16 foot rooms that were heated by Russian stoves. Twenty-five soldiers were expected to live in each room. There was a kitchen in the rear of each barracks that had some 30 boilers for the soldiers to cook their food. Their fare consisted of "boiled rice of liberal quantity, a large bowl of vegetable soup mixed with beef and a generous supply of Kimchi or pickles."

Equipment and Appearance

One of the problems facing the Korean military was the abnormal variety of weapons that the soldiers were equipped with. This often made it difficult to supply them with ammunition and to properly train them. The earlier weapons were, depending on the instructor, obtained from various countries and were often outdated. The Russian advisors sought to standardize the Korean army's weapons. The cadets, and later the body guard, were all equipped with Berdan rifles bought from Russia. Most of the men were equipped with old triangular bayonets but a few were armed with short sword bayonets.

The soldiers' uniforms were blue serge frock trousers, low shoes, white gaiters, and blue felt hats with narrow red bands for ornamentation. They had old brown leather belts and pouches but these would eventually be replaced with newer equipment. The officers wore blue-braided patrol jackets with blue trousers and Wellington boots, worn outside the trousers. Their hats were French kepi with a lot o gold lace and scarlet cloth for ornamentation. Both officers and enlisted wore white coats and trousers during the summer time.

At first the Korean soldiers were allowed to keep their long hair, but after a number of them developed sores and infections, the Russians persuaded them to keep their hair cut short and to wash it frequently. Nearly all of the soldiers with the exception of one, the commander, kept their hair short.


At first there was some concern about discipline and punishment by the Russian officers. The Russian army was notorious for its use of beatings to maintain good discipline. Rumors spread that the Russian instructors beat their Korean charges and there were rumors that a Russian officer had struck a Korean colonel in the head with his sword for a minor offense. When the Russian instructors built gymnastic apparatus to be used as part of the Korean soldiers' physical training, many of the Korean soldiers thought the apparatus were devices to torture them.

One Russian advisor, S. Grudzinskii, claimed: "In the process of selection it was evident that the soldiers had been inspired to try in every way not to be chosen [as members 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 usual method of punishment was imprisonment for short periods of time or corporal punishment with a piece of bamboo. According to an article in The Independent, "The charges against the men are investigated by the Russian officers who decide upon the punishment, which is then carried out with the approval of the Korean Commander of the regiment, who is nothing more than a figure head." This was highly fortunate for the Korean soldiers considering some of their Korean commanders had other ideas.

Colonel Chang Ki-rem, commander of the Royal Body Guard, had his own way of meting out punishment. He confided to a reporter for The Independent that the secret of maintaining discipline among the soldiers was to decapitate them whenever they did not follow the orders of their superiors.

Colonel Chang was described as not being handsome and, unlike his soldiers with their short-military haircuts; he wore his hair in the traditional manner. He explained that "the Minister of War and other high officials do not cut off their topknots, therefore, he being a high class official must follow their example rather than that of his inferiors." Unsurprisingly, he acknowledged that he was "not versed in modern military tactics and the science and art of foreign warfare," but was "the best scholar in the old fashioned Korean military matters."

The Ultimatum and Its Result

The advisors were deemed extremely successful and there was an effort to bring in an additional 160 advisors to train the entire Korean army. This met with stiff resistance by the Japanese and eventually the Korean government abandoned the idea. But the opposition wasn't only from foreigners; it was also from within Korea as well.

In early 1898, sentiment by the Korean public towards the Russians began to worsen as the result of the perceived meddling of the Russian Charge d'Affaires, Alexis de Speyer, in Korean affairs. The British representative to Korea, John Jordan observed:

"M. de Speyer's undisguised interference in the affairs of the Corean Government, and more especially his nomination and retention in officer of Ministers who are put there simply to do his bidding has raised a storm of opposition..." Speyer was forced to travel with a group of Russian sailors to ensure his safety in the ever-increasing hostile streets of Seoul.

On March 7, 1898, Speyer sent an ultimatum to the Korean Foreign Minister, Min Chong-mok, in which he declared that the Russian government had sent the advisors to train the Korean army so that it could maintain its independence. However, "the Korean Government, not appreciating apparently the significance of the services rendered by us [Russia] to it, is itself creating obstacles to the realization of the objectives set by us in the interests of Korea herself."

He then went on to demand an answer as to if the Korean government deemed "Russian aid in the form of instructors, palace guard, and a financial adviser as superfluous." If so, he warned, "we shall take measures to carry out their wishes, provided, however, that the Korean Government would by its own means attend to the further safeguarding of its independence." He demanded an answer within 24 hours, but Min responded with a plea for an additional three days.

Speyer did not think the Korean government would take him up on his threat, but he was wrong. On March 11, Min sent his reply to Speyer in which he wrote:

"In matters of finance and military administration... the Corean Government has resolved to follow henceforth, in every detail, the system laid down by the Russian Agents and the methods they adopted, but hereafter only Coreans will be employed in the management and control of these departments to the exclusion of all foreigners whether, as Drill Instructors or Advisers." He closed his letter with a compliment: "the officers who have been sent here have afforded the most effective assistance, and have now accomplished the work to our satisfaction, and we are very grateful." The advisors had in effect been dismissed.

On March 18, 1898 the Russian government officially announced its intent to remove its military advisors to Korea. Jordan wrote to his superiors: "The military instructors have not yet left Seoul, but they have taken formal leave of the troops under their control, and have vacated their quarters in the Palace, which is now exclusively guarded by native soldiers." The Independent added that the instructors would soon leave for home.

The advisors were not the only ones to leave. On April 12 Speyer was relieved by N. Matunine and returned to Russia to explain his failure. While Speyer's diplomatic efforts may have failed, many felt confident that Korea's small army would be able to cope with any internal disorder that might arise in the near future, and deemed the Russian advisors as a success. But over the next decade, the success proved to be short-lived, as Korea's military was unable to protect it from its stronger and more aggressive neighbor -- Japan.
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Robert Neff

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