The Lobanov-Yamagata Agreement was a pact between Russia and Japan concerning their respective interests in Korea, signed in 1896. During the early 1890s, Russian and Japanese involvement in Northeast Asia in general and in Korea in particular intensified. In 1891 Russia announced the laying of the Trans-Siberian Railway from St. Petersburg to the Pacific coast, a distance of about 5,700 miles.
Although this project had political and economic ends it was also defined as a cultural mission to bring civilization and Christianity to the peoples of Asia. Three years later in 1894 the Japanese and Chinese struggle for hegemony over the weak kingdom of Korea led to the outbreak of the first Sino-Japanese War.
After the Chinese defeat, Russia became Japan’s main rival because of its pressure, together with Germany and France, to force Japan to relinquish its gains in south Manchuria (the “Three Power Intervention”), but also by reason of its expansionist ambitions in East Asia.
Japan was concerned about the repercussions of the Trans-Siberian Railway, but the main focus of Russo-Japanese rivalry was on Korea, whose king viewed the Russians as his saviors from Japan.
Russia filled the political vacuum left by the defeated China in Korea and challenged Japanese ambitions to control the kingdom. Together with the United States, Russia induced the other powers to demand Korean concessions in the peninsula, such as a franchise for mining and for railway tracks.
Japan’s position began to deteriorate in the summer of 1895 as its agents attempted to turn the country into a Japanese protectorate. In October 1895 members of the Japanese legation in Seoul entered the palace and stabbed Queen Min, the most vehement opponent of Japanese presence in Korea, to death.
In February 1896 Japanese troops landed near Seoul to assist in a revolt but King Kojong found sanctuary in the Russian legation in Seoul. Many Koreans interpreted the internal exile of their monarch as an uprising against the Japanese presence and began to act accordingly. Japanese advisors were expelled, collaborators were executed, and the new cabinet was constituted of persons deemed pro-Russian.
In this manner, a year after the First Sino-Japan War had ended, Russian involvement in Korea was greater than before, while Japan suffered setbacks. Prominent figures in Tokyo such as army minister Yamagata Aritomo argued that Japan had to come to terms with Russian hegemony in Korea for the time being and thus avoid having to confront all the Western nations on this issue.
Consequently, in May 1896, the representatives of Russia and Japan signed a memorandum in which the latter recognized the new Korean cabinet. A month later Yamagata visited Russia for the coronation of Czar Nicholas II, and on June 9, 1896, ratified the memorandum together with Russian foreign minister Aleksei Lobanov-Rostovskii.
The resulting Lobanov-Yamagata Agreement contained slight amendments to the original memorandum. Facing unfavorable conditions in Korea, Japan made considerable concessions in this agreement, which had two secret provisions. First, the two countries agreed to send additional troops to Korea in the event of major disturbances.
Second, they might station the same number of troops in Korea until the emergence of a trained Korean force. When Yamagata offered Lobanov the draft of the agreement he was unaware that a few days earlier the Russians had signed with China’s Li-Lobanov Agreement.
The Russians had invited to the czar’s coronation ceremony the Chinese statesman Li Hongzhang, who was bribed to sign the Li-Lobanov Agreement. The core of the agreement, whose content was revealed only in 1922, was mutual aid in the event of Japanese aggression.
One clause in the agreement was implemented at once—Li’s consent to grant Russia the concession to build a significant shortcut for the Trans-Siberian Railway across Manchuria, which led immediately to a substantial increase in Russian involvement in the region. Because of the changing circumstances, the Yamagata-Lobanov Agreement was replaced two years later by the Nishi-Rosen Agreement.
The new accord specified that both sides would refrain from political intervention in Korea and would seek each other’s approval in providing military or financial advisors as requested by the Korean government.
Russia also explicitly acknowledged Japan’s special position in Korea, allowing it free commercial and industrial activity in the area in return for implicit Japanese acknowledgment of Russian influence in Manchuria.
These two Russo-Japanese agreements did not prevent the struggle between the two nations over Korea. Japan increasingly regarded Russian involvement in Korea as a threat to its vital interests, especially as Russian involvement in neighboring Manchuria intensified and the Trans-Siberian Railway project was about to be completed.
After 1901 Japan insisted on the formula of Manchuria-Korea exchange, namely that Manchuria would go to Russia and Korea to Japan. Failing to persuade Russia to relinquish Korea, Japan began to attack Russian bases in Korea and Manchuria on February 8, 1904, opening a 19-month campaign that would become known as the Russo-Japanese War.