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Andrei Lankov: China and Korea can't escape their pasts

[Dr Andrei Lankov is a lecturer in the faculty of Asian Studies, China and Korea Center, Australian National University. He graduated from Leningrad State University with a PhD in Far Eastern history and China, with emphasis on Korea, and his thesis focused on factionalism in the Yi Dynasty. He has published books and articles on Korea and North Asia. He is currently on leave, teaching at Kookmin University, Seoul.]

When South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun met with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao last Sunday, what did they talk about? The likelihood of a North Korean nuclear test that might trigger a nuclear-arms race in East Asia? Or perhaps the tremendous growth of bilateral trade that has made China the most important trade partner of Seoul?

Logical assumptions, but wrong. As the official press release revealed, the two leaders spent a large part of their meeting talking about ancient history, in the most literal sense of the word. President Roh expressed his dissatisfaction about some
conclusions of Chinese archeological teams and publications of a provincial research center dealing with events 2,000 years old.

This interest in bygone eras is understandable, since a new round of the "history war" between Korea and China erupted early this month. Its participants are deadly serious and very emotional, but for an outsider this struggle appears bizarre. After all, the major objects of the rivalry are the long-extinct kingdoms of Koguryo and Parhae, which existed in the 1st millennium AD in what are now China's northeast and North Korea.

One should not be too surprised about such an excessively political approach to the events of the ancient history. Since times immemorial, East Asian history has never ceased to be interpreted, rewritten and distorted to serve better the agendas of the day. In more recent times, the intense state-centered nationalism so dominant in both China and Korea made history even more important politically.

Well, and what is Koguryo (these days also frequently spelled Goguryo), after all? In the first centuries AD several rival kingdoms fought for domination on the Korean Peninsula and adjacent parts of China: Koguryo, Silla and Paekje were the most powerful among contenders. The kingdom of Silla eventually won, unifying the southern and central parts of the Korean Peninsula under its rule in the late 7th century.

Koguryo lost and ceased to exist. However, another kingdom called Parhae (Bohai or Balhae) rose to dominate a large part of the former Koguryo area. The Parhae population included a number of former Koguryo subjects. This kingdom also collapsed in the 10th century, with its southern parts being incorporated into Korea, by that time ruled by a new Koryo dynasty.

In North Korea, the scholar-officials went one step further, since they cannot stand the fact that Korea was once unified by a southern kingdom. They extol virtues of Koguryo in all possible ways, of course, and also insist that Silla's unification of the 7th century was not a real one, since the new state did not control all of Korea. Hence the real unity was established only in the 10th century, largely thanks to the proud descendants of the great Koguryo.

The rationale behind this interpretation is easy to understand, since the borders of Silla are roughly similar to those of present-day South Korea, while Koguryo controlled what is now the realm of the Kim dynasty. This is a retro-projection of the present-day struggle between the North and South, with each participant being firmly associated with some long-extinct state.

However, the entire dispute represents the same case of retro-projection of modern identities. The real-life Korguryoans would be seriously surprised or even offended had they learned that in future they would be perceived as members of the same community as their bitter enemies from Silla. Describing Koguryo as "Chinese" or "Korean" is as misleading as, say, describing medieval Brittany as "French" or "English" or "Irish" (even though all three modern nations have something to do with the long-extinct Celtic duchy in what is now France).

Europeans loved such things before World War I, in the days when the textbooks told about "our ancestors the Gauls". In East Asia, such historical nationalism is still a powerful instrument of politics and a source of deep and explosive emotions.

An additional twist is added by the little-known fact that the few surviving Koguryo words seemingly demonstrate that its inhabitants did not speak a language ancestral to modern Korean. The language of Silla was proto-Korean indeed, but the known Koguryo words have close analogues in early Japanese, of all languages. It is not incidental that the only research book on the Koguryo language is called Koguryo: The Language of Japan's Continental Relatives (by Christopher I Beckwith, published in 2004). Not all linguists would agree with this opinion, but it is shared by the majority and still never mentioned by participants of the discussion.

The first round of the confrontation began in 2002 when the Chinese government initiated a generously funded Northeast History Project, ostensibly aimed at restoring the cultural and historic heritage of China's northeast (obviously, with the additional benefit of strengthening the association between China proper and this region, which until the 17th century experienced Chinese control only occasionally). Soon afterward, in 2004, the Koreans discovered that both Koguryo and its quasi-successor state of Parhae are presented in the new Chinese-language books as parts of China, as "minority states" that existed within the supposedly single Chinese nation. Statements to this effect even appeared on the Chinese Foreign Ministry website.

A major diplomatic outburst followed, and the South Korean diplomats demanded explanations. The official Chinese line was that the position of the Northeast History Project had nothing to do with state policy - a statement that would bring smiles to all people with even passing knowledge of how Chinese history is written. Finally, in August 2004, the sides reached an agreement: the bureaucracies promised to refrain from waging "history wars", leaving arguments to the historians.

For the next couple of years things appeared quite calm. However, the issue was not forgotten: the Chinese began to promote tourism to the Koguryo sites and also included Paektusan, or Baekdu Mountain (Chinese: Changbaishan), considered a sacred symbol by the Korean nationalists, on the list of the "famous mountains of China", a simple gesture that greatly boosted Chinese tourism in the disputed areas. Now it is applying to the United Nations to register the mountain, which is divided in half by the border, as a "historic site".

Koreans answered with the array of projects aimed at presenting Koguryo as a glorious and inseparable part of Korean history and appropriating it once and for all. A special foundation was created to disseminate money among those domestic and foreign scholars who would promote "historically correct" views of the ancient kingdom (it is needless to say which views should be seen as "historically correct"). A number of television history dramas were shot to bring the heroes of Koguryo into every Korean's living room. The Chinese retaliated by preventing the Seoul producers from shooting these serials in China, thus depriving them of cheap sets and props.

However, the truce did not hold, and the past few weeks have been marked by new battles of the "history war". This time, the crisis began when the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, in essence a government agency, issued a collection of 18 research papers dealing with the various issues of regional history. Some of the claims they make are probably well founded (even though they are not necessarily to the liking of the Korean nationalist historians) while many others are clearly new attempts at manipulating the distant past to serve some current political interests of the Chinese state.

Among the latter one should mention that the collapse of Koguryo in AD 668 under the joint attack of the Chinese Tang and Silla forces is described in the new Chinese publications as "a unification war in which Tang conquered Koguryo". The early kingdom of Choson was again presented as "the beginning of China's northeast history on the Korean Peninsula". There were also claims about the borders of many Chinese states that allegedly went into Korean territory.

General outrage followed. Noisy demonstrations gathered in front of the Chinese Embassy and some ultra-nationalists even bit, chewed and then burned a Chinese flag in front of the cameras. President Roh decided he'd rather talk ancient history than North Korean nukes during the recent summit with the Chinese chief executive, and Korean newspapers of all persuasions ran very critical articles on the Chinese positions.

And what are the reasons behind such persistence of Chinese historians (or rather officials whose instructions scholars follow)? Of course, one dimension is easy to see: after all, Chinese historians write abut Koguryo in exactly the same way they write about all other states that once existed in what is now the People's Republic of China. Their basic principle is simple: irrespective of race, culture and ethnicity, all states that ever existed within the current PRC borders are parts of China, period.

According to the official line, China has always been one nation. Even though China might have included a number of the non-Chinese ethnic groups, these "minorities" were nonetheless happy participants of one great Chinese commonwealth. These statements have nothing to do with real history, but in China history has long been the handmaiden of politics. This line is clearly directed against the ever-present threat of local nationalism, separatism and irredentism.

However, one cannot help but ask why the claims in regard to Koguryo came to be advanced only in the past few years. There is no doubt that both the earlier "history war" and its current round were results of deliberate Chinese provocation. What prompted such a policy now, in the early 21st century? After all, such statements were bound to provoke outrage in Seoul, and this move is especially strange when the general perception of the Chinese in South Korea is quite benign. Unlike the increasingly unpopular Americans, the Chinese are not seen as a threat and irritant - unless there is a clash over ancient history, that is. The Chinese seem to have shot themselves in to the foot without any apparent reason.

The most likely explanation is that China is considering some action in North Korea. The Koguryo southern border roughly matched the present-day boundary between the prosperous South and impoverished North. Over the past few years the Chinese have done much to increase their economic presence in North Korea. It seems that the collapse of North Korea is not something the Chinese would be happy about. The growing likelihood of an emergence of a unified and democratic, perhaps pro-US Korea just across the border from China is not particularly good news for Beijing strategists.

Hence Beijing seems to be preparing some contingency plans for a major domestic crisis in North Korea. These plans might include an installation of a pro-Chinese puppet regime in Pyongyang and perhaps will require involvement of Chinese civilian and even military personnel (ostensibly on a humanitarian mission, as distributors of aid and maintainers of order, actually as supporters of a future post-Kim regime). Such actions will require psychological and cultural justifications, not least within China itself. Thus presenting what is now North Korea as an "ancient" and "integral" part of China might serve such interests very well.

It is not incidental that the current "history offensive" began around 2003, more or less simultaneously with the sudden increase in the Chinese activity in North Korea.

Another issue that might have prompted Beijing scholar-officials to revisit issues nearly 15 centuries old is the territorial claims of the South Koreans. Since long ago, the more radical Korean nationalist historians have paid much attention to the "Manchurian question", insisting that the vast lands of China's northeast, which once were realms of the Koguryo rulers, should be returned to the "lawful owner" - that is, to the present-day Korean state.

The Manchurian claims are strictly non-official, but this cannot be said about the claims for Kando.

Kando is a large part of what is now known as Yanbian Korean autonomous prefecture, near the point where the borders of Russia, China and North Korea meet. This area has a large population of ethnic Koreans, who overwhelmingly are Chinese citizens and descendants of the settlers who moved to the area in relatively recent times, after the 1880s. In the early 1900s, the somewhat uncertain legal standing of Kando made it into the object of a low-profile territorial dispute between China and Korea (though in those days, both governments had more urgent things to worry about than the fate of a small piece of real estate somewhere in the distant corners of their domains). In 1909, the Japanese, acting "on behalf" of the Koreans, agreed to complete Chinese sovereignty over the area.

In recent years it became clear that a large number of Koreans were demanding the revision of the 1909 treaty. Unlike the claims about Korean sovereignty over all of Manchuria, these Kando claims have some official backing. In late 2004, when the first round of the "history war" reached its height, a group of 59 South Korean lawmakers even introduced a bill that declared the 1909 Sino-Japanese treaty "null and void" and demanded recognition of Korean territorial rights over Kando. In all probability this was done to counter the Chinese claims over Korguryo, but true to the normal logic of an "argument" between the nationalists, the Chinese might be inclined to answer this bold (and quasi-official) statement with even an bolder one.

It does not help that the claimed territory already has a large Korean presence, with ethnic Koreans constituting about a third of all Kando residents. At this stage it seems that their loyalties overwhelmingly remain with Beijing, but the Korean activity in the area is unnerving for Chinese policy planners. Hence preemptive claims might be seen as a way to confirm Chinese supremacy in the area as well as to remind the local Koreans about the alleged "eternal multiculturalism" of the Chinese state.

However, this policy might backfire, and Beijing planners probably know it. Over the past 15 years the periodic outbursts of nationalist wrath in South Korea were aimed at either the Japanese or the Americans, while a surprising amount of goodwill (not to say naivety) existed toward China. If Koreans were talking about "aggressive designs", these were invariably designs of Washington and Tokyo. The recent events attract attention to the gradual Chinese encroachment and will damage the present rosy perception of China. Anyway, by some accounts the decision-makers in Beijing have decided that these risks are worth taking.

In a recent commentary, the influential South Korean daily Donga Ilbo wrote: "The [South Korean] academic circle is urging the government to respond more aggressively, saying that the best defense is a good offense. That means Korea should work on not just defending its history of the Kingdoms of Gojoseon, Buyeo, Goguryeo and Balhae but expanding its historic spectrum to include the history of Yelu, Khitan and Mongol tribes."

It sounds interesting; "the best defense if offense" and "expanding" Korean history to include Mongolia. It seems that for quite a long time impartial observers will be treated to increasingly improbable claims by both sides. These attempts to appropriate long-gone states and tribes might appear weirdly amusing, but the passions behind these claims are, alas, only too real and potentially dangerous for all participants.
Read entire article at Asia Times Online