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China ups ante in ancient-kingdom feud with Korea
By David Scofield

A growing political rift with China is exactly what South Korea doesn't need right now, given that relatively unfettered access to China's markets and labor is vital to keeping the Korean economy growing. But the unresolved ethnic parentage of Koguryo, a 1,400-year-old kingdom that stretched from Inner Mongolia in the north and included most of what is today North Korea in the south, has put the two nations on a collision course, and China isn't blinking.

Both South Korea and North Korea, however, are mute and seemingly paralyzed by this latest affront and example of China's much-vaunted "peaceful rise", one that could have territorial, military and strategic implications that eventually could benefit Beijing - but not the Korean Peninsula or North Asia. The deafening silence from Seoul and usually obstreperous Pyongyang stems in large part from economic reliance on China and historical deference to Beijing at a time when North and South should be working together to counter what appear to be China's politically motivated claims.

Just last Friday, China revised its Foreign Ministry website, deleting reference to Korea's Koguryo Kingdom. Also last Friday, South Korean lawmakers were denied visas to visit related Koguryo tombs in China, Beijing citing procedural delays. South Korea has endured a host of Chinese transgressions, such as Chinese hackers, at least one from a government-run institute, breaking into 10 sensitive South Korean government security websites. Hardly a murmur of protest.

The kingdom dates from 37 BC and endured countless battles and attacks until AD 668, when it was absorbed by the unifying southern kingdom of Shilla. For Koreans, Koguryo is more than a historical relic, it was the first and largest of Korea's three founding kingdoms (Shilla and Paekje being the other two), and a pillar of Korean identity. But despite South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun's "quiet diplomacy" behind the scenes, China's leadership has been increasingly vigorous in claiming Koguryo as its own, strongly alleging that it was governed by one of China's many ethnic minorities.

The ethnicity of the Koguryo kingdom is still hotly debated among scholars of early Korean history. Some say the language spoken in Koguryo was linguistically closest to Old Japanese. Indeed, there are those who believe Koguryo was actually ethnically Old Japanese, and still others who say the Old Japanese actually migrated from what is today North Korea and the Chinese northeast.

The issue has been growing since China's high-level interest in revising local history came to the fore in February 2002 under the banner of the Northeast Asia Project, a history study that has received unprecedented political and financial support from Beijing. The budget of some US$2.2 million and keen political interest by senior figures in an area that for all intents and purposes is not in dispute was prompted by Pyongyang's application to UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) in 2001 to have Koguryo-era tombs and murals, cultural trophies of the kingdom, registered as North Korea's first World Heritage site. (Only a few kilometers are disputed along the China-North Korea border, but this has never been high on China's agenda.)

China then applied to register still more of the tombs on its side of the Yula (Amok) River as a World Heritage site as well. If UNESCO designated the tombs as Chinese cultural artifacts, then the kingdom that produced the tombs would logically be Chinese - North Korea becoming historically Chinese.

UNESCO accepted Korean and Chinese claims
UNESCO ruled on July 1 and accepted claims from both North Korea and China to have ancient tomb complexes in both territories accepted by the international body as World Heritage sites. The UN body, however, steered well clear of indicating national parentage of the kingdom itself.

Undaunted, the Chinese wasted no time in furthering their claim over the kingdom. Last Friday they removed all references of Koguryo - as a period of Korean history - from Chinese Foreign Ministry website. Chinese academics, all on the state payroll, have been revising history fast and furious, with new "evidence" and "findings" being dutifully published by the state-controlled media.

Cultural artifacts that once only interested a handful of archeologists and anthropologists have now caught the attention of political scientists and international-relations specialists, as China's claims to the kingdom and, one would assume a claim to the lands it occupied, could have very real ramifications on contemporary Korean politics and the regional balance of power.

Many South Koreans are slowly awakening to China's unique approach to political archeology. Perhaps a good thing, some analysts conclude, for at least now South Koreans will begin to realize that China is not the all-benevolent fraternal ally many naively believed it to be.

So what of the ever-bombastic North Korean leadership whose nation's cultural fabric is being threatened? The silence is deafening, but perhaps not surprising.

North Korea is even more beholden to China than South Korea, as the state functions largely through support from China. Chinese pipelines guarantee a subsistence fuel supply, and China's maintaining the 1961 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance is the country's only remaining security agreement. North Korea's first dynastic leader, Kim Il-sung, may have been installed by Josef Stalin, and the unparalleled growth of the Kim personality cult may have far exceeded what even Stalin could imagine, but it was China that reclaimed the North for Kim Il-sung, prolonging the Korean War for two years in the process.

Today, when regime-change options for North Korea - part of the "axis of evil" - are discussed in Washington, it is the reaction of China and its emphatic declarations that it will not tolerate US troops on its border that often quash the idea. Any change in the system in the North could lead to a destabilizing power vacuum, the theory goes, prompting China to enter North Korea to restore order and guarantee the geographical integrity of the area, as prescribed in the 1961 treaty. Here, mutual assistance would be the key justifying China's intervention.

China's strategic eye for North Korea ports, airfields
It's in a post-Kim - now Kim Jong-il - regime scenario that China's latest, highly public, historical claim becomes most concerning. Treaty obligations could well be used as legal justification to enter the country militarily, while China's historical claim over the territory could ensure the enduring presence of Beijing's troops, giving China access to North Korea's eastern ports and airfields, ensuring power projection potential (vis-a-vis Japan) far beyond China's possibilities at present.

China has never been as important to Koreans on both sides of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) as it is today. China has become South Korea's largest export destination, and while the two economies will be locked in competition for foreign markets in the near future, today it is China and its demand for exports that are keeping the South Korean economy from slipping into recession. For North Korea, it is China's fuel aid that keeps the military's wheels greased, and it is China that ensures North Korea's political survival.

But it is not only economics that makes the North and the South so feckless in the face of China's politically motivated (China says its own interest is purely historical accuracy) Koguryo claim, it is also history. Prior to Japan's colonization of Korea at the beginning of the 20th century, Korea was a vassal state of China for much of the previous 400 years. This client-patron relationship that endured for centuries, coupled with the deep cultural, ideological ties, has left an enduring legacy of respect for China within Korean culture and has strongly affected the Korean psyche.

Korea has been criticized for being quick to react to even the slightest transgression by either the United States or Japan, while China often gets a pass, even when the transgressions are great. Three weeks ago, Seoul's National Intelligence Agency discovered that a group of Chinese hackers, at least one from a government-run institute in China, had hacked into sensitive computer networks at 10 South Korean government institutes related to national security. The breach, characterized by officials as severe, lasted at least a month. Yet the incident has been downplayed by the government, with little follow-up by the media, nor any public outcry.

Last Friday, a group of South Korean lawmakers were forced to delay a trip to China to visit the tomb sites in China's northeast because Chinese government officials delayed issuing visas, citing procedural issues. Tainted Chinese food exported to South Korea, poaching of Korean fish stocks on both sides of the sea border - there is no shortage of "incidents" involving China. And yet it seems nothing the Chinese do can is sufficiently egregious to raise the ire of Koreans. The Koguryo Kingdom issue may change that and South Korea may demonstrate some backbone.

If nothing else, China's apparently politically motivated revision of local history may prompt Korean academics throughout the peninsula, North and South, to pool their resources and work together. While North Korea remains uncharacteristically mute, South Korean politicians and scholars are hoping they can turn this into an opportunity for the two Koreas to join forces. They could forge a meaningful, mutually beneficial intra-Korean initiative that isn't predicated on South Korea's traditional blank-check policies of rapprochement and turning a blind eye to Pyongyang's repression of its people.

David Scofield, former lecturer at the Graduate Institute of Peace Studies, Kyung Hee University, is currently conducting post-graduate research at the School of East Asian Studies, University of Sheffield, United Kingdom.

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Aug 11, 2004

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