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Northeast Asia's intra-mural mural wars
By David Scofield

SEOUL - The nuclear dispute isn't the only defining issue involving China, North Korea and South Korea. Culture wars, too, are being waged diplomatically as well as passionately over little-known but breathtakingly lovely tomb murals in Northeast Asia and what these paintings say about more than a thousand years of human development, art and religion.

Except for historians of 6th-century East Asian culture, few people know of the controversial Goguryeo tomb murals tucked away in China's remote northeast, but North Korea also claims the art and tombs depicting life, death and an afterlife. And, problematically for both Beijing and Pyongyang, they are found on both sides of the China-North Korea border, with implications for the history of the Manchurian region.

South Korea, with the financial resources and academic and political muscle to argue its Korean Peninsula patrimony, has been muted in arguing the case of the Goguryeo murals, its close economic ties with China being a primary reason for its reticence. North Korea, too, diminished in resources but desperately depending on China, has been all but unheard on the issue. China, meanwhile, has mounted a powerful campaign, the Northeast Asian Project, launched in February 2002.

Chinese officials are fond of likening their relationships with North Korea and Vietnam as being as close as "lips and teeth". Here, the teeth are in evidence, although North and South Korea are offered a rare opportunity to act in concert to assert their historical claims and shared national ancestry.

And when the case for declaring an international cultural site is brought before the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), China is expected to prevail - largely because its rivals have been quiescent about the 1,500-year-old cultural relics.

The tomb murals date from around AD 500 during the Goguryeo period, 37 BC-AD 668. The exquisite, still vividly colored murals depict daily life and sustaining mythologies. So far about 70 murals have been found, mostly in the Taedong river basin near Pyongyang, the Anak area in South Hwanghae province, and in Ji'an in China's Jilin province.

A leading power during the Three Kingdoms period, Goguryeo occupied the present territory of North Korea and also held sway over the vast Manchurian region for some 700 years until the late 7th century AD, according to Korean academics. By the 4th century, Goguryeo had been firmly established as a powerful kingdom and frequently clashed with China, while successfully containing its southern rivals, the academics argue.

Murals would lift image of famine, suffering
Pyongyang academics plan to reapply to UNESCO's World Heritage Committee to designate the Goguryeo murals around Pyongyang as a declared a North Korean World Heritage Site, the first in that nation. This would be a boon to a country that receives little international attention, and scant positive notice, for activities that do not involve nuclear weapons, missiles, drugs, famine, refugees or depraved indifference to human life. It would also give international validation to the Korean nature both of the murals and also of the kingdom to which they belonged.

Researchers from the state-funded Chinese Academy of Social Sciences have plans of their own. They have been actively studying the kingdom to which the murals belong as part of a long-running Northeast Asian history project called "Northeast Progress" and have concluded that Goguryeo was a client state of China, giving Beijing claim over the kingdom and its artistic legacy.

The Chinese academics and researchers hope to have the Goguryeo tomb murals in Ji'an declared a World Heritage Site during a UNESCO meeting in Suzhou next June. That the Ji'an murals are in Chinese territory is without question, but the ethnic legacy of these works becomes more complicated south of the Yula (Amok) River.

Goguryeo is considered by Koreans to be the first kingdom of Korea. If China is successful in proving its claim to the murals and by extension the Goguryeo kingdom, what of Korea's southwest kingdom of Paekche, which was founded by the son of the founder of Goguryeo?

Officially, the North Koreans have been relatively quiet on the matter, their studied silence a testament to the influence of China, their only benefactor.

During the Cold War, North Korea received from its Chinese and then-Soviet patrons a steady infusion of technology and resources necessary to sustain the country and guarantee its strategic defense against the US nemesis forces located in South Korea. In those days neither China nor the Soviet Union - themselves balancing a mutually uneasy relationship - would allow much foreign influence in North Korea, lest it upset their own delicate strategic equilibrium.

Today, however, both China and Russia regard North Korea as a difficult, anachronistic and dangerous neighbor, and technology, other resources and financial aid have slowed to a trickle. Russia and the other states and regions of the former Soviet Union are far more interested in maintaining good relations with capitalist South Korean than in fortifying the world's last Stalinist enclave.

China cows Koreas in mural dispute
China remains the only nation with the means, the influence and the political will to prop up the failed North Korean state. That will appears to be waning, however, as evidenced by China's decision to suspend its North Korean oil pipeline operations last spring. Pyongyang is still smarting from that decision, keenly aware of its dependence on Beijing and, hence, unlikely to openly challenge what it considers China's irredentist claims in regard to the murals.

Ad hoc groups of South Korean historians, however, seem intent to join the battle, belatedly coming together to challenge what they consider China's remapping of history. The independence and inherent sui generis state of 2,000-year-old cultures in East Asia will be a hard issue for either the Chinese or the Koreans to argue definitively. But the coming together of Koreans sharing their collective academic muscle opens the door for greater academic exchange between the two Koreas, a real step forward. Given its relative freedom, the major intellectual responsibility lies with Seoul.

The Koreans, however, are latecomers, giving China's advance in the mural issue. If the South Korean government does not urgently and vigorously challenge China over the murals through sound academic and historical initiative - regardless of possible trade impact - then the Chinese may well prevail in their claim to the murals. Then the Koreans, both North and South, could "lose" 700 years of history.

Official South Korea's lackluster approach to the murals, however, contrasts sharply with its long-standing and vigorous support to rectify what it calls "historic distortions" involving Korea and its North Asia neighbors. The most prominent of these has been the so-called Sea of Japan "error". South Korea successfully lobbied the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) for more than a decade to change the name of the current "Sea of Japan" to the "East Sea", while issues of greater gravity involving China - like the disputed murals - elicit a decidedly understated reaction.

The government offers rewards to students and "netizens" who find and challenge historical errors - most errors center on the Sea of Japan issue. The website received more than 20 e-mails a day for more than a year from a South Korean group calling itself the Volunteer Agency Network of Korea (VANK), insisting that the website rectify its "error" in using the name "Sea of Japan" instead of "East Sea" to describe the sea to the west of Japan. finally changed the name, it said, not necessarily because it agreed with the South Korean geography activists but because the e-mail bombardment was so annoying. (Asia Times Online has received similar e-mails but still describes the body of water as the Sea of Japan.)

Yet China's declaration that Korea's founding kingdom was not Korean, if true giving China some historical claim to what is today North Korea, encourages the South Korean government to assert mildly, "We will act in a way that will not upset our diplomatic [read 'economic'] relationship with China." There appears to be little interest in the murals from the geographical renaming activists in VANK, and Korea's "West Sea", the body of water between Korea and China referred to as the Yellow Sea by the International Hydrographic Organization, is not being challenged by South Korea.

Next June, when the murals' sovereignty case is argued before UNESCO, China will present more than six years of effort and an enormous amount of data to support its case. Beijing has devoted more than US$2 billion to its Northeast Asian project, yet South Korea, despite the resources to counter China, has not react in an organized way to China's mural campaign.

Given Seoul's tepid response in challenging Beijing, a robust Korean response appears highly unlikely. And Koreans could well see their cultural legacy subsumed by China, losing a historical pillar of Korean identity and facing the prospect of future territorial challenges from Beijing.

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Dec 23, 2003


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