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China puts Korean spat on the map
By David Scofield

The controversy over whether the ancient, ethnically Korean kingdom of Koguryo was historically Korean or historically part of China simmers, and it divides historians, politicians and patriots on both sides in Northeast Asia. The kingdom stretched well into present-day Manchuria in the north and encompassed most of what is North Korea in the south.

And, to roil the waters, some academics suggest that China's recent cartographic interest in the Koguryo region has a precedent in Beijing's relatively late public claim that Taiwan is and always has been an inalienable part of China. This is not a new claim, but some historians now produce postage stamps, maps and other graphic evidence, as well as speech transcripts and other documents - none of which they say depicts Taiwan as part of China before 1942, meaning that the Chinese Communist Party did not publicly consider it part of the territory.

One historian is Alan M Wachman, associate professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Boston, who recently drafted a paper on the Taiwan territorial and sovereignty issue and has made some of his material available to Asia Times Online.

The fact that China did not assert its sovereignty over Taiwan until after the Atlantic Charter in 1941, say some historians, demonstrates that it is quite capable of another volte-face, suddenly deciding that a strategic chunk of Northeast Asia also belonged to the Middle Kingdom. This could have repercussions in the future, if North Korea collapses into anarchy and China intervenes on the basis of its 1961 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance with North Korea to restore order. Maybe it sets up a new, pro-Beijing government and takes advantage of strategic ports and military bases.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry recently removed the kingdom of Koguryo as one of three Korean kingdoms from its website. It has not commented publicly on the action and its meaning, though the response of Chinese academics has been that the map change is merely part of a major historical project and malign political intentions should not be read into it. China has not made any claims to the territory or called for a boundary change, despite the cartographic revisions of ancient kingdoms. After what it termed "procedural delays", China finally granted visas to South Korean lawmakers who had sought to visit archaeological sites of Koguryo within China.

(Efforts to obtain comment from the Chinese embassies in London and Seoul were not successful. Press officials did not answer the phone in London. The Chinese Embassy in Seoul declined comment and referred inquiries to the the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, saying it was supposed to contain an official statement on the issue. A search of the site, however, did not yield information on Koguryo.)

South Korea, previously mute on the subject and on China's sometimes unfriendly behavior, has been taking a somewhat tougher stand. Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon finally fired back last week on the subject of the historical importance of Gando, which occupies an area that would have been part of the ancient Koguryo kingdom.

Deputy Foreign Minister Lee Soo-hyuck, chief of the government's countermeasures committee handling the Koguryo history issue, said recently, "The urgent focus of our interest as of now is how China will distort [Koguryo history] in its textbooks, and how we should respond should those distortions be carried out; We will strongly demand that textbook distortions not take place, while at the same time responding to this issue academically."

Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon said on August 11, "The government will firmly tackle any attempts by China to incorporate Koguryo history into the history of China." And for the first time since the problem arose, Ban added, "The Gando problem is a very delicate matter involving many countries, including North Korea."

Many believe that China's recent remapping of its ethnic frontiers - its recent inclusion of the ancient (BCE57-CE668) kingdom of Koguryo into the annals of Chinese, not Korean, history - is nothing more than an isolated attempt by zealous Chinese researchers to make history conform to their beliefs about China's centrality and omnipresence in the greater region, its borders knowing no limits in the minds of these historians. That's a plausible explanation, except for one disturbing fact: there is substantial evidence that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has abruptly changed its view of China's territorial borders before, slightly more than 60 years ago to be exact, and the area was Taiwan. This time it's Koguryo, but Taiwan was a precedent.

Many accept China's Taiwan claim
Today, many accept China's claim to Taiwan - a Chinese province, the CCP claims, since time immemorial - without question. But in the first two decades of the CCP's existence (1921-1942) Taiwan was of only passing interest to both the CCP and the former Republic of China (ROC) government. Taiwan was an area defined both visually and rhetorically as beyond the margins of the Han Chinese world. In documents, speeches, maps and even postage stamps, Taiwan and the Taiwanese were characterized as a region and a regional national minority, not a province. Taiwan was only later declared an integral part of China when it was politically expedient to do so.

According to a recent paper by Professor Wachman of Tufts University, the CCP excluded Taiwan from maps, colored Taiwan out of postage stamps and made references to Taiwan only in association with "other Asian peoples who may be rallied in the fight against the Japanese". The ROC's control over Tibet and Outer Mongolia was lost after 1911, yet these areas were still considered part of China proper and were reflected as such in maps and rhetoric - Taiwan was not.

Wachman cites the "Resolution of the CC [Central Committee] on the Current Political Situation and the Party's Tasks" of December 25, 1935, in which the CCP called for a broadening of the party's base and an accommodation with all anti-Japanese forces in a "united front" to prevent the "Japanese imperialists [from] turning China into a colony" and to fight for "China's freedom, independence, and unification." This widespread effort to rally forces against Japan focused on a program of 10 specific tasks, the ninth of which was "to unite the workers and peasants of Korea, Taiwan, and Japan itself and all anti-Japanese forces to form a consolidated alliance".

(From pp 20-21 of Wachman's paper, titled, "Stamped Out! Carto-Philatelic evidence that the CCP's China did not always include Taiwan". The paper was delivered at the University of Sheffield, United Kingdom, at a workshop, "Apolitical? East Asian Postage Stamps as Socio-Political Artifacts". In Wachman's absence, it was delivered by the author of this article, David Scofield.)

Evidence from the time indicates that Taiwan was considered separate, populated by a people defined as non-Chinese, a point graphically illustrated in the CCP's Sixth National Congress in 1928 and again in the party's Outline of the Constitution of the Chinese Soviet Republic in 1931, transcripts of the first and documents of second referring to Taiwan as a "minority nationality separate from the Han Chinese", not a Chinese province as the island has subsequently been designated in oratory emanating from the CCP.

Taiwan was considered beyond the party's immediate interest before the Atlantic Charter of August 14,1941, when United States president Franklin Delano Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston Churchill met in secret off the east coast of Canada, on the USS Augusta, and set out international principles. In effect, they opened the door for a claim by China to Taiwan. Indeed, it was not until that time that the CCP realized it could include Taiwan in its map of China. A volte-face over 60 years ago, forgotten by most outside of a handful of researchers and scholars.

Given this background on Taiwan, the CCP's recent interest in revising history to include the 1,400-year-old Koguryo kingdom, a realm that encompassed most of what is today North Korea in its south and stretched well into Manchuria in its north, becomes potentially far more intriguing and, to some, disturbing. It constitutes an open challenge to North and South Korea and to those who believe China's latest historical re-mapping has little political or security consequences for the Korean Peninsula.

Volte-face on Taiwan could bode ill
That the CCP could for so long and so clearly identify Taiwan as separate from China (this is denied, of course), only to change its attitude so quickly without international challenge or explanation, may not bode well for the long-term independence of the northern half of the Korean Peninsula.

"Taiwan has not always been represented as a part of China, just as Mongolia and the Russian Far East have not always been represented as apart from China," Wachman writes on page 7 of his paper.

But South Korea is starting to react, and given China's history of retroactive territorial inclusion of once-ignored territories, it's wise that Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon finally retorted last week, officially referring to the territory of Gando for the first time since China made its views on the region known, under the banner of its "Northeastern Project" that it called purely a study of history.

The territory of Gando, literally translated as "middle island", an area between two rivers, is imprecise but is thought to include almost 43,000 square kilometers of Chinese territory, immediately north of present day North Korea, and home to almost a million ethnic Koreans. The land stretches across what is today Jilin and Heilongjiang province. The area was ceded to the Chinese by Japan in 1909, a deal that a unified Korea would have a strong case in overturning, since agreements signed by the Japanese occupiers were negated in the same Atlantic Charter of 1941. That charter and the subsequent Cairo Conference of 1943 made it possible for the Chinese Communist Party's abrupt inclusion of Taiwan in its territory.

South Korean authorities have announced they would be watching China closely, monitoring possible revisions in its school history books for example, though what Korea could do in response is unclear, given the asymmetric relationship between the two nations. South Korea's dependence on China's markets and labor is well documented, a fact that undoubtedly is not lost on the Chinese architects of this latest revision. South Korea has begun pushing back, carefully.

In addition to increasingly vocal condemnations of China's cartography by Our Open Party, government legislators of all stripes and dozens of newspaper articles on China's policy, South Korean authorities have began negotiations with Taiwan to resume direct flights between the capital of Taipei and Seoul. South Korean officials were quick to emphasize that the move was not related to China's latest cartographic moves, though they would certainly know that the aviation talks themselves would anger the Chinese who seek to isolate Taiwan internationally.

Some sort of even higher level acknowledgement of Taiwan though, seems a shrewd maneuver as it guarantees a CCP reaction, thus keeping the primary issue of contention, Koguryo, squarely in the public eye, as the root cause of the dispute. This is vitally important as China's historic modifications may soon be acknowledged as a fait accompli, with calls for redress by the South Koreans swiftly painted as revisionism by the Chinese.

China not officially revising the border
At this time, China is not revising the existing border but carefully establishing what appears to be a broader historical claim to the area. The issue is what would happen if there were a radical political change in North Korea. If there were violence, instability or the collapse of the state, then China could enter the territory under the terms of the 1961 friendship treaty, and if they didn't retain a military presence they might well wish to install a pro-Beijing leadership in Pyongyang. The whole territory of North Korea is very strategic, very close to Japan, but the real issue may be an attempt to preempt any future Korean claim over the Gando region (with records in the 18th and 19th centuries), which covers around 42,000 square kilometers of China, home to around a million Koreans. And what is now North Korea is strategically important because of its ports and bases, providing China with the ability to project its power further in the Asia-Pacific region.

Indeed, interest among China's media in what they see as China's once and possibly future new kingdom is quickly subsiding, according to South Korean diplomats at Seoul's Beijing Embassy, who monitor the Chinese media.

Given this state of affairs, the elevation by South Korea of the Gando/Koguryo issue is exactly what the situation requires. The best defense being a good offense, South Korea would be wise to take a page from North Korea's negotiation play book - put Gando on the table and negotiate hard in the full knowledge that China will never entertain the claim. Nonetheless, the Gando issue could well be used as a bargaining tool to persuade the Chinese to back off of Koguryo. To this end, 18th century cartographic evidence that indicates Gando as Korean territory, like that put forward by Professor Kim Woo-jun of Yonsei University in Seoul, is very useful.
A shrewd strategy might be for South Korea to push its claims for both Koguryo and Gando (Gando was located in the far larger Koguryo area) simultaneously, launch its own own high-level history project and use its place in the world community (the world's 11th largest economy and a growing democracy) to vigorously advocate a redrawing of the northern frontier. In this scenario, South Korea eventually would agree to drop its claim to Gando, in return for China's pledge to respect the ancient kingdom of Koguryo: both sides win, both save face, and both could claim to have preserved historic territory - pride intact.

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 19, 2004

Another (Asian) look at China-Korea ties (Aug 14, '04)

China ups the ante in ancient kingdom feud (Aug 11, '04)

Northeast Asia's intra-mural mural wars (Dec 23, '03)


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