Sino-Korean imbroglio over the ancient Koguryo
(Goguryeo) Kingdom (37 BC-AD 668) dramatically
underscores the extent to which concerns with history
currently dominate events on the Korean Peninsula.
Beijing's attempt to usurp a key component of Korea's
history and claim that Koguryo was a "subordinate state
that fell under the jurisdiction of the Chinese
dynasties" inflamed both Koreas, and it may lead South
Korea to re-evaluate its growing strategic relationship
with China. South Korea may be experiencing China shock.
The Koguryo issue has revealed a heretofore
unobserved level of suspicion of China in South Korea.
China-South Korea relations have expanded
steadily since diplomatic relations were formalized in
1992. For China, this came at the expense of its
traditional ally North Korea, but Beijing placed the
economic benefits of aligning its burgeoning market
economy with Asian Tiger South Korea above its political
and military alliance with Pyongyang.
China displaced the United States as South Korea's
largest trading partner in a significant strategic shift
that elicited little apparent attention in the US media.
Whether the economic realignment was simply a reflection
of changing economic realities or was the result of
political decisions by Seoul remains a matter of debate.
Regardless, the alteration in South Korean trading
priorities represented a tectonic shift for the region
and, combined with growing friction in Seoul's alliance
with Washington, reinforced the populace's growing
perception of a national future more closely aligned
China shock There have, of
course, been issues that have strained relations,
including Chinese treatment of North Korean refugees.
Perhaps the strongest tremors in the relationship,
however, first arose in late April when Seoul
experienced an epiphany of the devastating impact that a
contracting Chinese economy could have on the South
Korean economy. Although leading indicators had for some
time pointed to China's economy overheating, the
severity of the situation was not clear until Chinese
Premier Wen Jiabao announced in the spring that Beijing
would implement more drastic "financial retrenchments"
to reduce and rationalize the country's economic growth.
The official statements caused the Korean stock market
and the value of the won to plummet.
president Goh Kun responded by ordering an emergency
meeting to monitor the short- and long-term effects of
the "China shock" and assess the ability of South
Korea's macro-economic policies to respond. A senior
government review group re-evaluated Korea's growing
dependency on the Chinese economy and assessed the
country's potential alternatives.
Ilbo warned then in an editorial, titled "When China
coughs, does Korea catch a cold?", that the South Korean
economic fluctuation revealed the weaknesses of an
economy that was overly dependent on the Chinese market.
It called on the government and business to develop a
counter-plan to "strengthen the economic system by
dispersing the market and production".
Koguryo - spanning the Yalu and the
ages The simmering Koguryo dispute appears to
have been triggered by China's deletion of all
references to Korean history prior to 1948 from its
Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, rather than
acceding to South Korean requests to correct Chinese
misinformation. After Seoul expressed its outrage, China
responded by blocking domestic Chinese public access to
websites critical of its actions, including the
Chinese-language edition of the Chosun Ilbo and the
World Arirang Forum, a cyber-discussion site for ethnic
Koreans in China.
China established its
Northeast Asian Project in 2002 to provide the
appearance of academic and scientific validity to its
assertions about Koguryo. In 2003, Beijing sought to
have the United Nations Educational, Scientific and
Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declare those Koguryo
ruins that were within China a World Heritage site.
Professor Choi Kwang-shik of Korea University, writing
in the Korea Times, postulated that Chinese efforts
could, however, be traced back to 1980, when Beijing
adopted a "one country, one people" policy as a way to
consolidate all of China's peoples into one.
Chinese leadership has indeed been gravely concerned
over the destabilizing impact of diverse ethnicity.
Bhutanese, Nepalese and Uighur nationalists, among
others, have derided the "one people" policy as
Beijing's attempt to undermine their efforts for
autonomy. In a similar manner, China may now be seeking
to assert its unquestioned control over its northeastern
region, with an estimated 3 million ethnic Koreans, in
long-term preparation for Korean reunification. Beijing
may fear that a reunited Korea could seek to petition
for the ethnically Korean portion of China as part of a
Koreans, conversely, fear that
China's actions may reflect an offensive strategy either
to gain Korean territory after reunification or to
influence the character of the northern portion of a
reunified Korea to protect its national interests.
Beijing might, for example, demand a strategic
demilitarized buffer with Korea as well as no US troops
north of the current Demilitarized Zone. The estimated
200,000-300,000 North Korean refugees who currently
reside illegally in northeastern China, along with
Chinese fears of the massive influx that would result
from a collapse of the North Korean regime, may also
have factored into Beijing's calculus to exert control
over its border regions.
Kicking the issue
down the road China eventually realized that its
heavy-handed approach risked a deterioration in its
relations with South Korea. Beijing dispatched senior
diplomats to settle the dispute before it caused a
permanent manifestation of anti-Chinese sentiment in
South Korea and undermined its strategic interests in
the region. Jia Qinglin, chairman of the Chinese
People's Political Consultative Conference, admitted
during his visit that "the relationship between China
and South Korea has been affected to a certain extent by
the issue of Goguryeo". He added that Chinese President
Hu Jintao sought to prevent any more conflicts between
the two countries arising from the Koguryo issue.
However, the amorphous and non-binding nature of
the five-point "verbal understanding" generated
criticism in South Korea for the government's continuing
its policy of timidity with Beijing and for accepting a
deferral rather than pressing for a resolution of the
dispute. South Korean Foreign Affairs-Trade Minister Ban
Ki-moon claimed a form of victory by stressing that it
was the first time Beijing had acknowledged the
"seriousness" of the issue to South Korea. A Foreign
Ministry official told reporters that China had pledged
not to lay claim to Koguryo in its history textbooks and
promised "there would be no more government-level,
central or provincial, attempts to distort the history
of Koguryo". However, opponents argue that the agreement
does not include such a clause, that Beijing did not
issue an apology, nor did it agree to restore its
Foreign Ministry website to the status prior to the
current dispute. Joongang Ilbo characterized the
agreement as "stopgap measures for China to dodge the
escalating anti-Chinese sentiment in Korea".
Ramifications for the Sino-South Korean
relationship The manner in which China set out to
usurp a critical component of Korea's national character
has caused an estrangement and may lead South Koreans to
rethink the increasingly prevalent view that China and
the United States were interchangeable as partners.
South Koreans may now believe that they glimpsed behind
the facade of Beijing's benevolent "China rising"
foreign policy and saw the true nature of its intentions
toward the region. Beijing has sought to allay regional
concerns over its mounting economic, military and
political power by asserting it is not seeking hegemony
but, rather, "non-alignment, non-confrontation, and
non-targeting at any third party".
To be sure,
Seoul will not, nor can it, turn its back on Beijing,
nor can it divest itself of interaction with the Chinese
economy, which continues to be seen as the region's
economic engine. However, the issue has revealed a
previously unobserved level of suspicion of China. The
Korea Times editorialized that the issue may lead to a
"serious erosion of the bilateral relationship, which
has developed remarkably politically, diplomatically and
economically over the past 12 years". Prior to the
Koguryo dispute, more Korean legislators favored China
as a future partner in world politics over the United
States. But since then, a greater percentage advocate
becoming friendlier toward the US.
Manifestations of Seoul's Sino
suspicion The South Korean government will
increase its budget for its own Koguryo Research
Foundation as a way to counter China's Koguryo efforts
more effectively. Ruling Uri Party legislator Cho
Bae-sook announced a preliminary agreement with the
Ministry of Education and Human Resources Development to
allocate additional funding. Prime Minister Lee Hai-chan
ordered the government to monitor foreign textbooks to
detect any distortions of South Korean history.
Foreign Affairs-Trade Minister Ban Ki-moon told
reporters that the Seoul government would "not tolerate
any attempt by Beijing to claim the history of Koguryo
[and would] stop further attempts to distort history,
such as the revision of its [China's] textbooks." In
another sign of a more assertive South Korean policy,
Ban indicated that Seoul would reconsider whether to
rescind its policy banning Tibet's spiritual leader, the
Dalai Lama, from visiting South Korea.
Trouble on the horizon In an
indication of the next potential diplomatic dispute, 60
South Korean lawmakers of the ruling and opposition
parties submitted a resolution to refute the validity of
the 1909 Gando Convention in which colonial Japan ceded
the territory of Gando - a portion of Korea's Chosun
Kingdom - to China. The agreement established the
current border between China and North Korea and
conceivably could become an issue after Korean
reunification. Minister Ban emphasized that "the Gando
problem is a very delicate matter involving many
countries, including North Korea".
The extent to
which the Koguryo dispute will affect future South
Korean policy decisions remains to be seen. However, it
will likely generate government and private debate over
how Seoul will balance its relationships with China and
the United States. A growing percentage of the South
Korean populace now will likely espouse maintaining a
strong alliance with Washington - and proceed more
slowly in building economic, political, and security
relationships with Beijing.
Klingner is director of analysis for Intellibridge
Corp in Washington, DC. Intellibridge provides
customized open-source intelligence analysis for
government, corporate and sovereign clients. His areas
of expertise are strategic national security, political
and military affairs in China, Northeast Asia, Korea and
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