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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.