[Editorial] Contest over kingdom

The World Heritage Committee has recognized the "outstanding universal value" of the historical monuments of the Goguryeo dynasty located in both North Korea and China. The U.N. body decided to place simultaneously on the World Heritage List the remains of the capital cities, mountain fortresses and tombs of the nobility of the ancient Korean state which straddled the current territories of the two nations, effectively closing the first round of a tense war of nerves between the two neighbors.

The Solomonic judgment by the UNESCO committee, handed down at its annual conference in Suzhou in southern China last week, signals an arduous battle ahead for historians as well as governments in both South and North Korea. The seemingly fair decision will offer strategic privileges to China in its unjustified endeavor to claim an ancient Korean kingdom. It could even end up emboldening the potential territorial ambitions of the emerging regional power in the future.

China came from behind in bidding for the status of the World Heritage sites for Goguryeo monuments, including the ruins of its early capital cities, fortresses and mural tombs, scattered around its northeastern provinces. North Korea submitted its proposal for a group of 63 tombs in its own territory, 16 of them decorated with celebrated mural paintings, back in 2001. But the Paris conference of the World Heritage Committee turned it down last year because of the poor condition of preservation of the subterranean burial chambers.

The Chinese government undertook massive excavation and refurbishing projects on Goguryeo ruins in southern Manchuria in recent years. Together with its so-called "Northeast Asia Project" for studying the history of present-day Manchuria, which was the territory of the ancient warrior state through much of its existence from 37 B.C.-A.D. 668 and which still has large ethnic Korean communities, China`s hurried preparations unnerved South Korean academics and civil society, as well as the government agencies involved.

The South Korean government supported the North`s bid to earn the official recognition of the international society for its priceless historical monuments, the first such effort by the communist state. Seoul has been providing Pyongyang with $100,000 a year in aid for the conservation of Goguryeo tombs through UNESCO since 2000. Japanese UNESCO goodwill ambassador Ikuo Hirayama, who led the crusade for the Goguryeo tombs, inspired South Korean officials to help the North in conserving them.

Setting aside emotional criticisms of China`s politically motivated claim on a vital portion of early Korean history, the South and North must join hands to place on the World Heritage List more of their wealthy troves of cultural assets from the Goguryeo period. These efforts will be crucial if they are to convince the world community that it was one of Korea`s three ancient kingdoms which formed the foundation of the national identity of the Korean people as they are known today.

Academics and the authorities in both Koreas will find a lot to do together. Among the most immediate tasks is putting together the results of research by both sides to compile publications in Korean, as well as in English. Considering that a lack of quality publications in English is among the greatest hurdles in this historical campaign, good translation of well-written documents is more urgently needed than anything else.

The Goguryeo Research Foundation, launched earlier this year in Seoul, will have to organize international academic conferences to provide scholars from around the world with opportunities to become familiar with the regional history of northeast Asia. The two Koreas, China and Japan should coordinate more closely with one another in order to bring their past to clear light and remove any unnecessary conflict for the sake of regional peace and harmony.

(Korea Herald 2004-7-5)