Korea fights to keep Goguryeo from China

The latest cultural dispute between Korea and China over the ancient Kingdom of Goguryeo is not the first. China`s Sui and Tang dynasties made several invasions on Goguryeo in ancient times but failed to conquer it, gaining the small Korean kingdom recognition as the most powerful in Northeast Asia.

After many failed takeover attempts, Tang, China`s greatest emperor with an army that conquered almost every other power in the Far and Middle East, was finally able to destroy Goguryeo by force. But 40 years later, the Chinese were driven out by angry Korean natives.

China`s craving for Goguryeo more than a dozen centuries later still exists today as Beijing`s recent efforts to claim the ancient kingdom have escalated into a diplomatic row with Seoul, where an increasingly furious public and lawmakers are demanding that China back off.

Many historians and officials here believe the row is at a critical stage in diplomatic relations, with Chinese defiance of Korean requests to reinstate acknowledgment of Goguryeo as a Korean kingdom being seen by Seoul as humiliating and threatening to unravel ties between the two neighbors.

"Korea must make sure that our history and roots will not be distorted by China. If China`s claims to Goguryeo persist, it will bring serious damage to bilateral relations," an official at Seoul`s Foreign Ministry said.

The two former battlefield foes in the Korean War have made major progress in trade and other areas since they established formal diplomatic relations in 1992.

China is now South Korea`s largest export market, taking nearly 20 percent of all South Korean products sold abroad. More than 2.1 million South Koreans and Chinese visited the other`s country in 2003.

The latest row over the Goguryeo Kingdom, which reigned from northern Korea to northeastern China 37 B.C. to 668 A.D., erupted after the Chinese Foreign Ministry in April deleted references of the kingdom from the introduction of Korean history on its Web site.

Furious with Beijing distortion of Korean history, Seoul demanded the reinstatement of the information, but Beijing responded with a mawkish move to omit the entire section of Korean history up until South Korea was established in 1948.

The introduction of Korean history on the Web site before any deletion in April described ancient Korea as being made up of three kingdoms: Silla, Baekje and Goguryeo.

"It`s regretful that China wants to continue with its historic distortion to claim Goguryeo and carry this issue on further. The removal of Korea`s entire historic reference is completely out of line and it is a wonder whether they want to push the issue to the point of damaging our relations," another official at the ministry said on condition of anonymity.

The rising criticism in South Korea of China is a turnaround from an amicable relationship the two countries have enjoyed so far. In a recent survey, over 60 percent of ruling party legislators said they viewed China as more important to South Korea than the United States.

South Korean officials have already expressed formal "disappointment and regret" and dispatched a senior Foreign Ministry official to Beijing last week to protest the Chinese action.

Park Joon-woo, chief of the South Korean Foreign Ministry`s Asia-Pacific Affairs Bureau, was in Beijing Friday for talks with Chinese officials on the issue.

South Korean lawmakers unanimously criticized the move and also joined hands in condemning Beijing. They also demanded that President Roh Moo Hyun`s administration actively tackle the issue.

The dispute comes at a delicate time as China is playing an increasing role in international affairs surrounding the Korean Peninsula, including the North Korean nuclear weapons standoff.

A 2002 study in China claimed that Goguryeo was a Chinese vassal state, and concluded that because about two-thirds of the ancient kingdom lies within Chinese borders today, it is key to China`s history.

So far, the Chinese government has not responded to South Korea`s demand to restore the deleted history even after diplomats from both sides met on Wednesday to discuss the matter.

The intensifying dispute is bringing the two Koreas closer together and Seoul is considering taking the issue up with North Korea to join hands in efforts to straighten out the record on Goguryeo.

"We would explore diverse countermeasures when inter-Korean talks are held," Vice Unification Minister Rhee Bong-jo said. No firm schedule has been set for an inter-Korean meeting.

North Korea, whose main ally is China, accused Beijing of `manipulating history for its own interest`. Its state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun likened the Chinese claim on Goguryeo to "stealing water from another man`s rice paddy." The only era that China can claim some connection with Goguryeo is the Han Dynasty (200 BC-200 AD). At that time, the northern part of Korea was not called "Goguryeo." It was referred to as "Nangnang" (Lolang in Chinese). Japanese archaeologists in 1920s found huge excavated Chinese government and military garrisons from Han Dynasty times in and near the Pyongyang area.

Northern Korea at that time was ruled by a Han Chinese ruling class over a local Korean-Manchurian population. The Han Dynasty was not the first. The Yen kingdom (300 BCs) in northeast China under a General Wiman had also ruled in that part of Korea. And, before him, accoding to legend, a Chinese prince from the Shang Dynasty (Kija) settled there.

The north part of Korea was not homogenous in those times. It was a mix of Chinese newcomers and the local Korean-Manchurian population. There is much anthropological, DNA and archaeological evidence to support this, but intense nationalism has prevented Asian countries from adequately studying history and facts.

The Goguryeo kingdom was formed only after the Han Dynasty in China collapsed and the military garrisons in Nangnang Chosun were abandoned.

While the Chinese are usually arrogant in their attitude toward history with their immediate Asian neighbors, there is some undeniable truth in some assertions.

By Choi Soung-ah

(Korea Herald 2004-8-9)