[Editorial] Uneasy truce on history

Tuesday marked the 12th anniversary of official ties between Seoul and Beijing. The two sides had so much to celebrate, given that in almost every sector they have brought themselves closer to each other than ever anticipated 12 years ago.

China has emerged as South Korea`s largest trading partner, and South Korea as China`s third largest, with the volume of bilateral trade reaching $57 billion last year. In addition, Korea has become the largest foreign investor in China.

The tight economic links have been bolstered by frequent personnel and cultural exchanges. Last year alone, 2 million South Koreans visited China while South Korea played host to half a million Chinese visitors.

But few here were in a mood for an anniversary celebration, given the furor and the sense of betrayal the South Korean people felt about China`s ill-advised attempt to include one of the three ancient Korean kingdoms as part of China`s own history. The mood became more subdued when South Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choi Young-jin failed to settle the dispute, one of the thorniest the two nations have ever experienced, when he met his Chinese counterpart, Wu Dawei.

All that they could do was to agree to an uneasy truce over the Chinese claim to the history of Goguryeo, whose territory extended from the northern Korean Peninsula deep into northeastern China.

The agreement was contained not in the binding diplomatic form of a written record, but in one of the most unreliable ones - a "verbal understanding." In the absence of a signed document, the agreement is subject to all sorts of interpretation.

Worse, the five-point verbal understanding is nothing but mumbo jumbo defying clear-cut interpretation. What can be deduced from this vaguely worded understanding, however, is that China has not dropped its brazen claim that Goguryeo was part of its history.

All the South Korean diplomats could say about China was that it promised not to insert the claim in Chinese history textbooks - which they say will be revised by the fall semester next year for use by primary and secondary schools - and not to publicize it at the level of the central government or provincial government level, either.

But the agreement failed to address the fundamental question of whose history Goguryeo belongs to. Instead, the diplomats agreed to solve this problem through academic research.

That will provide no easy solution for a problem that has resulted from a conflict between a "Chinese political agenda and South Korean historical belief," as one historian put it.

The dispute may not be settled until and unless China admits Goguryeo was part of Korean history, as it formerly did before it recently removed the historical description to that effect from its Foreign Ministry`s Web site.

What the South Korean diplomats failed to achieve calls into question their competence as negotiators. True, it takes two to tango, an excuse they often offer when they have failed to attain their goals in bilateral negotiations.

But what if they had broken off the talks to demonstrate the Korean people`s feelings and refused to tango for a dubious verbal understanding? That was what they should have done, considering the oft-quoted diplomatic dictum that "foreign policy is just an extension of domestic policy." The bungled negotiations should provide South Korea with an opportunity to reflect on what China really means to its future. Will our neighbor prove to be a trustworthy partner or a domineering world power with imperialistic ambitions? In what context can China`s claim to Goguryeo history be explained? The answers will be of critical importance to Korea in mapping out future relations with China. For a starter, President Roh Moo-hyun would do well to pose those questions when he meets with Jia Qinglin, China`s fourth highest official, who is scheduled to arrive in Seoul today.

(Korea Herald 2004-8-26)