China's Nationalism Warps Koguryo History

The Koguryo kingdom occupies a special place in Korea's long history of resisting foreign invasion. From its foundation in 37 B.C., the kingdom clashed continuously with China to the north as it expanded deep into what is now Manchuria.

Korean historians say Koguryo's victory at An-shih Fortress in 645 following a massive assault by T¡¯ang invaders was crucial in frustrating Chinese ambitions of controlling the entire peninsula and, possibly, much of Northeast Asia.

For some Koreans, it may seem this ancient conflict has begun anew.

Beijing¡¯s attempted revision of ancient history to claim the Koguryo kingdom as its own has raised concerns around the region of a resurgent Chinese nationalism that could have damaging effects on the intertwined relations of Northeast Asian powers.

The South Korean government loudly protested recent moves by China to assimilate the history of Koguryo, commonly viewed as one of three kingdoms that went on to form modern Korea.

While Beijing last week agreed to refrain from referring to Koguryo as Chinese in its government publications and textbooks, it still refuses to recognize the kingdom as a part of Korea¡¯s heritage. Koguryo seems destined to join Taiwan, Tibet and Mongolia on a longlist of disputes involving territories on China¡¯s periphery.

Across the East Sea, Japanese scholars have been watching events unfold with some apprehension. Japan is no stranger to claims of historical distortions from both Korea and China but now finds itself in aposition of relative neutrality as the two lock horns.

Sachio Nakato, professor of international relations at Utsunomiya University, said many Japanese view China¡¯s historical revisionism aspart of a nationalistic attempt to secure its territorial integrity.``(They) argue that China intends to include all the histories of minorities in its present territory into Chinese history in order to confirm Chinese greatness,¡¯¡¯ he explained.

Nakato said China¡¯s increasing economic power has given it greater confidence to broaden its influence in the region.

``There may be a `great power¡¯ consciousness in the background of the recent Chinese assertion, especially as China has ethnic problems within its own territory,¡¯¡¯ he said, referring to Tibetan and Mongolian resentment toward Beijing. Nakato said most Japanese accept Koguryo as a part of Korean history and find South Korea's strong rebuttal of China¡¯s claims entirely understandable.

In February 2002, while seeking UNESCO listing for Koguryo relics found within its territory, Beijing launched the Northeast Asia Project. The research project sought to rewrite the position of the ancient kingdom, presenting it as a Chinese provincial government rather than a sovereign nation.

In response, South Korean scholars demanded their government lodge aprotest for what they saw as a deliberate and systematic attempt to distort history.

However, it was not until China¡¯s Foreign Ministry deleted sectionson Koguryo from its online description of Korean history in July that Seoul took the issue up with Beijing. China¡¯s move followed a decision by UNESCO to accept applications from both China and North Korea to register Koguryo relics.

As the South Korean public fumed, the Chinese Foreign Ministry sought earlier this month to smooth over the rift by deleting the rest ofits account of Korean history up until 1948, wiping out Japan¡¯s pre-war history too for good measure.

The approach backfired. Seoul strengthened its demand that Beijing give up any claims over Koguryo, while some experts went as far as to suggest that South Korean businesses should halt investment in China¡¯s fast-growing economy. Last week¡¯s compromise has hardly brought an end to the controversy. The Chinese government agreed to stop openly propagating its claimover Koguryo, but this does not stop private institutes from continuing to fortify China¡¯s version of history. Korean experts suspect this is the first battle in a long war. A number of theories have emerged as to the motivation behind China¡¯s attempt to assimilate Koguryo history. Some have it that China is worried that if and when South and North Korea are unified, they might seek to assert sovereignty over parts of eastern Manchuria, where ethnic Koreans make up a large percentage of the population. Other ssuggest Beijing is plotting to take a slice of North Korea if the communist regime in Pyongyang falls.

According to Kan Kimura, associate professor at Japan¡¯s Kobe University, China laying claim to Korean territory is very unlikely but nothing can be ruled out. However, he believed the international community would never allow China to assert sovereignty over any part of the Korean peninsula. ``It is not because the world does not want to see strong and dangerous China but, more simply, because such a claim must be regarded as nonsense,¡¯¡¯ he said.``In the world of globalization, such anachronistic expansionism is nonsense. China itself understands this very well, because it is China that is enjoying the biggest fruits of globalization today,¡¯¡¯ said Kimura, who teaches at the university¡¯s Graduate School of International Cooperation Studies. From an academic point of view, Kimura argued that it is meaningless to argue over whether Koguryo is Korean or Chinese. ``Today it is the common understanding among scholars around the world that every nation is just an `imagined community,¡¯¡¯¡¯ he said. ``We must remember that at the time of Koguryo, people did not have even concepts of Chinese or Korean. ¡¯¡¯Kimura said it might be possible to determine that there are more ``Korean¡¯¡¯ than ``Chinese¡¯¡¯ characteristics exhibited in Koguryo history but fighting over the issue would be fruitless. The diplomatic conflict stemmed from a difference in conceptions of nationhood, with China seeing itself as a multi-ethnic civilization while Korea tells its history as the story of a single ethnic group, he said.

What is clear, though, is the damage China¡¯s claim is doing to regional relations.

``Chinese nationalism is rising,¡¯¡¯ Kimura said. ``The Chinese government is loosening their control on society, especially to the nationalist sentiments of the people. No one can predict the movement of such sentiments, and it is very hard to stop them.¡¯¡¯The Japanese professor said if China continued down this path, it could lead to Northeast Asia becoming isolated from the rest of the world.

``As developed and democratized nations, South Korea and Japan must continue our hard efforts to reason China out of going in this direction and stop the nationalistic trends of the region,¡¯¡¯ he said.

By Reuben Staines / Staff Reporter

(Korea Times 2004-8-30)