Nationalism fuels Asian history
Recent disputes between Korea, China and Japan over
history issues are often called "the history war in Northeast Asia" because many
experts here regard them as a precursor of hegemonic competition in the region.
Political analysts see nationalism at the center of the latest confrontations
over a series of the issues, including China`s claim over Korea`s ancient
Goguryeo kingdom and Japan`s distortion of the history of its colonial rule of
Such conflict is expected to continue since nationalistic ideology appears to
have become increasingly a reaction to globalization, while the power
rearrangement in the Northeast Asia region has gained speed after the end of the
"Nationalism has become stronger in the three countries for different
reasons," said Jin Chang-soo, a senior researcher at Sejong Institute. "In the
case of China, it stems from its confidence based on rapid economic growth, but
in Japan it is to find out its identity to overcome the prolonged economic
slump." Jin said ideology and anti-American sentiment are salient in the
nationalism expressed in South Korea, where people now see more chances of
unifying with North Korea after the first inter-Korean summit in 2000 and the
follow-up reconciliation efforts.
"Currently, nationalism in the countries is to strengthen national unity, not
to attack neighboring countries," he said.
But many experts believe that the ultimate direction of nationalism,
especially in China and Japan, is to secure more power in the region, and they
see the countries flexing their muscles to that end.
"In line with their competition for regional dominance, China and Japan are
using history issues as part of their diplomatic strategy to strengthen national
power," said Lee Sang-hwan, political professor at Hankuk University of Foreign
China is believed to be attempting to remap its ethnic frontiers by including
Korea`s ancient Goguryeo kingdom (37 B.C.-A.D. 668) in its annals to support
China`s centrality and omnipresence in the greater region, as well as to prepare
for possible territorial disputes after unification of the two Koreas.
The state-run Chinese Academy of Social Sciences launched the Northeast
Project, aiming to make the history of all the nation`s minority races its own.
The project covers the Goguryeo kingdom, which stretched well into present-day
Manchuria in the north and encompassed most of what is North Korea in the south,
and surrounding areas.
"China is pushing the Northeast Project in consideration of its competition
in Northeast Asia with Japan and even with the United States. It also wants to
adjust its northeastern area to be ready for possible confusion in the area
after Korean unification," said Lee Shin-chul, researcher at the Institute for
Korean Historical Studies.
Under its controversial project, China has undertaken extensive historical,
geographical and demographical research in its three northeastern provinces,
where ethnic Koreans comprise the majority of the population.
The Chinese move has invoked major diplomatic rows between Seoul and Beijing.
The two governments reached an uneasy truce last month by agreeing on a
five-point verbal understanding, but the vague accord failed to allay concerns
of the South Korean people.
The Korean public has vented its anger toward China in massive rallies and
pressured the government for tougher measures.
Some experts say nationalism in China has emerged against the backdrop of
confidence gained from its economic success and the need for a new ideology that
can strengthen national unity by replacing the old-fashioned communist ideology.
China earlier concentrated on maintaining regional stability so it could
improve its economy, but it has recently begun to stress the need to beef up its
military to become a more powerful nation.
Chinese President Hu Jintao said in a Communist Party meeting in July that
the country should bolster defense, as well as develop the economy, to establish
Japan`s history distortions and conservative moves to rearm the country are
believed aimed at countering China.
"Japan wants to play the leadership role in Northeast Asia as the partner of
the United States," Jin said.
Japan has restarted moves to gloss over its invasion of neighboring countries
during World War II and removed one obstacle after another to rearm itself,
rather than remaining bound to its post-war peace constitution, only to invite
criticism and concerns from its neighbors.
In the latest development, Japanese education authorities decided last month
to use controversial history textbooks for its schools that whitewash its
Visits to Japan`s controversial war shrine honoring the war dead by
high-profile figures in Japan including Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi remain
one of the biggest concerns about Japan`s ambition to expand its territory.
"Koizumi, who resorts to populism, and conservative politicians in Japan are
stirring up nationalism," Jin said.
Ongoing disputes are annoying to South Korea, now one of the major players in
the region along with China and Japan. It does not pursue a regional hegemony
but wants to become the hub of Northeast Asia.
"It is part of national power to protect past history. We should be more
proactive to that end," said Lee Gil-sang, senior researcher at the Academy of
Calls are growing for South Korea to take the lead for a joint study by the
three countries on the region`s history to prevent the disputes from
intensifying and to hopefully create an environment for a regional community
that will contribute to maintaining peace in the region.
"We should provide short, mid and long-term measures to deal with the issue,
rather than emotionally respond to those issues," Lee said.
South Korean scholars are seeking to cooperate with their counterparts in
North Korea in dealing with history issues, and the two sides agreed to hold an
academic seminar on China`s claim over Goguryeo when they met in the North at
the end of last month.
North Korea has mostly kept silent on history disputes involving China,
apparently not to harm the ties with its closest Cold War ally and a major
provider of food.
The North`s only response to the Goguryeo issue was in the Joseon Sinbo, a
magazine published by pro-North Koreans in Japan. Last month, it criticized the
Chinese move as chauvinistic.
Though mostly mum on China issues, the North has vehemently criticized
history distortions by Japan. North Korea has no diplomatic ties with Japan,
although the two countries have held talks to discuss normalization of their
How to peacefully settle history disputes in Northeast Asia is a crucial task
for President Roh Moo-hyun, whose much-touted ambition is to create a regional
community and develop the South as the hub of the region.
"The recent series of incidents show that the region has a long way to go
before establishing an effective community while overcoming national biases,
though an economic community can be reached relatively easily," said Baik
Young-suh, professor at Yonsei University.
Experts say South Korea should try to play a bridging role in the region
without sticking too much to the catchphrase "Northeast Asia hub" because this
can be misunderstood by China and Japan.
"After all, the three countries should try to resolve the pending issues in a
broader perspective," Baik said.
By Seo Hyun-jin
(Korea Herald 2004-9-8)