Nationalism fuels Asian history row

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 neighboring countries.

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 Cold War.

"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 Studies.

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 Great China.

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 wartime atrocities.

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 Korean Studies.

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 relationship.

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)