KINGDOM OF GOGURYEO

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KINGDOM OF GOGURYEO
Chinese history - a cause that unites the two Koreas

 

Donald Kirk
South China Morning Post
Saturday, February 28, 2004


One topic is certain not to arise in the talks in Beijing on North Korea's nuclear programme. That is the culturally, politically and socially loaded issue of a place named Goguryeo, sometimes spelled Koguryo, a kingdom that existed for about 1,000 years from 200BC and from which the English name Korea is derived. Goguryeo, at its height, ranged from northeastern China, the home of today's ethnically Korean-Chinese minority, over most of the Korean peninsula, paying tribute to Chinese rulers while warring for its own independence and identity.

If the issue of whether Goguryeo was a Korean kingdom or a Chinese state inhabited by Koreans seems like a tempest in an academic teacup, it is loaded with implications for China's relationship with both Koreas. Commentaries by scholars north and south of the demilitarised zone reveal an inbred suspicion of China that far predates Japanese colonialism, much less the Korean war.

Could it be that Koreans, in some future twist to the peninsula's tortuous history, may find they have more to fear from Chinese interlopers, aggressively seeking influence in both Seoul and Pyongyang, than from the Americans? The US may be the target of hatred in the North and anti-Americanism in the South, but the rhetoric over Goguryeo reveals the complexes at the intersection of rivalries among great powers near and far.

The issue of Goguryeo's birthright sprung phoenix-like from the ash heap of history when the Chinese Institute of Social Science decreed that Goguryeo was a chapter of China's own heritage. The Chinese have been waging a broad effort to block the registration by Unesco of Goguryeo tombs inside North Korea as "world heritage sites", demanding recognition instead for Goguryeo tombs inside China. How could Chinese scholars possibly have been so insensitive to think they could get away with such claims without evoking shrill denunciations from their counterparts in North and South Korea? The answer is simple: the institute serves as an arm of official Chinese policy, and the people who make policy in China see Beijing as exercising control, sometimes firm, sometimes benevolent, throughout the Korean peninsula.

It is China's drive for power and influence over Korea, instinctive as well as explicit, that accounts for Beijing's role in hosting, mediating and moderating this week's discussions in Beijing. China, as North Korea's largest consistent source of aid, has drawn the North into multilateral talks that Pyongyang had steadfastly rejected, demanding bilateral dialogue with the United States. And China, emerging as South Korea's biggest trading partner, has also worked with the South to get the North to "freeze" its programme in return for economic concessions - a far cry from US demands for the North to do away with the entire programme first.

Chinese officials are well aware that any allusions to China's history of domination over the Korean peninsula, going back more than 2,000 years, would not only be irrelevant in the current nuclear debate but also undercut the whole process. Still, the word of Chinese scholars offers a reminder of China's interest in a land that has inherited much influence from China, even as Koreans resisted Chinese encroachment over a region that remains a centre of Korean culture above the Yalu and Tumen River borders with North Korea.

An underlying fear that millions might pour into this region from North Korea in some future conflagration lies behind China's refusal to grant refugee status to several hundred thousand North Koreans who have already arrived, hiding among people who speak their language. This accounts for the severity with which Chinese authorities treat the refugees when they find them, returning them to certain imprisonment, and sometimes execution.

China's view of the Korean peninsula as an outlying defence against invasion - notably from the Japanese, who took over Korea after defeating the Chinese in the Sino-Japanese war in 1895 - lay behind China's role in saving North Korea from American invasion in the Korean war more than 50 years later. A South Korean assemblyman, returning from a seminar in Pyongyang, quoted a North Korean as saying: "China aims to lay the groundwork for claiming part of the North Korean territory bordering China in case a civil war [breaks out in Korea]." South Koreans are no less fixated by the debate. Kim Woo-joon, a professor at Yonsei, enunciated the basis for Korean claims to northeastern China, saying the region was never "the territory of China until after Manchurians conquered the Ming dynasty of the ethnic majority Han Chinese".

While the history of Goguryeo will not become a topic for multilateral negotiations, the furor over the Chinese scholars' claim unites North and South Koreans in common cause. The best guarantee of security for all Koreans, North and South, may be the colliding interests of China, Russia, Japan and the US in the only corner of the world where they compete head-on. If modern China intends to divide and rule the Korean peninsula, Koreans, as they slowly get their act together, can ensure independence by playing all the great powers against one another. In so doing, the two Koreas may extend the ancient lesson of Goguryeo to the point at which China no longer exercises pivotal influence in either Seoul or Pyongyang.

Donald Kirk is the author of two books and numerous articles on Korea for newspapers, magazines and journals.

 

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