BANGKOK — By distorting the historical record between Korea and China, Beijing has created a crisis that has united the ruling party in Seoul and its sometimes disloyal opposition.
A firestorm erupted after a new series of books and articles known as the “Northeastern Project” asserted that much of Korea’s ancient history began in China. The fact that there was geographic overlapping of two Korean kingdoms with northeastern China has been used to assert that they were part of China’s ancient history. These claims have inspired vigorous protests from all South Korea’s political parties and from many of those in the academic community.
This is not the first time that Koreans have been so confronted. Historical lines were blurred in a similar way in 2004. Then, officials in Seoul issued an official objection when learned Korean societies demanded that Beijing put the kingdom of Koguryo in proper historical perspective. In August 2004, the Chinese government promised verbally not to repeat such misrepresentations.
Koguryo was one of three ancient kingdoms that are part of Korean history along with Paekche and Silla. These kingdoms ruled over upper parts of the Korean Peninsula along with Manchuria between 37 B.C. and A.D. 668. Koguryo was a strong warrior state that successively defeated invading armies of the Sui and Tang Chinese empires.
Ethnic Koreans living in the region known as Manchuria formed the core of the empire. Eventually, their capital was moved to Pyongyang from Jian in Manchuria in the fourth century.
After living together for centuries, Koreans and Manchurian tribes were folded into Chinese territory by a treaty between Japan and the China’s Qing Dynasty in 1909. It is ironic to imagine Marxist-Leninists basing territorial claims on “unequal treaties” signed by imperial powers and using them to insist on “legitimate” sovereignty.
Beijing introduced inaccurate information to extend Chinese political hegemony by trying to incorporate the Koguryo (also Goguryeo) empire into a Chinese regional kingdom. The Chinese version includes Koguryo in a Chinese historical timeline by claiming these people were of “Han” Chinese descent. Beijing also interfered with efforts by Pyongyang to place Koguryo tombs on UNESCO’s World Cultural Heritage list of historic sites.
For its part, Beijing insists that all other countries must exercise the highest standards of historical probity. For example, the media and diplomatic channels have been used to criticize the content of Japanese history textbooks. It is a blatant act of hypocrisy to be inconsistent in stating concerns over the correct retelling of past deeds and misdeeds.
It is likely that the incident is part of a well-orchestrated and purposeful attempt to increase China’s political influence in Northeast Asia. This probably reflects concern over the large numbers of ethnic Koreans living in the northeastern provinces of Laoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang that were granted considerable autonomy during the early 1950s.
On the face of it, the fudging of a historical moment might seem a small matter. But there are very large stakes in claims based on history.
This and other rows arising out of China’s loose reading of history are not merely an academic issue, as they have enormous strategic political and diplomatic importance.
Since China is not an archipelago country, it cannot use its continental shelf as the basis for its claims on natural resources on the continental shelves of the Philippines and Vietnam. So it hopes to assert sovereignty over the Spratlys in order to apply the 200-nautical-mile economic zone from there to substantiate further claims.
So it is no small matter that China has irredentist claims on all its borders and in all the waters that touch its shores. As it is, China claims about 80 percent of the entire area of the South China Sea, including the Spratlys and Paracels, which lay along a broad plateau stretching up to 1,600 km from its eastern coastline.
Hypocrisy, duplicity and deception are recognized skills and some of the most important tools of international diplomacy. While Beijing is not alone in wielding these tools, the mastery of these dark arts make even the French look like amateurs. Those that ignore Chinese intent and ability to wield them to promote the interests of the Middle Kingdom do so at their own peril.
From a purely economic standpoint, South Koreans have enjoyed great benefits from increased commercial ties with China. But the current imbroglio contains an important lesson that gains from current trade relations should not be used as an excuse to overlook misbehavior by trading partners.
Koreans should not merely insist on a clarity of vision about the past. They should also seek a longer-term view of the future to protect against what might be very large losses.
Among the long-term losses could be diminished sovereignty over their historic territorial claims. But a worse offense arising from an imperialism imposed by historical interpretation could be the loss of Korea’s national stature and its cultural identity.
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