Lost Kingdom, Modern Spat

Goguryeo wall painting
A hunting scene from a 6th-century wall Goguryeo tomb (Photo: Korea Military Museum).

“History is a fable agreed upon,” Napoleon Bonaparte said, but even with an agreement on the basics of what happened in ancient times, claims to ownership of that history can be vexing.

In front of the Hong-ik bookstore near the Sinchon intersection west of City Hall in Seoul, eight activists from a group called History World are chanting into bullhorns, “Participate in this signature campaign. You can help stop China from taking away our history.”

Passers-by and onlookers take one glance at the banner that reads, “One-million-signature campaign to protest China’s distortion of Goguryeo history,” and many quickly jot down their names and other identification. Jeon Jae-su, 18, a student who signed the petition with a friend, says, “I don’t know the details of the fuss, but from what I understand, China claims Goguryeo as part of their history and that is just wrong. For thousands of years, we have always known it to be ours.”

Lee Jong-ok, in his 50s, is a member of the civic group organizing the campaign. He has been urging passers-by to sign. “We must do what we can to protect our history,” he says. “If we forget our history, we are forgetting our roots.”

The center of the controversy is an ancient kingdom that occupied territory spanning North Korea and large parts of Manchuria. It was one of three kingdoms of ethnic Koreans from 37 B.C. to 668 A.D, when the Silla kingdom to the south unified the peninsula.

Because most of the ancient nation of Goguryeo was in areas now within China’s borders, scholars in China have claimed it as belonging to China’s history. Although these assertions had been made by some groups of scholars since the early 1990s, the controversy became more open with the launching in China of the “Northeast Asia Project,” a five-year, US$2.5-billion research project headed by the government-run Chinese Institute of Social Sciences.

The project, which began in 2002, is intended to collect data and conduct research on ancient Chinese territory and societies, mostly in Manchuria. It includes studies of the Gojoseon, Goguryeo, and Balhae, kingdoms that were made up of ethnic Koreans living in areas of northeastern China. As part of their “unified multination theory,” the Chinese academics conducting the project claim that Goguryeo and Balhae, a kingdom that succeeded to Goguryeo after the three kingdoms were unified in the 7th century, were small nation-states and a part of Chinese history.

Although the controversy might seem akin to medieval disputations about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin, there are some practical consequences, and motives on both sides are not altogether clear.

In Korea, the claim to including Goguryeo as a part of Chinese history has led to a mounting tide of criticism of China by academics and laymen, who claim that both the scholars and the Chinese government are conducting a systematic and comprehensive effort to distort the ancient history of northeast Asia.

“There’s a clear difference between individual, regional, and governmental claims,” said Choe Kwang-shik, director of the Korea University Museum and chairman of the Action Committee Against Distortion of Goguryeo History. “If the claims made in the past were at an individual, academic level, this time the worry is that China’s efforts to rewrite history are made at a government level.”

Korean scholars argue that the historical identity of the ancient kingdom is far more important than current territorial rights to the region. Beijing has a strong interest in stressing a pan-national Chinese identity not only among Chinese but also among the plethora of other ethnic groups living within its borders.

When it comes to protecting its national identity, Korea is perhaps one of the fiercest nations, because it is highly homogenous and because it has been divided for a half-century. And Koreans’ attachment to days gone by is also strong, spanning all ages and social groups. Once the issue of China’s alleged distortion of ancient history became an issue, the Society for Korean Ancient History immediately issued a statement condemning China’s actions. Rallies have been held outside the Chinese embassy in Seoul. Scores of Web sites dedicated to the study of Goguryeo have sprung up. One nongovernmental umbrella organization has started a “Project for the Rehabilitation of Goguryeo” on the Internet.

On Dec. 9, the Action Committee called for an end to China’s “distortion of the ancient history of northeast Asia” and for the Korean government to respond actively to China’s research initiative. The group demanded that China end its distortion of ancient history immediately and asked the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs to register its strongest protests with the Chinese government. The group also called on the Ministry of Education to pursue the establishment of a Goguryeo research center and asked the Ministry of Culture and Tourism to have the Goguryeo murals in North Korea registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Editorials and news reports called for action by the government to stop China from further “distortions.”

Responding to that domestic pressure, Seoul has brought the issue to the attention of the Chinese government ever since it began to sizzle last fall. But the administration is reluctant to allow the issue to become a full-fledged diplomatic dispute with China for several reasons. Park Heung-shin, the director general of the cultural affairs bureau at the Foreign Ministry, said, “It is our understanding that in undertaking the project, it was not the Chinese government’s intention to systematically distort the ancient history of northeast Asia. Chinese officials have conveyed their worry that this issue could have a negative impact on our bilateral relations.” In diplomatic-speak, that could be a warning from Beijing not to push the issue too strongly.

Park added, “It is our view that the a civil, academic endeavor and not something that should be put on a par with government initiatives.” Lee Chang-dong, the minister of culture and tourism, said on Jan. 7, “The controversy must be resolved through extensive academic discussions between scholars of the two countries.”

Chinese Embassy officials here were not available for comment; Foreign Ministry officials have said Beijing has called any government intervention in the matter “improper.”

One reason for the diplomatic sensitivity is that cultural and historical claims can be the basis for territorial claims. Some of the commentary in Korea comes close to asserting such a claim or contending that the Chinese have territorial ambitions in North Korea—or both.

“There are three main reasons behind China’s efforts to incorporate Goguryeo into their history,” Choe said. “First is the issue of the identity of the Chinese-Koreans presently residing in Manchuria. Second is preventing talk of territorial gains by Korea once the two Koreas become unified. Third, the rising number of North Korean refugees in China near the northern border of North Korea may give rise to territorial disputes.”

The Chosun Ilbo, a conservative-leaning Seoul newspaper, recently said in an editorial, “One can deduce that this is part of a highly advanced [Chinese] strategy, that China wants to reassert its claims over its northeastern region, where ethnic Koreans reside, and, based on this, to take a swipe at a historical justification for reaching into the area that is North Korea.”

Prime Minister Goh Kun has talked of setting up a Goguryeo Research Institute, but no specific plans have been presented. For now, the government has begun work on gathering information about efforts by Chinese academics to incorporate Goguryeo into China’s history. It is also trying to foster more exchanges among academic, civil-society, and government parties interested in the matter. A Foreign Ministry official said, “What we can do is to gather data and information about Goguryeo so that we could come up with compelling evidence to counter claims made by the Chinese scholars.” The dilemma is that access to the Goguryeo area is restricted in North Korea and limited in China. When a group of scholars from the Goguryeo Research Society tried to visit the Goguryeo relics in Jilin and Liaoning provinces in northeastern China last month, they were reportedly denied access by Chinese authorities.

Next week, the civic group History World plans to deliver the signatures of 1 million Koreans to the Chinese Embassy in Seoul and once again urge China to stop attempts at what the group calls revisionist history. In March, the Korea Foundation will host an international academic conference on “The World of Goguryeo Tombs and Murals,” with scholars and historians from North and South Korea, Japan, China, the United States, and France in attendance.

In June, UNESCO will make a decision on whether to include Goguryeo relics, such as tomb murals found in both China and in North Korea, in its registry of world heritage sites. Koreans see that as a critical milestone. While the Foreign Ministry believes that the sites in both countries will be registered, enrolling sites in one nation and not the other could lead to more rounds of rhetoric and tension. Choe, of the Korea University Museum, said, “The decision will have an emotional impact on both nations.”