By Kristopher Klein
In Northeast Asia, disagreements about ancient history reflect modern politics. Historical events can often be the basis of political claims, as well as the standard these claims are held to when assessing viability in the future. The existence of a people or culture throughout history, or the ability to maintain sovereignty throughout time is often the justification of political actions today.
Referencing history can be a powerful way to make a political point or frame a political disagreement. Mao Zedong once claimed, “If the lips are gone, the teeth will be cold.” Mao used what ancient Chinese diplomats wrote about the struggles between rival Chinese states, to describe China’s relationship with Korea.
Mao, wary of NATO influence from South Korea and Japan, wanted a fellow Communist state on China’s border. Mao wanted North Korean lips to guard Chinese teeth. Western powers saw Korea as a battlefield in the ideological struggle between a capitalist, liberal society and Leninist regimes. China’s Communist Party was therefore in need of a buffer between itself and NATO.
Decades later, China is the North Korean regime’s only major ally. China supplies North Korea with 60 percent of its total trade and has repeatedly thwarted attempts to punish North Korea. However, China’s support for North Korea looks increasingly like a marriage of convenience. With careful examination we see that these two geo-political allies could soon be headed for a rude divorce.
Today, the North Korean regime survives in part due to its powerful propaganda machine, which seeks to legitimize the rule of the Kim family. North Korean media outlets routinely identify the North with the ancient Goguryeo kingdom, portraying South Korea as the heir of the southern Silla kingdom.
The Goguryeo kingdom was a powerful and self-sufficient state that at times fought sustained wars against successive Chinese dynasties, including multiple defeats of Sui and Tang forces, as well as against Korean rival states like Silla. At other times it was merely a tributary state to the Chinese and Mongol empires.
The Goguryeo kingdom had multiple capitals over its long history, including sites in present day Ji’an, China. At these sites, archaeologists discovered not only one of Goguyeo’s several past capitals, but also the burial tombs of Goguryeo noblemen and a monarch.
Enter contemporary historiography.
In 2004, the Chinese government filed the site as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In its filings, China asserted that the Goguryeo capital and associated tombs are an integral part of Chinese history. The Chinese government has also spent millions of dollars in preserving and preparing the sites as tourist destinations.
In 2013, Chinese historians began conducting “closed research” at the sites, located in China’s northeast Jilin province, as part of what China calls the Northeast Project (东北工程).Both North and South Korea have decried what they see as an attempt to undermine Korea’s cultural distinctiveness from China.
South Korean newspaper Hankyoreh published an article claiming “the Northeast Project is part of an ongoing effort by the Chinese government to incorporate all of the history that unfolded inside the borders of present-day China into Chinese history. By isolating Goguryeo from the history of the Korean peninsula and declaring that it is part of Chinese history, China has triggered a fierce historical debate with South Korea.”
If China is actually up to what Hankyoreh believes, then Chinese claims could pose a threat to Korean sovereignty. If China sees Goguryeo as part of Chinese history, then it is by extension also creating a historical claim to Goguryeo territory that lies in modern day North Korea. Professor Song Ki Ho of Seoul National University took this one step further by alleging “China isn’t making the claims just for historical reasons, but for political reasons to claim dominion over North Korea in case of a changing political situation in the region.”
The potential for political change in the region has come about recently as the relationship between China and North Korea has seen a sudden rise in tension and increased military activity along the Sino-North Korean border. In August, Chosun Ilbo reported that a North Korean military unit, created in 2010 to respond to movements of Chinese military assets, had been moved to the border “and turned into an attack force.” Reports of increased Chinese and North Korean military activity along their common border continue to fuel theories of a divide between North Korean and Chinese officials and a deteriorating relationship between the Northeast Asian neighbors.
While Chinese motives behind the Northeast Project remain unclear, rising tensions between both Koreas and Beijing set a scene sensitive to attempts to portray history in a nationalistic context. Should China continue to advance its version of Goguryeo’s history through continued focus on the Northeast Project, North and South Korea may, for the first time since the Korean War, find themselves united in opposition to the Chinese government.
Image by Mathieu Thouvenin