The History War between China and South Korea

The History War between China and South Korea

china-koreaHistory means a lot in East Asian international politics. Past histories that are related to ongoing issues are reinterpreted, revised and debated among countries. The most prominent topic in the region involves the controversies between Japan and countries that were colonized or occupied by the Japanese Empire. Regarding this issue, China and South Korea are on the same boat. In 2014, for example, China built a memorial for An Jung Gun, a Korean independence activist who assassinated Ito Hirobumi, then Prime Minister of the Empire of Japan, in Harbin at Korean President Park Geun-hye’s request.

As two neighboring countries, however, China and Korea also have their own history issues. In the 2000s, the Sino-Korean relationship was soured by the history debates over an ancient kingdom in Northeast Asia, Goguryeo. In the Northeast Project, a Chinese government-sponsored research project that was launched in 2002, a group of Chinese historians revised the ancient history of the northeast regions of contemporary China. One notable revision was the inclusion of Goguryeo in Chinese history. Goguryeo was an ancient kingdom which occupied the Northern regions of the Korean Peninsula and Manchuria between B.C. 37 and A.D. 668. Before this revision, the kingdom was generally regarded as a part of ancient Korean history. However, the project rejected this conventional wisdom and defined the kingdom as a local Chinese ethnic regime. Moreover, the Chinese government registered the remains of Goguryeo as a UNESCO world heritage site in 2004, and the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ official website deleted the Goguryeo entry from its pages on Korean history in the same year. 

South Korean society responded with bitter sentiment. The project was characterized as “stealing our history.” Editorials in the major newspapers vehemently condemned the Northeast Project. The South Korean government established a government-funded research institute to counter Chinese scholarly claims over the kingdom and named the institute the Goguryeo Research Foundation. In 2004, South Korea even summoned its ambassador in Beijing, and then-President Roh Moo-hyun also protested to Wen Jiabao, then-Premier of China, during the Sixth Asia-Europe Meeting in 2006.

Such a heated reaction was not surprising considering the meaning of the history of Goguryeo to Korean society. The history of the kingdom is considered as the heyday of the Korean nation. For Koreans who have experienced national humiliation (i.e., colonization by the Japanese Empire), Goguryeo is a romanticized memory of an ancient Korean kingdom that possessed vast territories and a strong military. In addition, many Koreans believe that the history of Goguryeo represents the independence of their nation, as the kingdom had thwarted a series of military invasions by the Chinese Sui Empire. They also believe that the name of the nation, Korea, originated from Goguryeo (Koguryo, in the previously used Roman alphabet of Korea). Therefore, Chinese claims on the history of Goguryeo posed a serious challenge to Korean national pride. Some Korean experts even warned against the possibility of future Chinese expansionism or territorial claims based on its historical claims on Goguryeo.

Why, then, did China attempt to revise history despite the negative reaction from Korea?  The answer lies in China’s struggle to unify the country. As a multiethnic state with 55 minority groups, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has painstakingly undergone a nation-building project from its inception. The PRC has used various measures to consolidate its control over minorities and promote Chinese national identity—replacing and mingling different ethnicities, developing the local economy, and granting autonomy. The PRC also embraces the cultures of ethnic minorities as Chinese. The revision of the history of Goguryeo can be understood in this context. Beijing had strong incentives to strengthen the Chinese national identity of 2,000,000 Korean Chinese who live in the Northeast regions given the secessionist activities in Xinjiang and Tibet, even though there was no systematic resistance by ethnic Koreans against the PRC. The Chinese government was also sensitive to developments in South Korea that could become destabilizing factors. Especially during the 1980s, when nationalism prevailed in South Korea, there were strong popular sentiments that depicted Manchuria—which used to be part of Goguryeo—as a lost homeland of the nation. For example, the refrain of the popular “Rice Wine Song” of my university read: “Manchuria is our territory, so is the Pacific Ocean.” Of course, it was just a drinking song for college freshmen, but no one from China would see it as a joke. Furthermore, the possibility of border disputes in the case of the collapse of North Korea or the unification of Korea might also have contributed to China’s cautious perception. By including Goguryeo into Chinese history, the PRC can justify its rule of ethnic Koreans and its Northeastern territories.

After the conclusion of the Northeast Project in 2007, the controversies over the history of Goguryeo had died down without causing further diplomatic tensions between China and South Korea. In a high-ranking official meeting in 2004, both countries orally agreed that they would take measures to prevent future Goguryeo controversies from undermining their relationship. The PRC also promised not to use the revised version of history of the northeast regions in its official history textbook. Furthermore, it is unlikely that the relationship between the two countries will be damaged by the history wars in the near future. There are multiple immediate reasons for them to maintain a good relationship. China has strong incentives to improve its relations with South Korea given Japan’s military normalization and the consolidation of the US-Japan alliance. South Korea also needs Chinese support to improve its relationship with North Korea. In addition, the two countries’ economies will become more interdependent when the China-South Korea Free Trade Agreement is ratified.

Despite all of this, however, the history debates may resurge when the status quo in East Asia is disrupted (e.g., by the sudden collapse of North Korea, or outbreaks of ethnic secessionist movements in China) and may in the future complicate the international dynamics in East Asia.

Moreover, these are not only problems between China and South Korea. In addition to the Northeast Project, Beijing has been conducting a number of similar history research projects, namely the Xinjiang Project, the Southwest Project, the Tibet Project, the Northern Border Project, and the Grassland Project, which deal with the histories of the Uighurs in Xinjiang, border areas with several Southeast Asian countries, Tibetans, and Mongols, respectively. Many of these projects are ongoing, and their progress is not fully open to outside observers. Thus it is difficult to fully understand their contents. However, it is notable that these projects primarily address the histories of ethnic minorities that are not compliant with PRC rule, or territorial boundaries with unfriendly neighbors, such as Vietnam and Mongolia. For example, I was surprised to see that Genghis Khan was introduced as a Chinese hero when I visited the Inner Mongolian Museum at Hohhot in 2006. The PRC registered the art of Mongolian throat singing as part of Chinese native culture with UNESCO in 2009, as it had done with the Goguryeo remains. In a recent joint declaration, the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center, a US-based human rights foundation, along with several Mongolian social groups, defined such efforts as the PRC’s “aggressive campaign” over Mongolian culture and expressed their concerns about Chinese cultural claims.

China’s history issues deserve more attention in US policy-making communities, as Beijing uses them as a long-term policy tool to deal with numerous ethnic minorities and neighboring countries, many of which share common cultural and racial roots with Chinese ethnic groups. As political scientist Andrew Kydd points out, we can estimate one state’s intentions by looking into its treatment of domestic minorities or neighboring countries. The trends and progress in the Chinese government-funded history projects can thus provide very useful insights into the country’s foreign policy. What specific area of territory does Beijing focus on? Is China’s motive regarding that given area defensive or offensive? By answering these questions, we may gain a deeper understanding of China’s strategic motives.

Seung Joon Paik is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at GWU. His dissertation research examines civilian victimization during the Korean War. Seung Joon conducted fieldwork in South Korea between May and August 2015 with the generous support of the Sigur Center for Asian Studies.