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Korean Kingdom of Goguryeo

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Kicking Up the Dust of History
China Makes Novel Claim to Ancient Kingdom, and Both Koreas Balk
By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 22, 2004; Page A15


SEOUL -- The kingdom of Goguryeo ruled a broad swath of the Korean Peninsula and Manchuria for almost 700 years, spreading Buddhism to new Asian peoples and flourishing into what Koreans still consider to be one of their grandest ancestral civilizations. Crushed in a vise between more powerful dynasties in southern Korea and northeastern China, Goguryeo fell into the dust of history in 668 A.D.

Today, however, it is suddenly emerging as far more than a historical footnote.

Chinese academics taking part in a government-run project recently shocked scholars from both South and North Korea by releasing documents that claim Goguryeo as an ethnic kingdom of ancient China.

The result has been a heated dispute. More is at stake than bragging rights to the extraordinary bronze and clay Buddhas and frescoed murals of a long-dead civilization. Goguryeo encompassed a vast area from central Manchuria to south of Seoul. Korean academics and politicians accuse China of attempting to lay claim to the kingdom out of fear that its 870-mile-long border with North Korea will rupture with a flood of refugees if the government in Pyongyang collapses.

The Chinese may be laying the groundwork to dispute the current border with North Korea and, if they find it to be in their interest, claim more territory, scholars say. They also argue that China is trying to head off any attempt by pockets of Korean speakers on the Chinese side of the border from eventually becoming part of a unified Korea.

"The Chinese are trying to use a novel claim on history as an insurance policy for the future of its border with Korea," said Yeo Ho Kyu, a historian at Seoul´s Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. "This is not the first time the Chinese have tried to do this. They did the same thing before they claimed Tibet. Now, they are trying to use history as a weapon to wield influence in an area that is historically Korean."

Two years ago, the government-run Chinese Institute of Social Sciences launched the Northeast Asia Project, a five-year initiative, reportedly costing $2.5 billion, to study and revitalize the section of the former kingdom that now lies within Chinese territory. Among other assertions, Chinese scholars now argue that the citizens of ancient Goguryeo may have descended from the Han ethnic group, China´s largest. Last year, the Guangming Ribao, a daily scholarly journal of the Chinese Communist Party, stated directly that "Goguryeo is part of China."

Korean scholars say China lobbied to block Goguryeo-era tomb murals near Pyongyang from winning a prized designation from UNESCO as a World Heritage Site last year. At the same time, the Chinese are pressing for Goguryeo ruins now being tidily restored on their side of the border to win the same designation in June. Authorities at Beijing´s embassy in Seoul repeatedly hung up on a reporter calling to seek comment.

Officials in Beijing argue that historical claims on Goguryeo are purely matters for academic debate. But under pressure from historians and hundreds of thousands of citizens, the South Korean government raised the issue with Chinese diplomats this month. Seoul has also announced plans to build a multimillion-dollar Goguryeo research institute.

In the name of Korean history, the outcry has linked the voices of some South Koreans with those of the communist North and has underscored a growing feeling of Korean nationalism.

"Beijing´s theory that has Goguryeo merely as a subject state of China is a pathetic attempt to manipulate history for its own interests," Kang Se Kwon, a researcher from North Korea´s Social Science Institute, wrote two months ago in a rare rebuke of China in the Rodong Shinmun, the official daily of the Korean Workers Party.

On other issues, too, South and North Korea have been acting like blood brothers whose fates are linked against their old enemies.

The South Koreans, for instance, were furious when the Japanese government officially protested a decision by the postal service here to issue stamps with the flora and fauna of the Tokdo islands -- occupied by South Korea since the 1950s but long claimed by Japan, which refers to the island group as Takeshima. South Koreans snapped up more than 2 million of the stamps in less a few hours this week, and North Korea´s official news service called Japan´s request "an ignominious statement by the Japanese whose marrow is full of ambition for territorial aggrandizement and hostility towards the Korean people."

Scholars from North and South Korea also held a rare joint meeting in Pyongyang last year to launch a project to change the English-language spelling of Korea to Corea, arguing that the Japanese forced the demeaning "K" on the peninsula when it was occupied by the Imperial Army in the early 20th century. Both Koreas insist Japan wanted to come first in English alphabetical order.

The two Koreas have also become partners in a global campaign to change the name of the Sea of Japan -- which separates the Korean Peninsula from the Japanese archipelago -- to the East Sea, as it is known here.

"There are a series of issues which have raised ethnic bonding between North Korea and South Korea," said Masao Okonogi, a Korea specialist at Tokyo´s Keio University. "Popular sentiment on a variety of issues are uniting" the two nations.

Korean nationalism has tremendous ramifications for Washington. A survey this month by the Research & Research polling firm in Seoul indicated that 39 percent of South Koreans now rate the United States as their biggest national security threat; about 33 percent of respondents listed North Korea as their biggest threat.

South Koreans -- especially the young -- are warming to the idea of a unified Korea as never before. Most no longer view North Korea as an enemy state as their parents did; rather, they view it as a kindred nation linked by a common past and, they hope, a common future. South Korea´s previous administration and its current one, led by President Roh Moo Hyun, have emphasized a new policy in which Seoul should carve a more independent path from the United States, which has traditionally been a close ally and helped it resist an invasion from the North during the Korean War. At the same time, South Korea´s new leaders are advocating increasingly warmer relations with Pyongyang through economic investment, sporting events and other means.

But lately, no issue has whipped up the nationalist furor more than Goguryeo.

South Korean outrage has boiled over into a nationwide campaign to protest China´s claim. University scholars, historians and civic activists have collected more than 1 million signatures nationwide to bolster their cause. China´s claims have sparked front-page headlines, become a constant topic on TV and radio shows and ignited a series of demonstrations by university groups and Korean cultural associations.

"The Spirit of Goguryeo is in the hearts of 80 million Koreans," read a wide banner hung across a park fence in downtown Seoul last week. It referred to the populations of both the South and the North, as well as Koreans living abroad.

"Throughout our history, both China and Japan have been constantly trying to sway us, control us, dominate us or push us around," said Kim Pil Seok, 26, a student who wore a headband proclaiming Goguryeo is Korean. "Now, China has gone even further, literally trying to steal our history. No matter if you live in the South or the North, you are still Korean, and all Koreans must be outraged by this." He was among hundreds of protesters who had turned out in sub-zero weather at the park to dance to folk songs and condemn China´s claim to Goguryeo.

The Chosen Ilbo, a conservative Seoul newspaper and long the bane of Pyongyang, said this in a rare defense of the North:

"If North Korea´s application [to UNESCO] is again left unaccepted and only China´s site receives this recognition, then we might have an absurd situation in which Goguryeo becomes officially recognized as part of Chinese history. One can deduce that this is part of a highly advanced strategy, that China wants to reassert its claims over its northeastern region and take a swipe at a historical justification for reaching into the area that is North Korea."

(Washington Post) 1/22/2004