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The War of Words Between South Korea and China Over An Ancient Kingdom: Why Both Sides Are Misguided

"A leading [Korean] opposition party leader on Monday underlined the necessity of joining forces with Asian countries or territories, including Tibet, to deal with China's attempt to distort the history of the ancient Korean kingdom of Koguryo." Korea Times (Aug. 23, 2004)

The present academic and political debate unfolding between China and Korea over which state “owns” the historical heritage of Koguryo (pronounced Koh-goo-ryuh) is most often understood as a development of the past year or two. However, the Chinese position, which sees Koguryo as a Chinese state, developed over the course of the twentieth century, and is largely a product of a new way of viewing the past and present Chinese states through the lens of nationalism, race, and ethnicity.

In the late 1930s a Chinese historian named Jin Yufu developed a linear model of racial descent for groups of peoples who occupied the Manchuria region from the earliest times to the present. He saw all of these peoples throughout time as belonging to one of three descent lineages, one of which – the Fuyu (K. Puyo) lineage – were the builders of the states called Puyo, Koguryo, and Paekche. Jin believed that with the destruction of Koguryo in 668 there were no more states established in Manchuria by the Fuyu lineage, but the remainder of this lineage became the present Korean nationality. Later historians of Northeast China built upon this model of linear descent developed by Jin Yufu.

In the People's Republic of China (PRC), history has tended to be written in such a way as to use the past to validate the present political order. In particular, history writing has often come to incorporate the same language that is used to discuss present-day policy governing the rights of ethnic minorities in the PRC. Just as these minorities, who for the most part occupy the PRC border regions, are described as properly belonging to the PRC because their ancestors, defined as those peoples and states that once bordered China proper, were likewise part of a greater Chinese state of the past. This formula is quite obviously based on the premise that any pre-modern people or states that occupied any part of what is now the PRC are defined as having been part of the Chinese state of the past. Some Chinese historians view it as “unscientific” to use this as a sole criterion for deciding which states and peoples should be included as part of the early Chinese state, and they often turn instead to obscure arguments involving ethnic affiliation and the supposed existence of a pre-modern Chinese super-nation, within which existed many ethnic groups who nevertheless viewed themselves and one another as members of some inclusive super-ethnic body.

These ways of viewing the past are obviously contrived to address certain very present-day concerns, but they are also built upon a historical view that developed over many decades as a result of the influence of Western notions of race, nation, and ethnicity. Such arguments regarding the alleged Chinese-ness of the states and peoples surrounding the pre-modern Chinese state dissolve quickly when they are subjected to critical analysis against the historical record. This applies also to the case of Koguryo, which was clearly not a Chinese state in any sense, as demonstrated abundantly by China’s own dynastic histories. But in order to fall into line with the currently preferred way of viewing the Chinese past as essentially a reflection of the present multi-ethnic state, it was absolutely necessary to include Koguryo among the “minority nationalities” of ancient China. This is based solely upon the fact that some of the territories of Koguryo are today part of the PRC. This peculiar way of depicting pre-modern history is clearly grounded in the practical desire to provide security for all of China’s borders – these territories are today Chinese because they have historically always been Chinese.

The Chinese view of Koguryo that has so upset Koreans since last December is therefore not a new development at all. It is rather an outgrowth of a historiographical view that has developed over the course of the twentieth century, with an overlay that emphasizes the existence of a Chinese super-nation of the past, such that Koguryo can be claimed as one of the minority nationalities of pre-modern China.

The core of the present debate can be said, more precisely, to have begun in 1993, when, at a conference on Koguryo history held at the town of Ji’an on the Chinese side of the Yalu River, a North Korean historian charged that the Chinese view of Koguryo as a Chinese state is a flawed one, based solely upon that fact that some Koguryo territories are today part of the PRC. This was the first real challenge to the Chinese position regarding Koguryo. The Chinese scholar Sun Jinji, one of the most vocal proponents of the Chinese Koguryo view, responded with a rebuttal that denied the Koreans any link with Koguryo. He argued that Koguryo was a Chinese state because 1) it developed out of the Han Chinese military prefecture of Xuantu; and 2) that Koguryo kings accepted investiture from Chinese emperors. Sun also adjusted the linear descent model of Jin Yufu so that the Fuyu lineage is no longer seen as developing into modern Koreans (though he gives no explanation for this adjustment – he merely states it as a given). These arguments do not hold up well under analysis, and do not constitute a valid case for Koguryo’s alleged Chinese-ness. But the argument has nevertheless been taken up by the proponents of the Chinese Koguryo view.

Beginning around 1994, South Korean tourists began to visit Koguryo archaeological sites in China in increasing numbers, very often engaging in nationalistic displays and paying reverence before the tombs of Koguryo kings. While such actions were not intended to provoke, many Chinese scholars and authorities perceived these actions as threats. Fears of Korean irredentism spread, and the provinces of Liaoning and Jilin responded by placing all Koguryo remains off-limits to foreigners. A series of robberies of Koguryo mural tombs between 1995 and 2000 made the matter worse, and it became very difficult for non-Chinese (especially Koreans) to conduct research on Koguryo in China. Chinese historians stepped up their efforts to justify their claims that Koguryo was a Chinese state. While these events unfolded from 1993 to 2003, nobody in South Korea paid them much notice.

What finally attracted attention in Seoul was a series of events involving the Chinese and North Korean applications to UNESCO to have their respective Koguryo remains designated as World Heritage sites. North Korea made the initial bid in 2000, and by 2003 its nomination application was submitted to the World Heritage Committee for consideration. In the interim, the UNESCO evaluation team addressed some problems with the North Korean application – the inspection team had been denied access to some of the tombs, while at least one other tomb had been extensively reconstructed, which called its authenticity into question. These problems were noted and submitted to UNESCO. Around the same time, China began its own application process to have its Koguryo remains registered as World Heritage sites. Since the leader of the inspection team that noted problems with the North Korean application was Chinese, the action was viewed in South Korea as a Chinese attempt to scuttle North Korea’s bid, so that China could rush in and have its own Koguryo remains registered. However, the inspection team’s objections were quite valid, and any team leader would certainly have voiced similar objections in the team report.

In December of 2003, seventeen South Korean historical societies formed an ad hoc group to address what it saw as China’s distortions of Korea’s history, focusing most strongly on the treatment given to Koguryo in the papers of the Northeast Project, a government funded organization in Beijing that was established in 2002 for the purpose of studying historical issues of Northeast China. The South Koreans objected to the Northeast Project’s portrayal of Koguryo as one of the minority nationalities of ancient China and the assertions that Koguryo was merely a dependent regional authority of China. It was popularly understood in Seoul that the Northeast Project was set up for the purpose of claiming Koguryo for China, through the dissemination of guided historical studies and the financing of archaeological work on Koguryo sites in preparation for the UNESCO bid. However, the arguments made in the publications of the Northeast Project are the very same arguments made by scholars like Sun Jinji since 1993. Nevertheless, it is still popularly assumed in South Korea that the Chinese claim is a new one, generated in the past two or three years in order to take Koguryo’s heritage away from Korea. The justification is understood to be that China was preparing a case for a preemptive territorial claim in the case of a North Korean collapse.

In my view, the Chinese position is a natural one, though historically flawed, that developed in a predictable way along with the present view of the Chinese past as a reflection of the present structure of the multi-ethnic state. The concerns are primarily territorial – this is why Chinese scholars have been so unwavering in their insistence that Koguryo was in fact a Chinese state. There may be some concerns among some Chinese scholars and politicians that a North Korean collapse might result in a change in the borders, but to China’s disadvantage. But it is probably more important to these scholars and politicians that the present way of viewing the past as a device to validate the present order of things be upheld and any cost – not because of any particular fears that ethnic Koreans in China’s Northeast might want to break away, but more because any admission that Koreans might have a valid historical claim to some PRC territories might incite unrest among other border groups, particularly in the Southwest and Northwest. This would explain why the Chinese have been so unwilling either to address the issue as a political matter or to back down on the academic position.

To summarize: In my view the present debate on Koguryo is just the most recent phase of a process that began in the early twentieth century, and which has taken on a specific shape and tone since 1993. The Chinese case is historically indefensible, but there are valid reasons Chinese scholars and politicians would wish to advocate such a position. The Korean objections to the Chinese position are fully understandable, but most Koreans, I believe, misunderstand the Chinese arguments as having particularly sinister undertones – they view the Chinese actions as a prelude to an active aggression against Korea in the event of a radical change in the present situation on the Korean peninsula. Speaking as someone who has followed the progression of this debate since 1993, I see the Chinese motivations in an entirely different light, and I urge concerned Koreans to make an effort to see the debate in the broad sweep of history. Taken in context, the Chinese motivation is much less sinister, and is grounded in concerns which Koreans would probably understand as valid. The Chinese “distortions” of the Korean past should be seen for what they are, and Koreans should understand exactly why the Chinese persist in their (otherwise incomprehensible) refusal to back off of the Chinese Koguryo position.


Koguryo was a state that existed from about the first century BC until 668. It originated among tribal groups living in the valley of the Hun River (a tributary of the Yalu) in the present-day provinces of Liaoning and Jilin in the People’s Republic of China. By the early first century Koguryo leaders had begun to exert their authority in surrounding regions, especially in the northern part of the Korean peninsula. From 75 BC until about 106 AD the governors of a small military prefecture of the Chinese Han dynasty, named Xuantu, engaged Koguryo leaders in a client relationship, under which those leaders registered their populations annually with the Han governor, paid taxes, and made men available on occasion for corvée labor. In exchange, the Koguryo leaders gained Han recognition of their status, along with various prestige items and access to Han trade. Koguryo leaders were otherwise free to exercise government over their people as they wished. During the first century, however, the leaders of Koguryo were no longer satisfied with the terms of the relationship with Han, and they began to refuse to behave as subordinates to the local governor. Around 106 Koguryo was strong enough to force the removal of the military prefecture, and it is about this time that Koguryo society had reached a state level of complexity.

Throughout Koguryo’s existence as a state, its kings typically engaged Chinese leaders in warfare rather than as allies. When relations were peaceful, however, Koguryo kings accepted investiture from Chinese emperors, which was part of the price to be paid for engaging Chinese states in trade and diplomatic relations. Although Chinese histories treat Koguryo during these times as a tributary of the Chinese emperor, in reality the emperor was powerless to exercise any direct control over Koguryo or its kings (a fact clearly illustrated by these same Chinese historical works). In the early seventh century the Koguryo leadership shifted to a usurper, who took full control over the state government and ruled for many years. When he died in 666, his relatives fought one another for the right of succession, and this struggle caused the Koguryo state to fragment. In 668 the allied armies of Tang China and the Korean state of Silla rushed in to finish off what was left of the Koguryo state. Tang initially tried to incorporate Koguryo’s territories into its own system of territorial administration, but popular resistance, aided by Silla, forced Tang to withdraw shortly thereafter. Silla incorporated the southernmost territories of Koguryo, while most of the rest eventually came under the control of a new state called Parhae (Ch. Bohai), which rose in eastern Manchuria in 696.

Silla historians incorporated the legacy of Koguryo into Silla’s historiography, and the present-day historiographical traditions of both Koreas stem from this seventh century view of a peninsular state emerging from the early Three Kingdoms (Koguryo, Silla and Paekche). Surrounding states, both in the Chinese mainland and in the Japanese archipelago, acknowledged that Koguryo was a state whose heritage belonged to the later peninsular states of Koryo (918-1392) and Choson (1392-1910).