Historical narratives lie at the core of national identity. As a result, competing interpretations of the past can come to define international relationships. Nowhere is this more evident than in Northeast Asia, where so-called "history wars," combined with the destabilizing growth of Chinese power, have contributed to a fraught security environment.
The best known of these disputes stem from Japan's annexation of Korea and occupation of much of China in the decades before 1945. But if arguments about the legacy of Japanese imperialism have occasionally united Beijing, Seoul, and Pyongyang against Tokyo, another quarrel with much older roots has the potential to pit both Koreas against China -- and could even play a defining role in Sino-Korean relations in the event of Korea's reunification.
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To whom does Goguryeo belong?
In late January, 2013, South Korea's Hankyoreh newspaper reported that an elite group of scholars in the northeastern Chinese province of Jilin was conducting "closed research" on a freshly discovered stele, an engraved memorial stone dating to the fifth century A.D. What interest could the examination of such an artifact hold for contemporary Korean readers? "Concerns are being raised," the Hankyoreh piece noted vaguely, "that with key figures from the Northeast Project taking part in the research, it is very likely that China will use the results of the study ... to reinforce its argument that Goguryeo belongs to China."