How an Ancient Kingdom Explains Today's China-Korea Relations

The Goguryeo empire has been gone for centuries -- but it still has a lingering impact on East Asian politics.

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A detail from a Goguryeo tomb mural. (Wikimedia Commons)

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.

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."

Understanding the significance of this speculation requires a brief foray into the premodern history of Northeast Asia. For over 600 years, between the first century B.C. and the seventh century A.D., much of the Korean Peninsula and Manchuria were ruled by the kingdom of Goguryeo. Although governed in its final two centuries from Pyongyang, the kingdom's early capitals sat north of the Yalu River, which today demarcates the western portion of the China-Korea border. At its height, in the fifth century, Goguryeo controlled lands that would now include parts of South and all of North Korea, as well as contiguous land in northeast China and a sliver of maritime Russia. Because the Peninsula's south was then split between two other states, Silla and Baekjae, contemporary historians refer to this era as Korea's Three Kingdoms Period. The tripartite division finally came to an end in the second half of the seventh century, when the southeastern kingdom of Silla, having enlisted the assistance of China's Tang Dynasty, absorbed its western and northern rivals.

Tying modern nations to ancient predecessors can be a messy business, but historians generally concur in describing the Goguryeo state as proto-Korean. In 2002, however, this mainstream view came under attack, when the Chinese Academy of Social Science (CASS), a government-backed think tank, launched a re-evaluation of Goguryeo history under the auspices of its "Northeast Project," which sought to recast the pre-modern history of Manchuria and Korea. The Project concluded that Goguryeo had not been an autonomous political entity, but rather a vassal of the Middle Kingdom, "a regional government started by an ethnic group," falling within "Chinese local history."

It is unclear to what degree CASS's work was directed by figures in the central government, but official actions from the time permit an inference of collusion. In 2003 and 2004, while the project was still underway, Beijing applied to the UNESCO to register Goguryeo tombs in Chinese Manchuria as a World Heritage Site, and China's Foreign Ministry conspicuously scrubbed its website of references to pre-modern Korean history.

In South Korea, China's Goguryeo revisionism was explosive. In the popular press, which gave the issue extensive coverage, the Northeast Project was depicted as a negation of Korea's ethno-cultural independence from China. To combat China's version of history, the South Korean government established its own Goguryeo Research Foundation in 2004, and summoned China's ambassador in Seoul to protest the alterations to the Foreign Ministry website. The dispute triggered a near-instantaneous reversal in positive South Korean attitudes towards China, which dated back to the establishment of diplomatic ties in 1992. In the years that followed, the Three Kingdoms era provided fodder for several Korean television dramas. These included the international hit "Jumong," which offered a fictionalized account of Goguryeo's early years, in which the kingdom's founding monarch, Tongmyong, was imagined as an opponent of China's Han Dynasty.

Although it is harder to gauge the effect of the issue in Pyongyang, the North Korean regime -- which filed a UNESCO application for its own Goguryeo tombs in 2001 -- has incorporated Goguryeo themes into its regnant personality cult. The ancient northern kingdom seems to have held a particular fascination for the late Kim Jong-il. Western media outlets made light of the North's claim to have discovered an ancient "unicorn lair" in late 2012, but most missed its political significance: Pyongyang had actually intended to refer to a kirin, the mythical chymeric steed of Goguryeo founder Tongmyong.

Before the announcement of China's research on the Jilin stele this winter, the Goguryeo dispute had lain dormant since 2004, when Chinese diplomats, seeking to quell the growing controversy, promised Seoul that CASS's revisionist account would be kept out of Chinese textbooks. Nevertheless, a series of similar spats over culture and history have continued to roil Sino-Korean relations in the intervening years. In 2011, for example, South Koreans were outraged when Beijing included the quintessentially Korean folk melody "Arirang" on an official list of Chinese cultural assets, purportedly to celebrate an artistic contribution from China's own ethnic Korean population. Just last summer, Seoul again registered formal concern with Beijing after Chinese archeologists claimed to have established that the Great Wall was more than twice its previously-estimated length, extending nearly to the Korean border.

Given the damage these disputes have inflicted on Sino-Korean relations, it is worth asking why some in the Chinese leadership have indulged or even collaborated with such nationalist revisionism. Garden-variety chauvinism presumably plays a role, but the answer may also lie in China's abiding sense of strategic vulnerability. This insecurity is based on a number of contemporary strategic risks, but also has roots in the "century of humiliation" that followed the Qing Dynasty's embarrassing defeat in the First Opium War -- an era that saw China lose its longstanding dominance of the Korean Peninsula to Japan and then, in part, to the United States.

One particular source of Chinese anxiety is the possibility that ethnic Koreans might someday try to annex certain border territories. "Greater Korea" fantasies encompassing a large swath of Manchuria have little currency beyond a nationalist fringe, but many South Koreans reject the validity of a 1962 agreement between Pyongyang and Beijing acknowledging Chinese sovereignty over much of Mount Baekdu, a peak which plays a prominent role in Korean mythology. They also resent the loss of Gando, a marshy plot ceded to the Qing Dynasty by Imperial Japan in 1909. If the peninsula were reunified, these irredentist aspirations could be given greater voice. Even so, China's control of its borderlands is unlikely to face any serious challenge: the population of several million ethnic Koreans in northeast China has never been restive, and they are at any rate far outnumbered by their Han Chinese neighbors.

Invasion or secession may be vanishingly unlikely, but not all of China's fears regarding Korea are groundless. A more pressing threat is instability brought about by a failed North Korea. If the Pyongyang regime crumbles, Goguryeo could figure into China's calculus of intervention. Just as France's colonial rule in North Africa conditioned that nation's voters to support its recent intervention in Mali, the aggrandizement of China's historical role in Korea might make it easier for Beijing to sell intercession on the Peninsula to a skeptical public, should such an expedition -- however unpalatable to China's leaders -- be deemed a necessary evil.

China watchers are quick to dismiss the notion that Beijing has designs on North Korea, noting the risks and costs of occupation. If they are correct, the most significant factor in explaining CASS's assimilation of Goguryeo may lie over two thousand miles away, in China's far west. Beijing is anxious about two active independence movements -- one in Tibet, and the other in the Turkic Uyghur homeland of southwest Xinjiang. Ruling over a vast, multinational civilization-state, Beijing has embraced the modern idea of zhonghua minzu, or "Chinese nationalities," the concept that Chinese identity transcends ethnic and cultural divisions, embracing peoples outside its traditional Han heartland who have long been influenced by Sinic civilization.

Appreciating that any one challenge to this theory could endanger the entire edifice, Beijing regards its minority populations in parallel. Thus, CASS's Northeast Project was accompanied by Southwest and Northwest Projects, situating pre-modern Tibet and Xinjiang within "local Chinese history" as well, and Great Wall "discoveries" near Korea were anticipated by similar findings in Xinjiang. From Beijing's perspective, "splittism" endangers not only China's territorial integrity, but perhaps even the stability of the regime itself. As China scholar David Shambaugh has observed, its Communist Party leaders are "obsessed" with the Soviet Union's disintegration -- a process hastened, as they are surely aware, by the rise of ethnic nationalist movements.

Whatever defensive instincts may have inspired China's Goguryeo revisionism, efforts to downplay the independence of Korean civilization cannot but appear menacing from across the Yellow Sea. In a 2012 poll, nearly three quarters of South Koreans indicated that they perceive China as a military threat. Although some of this growing fear undoubtedly stems from Beijing's ongoing support for Pyongyang, it also reflects a deeper anxiety that a stronger China will seek to revive elements of the Sinocentric regional order that prevailed in East Asia before the arrival of Westerners and the ascent of Meiji Japan, under which Korea's rulers paid tribute to the Manchu Qing.

If the current Chinese investigation of the Jilin stele continues to make news in Korea, it will certainly exacerbate such unease. What remains to be seen is whether Beijing, mindful of its own security imperatives, will determine this a price worth paying. For the moment, at least, the ghosts of Goguryeo can rest. But William Faulkner's familiar observation is as true of Manchuria as Mississippi: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

This piece is adapted from a forthcoming article in the 2012 Edition of the SAIS U.S.-Korea Yearbook, published by the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

This post also appears at Tea Leaf Nation, an Atlantic partner site.