The China-South Korea History War

“South Korea is fighting a battle with China over ancient history using one of the most powerful weapons in its arsenal — sappy TV dramas watched by hundreds of millions of viewers in Asia.”

-Jon Herskovitz, April 24, 2007.

In the late 1990s, South Korea emerged as a massive exporter of cultural products, from popular music to films and television shows. The dramas that it exports are not all sentimental, and the surge is by no means limited to Asia. Russia, Latin America, and eastern and northern Europe have also been highly receptive. China provided an early and especially enthusiastic mass market, where the phenomenon was dubbed hallyu, or the “Korean Wave.”

In 2006-7, however, the popularity of Korean shows plummeted across China, as nationalist suspicions came into play. South Korean screenwriters were accused of portraying the borderlands of southeastern Manchuria as historically Korean, whereas the Chinese government insisted that it had always been Chinese. Two shows, portraying respectively the founders of the northern Korean kingdoms of Goguryeo and Balhae, were banned by Beijing in 2007. South Korean nationalists responded online, “sparking a massive flame war between Chinese and Korean netizens.” As the Korea Times reported, “The falling exports of Korea’s cultural products are also attributed to China’s increasing hostility to Korea … [the] Chinese people began to believe South Korea tried to settle its historical views and even its cuisine culture through dramas, which nurtured antipathy toward hallyu …”

It is no coincidence that the Sino-Korean history spat would focus on Goguryeo and Balhae, two kingdoms whose territories spanned the border. Goguryeo (37 BCE-668 CE), from which the term “Korea” derives, has long been viewed as the locus classicus of Korean civilization. In South Korea it shares that position with Silla and, to a lesser extent, Baekje, but in North Korea it has no peer. Balhae (698-926 CE) is generally regarded as a less important successor state of Goguryeo, founded by one of its generals after the original kingdom fell to a Tang-Silla alliance in 668 CE.

Beijing objects to the classification of Balhae and Goguryeo as ancestral Korean states. In 2002, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences launched the “Northeast Borderland History and the Chain of Events Research Project” to claim both kingdoms as its own. According to the zhonghua minzu ideology that underwrites the project, the Chinese nation encompasses all ethnic groups that have ever lived within the current boundaries of the People’s Republic of China. As the bulk of Goguryeo’s and especially Balhae’s territories lay to the north of the modern border, their history, the Academy insists, rightfully belongs to China.

From the perspective of contemporary historical scholarship, both positions in this “history war” are misconstrued. On the Chinese side, the notion of a pan-Chinese national identity infusing all of the country’s ethnic groups even today is problematic, as many Tibetans and the Uyghurs would surely attest. To contend that such conditions obtained in the distant past throughout China’s modern territorial extent is deeply anachronistic. Moreover, the Chinese Northeast Borderlands Project elides the inconvenient fact that (except for a brief period under the early Ming dynasty) the “borderlands” in question lay far outside successive Chinese empires’ reach until 1644, when China fell under the rule of the Manchus.

The Korean claims are more solid. But it is still a stretch to regard the kingdoms of Balhae and Goguryeo as straightforward political expressions of the Korean people. The aristocracy of Balhae is generally viewed as having been of Korean stock, but most of the kingdom’s people seem to have more closely related to the Manchus, speaking a language of the Tungusic subfamily of Altaic. Some scholars doubt the “Korean” nature of not just Balhae but also Goguryeo, arguing that the latter’s language was not an early form of Korean, and may have been more closely related to Japanese.

In the end, attributing any kind of modern-day entho-national category to pre-modern peoples or states is a troubling exercise. As Andrei Lankov explains, “Describing Koguryo [Goguryeo] as ‘Chinese’ or ‘Korean’ is as misleading as, say, describing medieval Brittany as ‘French’ or ‘English’ or ‘Irish’ (even though all three modern nations have something to do with the long-extinct Celtic duchy in what is now France). Europeans loved such things before World War I, in the days when the textbooks told about ‘our ancestors the Gauls.’ In East Asia, such historical nationalism is still a powerful instrument of politics and a source of deep and explosive emotions.”

Lankov goes on to offer a possible geopolitical rationale for China’s attempt to arrogate the history of Goguryeo. An impending collapse of North Korea, he argues, could force the “installation of a pro-Chinese puppet regime in Pyongyang. … Such actions will require psychological and cultural justifications, not least within China itself. Thus presenting what is now North Korea as an ‘ancient’ and ‘integral’ part of China might serve such interests very well.” Lankov’s thesis is intriguing, but seems unduly alarmist. China, after all, regards all polities that have ever occupied parts of its current national territory as intrinsically Chinese. Beijing’s historical project seems to be rooted in national consolidation, rather than potential expansion.

South Korea is Divided Into Three Parts

“In South Korea …, the North’s human rights abuses are routinely shrugged off with reference to its supposed superior nationalist credentials. … Sympathy for Pyongyang is especially widespread in the peninsula’s chronically disgruntled southwest.”

B. R. Myers, “South Korea’s Collective Shrug.” The New York Times, May 28, 2010.

Nationalism and regionalism often seem to be contrary phenomena. Countries with strong regional identities and stark regional disparities tend to have weak national foundations. But nation and region do not always counteract each other. South Korea in particular is characterized by both deeply rooted regionalism and intense nationalism.

Korean nationalism has evolved into different variants in the North and South. Under Pyongyang, the enforced cult of patriotism has veered in the biological direction of classical fascism, emphasizing the racial purity of the Korean – and especially the North Korean – people (see R.B. Myers, The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters). South Korean nationalism is much more cultural and historical, and thus accommodates streams of foreigners marrying into the Korean population. More than 5,000 Vietnamese women immigrate every year, generating some cultural tensions to be sure, but helping to maintain otherwise depopulating rural areas.

Despite its intensity, South Korean nationalism has by no means erased the country’s regional distinctions. South Korea’s basic divisions are often said to date back to the Three Kingdoms period (57 BCE to 668 CE), when the peninsula was divided between Silla, Baekje, and Goguryeo (Gaya, seen on the map, was not nearly as significant as the other three.). In the 600s, Silla, based in the southeastern part of the peninsula, unified the country. After Silla collapsed in the 900s, Goguryeo, based in what is now North Korea and northern South Korea, reunified the peninsula. Goguryeo was eventually supplanted by the Joseon Dynasty (or Chosun, 1392-1897), governed from Seoul. Baekje in the southwest, unlike the other two ancient kingdoms, never served as the hub of a unified Korea.

In modern South Korea, the southwest has been the focus of regionalist antipathy to the central government. Through the early decades of the postwar period, the region remained relatively poor and agrarian, its people suspecting that they had been intentionally marginalized by a hostile government. In 1980, the southwestern city of Gwangju rose up against the authoritarian South Korean regime, only to be crushed by the military. Official reports at the time linked the rebellion to a communist plot, but today it is officially commemorated as part of the national movement for democratization. A major breakthrough occurred in 1998, when a southwesterner, Kim Dae Jung – the “Nelson Mandela of Asia” – was elected to the presidency.

Since Kim left office in 2003, South Korea’s presidency has been filled by men originating in the southeast. Homeland of the former kingdom of Silla, the area known today as the Gyeongsang region has produced six of South Korea’s eight most recent presidents, including the incumbent, Lee Myung-bak. Critics claim that the conservative-leaning southeast receives undue favor from the central government, with infrastructural investments nurturing its industrial development. The city of Daegu is particularly noted for its political influence, being the seat of the powerful center-right Grand National Party.

Unlike the southeast and southwest, northern South Korea is not identifiable with an ancient kingdom, having been merely the southern portion of Goguryeo. But it was the site of the capital city, and it has remained the seat of political power. Development has continued to gravitate around Seoul and its greater metropolitan area – an hour’s drive from the North Korean border. Ten million people now live in Seoul itself, while more than 24 million – almost half of South Korea’s population – live in the officially demarcated National Capital Area. Northeastern South Korea, by contrast, is lightly populated (see map), and barely figures in discussions of South Korean regionalism.

South Korea’s basic geographical structure is thus conventionally conceptualized around a three-fold division: the northwest is the administrative, economic, and demographic core; the southeast is the prosperous heartland of the old-guard political establishment; and the southwest is a marginalized area of leftist politics. Electoral maps generally bear out this division. In 2007, Chung Dong-young of the left-liberal United New Democratic Party took the southwest, while Lee Myung-bak of the conservative GNP triumphed elsewhere, particularly in North Gyeongsang, the core area of the one-time kingdom of Silla.

But if the tripartite division of South Korea still obtains politically, it no longer does so economically, as tomorrow’s post will explore.