Northeast Asia Project

What lies behind the ‘Northeast Asia Project?


China’s history distortions that claim Goguryeo as part of Chinese history, are far more serious than the issue of Japanese distortion of history textbooks. The Japanese history textbook case concerns a “new edition” of state-approved school history textbooks. The Chinese history issue is truly serious because the project is sponsored and led by the Chinese government itself. Moreover, it attempts to distort the histories of such old Korean kingdoms as Balhae (AD 698-926) and Gojoseon (2333-108 BC), not to mention Goguryeo (37 BC-AD 668). If these distortions are left uncorrected, they could result in undercutting the span of Korean history to less than 2,000 years and delimiting the size of Korea’s territory to an area south of the Han River.
Since February 2002, the Center for the Study of Borderland History and Geography under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has been working on a five-year national project called “Studies of History and Geography of Northeast Borderland and a Series of Phenomena” (hereinafter “Northeast Asia Project”). This project appears to be one of China’s national priority projects dealing with various problems related to history, geography and ethnic issues in Northeast China (Manchuria) in an interdisciplinary manner. In dealing with various issues, however, the Northeast Asia Project is distorting Korea’s ancient history concerning the kingdoms of Goguryeo, Balhae and Gojoseon.

China’s “Northeast Asia Project”

In 2001, a special bill concerning the legal status of Korean compatriots living in China was submitted to the Korean National Assembly. In the same year, North Korea also applied to register a group of Goguryeo tumuli on the UNESCO’s World Cultural Heritage List. It appears that these independent events promted the Chinese to plan and move forward with the “Northeast Asia Project.”

And, the Chinese authorities began at the national level to develop various measures concerning such issues as the ethnic Koreans as well as the unification of the Korean Peninsula.

The Chinese reasoning appears to be that if the Goguryeo tumuli were to make the World Cultural Heritage List as submitted by North Korea, China’s justifications for making the history of Goguryeo part of its own might lose ground. For this reason, not only has China been obstructing North Korea’s application for registration with the World Cultural Heritage List, but it has also taken its own initiatives in the spring of 2003 by applying for registration a group of Goguryeo tumuli near Jian with the World Cultural Heritage List. Taking a long view, these Chinese moves can be construed as preliminary steps to solidifying its positions involving territorial as well as border issues upon Korea’s unification.

Outline of the “Northeast Asia Project”

Under the project, the research on Korea’s ancient history are focused on Gojoseon, Goguryeo and Balhae, but the kingdom that is receiving the most extensive attention is Goguryeo. Goguryeo is the main theme in its preface, which argues that Goguryeo was an ethnic regime in an ancient Chinese province. There have been a lot of discussions about the history of Goguryeo. But, through this state-sponsored project China has definitively stated that in its official view that Goguryeo was one of China’s provincial regimes.

To back up its argument, China has come up with various reasons, but they are poorly grounded and hardly convincing in light of historical facts. Some of them argue that Goguryeo was a provincial state founded by an ethnic group based in the territory of China; that despite several moves of the capital, Goguryeo was unable to move out of the boundary of the Four Han Provinces; that Goguryeo maintained a suzerain-vassal relationship with China’s central dynasties at all times, having never attempted to sever the relationship on its own; and that after the downfall of Goguryeo, its ruling class was merged into the ethnic Han nation. The Chinese insist that these are historically accurate facts, and that Goguryeo should not be confused with Goryeo or Joseon. It argues that the Go clan of Goguryeo and the Wang clan of Goryeo are not related by blood ties, and that one did not succeed the other in light of the fact that 250 years of history separate the two kingdoms.

China’s history distortions that claim Goguryeo as part of Chinese history, are far more serious than the issue of Japanese distortion of history textbooks. The Japanese history textbook case concerns a “new edition” of state-approved school history textbooks. The Chinese history issue is truly serious because the project is sponsored and led by the Chinese government itself. Moreover, it attempts to distort the histories of such old Korean kingdoms as Balhae (AD 698-926) and Gojoseon (2333-108 BC), not to mention Goguryeo (37 BC-AD 668). If these distortions are left uncorrected, they could result in undercutting the span of Korean history to less than 2,000 years and delimiting the size of Korea’s territory to an area south of the Han River.

Under the circumstances, we should first of all clearly grasp the basis of and logic behind Chinese arguments in distorting the fact of history about Goguryeo Kingdom. We then have to develop systematic counterarguments, precisely pointing out the distorted parts. And, to brace ourselves for an extended debate over these history distortions, we should redouble the efforts to collect relevant materials concerning Korean history in China’s northeastern region (Manchuria) in terms of history, geography, ethnic origins, etc. So far, the level of our interest in the Manchurian region has been relatively low, and we must admit that our research on the region has been at a fledgling stage.

The most urgent task at this point is to help North Korea to successfully register the Goguryeo tumuli with the UNESCO World Heritage List, because it was this application that prompted the Chinese to launch the Northeast Asia Project.

If China were to succeed in placing the Goguryeo tumuli located in Manchuria on the Heritage List as Chinese, it could lead to a serious misunderstanding of the Korean kingdom as indeed a part of Chinese history. The history of Goguryeo is not a history belonging to either South or North Korea exclusively. It is the history of the entire Korean people. Consequently, a successful defense of the history of Goguryeo will also serve as an excellent case of inter-Korean teamwork.

Written by Choe Kwang-sik who is a professor of history at Korea University.

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