Thursday, August 19, 2004

JI’AN, China — South Korea is furious about claims by Beijing that an ancient kingdom regarded as a founding civilization of Korea was a mere province of China.

Koguryo, the region in question, formed most of modern North Korea and a part of what is now China, where many ethnic Koreans still live. It merged with the southern kingdom of Silla to form Koryo, from which the name Korea is derived.

But last winter Chinese government historians published research purporting to prove it was a Chinese civilization, sparking fears about China’s growing political ambitions.

“This is not a purely historical issue,” said Kim Woo-jun, a professor at Yonsei University’s Institute of East-West Affairs in Seoul. “If Koguryo is incorrectly interpreted by China as China’s old kingdom, the North Korean region becomes China’s historical territory. And this can serve as justification for future Chinese intervention.”

Many South Koreans are concerned that, should the dictatorship of Kim Jong-il collapse in the communist North, where thousands of people face dire food shortages, China will intervene to protect its own interests there.

Analysts say Beijing fears that a crisis in North Korea could cause a flood of refugees and, through reunification with the South, bring an American ally right up to its border.

Unconfirmed reports from residents near the China-North Korea border say that People’s Liberation Army troops have held training exercises recently.

For much of its history, Korea had its own kings, but still had to pay tribute to Chinese emperors. The same is true of Tibet, something which China uses to justify its occupation there in the name of “unity of the motherland.”

Chinese academics started the row by promoting proposals that the historical sites in Koguryo be listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites.

The announcement was hailed in the Chinese state media as a national triumph.

No mention was made of the kingdom’s links to modern Korea. The Korean history section on the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Web site was altered to not include references to Koguryo.

A group of South Korean members of parliament who wanted to visit Ji’an were refused visas.

The South Korean government has protested the actions formally, even sending a special envoy to Beijing.

Peter Gries, a China specialist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, said the row may be more about China’s own troubled search for identity.

“Many Chinese nationalists wish that neighbors would acknowledge China’s big brother status,” Gries said.

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