So when I read that South Korea and China are in fierce dispute over the nature of the ancient Koguryo kingdom, which collapsed in 668 A.D., I suspected that there must be a more modern geographical issue at hand.
To summarize the dispute, South Korean scholars have long claimed, I believe accurately, that the borders of Koguryo extended well into modern China (and also failed to control the southern tip of the Korean peninsula). China has now erased Koguryo from its official recounting of Korean history, claiming instead that the kingdom was no more than a vassal state of the Chinese emperor. What makes this argument more complicated is that Chinese imperial power reached over enormous distances and brought an incredibly wide array of powers into its system of tribute-for-protection. If every power that ever submitted to imperial rule was to be considered part of China, we would have to include places like Vietnam and Japan. Nor has China been anything like a unified political or cultural entity throughout history. At times it fragmented into warring statelets, was taken over by Mongols, or otherwise fluctuated. (I’m not all that good on Chinese history, so I hope anyone out there with superior knowledge will correct any errors I’ve made here.)
China’s real concern, of course, has nothing to do with historical semantics about the nature of East Asian feudalism. What has Beijing worried is the large population of ethnic Koreans living north of the Yalu and Tumen rivers, which demarcate the contemporary boundary of North Korea.
I don’t think that China is worried about North Korean expansionism into Chinese territory. Indeed, North Korea relies on China for emergency aid, and the land North Korea really wants is to the south, across the DMZ. Instead, my read on this situation is that China is concerned about the potential expansionism of a reunified Korea.
Like many Korea watchers, the Chinese are probably convinced that reunification is fairly likely in the longer term, especially now that North Korea has begun to emulate China’s gradualist approach to economic liberalization. For now, the Chinese role as mediator and role model gives it great sway over North Korea, which considers Communist China a close ally. But these same processes may one day lead to a reunified Korea that would be both more powerful and more volatile than today’s South Korea. And let’s not forget that if North Korea keeps its nuclear weapons until reunification, then the new Korea will be a nuclear power. (I expect that this would push Japan into acquiring nuclear weapons, but that’s a different question.)
Already South Korea is working hard to gain more power in the region — they’re mounting a bid, for example, to get elected to the UN Security Council for 2007-2008. What China fears is that a unified Korea will demand that ethnically Korean regions currently in China be handed over to the new Korean nation. In a worst-case scenario, a unified Korea could sponsor separatist insurgents in northeastern China, creating a situation akin to Kashmir in which a large and a small power, both with nuclear weapons, are fighting a guerilla war for disputed territory. While I find this scenario unlikely, it just might be what the Chinese are afraid of. And with separatist movements in Xinkiang, Tibet, Taiwan and arguably Hong Kong, the Chinese have gotten a bit paranoid about fragmentation and collapse.
And so China has decided to be proactive in trying to erase any ancient Korean claims to territories north of the Yalu and Tumen. But the Chinese effort seems to have backfired. Rather than erasing ancient claims, it has suddenly made them a contemporary issue. If this dispute grows into a claim by a resurgent Korea for Koguryo’s territory, the Chinese may perhaps look back and discover that they themselves planted the seed.