China and the Koreas spar over dynasty

China and the Koreas spar over dynasty

By Andrew Ward in Seoul  -    Financial Times

Published: July 5 2004 19:26 | Last Updated: July 5 2004 19:26

A fierce debate is under way between China and the two Koreas about an ancient royal dynasty that all three claim as part of their history.

The dispute about the Koguryo kingdom is viewed by some as the first stage of a wider battle for influence over the Korean peninsula and north-eastern China.

Koguryo ruled the northern part of the Korean peninsula and a large swathe of north-east China from 277BC to 668AD. Beijing, Pyongyang and Seoul have been bickering for months about whether the kingdom should be considered Korean or Chinese. The issue was highlighted last week, when the United Nations added Koguryo relics in China and North Korea to its prestigious list of World Heritage sites.

To Beijing, the claims of North and South Korea to Koguryo history risk exciting separatist sentiment among the estimated 2m ethnic Koreans in north-east China.

To Seoul and Pyongyang, Beijing's attitude reflects its fear of a powerful, reunified Korea and its desire to dominate the peninsula.

By recognising Koguryo sites in both China and Korea, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation avoided endorsing either side of the argument. Overcoming their modern differences, North and South Korea had joined forces to lobby for Korean sites to be given World Heritage status.

Unesco's decision has sparked a fresh war of words between the claimants to Koguryo's legacy.

China's official Xinhua news agency described the kingdom this week as a "subordinate state that fell under the jurisdiction of the Chinese dynasties and was under the great influence of China's politics, culture and other areas".

South Korea's ruling Uri party said China's stance undermined efforts to secure regional peace, while the main opposition Grand National party accused Beijing of distorting history.

"China is wary of nostalgia for the kingdom of Korea, which could lead to a civic and political movement claiming the lost territory in the Manchurian region," a South Korean activist told Seoul's Yonhap news agency. "This would deal a blow to Beijing's control over its other 55 minority races."

Chinese and South Korean academics have launched rival, state-backed studies into the history of Koguryo.

The debate shows how history continues to cause tensions within north-east Asia, in spite of the increasing integration of the region's economies. China, Japan, Korea and the kingdoms that preceded them have all engaged in conflict with one another many times over the centuries.

Some analysts fear the growing economic and military power of China and the likely future reunification of the Korean peninsula could revive these longstanding rivalries. South Korea and China both have territorial disputes with Japan over small islands.

Unesco included the remains of about 70 tombs and three cities in its list of Koguryo relics deserving special protection. It was the first time secretive North Korea had been represented in the 788-strong list of the world's most important heritage sites.