In 2001 and 2003, China and North Korea submitted the tombs from the ancient kingdom of Koguryo, of which sites are currently extant in both nation-states, to UNESCO for world heritage site status (Gries 2005: 2). The ancient kingdom of Koguryo was one of the three kingdoms (along with Baekje and Silla) that later formed a unified kingdom on the Korean peninsula. A substantial portion of Koguryo’s territory was also located in what is present-day North-East China.
(Map of Goguryeo at its zenith, around 391-531 AD)
UNESCO deferred making any political statements one way or the other, eventually granting world heritage status to both sites on July 2004 (ibid). However, the controversy had only just erupted. Characterizations and implications of a Chinese Koguryo followed in Chinese media, the official PRC website and academia, subsequently igniting a massive uproar amongst Koreans (Gries 2005: 4). Why and how exactly was Koguryo, a kingdom that ceased to exist over 1.5 millennia ago (and thus bearing little resemblance to any modern-day culture or society, even that of its “successors”) appropriated as cultural warfare fodder between the modern nation-states of Korea and China?
Historian Peter Gries asserts that it is because Koguryo was seminal to the construction of modern-day Korean nationalism (2005). Korea has had a lengthy historical relationship spanning thousands of years, of both resistance against and subjugation to China. China was the “Other” against which Korea (and Japan as well) defined its own identity (Gries 2005: 6). Conversely, China constructed its own national identity in the 20th century on the basis of being the dominant, hegemonic power of Northeast Asia in the past and into the future (ibid). Therefore, the Chinese national narrative found it favourable to construe Koguryo as a vassal of China.
Lee Jae-won/Reuters. Costumed protesters at a rally in Seoul. South Korea’s love affair with China has dissipated and given way to a national furor over the dispute.
For Koreans however, Koguryo is perceived as a period of resistance in Korean history and therefore was evoked by nationalist writer Sin Chae-Ho in the 1910’s-20’s (Japanese occupation era) as he attempted to construct a “martial spirit” from the Korean past, one that could be selectively associated with the growing independence movement (Gries 2005: 8).
According to Hobsbawm in The Nation as Invented Tradition, this is a deliberate “social invention” to create the illusion of continuity with the past (Hobsbawm 1983: 76). Koguryo was an important element in this construction of Korean nationalism, deliberately chosen to grant historical legitimacy to a country in need of ideological redemption after the humiliation of being annexed by the Japanese Empire. Koguryo was a symbol of resistance against foreign invaders and therefore central to the configuration of a virile and militarist Korean nationalism. The Korean War Memorial (erected in 1994) echoes the heroic nationalist discourses of Koreannationalist writers including as Sin Chae Ho (Gries 2005: 10). As Hobsbawm writes, “buildings and monuments [are] the most visible form” of delineating a new interpretation of history (Hobsbawm 1983: 80)
When Koguryo is not viewed through a nationalist lens however, it becomes further clear that the imposition of modern nationalist sentiment on the ancient past is invented and problematic. According to scholar Andrei Lankov,
“The real-life Koguryoans would have been surprised or even offended to learn that, in the future, they would be perceived by Koreans as members of the same community as their bitter enemies from Silla. Describing Koguryo as Chinese or Korean is as misleading as, say, describing medieval Brittany as French or English or Irish” (Lankov 2006)
You Sung-Ho/Reuters. South Korean history teachers prayed at a rally to protest China’s claiming the ancient kingdom of Koguryo. Her forehead band reads ‘Minjok’.
The notion of minjok, or a pure bloodline (additionally authored by nationalist writer Shin Chae Ho) as the basis for the modern nation-state of Korea (both South and North—though they are each vying to be the legitimate administrator of a unified Korea, based on the minjok ideology) continues to linger even whilst South Korean society itself is becoming ever increasingly metropolitan and pluralist. As Walker Connor describes in A Nation is A Nation, the conflation of the nation (imagined community) and the state (political entity) has led to the common acceptance of an essentialist basis for a modern, constructed phenomenon: the nation-state (1978). Meanwhile, the Koguryo controversy continues to wage, though its purpose is perhaps less about historical accuracy than a modern construction of the past for nationalist means.
Gries, Peter H. “The Koguryo Controversy, National Identity, and Sino-Korean Relations Today.” East Asia: An International Quarterly. 22.4 (2005): 3-17. Print.
Shin, Gi-Wook. “Ethnic pride source of prejudice, discrimination.” Korea Herald. 08 02 2006: n. page. Web. 31 Jan. 2013.
Hobsbawm , Eric J. The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983. 76-82. Print.
Connor, Walker. “A nation is a nation, is a state, is an ethnic group is a … .” Ethnic and Racial Studies. 1.4 (1978): 377-400. Print.