Korea in Chinese History: Stuck in the Middle

While China’s role in the stand-off on the Korean peninsula is generally viewed in terms of recent Cold War history, Jeremiah Jenne explains at The Economist’s Banyan blog that it also has much older and deeper roots:

As reporters gather in Seoul to await the latest hostile missive (or missile) from the North, Western governments have continued to press China to do more to rein in their putative ally. Like a pit pull chained in the front yard, North Korea does keep the neighbours on edge. Of course there is always the danger of what might happen if you neglect to feed the dog.

China’s involvement on the Korean peninsula in the period since the Korean war has been cited amply in recent press accounts. But Beijing’s interests there have historical roots which reach back far earlier than 1950. For more than two thousand years, successive Chinese dynasties have seen Korea as a tributary to be protected, a prize to be coveted, or as a dangerous land bridge which might convey “outer barbarians” into China. Unsurprising then that China should have a long history of mucking about in Korean politics, a history which has often brought it into conflict with that other great Eastern power, Japan. This has seldom worked out well for the Korean people. Nor has it led to much joy for China.

[…] The misgivings felt by Koreans watching outside forces—particularly China and Japan—intervening to solve problems on the peninsula is understandable, against the historical backdrop. As is China’s reluctance to commit itself to managing Pyongyang. Today’s deadlock is both a legacy of the cold war and the latest chapter in a long story of power shifts across East Asia.

At Tea Leaf Nation last week, Taylor Washburn focused on the disputed status of the first-millennium “proto-Korean” kingdom of Goguryeo:

In late January, 2013, South Korea’s Hankyoreh newspaper reported that an elite group of scholars in the northeastern Chinese province of Jilin was conducting “closed research” on a freshly discovered stele, an engraved memorial stone dating to the fifth century A.D. What interest could the examination of such an artifact hold for contemporary Korean readers? “Concerns are being raised,” the Hankyoreh piece noted vaguely, “that […] it is very likely that China will use the results of the study … to reinforce its argument that Goguryeo belongs to China.”

[…] Whatever defensive instincts may have inspired China’s Goguryeo revisionism, efforts to downplay the independence of Korean civilization cannot but appear menacing from across the Yellow Sea. In a 2012 poll, nearly three quarters of South Koreans indicated that they perceive China as a military threat. Although some of this growing fear undoubtedly stems from Beijing’s ongoing support for Pyongyang, it also reflects a deeper anxiety that a stronger China will seek to revive elements of the Sinocentric regional order that prevailed in East Asia before the arrival of Westerners and the ascent of Meiji Japan, under which Korea’s rulers paid tribute to the Manchu Qing.

If the current Chinese investigation of the Jilin stele continues to make news in Korea, it will certainly exacerbate such unease. What remains to be seen is whether Beijing, mindful of its own security imperatives, will determine this a price worth paying. For the moment, at least, the ghosts of Goguryeo can rest. But William Faulkner’s familiar observation is as true of Manchuria as Mississippi: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”