Another (Asian) look at China-Korea ties

Posted in Other | 14-Aug-04 | Author: Yu Shiyu| Source: Asia Times

Recent reports about Sino-Korean relations and political developments on the Korean Peninsula have often contained views that can be termed Eurocentric regarding the history of that part of Asia. For example, both the Chinese academic establishment and the South Koreans from their government on down have been criticized for having engaged in "historical revisionism", a tendency that, according to these reports, reflects some myopic visions if not something even worse on the part of the "historical revisionists". In addition, both Beijing and the entire South Korean society, including the once arch anti-communist military, have been accused of turning a blind eye to North Korea's "crimes against humanity" in their respective efforts to appease Pyongyang.

Enormous changes are indeed happening in and around the Korean Peninsula that will fundamentally alter the geopolitical balance of the region. Many of these changes are in general rather damaging to the United States' interests, hence perhaps the aforementioned alarming criticism of both China and South Korea. However, this author ventures to opine that a more Asiacentric perspective on the long history of that part of Asia, especially that of Sino-Korean relations, is called for before one addresses what are frankly mostly Eurocentric concerns quoted above.

Sino-Korea relations - the past
One of the most important current trends in Northeast Asia is the rapid Sino-South Korean rapprochement, despite several real or made-up difficulties such as the North Korean refugees and the recent controversy concerning the history of the ancient kingdom of Koguryo. This trend has led some Western observers to conclude that China has never been as important to Koreans as it is today.

Such an observation could not be more fallacious from an Asiatic perspective. The fact of the matter is that in the past China has, on occasion, been a lot more important to Koreans than it is today - and not just once, but a few times. Furthermore, these experiences still influence, much more heavily than the history of the hapless kingdom of Koguryo does, current and future events in Northeast Asia.

To start with, there was the devastating invasion of Korea (1592-98) by the Japanese warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi. This author has had the opportunity to read in their entirety all the "veritable records" of the Yi dynasty (Yijo silrok) related to this invasion, written in elegant classical Chinese. These first-hand Korean documents, whose reading is a prerequisite in my opinion for any discussion of past Sino-Korean relations, demonstrate beyond any doubt China's then critical importance vis-a-vis the very existence of the Korean state, from which the current nuclear crisis in North Korea is a far cry.

One also begins to realize after reading these records why the Hideyoshi invasion is still central to Korean people's collective consciousness today, second only to their even more traumatic experience under the more recent Japanese colonial rule.

At least one Western author, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, understands the historical relevance of this experience. In a cover story published several years ago in the all-too-authoritative Foreign Affairs journal, Kristof mentioned the famous "Ear Mound" in Kyoto, in which the ears and noses of tens of thousands of the Korean victims of the Hideyoshi invasion were buried. Such a macabre monument of historical atrocity would no doubt play a much more important future role than whatever controversy surrounds the kingdom of Koguryo, Eurocentric wishes notwithstanding.

The Hideyoshi invasion was also one of the critical factors leading to the Ming Dynasty's demise just a few decades later, as China's help to the Koreans greatly exhausted the Ming regime, weakening its ability to fend off the imminent threat of the Manchus. The Yi Dynasty's staunch loyalty to the Ming during this period, often at great risk to its Korean subjects themselves, led to many interesting stories and is also an active area of historical research.

This chain of events was to repeat itself near the end of the Qing Dynasty - except a weakened China was unable to help defend and maintain the existence of Korea as a state, whose disappearance on the world map demonstrated again China's then much greater importance than that of today.

Japan colonization more interesting than Koguryo
Incidentally, this history of the brutal colonization of Korea by Japan is apparently attracting a lot more interest than that of the ancient Koguryo, as evinced by the recent South Korean legislation to investigate the history of Korean collaborators in this process. And a palpable "Anglo-Saxon" role in supporting Japan's conquest of Korea may turn out an even bigger issue, hence probably the Koguryo distraction we are witnessing today.

It is well known that the rise of Japan concurred with a growing Anglo-Japanese alliance officially sealed in 1902 after long percolation. It is reported that the late US president Theodore Roosevelt, a politician famously known "to speak softly but carry a big stick", was once a "secret member" of this alliance. At least one Korean-American historian has studied possible "Anglo-assistance" in the navy battles during the First Sino-Japanese War triggered by the Japanese encroachment of Korea.

This "Anglo-Saxon role" became all too apparent when Japan's annexation of Korea accelerated during and after the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), culminating in Roosevelt dispatching his secretary of war (later the 27th president of the US) William Howard Taft (1857-1930) to conclude the famous (or infamous, depending on one's perspective) Taft-Taro agreement, with Japanese prime minister Katsura Taro (1847-1913), acknowledging the two countries' respective annexation of the Philippines and Korea. One will no doubt hear more about these Anglo-Saxon "historical sins" in Japan's colonization of Korea, as once hinted by the French daily Le Monde, and to the even greater dismay of some Eurocentric observers.

On the other hand, despite the reversed fortunes of both Koreans and Chinese, their leaders never stopped striving to restore the state of Korea. This started with Yuan Shikai (1859-1916), the commander of the Chinese forces in Korea during the First Sino-Japanese War, who had married a Korean woman. Yuan later became the first formal president of the Republic of China after the Qing Dynasty collapsed not long after losing that war, and earned the unflattering epithet "the grand thief who stole the Republic". Yuan enthusiastically supported the restoration of the Korean state nonetheless.

This was followed by all Chinese Republic leaders, Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925) and Chiang Kai-shek (1886-1975) in particular. Chiang became a staunch supporter and financier of the provisional government of the Republic of Korea, mobilizing, for instance, all Chinese resources in sheltering and protecting its leader Kim Koo (1876-1949) after the attack (or one may say "terrorist act") in 1932, by the Korean activists including the famous Korean independence martyr Yoon Bong-kil, against the top Japanese military leaders in the colonial concession in Shanghai. During the darkest days of the Second Sino-Japanese War, Chiang made sure that Kim Koo received ample funding from the Chinese government. Small wonder that the entire generation of Korean independence leaders on both the left and the right had close relations with China.

Moreover, Chiang Kai-shek vigorously and in fact single-handedly promoted the establishment of an independent and unified Korea during the Cairo Conference (November 1943) and other international preparations for the post-World War II world order, whereas all other major powers, the Soviet Union and the United States in particular, were only interested in some sort of the United Nations' trusteeship and de facto partition of the Korean Peninsula. This partition later became a sorry reality, especially after the assassination of Korea's greatest son in modern history, Kim Koo, in 1949, "by pro-American elements" as many claim.

Closer to unification, this unsavory part of history and the US role therein will undoubtedly be attracting a lot of attention, Koguryo controversy or no Koguryo controversy.

The mutual importance of China and Korea to each other continued after the partition of the Korean Peninsula. It is universally agreed that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) lost its historical chance to "liberate Taiwan" due to Josef Stalin's order to Mao Zedong to rescue the Kim Il-sung regime during the Korean War. Otherwise, Chiang Kai-shek would have lived out his years much the same way as did Rhee Syngman (1875-1965) in a foreign country.

Sino-Korean relations - the future
Nobody in his or her right mind today still questions the gradual implosion of the Kim dynasty in North Korea. Not even the CCP has any illusions on the long-term survival of its erstwhile "lips and teeth" little-brother regime. Everybody is juggling and maneuvering for the eventual and inevitable unification or rather absorption of North Korea by South Korea. The only question is when - and how.

Meanwhile, a much bigger geopolitical game is being staged in the broader Asian theater. In the words of David Shambaugh, noted China expert at George Washington University, "China [is] rapidly returning to its traditional role as the central actor in Asia." The International Herald Tribune this year described this as "two fundamental trends - a new security environment that resembles the ancient Chinese tributary system, and the rise of China's soft power". In other words, back to the "bad old days" when the Son of Heaven in Beijing called the shots in Asia.

However, this time "China's soft power" is no longer Confucianism, but the even more influential economic and trading power in this rapidly globalizing world economy. And Koreans, befitting their ancient proud self-appellation of being a "mini-China", have certainly caught the tide early on. The world has just witnessed the epochal event in 2003 when two-way Sino-South Korea trade exceeded that between South Korea and the No 1 economy on earth, the US, barely 10 years after the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two Cold War ideological and battlefield enemies. According to Chosen Ilbo, more and more unemployed young South Koreans are swarming to China, regrettably not to help their famished Northern brethren, but to seek their personal fortunes in the booming Chinese economy and the ever-expanding Sino-Korean trade.

It is of course not only the South Koreans who have jumped on this "back to traditional Asia" bandwagon, the Korean diaspora in the rest of world has sensed it too. One of its members, Soon Bum-ahn, a lieutenant-colonel in the US Army and a research fellow at US RAND, the mother of all think-tanks, published an insightful article in Current History magazine in 2001, properly titled "China as number one", prophesying "the return to Sinocentrism" in East Asia, a future that will leave the US armed forces few prospects for remaining in the Korean Peninsula.

It is therefore quite understandable that some outside observers start to worry about "South Korea's perilous historical revisionism" in its many efforts to reconcile with North Korea. Worse still, the so-called historical revisionism now pervades the entire political spectrum from left to right in South Korea, including even the military, all allegedly turning a blind eye to the North's "crimes against humanity".

N Korea is odious, but Koreans should decide future
This author has no intention whatsoever to defend the North Korean regime. I agree that it is one of the most odious regimes on Earth, and wish for its quick and peaceful demise. But I also have high confidence that the Korean people themselves in both South and North have the best knowledge and ability in navigating through this difficult time.

While acknowledging the current dreadful living conditions of most North Koreans in their communist utopia, let us not forget that, according to the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) country books, as late as 1976, the year of Mao's death, North Koreans still enjoyed a higher per capita income than that of the South Koreans. On the other hand, even the current "trickle" of North Korean political and economic refugees reaching South Korea has already created major financial and societal burdens in the form of settlement costs and the reported high crime rate among the refugees, according to the rather conservative Chosen Ilbo.

And talking about "crimes against humanity", in addition to what was committed in Kwangju in 1980 under the watch of the US, should one conveniently forget the massacre of the unarmed and innocent villagers at No Gun Ri, or the US Air Force's saturation bombing of North Korean cities, the use of napalm, the attacks on irrigation dams to cause flooding, to list just a few, during the Korean War, as bravely raised in the New York Times by an American professor working in South Korea. This list will surely get longer as the "historical revisionism" progresses in Korea.

War, preemptive or otherwise, is always hell. It is thus interesting to see the reference to the 1961 Treaty of Mutual Assistance between China and North Korea as a basis for China's possible military intervention in the Korean Peninsula. Not by coincidence, it is widely reported in Chinese media that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il constantly reminds China of the treaty obligations when Beijing is trying very hard not to "remember" them, so to shirk all the obligations therein. The current Chinese government may still be authoritarian and politically strong-armed, but it is not brainless. With China's exponentially growing trading power and its huge geopolitical returns in East and Southeast Asia, much less a pending military crisis in the Taiwan Strait, who in Beijing would be stupid enough to open an Iraq-type quagmire in the Korean Peninsula?

Finally let us turn to the current nuclear crisis in the Korean Peninsula. If we follow Samuel Huntington of Harvard University, then this is no more than a crisis for the US and Japan only, as Huntington described in Chapter 8 of his famous book, The Clash of Civilizations: many in South Korea would only love to inherit the "Korean bomb" after the inevitable unification of the two Koreas.

Therefore, why should the South Koreans, from ordinary folks to the military, not engage in "historical revisionism" to reduce the enmity and to build up reconciliation between the two Koreas? Or as summarized alarmingly by a recent report, "Most South Koreans no longer view the North as the primary threat to their security. That designation is increasingly reserved for the United States." This is because Koreans know full well that, once a "preemptive" war starts to relieve the US (and to a lesser extent Japan) of this nuclear threat, the blood spilled would be mostly that of the Koreans.

This author for one would never call such "historical revisionism" South Koreans' myopia.

Yu Shiyu has been appointed visiting scholar in East Asian Studies by a major university in North America. He is writing a book on Asian history to be published by a US Ivy League university. He is a regular columnist for Singapore's United Morning News (Lianhe Zaobao).