U.S. President Donald Trump’s careless remark in an interview that “Korea actually used to be a part of China” has been drawing flak, the latest in a series of unpredictable and dismaying gestures upsetting the South Korea-U.S. alliance.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal last week, Trump described his recent summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping and said: “He then went into the history of China and Korea. Not North Korea, Korea. And you know, you’re talking about thousands of years… and many wars. And Korea actually used to be a part of China. And after listening for 10 minutes I realized that… it’s not so easy.”
The newspaper did not report this remark from the interview held on April 12, but it was included in the full transcript, which was posted online. Belatedly it attracted media attention in Seoul.
At their summit at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida earlier this month, the two leaders spoke through interpreters, and it is not known whether President Xi really said that Korea was a part of China or if Trump came up with that interpretation on his own.
In the interview, Trump goes on to say, “You know I felt pretty strongly that they have - that they had - a tremendous power over China,” presumably referring to North Korea. “I actually do think they do have an economic power, and they have certainly a border power to an extent.”
The first summit between the leaders came as Washington pressured China to exert greater pressure on North Korea over its nuclear weapons threats and missile tests. It also came as China has taken economic retaliation against Seoul over the deployment of the U.S.-led Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) missile shield, straining relations between the two Northeast Asian neighbors.
Cho June-hyuck, a spokesman of the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in a briefing Thursday, “It is a clear historical fact recognized by the international community, which cannot by denied by anyone, that Korea was not a part of China over the past several thousands of years of history of Korea-China relations.”
He added that after hearing reports about Trump’s remark yesterday, the Foreign Ministry is in the process of confirming if it was true.
“We are confirming through many diplomatic routes, including the U.S. and China, whether it is true,” said Cho.
The White House has not yet clarified the remark. This follows the realization this week that the U.S. Navy’s Carl Vinson Strike Group, which the White House claimed was deployed toward the Korean Peninsula amid heightened tensions with Pyongyang, was actually heading in the opposite direction.
One diplomatic source told the JoongAng Ilbo about Trump’s remark, “While it bears confirmation if President Xi really did make such a remark, the Korean public would react sensitively, and because it is a historical issue, the government would need to take stern action.”
Korea views the Northeast Project of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, which launched between 2002 and 2007, as an attempt by China to incorporate the history of Korea’s Goguryeo (37 B.C. - A.D. 668) and Balhae (698-926) kingdoms into its own history.
But Lu Kang, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, said in a briefing about the U.S. president’s remark, “The Korean people do not have to worry,” indirectly denying Trump’s words.
U.S. expert Choi Woon-do, a research fellow with the Northeast Asian History Foundation, said Trump’s remark should be taken with a grain of salt, pointing out that it could have been a simplification or misinterpretation of Xi’s remarks.
“Trump wouldn’t say something that wasn’t discussed,” pointed out Choi.
“But we are hearing what President Trump relays as what President Xi said. Trump could be accurately requoting the remark that ‘Korea is a part of China,’ or he could have misinterpreted Xi’s remark that Korea was under the influence of China.”
Choi added, “Chinese people generally are aware of the tributary system between China and Korea, which was not just an issue with Korea but Vietnam and other countries.” But that doesn’t mean they don’t recognize Korea’s independence historically, he pointed out.
“The official expression that the Northeast Project used is that Goguryeo was China’s regional government,” said Choi.
“Knowing all this, Xi would not likely have described Korea as a part of China.”
Choi continued, “With a situation such as Thaad, China may consider Korea a country that should follow its policies. But it is not necessary to link this specific example to some larger historical message.”
BY SARAH KIM [email@example.com]