[FOUNTAIN]A tombstone is a pawn in a modern spatIn 1880 near Jian, in China’s Jilin province, a farmer found a giant stone monument covered with moss and vines. It was the tombstone of King Gwanggaeto of the Goguryeo kingdom, a monument forgotten for 1,500 years.
On the four sides of the 6.39-meter-high tombstone, erected in 414 by King Jangsu, were 1,775 Chinese characters extolling his father. “Gwanggaeto” literally means “the king who expanded his territory greatly.” King Gwanggaeto was the 19th king of Goguryeo, which encompassed northern Korea and Manchuria from 37 B.C. to 668 A.D.
In 1889, Japanese researchers argued in a journal that ancient Japan had set up a colonial government in Gaya, in the southeast corner of the peninsula, and ruled Baekje, Gaya and Silla during the fourth century. The assertion was based on 21 characters engraved on the tombstone that the journal interpreted as “Japan crossed the sea and defeated Baekje, Gaya and Silla and made them its subjects.” Later, the assertion was expanded and used as a historical justification for Japan to colonize the Korean Peninsula in the early 20th century.
But in 1972 a Korean-Japanese historian, Lee Jin-hui, contended that the Japanese military had tampered with the tombstone; he said a Japanese spy sent to China in 1883 made a rubbing of the epigraph and altered 25 characters to come up with the pro-Japanese interpretation. Sometime before 1899, he said, the Japanese army had plastered lime on the tombstone to cover up the falsification.
There were supposedly a few rubbings made in 1887 before the tomb was defaced, but it is unclear which are the authentic “original” ones. Neither is there agreement on the exact translation of the controversial 21 characters, which are still at the center of historical disputes between Japan and Korea.
The Chinese government has embarked on a five-year, $2.5 billion research project to portray the history of Goguryeo as a part of China’s history. A group of Korean scholars was barred by Chinese authorities from visiting the site recently.
Some of the other characters on the tombstone are also controversial, and 150 characters are illegible. The tomestone of King Gwanggaeto may become an unwitting pawn again in a modern day dispute over history, a dispute that shows no sign of cooling down.
by Lee Moo-young
The writer is the national news editor of the JoongAng Daily.