[Viewpoint] Reflections on the Goguryeo spirit

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[Viewpoint] Reflections on the Goguryeo spirit

I recently visited the ancient Korean kingdom known as Goguryeo (37 B.C.-668). The Northeast Asian History Foundation, established to keep Korean history from being obscured or subsumed by China’s Northeast Project, sponsored my tour.

Goguryeo’s capital of Guknaeseong, as it is known in the history books, is the modern city of Jian. It is located just across the Amnok River, known as the Yalu in China, from North Korea’s North Pyongan Province. The Hwando and Onyeo mountain fortresses are located nearby.

It took a six-hour car ride to get from Shenyang to Jian, and the landscape along the way was highly familiar. The mountains were low and plains wide, and rice was growing everywhere.

“Rice grows in the wide land of Manchuria,” according to the lyrics of a Korean folk song. “Where rice grows, we live. Let’s build our lives by cultivating the wasteland of Manchuria and planting rice.” As the lyrics make plain, rice is the traditional crop of the Korean people. In China’s “New Book of Tang,” the chapter on Balhae (698-926), founded by survivors of the Goguryeo Kingdom after its collapse, recorded that rice is the indigenous product of Balhae.

Korean immigrants who left their homeland at the end of Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) sang the folk song and farmed rice there. The tombstone of King Gwanggaeto the Great (374-412) stood in Manchuria, indicating that the land was once the territory of Goguryeo. As if they knew what would happen to them, our ancestors recorded a detailed history on the four surfaces of the tombstone, handing down a lesson that we must never forget this territory. It was an immense footprint that no one can erase.

At the old territory of Goguryeo, a thought about North Korea and unification lingered in my mind for a long time. At an empty lot next to my hotel in Jian, a market opened every morning. Farmers presented various vegetables, freshly made tofu, pork, chicken and bread. The prices were cheap. Makeshift tents serving as restaurants were crowded with people enjoying inexpensive breakfasts.

If food is so abundant in China, why is the North, located just across the river, starving? The climates and soil are no different. What led to the devastation of the North?

At the river, I went for a ride on a tourist boat. I was so close to North Korean land. A truck passed on a deserted road, bellowing smoke. It was a charcoal-burning car. I thought North Korea must open up its country and reform so its people won’t starve any more, just like China did.

The China-North Korea border along the river wasn’t tightly guarded. There was no Chinese border guard. Isn’t there a way to provide necessities to North Koreans by using the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture as a base? Instead of tearing down the tightly guarded inter-Korean border, might we not achieve the dream of unification through the China-North Korea border?

To this end, the Chinese government’s cooperation is crucial. For Korea’s unification, China is not a variable, but an invariable.

China shares 1,200 kilometers (745 miles) of border with Korea. If something dramatic happens in North Korea, hordes of refugees may flee across the border and become a serious headache.

The border in the area has always been unclear. It is possible that a dispute will arise over who owns what. The Northeast Project of China was actually designed to prevent such disputes. China argued that Goguryeo was a regional government of China, continuing the argument to conclude that the area long belonged to China. When the theory is expanded, Pyongyang, which was the capital of Goguryeo during its later period, could be seen as a part of Chinese territory, and it may be used as grounds for China to exercise its jurisdiction over North Korea at a time of crisis.

The Northeast Project is being carried out extensively. Near Mount Paektu (Changbai Mountain in China), roads, hotels and ski resorts are being built. China long ignored the mountain, but suddenly launched a tourism promotion campaign in 2008, calling it one of the 10 most scenic mountains in China.

The mountain used to be under the authority of the Jilin Province, but the central government took over supervisory power. Most of the tourists were Koreans until last year, but now Chinese tourists flock there.

On top of the volcanic crater of Cheonji, a signboard reads: “The homeland’s interest precedes everything.” I’m not arguing that the old territory of Goguryeo must become Korean territory, as our ancestors gave it up and decided to stay on the peninsula.

History, however, is not based on lands, but on culture and spirit. What was the Goguryeo spirit? I say that spirit is all about progressiveness and engagement.

We forgot that spirit for more than 1,000 years, but thankfully, we have regained our progressiveness over the past six decades. When our routes to the continent were blocked, we turned our eyes to the seas and built the prosperity of today.

Without a spirit of engagement, we cannot become the owner of the continent. The progressive spirit is about finding commonality to live together, rather than looking for differences. If Goguryeo was unable to engage the wide variety of tribes on the continent, how would it have been possible for it to unite such vast lands?

In the past, we divided by factional fights and confrontation between aristocrats and commoners. Today, the divisions are expanding between the two Koreas, between the Gyeongsang and Jeolla regions and between rich and poor. It is time to revive our Goguryeo spirit.

*The writer is a senior columnist at the JoongAng Ilbo.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

By Moon Chang-keuk
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