A journey to Balhae
About 10 years ago, Korea and Russia participated in a joint excavation of burial grounds in Chernyatino near the city of Ussuriysk. It was brought to my attention that the remains of Okjeo and Balhae, two ancient Korean kingdoms, as well as modern Soviet Koreans’ homes were found in one spot. The three periods in Korean history are closely related to Primorsky Krai. It is especially meaningful that the remains of homes from the three different periods feature ondol, a traditional Korean heating system.
Primorsky Krai was the territory of Balhae, which was founded in 698 and fell in 926. It was a coalition state of the displaced people of Goguryeo and Mohe, so it is a matter of controversy among Korea, China, Russia and Japan over which country can claim the history of Balhae. While Korea and Japan consider Balhae a part of Goguryeo history (37 BC to 668 AD), China and Russia consider it the history of the Mohe people.
While China and Russia are working hard to excavate remains and make it their history, Korea is having a hard time accessing the site. It is clearly a part of Korean history, but many Koreans are not familiar with it. When I told my party on the bus in Primorsky Krai that I hadn’t been able to produce a Balhae expert in 28 years at Seoul National University, their faces hardened. Not many were interested when I argued that China was claiming Balhae history as Chinese history, but many became furious when China claimed Goguryeo as Chinese history. Not only has studying Balhae history become a challenge, it has become a distant subject. I felt like a voice crying in the wilderness.
Balhae was centered in today’s Yanbian and Heilongjiang regions in China. It occupied 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) on all sides and was twice as big as Goguryeo. Balhae stretched to the Amur River to the north. Goguryeo territory was more focused on the south, reaching the Doman River. Balhae had conquered and ruled the Mohe people in Primorsky Krai.
In today’s Primorsky Krai, Balhae’s remains are well-preserved in the Kraskino fortress, Nikolayevsk fortress and Koksharovka-1 fortress. Because the region is not very populous, remains from 1,000 years ago are well-preserved. While the kingdom disappeared long ago, the remains remind us that Korean ancestors had ruled the vast continent of Manchuria and Primorsky Krai.
The fortress on the beach of Kraskino was a port that the people of Balhae had used when they crossed the East Sea. More than 100 people risked their lives to cross the sea in early winter, sailing on the northwest wind and returning in the spring using the southeast wind. Back then, Japan could not cross the sea, so they took the Balhae ships to get to Tang Dynasty China. Korean, Japanese and Chinese scholars compete to investigate and excavate the Kraskino fortress site. Balhae was a kingdom that not only dominated the continent but also pioneered the sea, getting through the rough winter waters.
Since Goryeo (918-1392), Koreans’ activities were reduced to the Korean Peninsula, and after the division, Koreans have been limited to the southern half of the peninsula. North Korean land on the other side of the Tumen River from Khasan is not accessible, and Koreans have forgotten that the peninsula is actually connected to the continent and have been trapped in a virtual island.
At Primorsky Krai, the border control would not allow us to get close to the border, so this time, we had to turn back without looking over to North Korean land beyond the Tumen River. Because of North Korea, we do not realize that we can ride a train to Western Europe through Siberia. The division of the land has led to division in our mind-set. Our thoughts are limited to the southern half of the Korean Peninsula, and the size of our thinking has been reduced.
Now more than ever, we need to think about the continent. True reunification can be attained when not just the land but also our mind-set opens to the continent. The Balhae people lived alongside the people of Silla during the North-South States Period (698-926), and we are now living in the divided states of North and South Korea. We can determine our future by referencing the North-South States Period.
On my flight back to South Korea from Primorsky Krai, flying along the border of Balhae from the the Amur River to the Liaoning Peninsula, I could once again see the vast territory from the sky.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 12, Page 29
*The author is a professor of Korean history at Seoul National University.