Those who don’t study historyIt is not very surprising that Chinese President Xi Jinping told U.S. President Donald Trump at a recent summit in Florida that “Korea actually used to be a part of China.” Many Chinese and Taiwanese conveniently interpret Korea-China relations to their advantage. Taiwanese historian Bo Yang (1920-2008) emphasized historical good intentions by saying, “China suffered great damage while trying to protect the Korean Peninsula from invasions but did not send a bill.”
Ming China did send troops during the Japanese invasions of Korea in 1592 and 1597, which led China to fiscal difficulties. Coupled with Li Zicheng’s rebellion, the Ming Dynasty fell to the Manchurians. The Qing Dynasty then lost two Opium Wars from 1840 to 1842 and 1856 to 1860. After being plundered by Western powers, Qing China suffered a critical blow during the Sino-Japanese War of 1895. It is a well-known fact that most Chinese people perceive its latest economic growth and military augmentation as a process of restoring their lost pride.
From the perspectives of international politics, however, the Ming and Qing did not send troops in good will. Historically, China considers the Korean Peninsula a necessary buffer. When North Korea was on the verge of collapse in the early stages of the Korean War in 1950, the fledgling People’s Republic of China sent troops because it did not want to share a border with a nation or force that is against them. China has been emphasizing peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula as its core interest and desires to keep the status quo.
It is unclear if Xi Jinping meant South Korea or North Korea — or both — when he mentioned “Korea.” Trump also may have been referring to North Korea if Xi was discussing the blood brotherhood between Beijing and Pyongyang. Toward the end of the Chinese Civil War (1927-50), North Korea and China signed a secret military agreement to “return” three People’s Liberation Army divisions comprising ethnic Koreans to North Korea on March 18, 1949. The 164th division of the People’s Liberation Army became the fifth division of the North Korean Army, its 166th division the sixth division and the independent 15th division the seventh division.
The three divisions were the main force of North Korea’s southward invasion during the Korean War (1950-53). Ban Ho-san returned to North Korea, leading the 166th division made up of 10,000 Korean-Chinese soldiers with ample field experience. He received the title of hero as he crossed the Han River, occupied the Honam region and advanced to near Masan in South Gyeongsang. History suggests that we cannot rule out the possibility of China considering North Korea as practically part of it.
So Xi could have been discussing the challenges of China-North Korea relations. In 1956, the Yanan faction in the North Korean Worker’s Party joined the pro-Soviet faction to remove Kim Il Sung from the party leadership. After a failed coup attempt in August, all members of the Yanan faction were purged. The North Korean regime has since maintained tension with China. Until Kim Il Sung’s death, he never put a pro-China figure in the posts of foreign minister or ambassador to China. Citing that, Xi could have explained to Trump that China’s influence over North Korea is not very significant in reality.
It is not likely that Xi, the charismatic leader of modern China, so simply and casually told Trump that the Korean Peninsula was part of China. There could have been an error of simplifying words in the course of translation, and Trump, who lacks insight on East Asian history, could have misinterpreted Xi’s words in his favor.
It is easy to get angry at China. But this is no time to fight against China. The priority is to resolve the security crisis of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile program. China and the United States virtually share the understanding that North Korea’s provocations threaten not just the Korean Peninsula but also the security of East Asia and the world. It is time to focus on defending the lives and property of Korea using the military and diplomatic capacities of the United States and China. At this critical juncture, many voters in South Korea complain their presidential candidates are leisurely discussing who the “primary enemy” is, the possible reopening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex and the outcome of the Sunshine Policy instead of providing clear solutions and plans for the crisis of the Korean Peninsula.
JoongAng Ilbo, April 21, Page 32
*The author is an editorial writer for the JoongAng Ilbo.