I would like to take this opportunity to talk about the background to establishing the Northeast Asian History Foundation in September 2006, and the issues the Foundation has been trying to resolve.
September 21, 2016 marks the 10th anniversary for the foundation. In September 2006 the Chinese government actively promoted the Northeast Project lasting for five years from 2002 to 2007. The project centered on an argument that the history of nations within the current borders of China had all belonged to Chinese history. This study assertion that the history of Koguryo, and related historical sites and relics in the region of Manchuria were part of the history of one local government of China. Koreans would not accept this historical interpretation as we believe Koguryo is an integral part of the history of Korean nation and have been educating our younger generation with this historical identity.
The Foundation was established mainly for responding to the domestic need to educate and research the historical evidence of Koguryo as Korean history. It also works to deny the interpretation that Koguryo in part of the past of Chinese local government. Another task of the Foundation is academic research on Dokdo, well-known as a key element of historical conflicts between Korea and Japan, and on history textbooks of contemporary Japan in regard to militarism. In other words, the essential assignment of the Foundation is to research and study current historical issues inseparable from diplomatic conflict.
Conflicts over history have become prevailing issues between countries in Northeast Asia including Korea, China, and Japan. In fact, international conflicts due to differing perceptions and interpretations of history have always been present around the world. And such historical conflicts sometimes turn into diplomatic or domestic political issues.
In East Asia, historical conflicts have long gone beyond the realm of academia and into diplomacy. Coupled with matters of territory and security, they have emerged as critical factors that either threaten regional order or hinder the formation of regionalism. There are several explanations for these developments.
One aspect would be the source of historical conflicts in East Asia. Such conflicts seem to have been caused by diverging views about Japan’s past. From the viewpoint of countries like Korea and China, which fell victim to Japan’s militarism, Japan has not yet sufficiently apologized for or cleared up after the inhumane crimes it committed against
East Asian countries and their people during World War II. The same can be said for the territorial disputes over Dokdo. The Korean often look at the Japanese claim over Dokdo as continuation and manifestation of history that modern Japan established in the process of its imperialist expansion. Koreans also look at China’s attempt through its Northeast Project to incorporate the history of the ancient Korean kingdom of Koguryo into its own history as the same expansionistic understanding of history.
Despite different historical experiences, Korea, China, and Japan share a very similar paradigm in which to systemize their own history by placing their nation at the center of their history and focusing on the nation’s origin, formation, and development. Such a historiography usually portrays the invasion of a neighboring nation or country as progress or advancement whereas the process of founding a nation-state in modern times tends to be described as honorable resistance against foreign power. This implies that historical conflicts in East Asia need to be understood as outcomes of a modern transition that East Asian countries, obsessed with “dreams of becoming powerful,” that occurred as they built nation-states. Therefore, resolutions to those historical conflicts need to begin with a comprehensive examination of such understandings.
Another aspect has to do with the political use of history in domestic politics. As is well known, the peace and order of a region can be threatened by promotion of popular nationalism, which is usually fueled by the nationalist historiography prevalent in the three countries. China and Japan have already deviated from their course to the point of projecting their future regional strategies into an arrangement of their national history. An example would be the historical perception behind China’s Northeast Project, not to mention Japan’s Uyoku interpretation of militaristic history. In particular, the rationale that Northeast Asia has traditionally belonged to China is widely interpreted in Korea not only as an excuse for taking the Chinese nation’s expansion for granted within the region, but also as a response to the rapidly changing current situation in the region including the Korean Peninsula. Besides projects on the histories of Mongolia or the Qing dynasty, which extend beyond China’s current borders, can be considered to be examples in which China tries to establish its future regional policies based on a new paradigm of history. These are identified by South Korean scholars as a form of the Chinese strategy based on territorial expansionism.
Koreans are especially concerned about the political and diplomatic implications of issues involving history. That may be due to the geopolitical circumstances where Korea has been situated. With the rise of China, East Asia now witnesses a power transition at the regional level. Due to its geopolitical location, Korea is concerned about being sandwiched by the conflict between China’s strategy of expansion and Japan’s selfcentered regional strategy. Korea is now facing the dual challenge of stopping the state of deterioration, which has led the different historical understandings of the three countries immediately into diplomatic conflict, while seeking a formula for regional order that ensures peace and prosperity in East Asia. I believe that overcoming the challenge will be a common goal of specialists on Northeast Asia, whatever their nationality.
The Northeast Asia History Foundation has strived to create an atmosphere of mutual respect and tolerance, predicated on a historical reflection of ‘the modern’ plagued with imperialist aggression and nationalist resistance. This effort will contribute to pave the way toward reginal peace in East Asia in a true sense.
I expect that today’s conference will touch on a variety of current issues in this area, to be discussed by eminent Northeast Asia specialists, and serve the objective of the Foundation with constructive outcomes.