Now, almost 1,400 years later, Chinese scholars are attempting a subtler land grab, claiming that the ancient kingdom of Koguryo was a part of China—a "regional government founded by an ethnic group," as Beijing's state-run Northeast Asia Project put it in June. The argument isn't just academic:
On Aug. 5 Seoul dispatched an official to Beijing to complain about China's "ongoing distortion of the history of Koguryo," including the removal of the kingdom's name from a Chinese Foreign Ministry Web page on Korea. And last week as many as 200 protesters in Seoul—some in period costumes—scuffled with police during demonstrations outside the Chinese embassy. "They think China is trying to eradicate the Korean identity," says Park Sang-seek, head of the Graduate Institute of Peace Studies at Kyung Hee University north of Seoul.
Why does China care? Koguryo's ancient borders extend into northern China, where nearly 2 million ethnic Koreans now live. Beijing apparently fears that if North and South Korea were ever to reunite, these Koreans might try to secede from China, reclaiming Koguryo as part of Korea. "It's possible that a unified Korea could make a claim to some of that territory," says Mark Byington, a Harvard postdoctoral fellow who is writing a book on early Korean history. To head that off, Byington says, China is flogging a flawed interpretation of Koguryo's history that is "obviously ideologically driven." Meanwhile, to fight the Chinese assertions, South Korea has set up its own research institute on Koguryo, with $9 million in annual funding. The battle isn't over yet.