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Was Korea Ever Part of China? It's Complicated

24 Apr 2017
By Emeritus Professor James Cotton FAIIA
14th c. Kyung Bok Palace in Seoul. Photo credit: Diocese of Salford, Creative Commons.

After meeting with Xi Jinping, Donald Trump told the world that Korea used to be part of China, apparently relying on his guest’s telling of history. Notwithstanding Trump’s ill-advised commentary on an issue of great sensitivity, the truth of the matter is more complicated than media coverage suggests.

US President Donald Trump’s ignorance and gullibility has been on display, so it has been claimed, since he accepted unquestioningly the opinion expressed by Chinese President Xi Jinping that Korea was once part of China. The Republic of Korea’s foreign ministry stated, “it is a fact recognised by the international community that Korea was not a part of China during the thousands of years of historical relations between the two.” But in this case, was the source for President Trump’s opinions a little more reliable than his accustomed Fox News?

Was Korea ever ruled by China? This is not a straightforward question; the answer depends upon the meanings attached to its key terms. The story of the names that the states themselves employed to refer to their various realms would fill a book (the last chapter of which would dwell on the fact that Koreans North and South use different names for their modern countries).

First: ‘Korea’. The term Korea is problematic, since it refers both to a nation-state and to a geographic region. Since modern Koreans assert that their nation has a distinct history of more than two millennia, it is often assumed that the nation-state and the region are one and the same. This proposition is not entirely accurate—in the same sense that ‘English history’ is a complex concept—but will do for present purposes.

What of ‘China’? Chinese history covers a very long period and a great diversity of phenomena. During some phases of Chinese history, the geographical entity that is now the modern state was ruled by dynasties that were neither principally nor originally speakers of the Chinese language. These dynasties notably included the Yuan (or Mongol: 1271-1368) and the Qing (or Manchu: 1644-1912). Chinese scholars generally refer to these dynasties as ‘Chinese’ in the sense that China has been (some claim still is) a multi-ethnic state.

During these dynastic periods, Korea was certainly invaded and occupied by the armies of these states. Korea then became as much a part of their realms as many other peripheral regions ruled by local notables. So the claim that Korea was not part of China would have to exclude these eras. However, the rulers of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) routinely awarded the Korean king his official title, indicating his dependent or tributary relationship—which explains why the Ming took such trouble, despite other pressing problems, to send armies in the 1590s with the mission to expel Japanese invaders of the Korean peninsula. This latter set of exchanges might, nevertheless, be set aside as not strictly constituting possession or domination.

But this is not the end of the story. The Chinese often refer to their ethnicity as ‘Han’, using the same term as the name of the early (but not quite first) dynasty to unify ‘China’ (206 BCE–220 CE). The rule of this dynasty extended to a part of the Korean peninsula. The principal city in one of the administrative regions in question was near modern-day Pyongyang and included within its boundaries the area around modern Seoul. The North Korean national history museum exhibits many artefacts from tombs of this era but the commentary displayed makes no mention of China and the guides, if questioned, will vehemently deny any ‘Chinese’ presence. Though the propagandistic character of this commentary is quite evident, a subtler version of the same position can be detected in South Korea’s blanket rejection of the notion of Chinese rule on the peninsula.

Of course, the most significant element in the current controversy is surely the fact that the American president would repeat a story told to him by the Chinese leader about a nation with which the United States has maintained the closest security relationship since 1950, without first consulting one of his legion of knowledgeable staff.

Professor James Cotton is a fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs. He is an emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales and former head of politics at UNSW at the Australian Defence Force Academy.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.