August 28, 2017 8:30 am JST
China up close

Was Korean Peninsula part of China? Xi and the Han dynasty game plan

Kim Jong Un's disobedience could lead to drastic change in Asia's geopolitical landscape

KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei senior staff writer

Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives to hold a meeting with Kazakhstan's Prime Minister Karim Massimov at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in March 2015.

TOKYO -- Back in April, Chinese President Xi Jinping raised many eyebrows when he reportedly told U.S. President Donald Trump that Korea "used to be part of China."

Well, that is at least what Trump told the Wall Street Journal he had heard from the Chinese president at their first encounter at his posh Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.

Here is Trump's full quote:

"[Xi] then went into the history of China and Korea. Not North Korea, Korea. And you know, you're talking about thousands of years ...and many wars. And Korea actually used to be a part of China."

The retelling sparked outrage in South Korea. Some observers there even insisted Xi's remarks must have been mistranslated.

The Silk Road envoy

Whether Xi actually said those words aside, it is interesting to speculate what Xi had in mind when he was referring to the region's past.

One Oriental history expert said the "mistranslation" theory was off the mark. "If you are familiar with ancient history, you should recall what Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty did."

The expert also said a speech Xi delivered during a visit to Kazakhstan in the autumn of 2013 gives insight into the top Chinese leader's mindset vis-a-vis the Korean Peninsula.

In a landmark speech, at Nazarbayev University in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, where he introduced the "Silk Road Economic Belt," initiative, Xi opened his remarks by talking about the imperial envoy Zhang Qian of the Western Han Dynasty.

"Zhang Qian was sent to Central Asia twice to open the door to friendly contacts between China and Central Asian countries," Xi said. "People in regional countries created the history of friendship along the ancient Silk Road through the ages," he added.

He said that the proposed economic belt along the Silk Road "is inhabited by close to three billion people, and represents the biggest market in the world with unparalleled potential."

A month later in Indonesia, Xi floated the idea of a "Maritime Silk Road," and the two proposals constitute his signature Belt and Road Initiative, otherwise known as the "One Belt, One Road" plan.

The grandiose initiative calls for creating a huge economic zone from China to Europe.

More than two millennia ago, Emperor Wu, the seventh emperor of the Western Han, sent Zhang to Xiyu -- the countries located west of China. The mission would become integral to Silk Road trade.

2,100 years ago...

Although Xi did not mention it, Zhang Qian was not merely a peace envoy. When Emperor Wu routed the nomadic Xiongnu tribes and expanded his empire's sphere of influence in Xiyu, Zhang Qian acted as a guide. The expansionist Emperor Wu later turned east to conquer a vast region encompassing what is now China's Liaoning Province and the Korean Peninsula.

In 108 B.C., Emperor Wu destroyed Wiman Joseon, a state of ancient Korea, and established the Four Commanderies of Han, including the Lelang Commandery, as outposts of the Western Han.

The Lelang Commandery was based near what is now Pyongyang, North Korea's capital. It stood in one form or another for more than 400 years, outlasting the Western Han. Later, the Daifang Commandery was formed further south.

Was Xi referring to this period in history? One clue may be in Trump's words. "And you know, you're talking about thousands of years," he said. The Lelang Commandery was established more than 2,100 years ago.

A blank spot in history

Koreans have always been sensitive to Chinese attempts to recharacterize the Korean kingdom of Goguryeo (37 BC to 668 AD) as a northern Chinese ethnic state. Xi's remarks were received with anger in Seoul as it looked like yet another effort to rewrite Korean history.

Every country has its own history books. And museums. Earlier this summer, this reporter visited the National Museum of Korea in Seoul to learn about this period in history. In Japanese high schools, all students attending world history lessons learn about Emperor Wu, Zhang Qian and the establishment of the Lelang Commandery. The museum in Seoul, however, skipped over the 400 or so years in which the Lelang Commandery existed.

In fact, some South Korean scholars subscribe to the theory that the Lelang Commandery never existed on the Korean Peninsula, despite the archaeological evidence unearthed near Pyongyang.

The museum exhibition depicts ancient Korea, bypasses the era of the Lelang Commandery, and goes straight into the later Three Kingdoms Period.

No longer listening to China

That Xi had Trump's ear must have given Seoul pause. Later, during a press conference, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman was called on to clarify Xi's statements. The spokesman neither confirmed nor denied that the president said the Korean Peninsula "actually used to be a part of China." Instead, he simply said, "There is nothing for South Koreans to worry about."

Xi, however, is well-versed in Emperor Wu's eastward military advancement. He knew what he was talking about.

There are many online posts in China calling for Xi to realize his much-touted "Chinese dream," his "great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation," and thereby become a modern-day Emperor Wu, although this may be the result of the Xi regime's propaganda efforts.

At any rate, it is quite natural for ordinary Chinese to compare Xi to Wu.

Emperor Wu used the Korean Peninsula as his bridgehead to the east. In modern day Asia, North Korea has acted as a buffer for China since the end of the Korean War, keeping U.S. troops stationed in South Korea away from China's border.

And North Korea has mostly acquiesced to Chinese diplomacy. But now that North Korea is said to have nuclear arms and intercontinental ballistic missiles, Pyongyang is no longer at China's beck and call.

Replacing Kim

On Aug. 21, the U.S. and South Korea kicked off their annual Ulchi-Freedom Guardian military exercise in South Korea. North Korea has always taken the drills as an affront. The exercise involved computer simulations, one of which reportedly plays out a "decapitation" plan in which North Korean leader Kim Jong Un would be targeted in the event of war breaking out on the peninsula.

"Ulchi" comes from the name of Eulji Mundeok, a famous Goguryeo general and Korean hero who in the seventh century defeated the 300,000 Chinese troops sent by Emperor Yang of the Sui dynasty. That fight, the Battle of Salsu, took place near what is now Pyongyang.

Emperor Yang was the second emperor of the Sui dynasty, which reunified China. The Battle of Salsu came about 300 years after Goguryeo destroyed the Lelang Commandery and annexed the Chinese outpost.

If the U.S. military were to take military action against North Korea, Xi would have to make a difficult decision.

One option would be to follow in the footsteps of Emperor Wu and send Chinese troops into North Korea to establish a modern-day Lelang Commandery. This would drastically alter the geopolitical landscape in Asia.

As it stands, Kim chooses to ignore China. If Xi were to dust off the ancient Han dynasty game plan and build a bridgehead under China's full control on the Korean Peninsula, he will have to replace Kim as the top North Korean leader.

Call it China's own "decapitation" plan.

How to respond to a possible war on the Korean Peninsula between the U.S. and North Korea remains Xi's conundrum.

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