October 2020 was marked by yet another flare-up of trouble in Sino-South Korean relations over how different countries react to the memory of the 1950-53 Korean War.
First, on October 7, on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Korean War, the much-hyped K-pop boyband BTS received an award from the non-profit association Korea Society for Promoting US-Korean Relations. In his acceptance speech, the band leader emphasized: “We will always remember the history of pain that our two nations shared together and the sacrifice of countless men and women.”
In response, in a story filed with the headline “BTS Hurts the Feelings of Chinese Netizens and Fans during a Speech on the Korean War,” the Chinese state daily tabloid Global Times called the remark one that reflected a one-sided attitude. Moreover, Chinese social media users stated that BTS looked down on the sacrifices of the Chinese people who fought on the North Korea’s side during the war. On the Chinese social media platforms, such as Weibo, users have shared hashtags and posts condemning the band and threatening to boycott brands affiliated with the band.
The Chinese anger toward BTS was so huge that Samsung Electronics and Hyundai Motor pulled products branded with the K-pop band from the Chinese market.
But much more stir was caused by Xi Jinping’s speech on October 23, 2020, at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, marking the anniversary of China’s entry into the Korean war. As the PRC’s General Secretary said, “seventy years ago, the imperialist invaders fired upon the doorstep of a new China,” but the Chinese people might “destroy the fiction on the American military’s invincibility.” In his words, China’s intervention in the fratricidal conflict “prevented the expansion of imperialism and stabilized the situation on the Korean Peninsula.” Xi Jinping stressed that “we will never sit back and watch the damage to our national sovereignty. We will never allow any force to invade or divide the sacred territory of our homeland.”
Since Jiang Zemin in 2000, it was the first time for a Chinese leader to speak during a ceremony marking China’s entry into the 1950-53 war, and Xi was not the only one to speak out from this perspective. An anniversary documentary by state broadcaster CCTV described the events as “a war to resist US aggression and aid (North) Korea” and a defensive move after the US deployed naval forces in the Taiwan Strait two days after the war began. The Communist Youth League of China also stated on its Weibo page that the Korean War was a conflict between the two parts of the Korean Peninsula.
Xi Jinping’s speech and the Chinese backlash to BTS’s actions caused a huge stir in Korea, after which the Chinese leadership began to be accused of trying to distort history. As the Korean mass media wrote, “Xi Jinping deserves criticism for his remarks clearly glorifying China’s entry into the 1950-1953 Korean War”, since “the engagement by Chinese troops resulted in millions of war victims by it aiding the initiator of the war. The counterattack by the United Nations allies led by the US was a justifiable defense to push the aggressors back to the border.”
On October 24, South Korea hit back stating that it was North Korea’s invasion that triggered the Korean War. To prove this historical fact as undeniable, the Ministry referred to UN Security Council Resolutions 82, 83 and 84, which described the fact that the North Korean Armed Forces invaded the South as an aggression. They called for an immediate end to hostilities and the withdrawal of troops beyond the 38th parallel.
Minister of National Defense Seo Wook also reminded that the Korean War started as the North Korean Armed Forces invaded the South on June 25, 1950, backed by China and the Soviet Union. He expressed strident rebuttals with the statement of the PRC’s General Secretary that China’s aid to North Korea had helped preventing the expansion of imperialism and stabilize the situation on the Korean Peninsula.
The US State Department then hit back. “The fact is that North Korea invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950 with Mao Zedong’s backing. When free nations fought back, the CCP sent hundreds of thousands of troops across the Yalu, guaranteeing the Korean Peninsula’s devastation,” department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus wrote on Twitter.
The criticism of right-wing experts was largely based on the fact that “the Chinese narrative of the Korean War could spread a false understanding of history in the international community”, but the author wants to more seriously discuss to what extent it is worth describe the war as an “imperialist US invasion.”
It is obvious that the South Korean historical narrative views the Korean War as an epic confrontation with communism, where China and North Korea are perceived as allies, especially since China’s entry into the war put an end to the South Korean leadership’s plans to “reunite the country.” Even during the reign of Moon Jae-in, during the next revision of school textbooks in the sections on the Korean War, it was specially emphasized that the North invaded the South and there could be no other interpretations.
However, in China during the Xi Jinping years, the Korean War has been looked at as one of three wars in which China nobly defended Korea from external invasion, along with the Imjin War of 1592-1598 and the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895. In this respect, from the Chinese point of view, the legitimate state on the territory of the peninsula was not the South, but the North. This confrontation highlights three ideological issues, in each of which the South Korean narrative might be at least called into question.
The first one concerns the thesis that South Korea is more legitimate than North Korea. This fact of legitimacy is based on the recognition of the results of the South Korean elections by the UN, however, it should be noted that there was substantive discussion on this matter even among the members of the UN Interim Committee on Korea, since the level of coercion and falsifications was too high, and a number of influential political forces did not critically participate in elections, considering them separate. In addition, from the very beginning, there were no attempts to hold elections in the North. As a result, the recognition of the South by the international community was largely due to the political conjuncture of the Cold War, which ultimately destroyed the possibility of resolving this issue by Moscow and Washington bilaterally.
Meanwhile, from the point of view of legitimacy, the claims of the North are preferable for two reasons. First, North Korean power structures grew, albeit formally, from the people’s committees formed after the country’s liberation, which were dismissed in the South. Secondly, the North made an effort to organize an electoral process in the South, and the first People’s Assembly included the representatives of South Korea, elected during this procedure.
The second thesis refers to the fact that the North suddenly invaded the peaceful and unsuspecting South. This is not the case because throughout 1949, military collisions took place on the border of the North and the South, which could have been in nature of a confrontation between battalion-size units backed by air- and land-based fires. Even according to Western data, it turns out that there were three or four such incidents a day, and, if going by to B. Cummings or W. Stueck, a significant part of them were initiated by the Syngman Rhee regime or the South Korean military. This level of the conflict intensity was practically similar to the final, “trench” period of the Korean War, when the front line was finally stabilized.
If we add to this numerous leftist demonstrations throughout South Korea, of which the most famous are the uprisings on the island of Jejudo or the uprisings in Yeosu-Suncheon, then it is not surprising that some leftist historians openly say that there was a civil war in South Korea, which only cooled down in March 1950, when the authorities began to carry out an agrarian reform that averted a significant part of the peasantry from armed opposition to the regime.
This should be added with a whole series of bellicose statements by both Syngman Rhee and representatives of the top leadership of the Republic of Korea. Rhee’s famous letter to his American lobbyist Robert Oliver was written in such a style that, when it was published, it was mistaken for a model of the North Korean propaganda, which portrayed Syngman Rhee as a caricatured villain. Only the fact that Oliver acknowledged the existence of the letter and his response to it (in which, incidentally, Rhee was advised to tamp down his ardor), contributed to including this letter into the set of sources. However, a number of other documents and statements that fell into the hands of the North after the seizure of Seoul are still considered products of propaganda.
The third thesis is adjacent to the second and is related to Xi Jinping’s remark that the Korean War was a war against China. There are also enough arguments to back this viewpoint. First, a fair number of strategists from the circle of Syngman Rhee openly made detailed plans, where the elimination of the communist North grew into a global war against communism, in which the United States and Kuomintang China, and in some cases even Japan, were to participate from the very beginning. It is worth noting that, for participating in the victory over communism, great Korea was to receive either the whole of Manchuria and the Liaodong Peninsula, or at least a part of the adjacent territory of China with a predominantly Korean population. Such documents are well known, but some of them are also considered as the North Korean propaganda due to the circumstances of their publication, and some are deemed “private” works of fiction, which does not allow to absolutely attribute them to the product of state policy. More importantly, General MacArthur considered himself as commander-in-chief in the war against communism from the very beginning, and since taking office he repeatedly proposed to the central leadership to expand the scale of the war, including the use of nuclear weapons and the opening of a second front in China. The first such proposals were made even before the participation of Chinese volunteers in the war and were associated with the fact that the Korean War was perceived by the American rightists not as a civil war between North and South, but as the first stage of the global plan of Moscow and Beijing to communize Asia.
It was right within such narratives, as well as for operational reasons, that MacArthur allowed the so-called zealous pursuit operations, in which American military aircraft could fly over the northern borders of the DPRK and destroy those objects that were considered as support infrastructure, especially at the stage of the war when the United States controlled most of the North. The target of such air raids was not only China, but also the Soviet Union, however, after the “trial balloon” in the form of an air raid on the Sukhaya Rechka airfield near Vladivostok, Moscow’s response was tough enough for the United States to abandon the practice.
In such a situation, Mao could not help but decide to aid the North, despite the fact that about half of the Chinese leadership opposed. In the author’s opinion, it was because the Chinese leader was not sure that, having finally liquidated the sovereignty of North Korea and reaching the border with China, American troops would not move further, for example, on the pretense of irreversibly crashing the North Korean rump on the Chinese territory. One also should not forget that China’s place in the UN Security Council was occupied by a representative of the Kuomintang, and if the war in Korea was successful for the United States, the organization could well approve the next operation of its troops to “restore legitimacy and return mainland China to its rightful owner.”
That is why the author has come across the viewpoint that the sending of Chinese people’s volunteers to Korea did not so much increase the conflict, but, on the contrary, helped prevent its growing into World War III. This viewpoint is also spread in China itself, where, against the background of the Sino-US confrontation, Korean attempts to challenge this emerging narrative are met with no less tough opposition than the South Korean defense of their own state fictions.
In such an environment, relations between Beijing and Seoul will remain far from perfect, and the fantasies of conservatives about Moon’s pro-Beijing course will remain just ideological fantasies.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, a leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.