When U.S. President Donald Trump offhandedly stated in an interview that Chinese President Xi Jinping told him that the Korean peninsula had “been part of China, actually,” the fallout from his statement was likely more than he or his aides would have, or could have, anticipated. This diplomatic and political gaffe reveals the central role historical narrative plays in shaping how a country views itself, and subsequently presents itself on the world stage. It also reveals how heavily understanding of historical fact depends on who is telling the story, and often just as importantly, who listens.
South Korea’s presidential candidates, seeking the office vacated by the now-impeached Park Geun-hye, were quick to denounce the statement. Liberal Korea Party candidate Hong Joon Pyo called it an affront to South Korea’s sovereignty. South Korea’s newest president, Moon Jae In, demanded to know the context of Xi’s words to Trump. While gaffes are par for the course for any politician, Trump’s remark carries a good deal more weight in context than the garden-variety slip of the tongue or cultural misunderstanding.
Throughout its long history as a distinct culture and state, Korea has experienced varying degrees of Chinese influence. The earliest accounts of Korean civilization detail extensive diplomatic and cultural interactions with Han Dynasty China; in fact, the earliest account of Korean kingdoms derives from Chinese sources. For centuries, Korea was a “tributary state” of the Chinese empire: independent yet beholden to Chinese influence with Korean rulers often sending monetary tributes to China in exchange for military protection and preferential economic terms. Despite the best efforts of many military leaders and emperors, Korea never fully fell under China’s control. It was, however, annexed by Japan in 1910 and remained under Japanese control until 1945.
In the Chinese narrative of Korean history presumably offered to Trump (Xi and Trump spoke through interpreters, and neither party has disclosed the specifics of their exchange),Korea assumes a significant role in China’s sphere of cultural and political influence, as an extension (or periphery) of the sprawling expanse of Asia that China rules, or once ruled. Beijing aspires to be the “big man on campus” in Asia, and asserts this position by appealing to history. In Beijing’s strategy, China’s expanding sphere of influence becomes more defensible when rooted in historical cultural and economic ties.
Ultimately, Trump’s offhand comment illuminates the central role that history plays in how Asian countries define or imagine themselves as modern nation-states. Ancient Japanese emperors legitimized themselves through the Kojiki and Nihonshoki: books on the origins and history of Japan that trace the lineage of the emperor to the Shinto sun goddess Amaterasu. Mao Zedong encouraged the destruction of historical artifacts, art, and cultural practices as representatives of the “four olds” that held back China’s development and clashed with the vision he had of an entirely new Chinese society. By contrast, Chinese leaders after Mao have embraced China’s past as both a tourist attraction and a legitimizing force for China’s status as a regional and global superpower.
The nation-states of East Asia today are modern constructs, but have been shaped over the millennia through ever-shifting empires and kingdoms. Nationalistic historiography that supports the existence of a China, a Japan, a Korea, a Vietnam, distinct from its neighbors and unconquered, is a tool to legitimize and validate the nation-state. To South Korea, whose modern incarnation is only 64 years old, Xi’s assertions via Trump are a deep affront to the national sense of self. What could easily be read by an outsider as an over-broad interpretation of a long history of political ties to China becomes, to many South Koreans, an invalidation of South Korea’s sovereignty.
This sense of invalidation is compounded by sentiment in South Korea that Seoul is, yet again, mostly voiceless among the world’s superpowers as they work to contain the nuclear threat from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea(DPRK) and, perhaps more importantly, to maintain existing spheres of influence. Part of this lack of agency can be attributed to political upheaval and transition in Seoul after the impeachment of Park Geun-hye and the recent presidential election to determine her successor. As Korea Times columnist Choi Sung-jin opines, perhaps the situation would not be much different had Park remained in power. This sentiment—that South Korea is a “shrimp between whales”—has been present in political discourse since before the Korean peninsula was divided in two. Between the ever-present threat from the DPRK and the differing views of its history as a sovereign nation, South Korea sees itself as fighting to exist and be recognized.
President Trump’s comment, whether a misunderstanding or a calculated overture toward China, was careless at best and an ill-advised blow to U.S.-South Korean relations at a critical juncture in their bilateral relationship. A president who built his campaign platform on the glorification of a bygone time would do well to recognize the political power of the past, and treat it, and America’s long-standing allies, with care and respect.
Image: Korean Embassy to Japan, 1655, attributed to Kano Toun Yasunobu
Jocelyn Spencer is a graduate of Wesleyan University and University College London, Institute of Education. She specializes academically in Chinese history and politics and in language education policy. While studying for her MA in London, she was a project leader and intern for the think tank Project for the Study of the 21st Century, for which she continues to volunteer in the United States. She currently works for a private equity firm in New York City.