US Statement & Declassified Records Raise Doubts About Ownership of Sacred Korean Mountain
US Declines to Support Koreas in Potential China Land Grab
Aggressive moves by China on its historical territorial claims in the China Seas are being called politically explosive. Now new questions over the sovereignty of a dormant volcano threaten to add a literally explosive element to these disputes. A US State Department statement does nothing to defuse the situation.
The still-rumbling volcano along the Chinese/North Korean border is called Paektu or Baekdu Mountain by North and South Korea respectively, and Changbai Mountain by China (other usages include Paektu-san, Baekdu-san and Baitoushan). Koreans, who consider it the birthplace of their nation, have reacted in anger to Chinese statements in recent years that Baekdu-san and other territory deep into the Korean Peninsula are historically Chinese. The issues include confusion about the ownership of the mountain, whether it should be called by its Chinese or Korean names, the exact location of the border in that area and the true historical inhabitants of much of the Korean Peninsula. 백두산 or 长白山
Controversy over these points seems likely to grow based on newly declassified documents and a recent statement from the US State Department obtained by DMZ War’s predecessor site. They indicate the American government does not necessarily support the territorial claims of its South Korean ally.
“We have no comment with respect to the sovereignty of Mt. Paektu and refer you to the countries concerned,” the US State Department told Korean Confidential in a statement earlier this month. We had given the Department a chance to clarify its position after we received documents under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that show America has been unsure about the actual border.
Public uncertainty on this issue is important not just because of China’s recent actions in the East and South China Seas involving other historical disputes. The recent purge of senior North Korean officials again raises the question of whether that nation could implode. But the willingness of Beijing to allow South Korea to control the transition of North Korea, a preferred scenario in Washington and Seoul, is called into question by suggestions that Mt. Baekdu and much more of the Korean Peninsula were historically part of China.
“Such an approach has raised concerns among China’s neighbors that China may be seeking to rob them of their history. China’s historical claims have also raised fears among some of China’s neighbors that China may be seeking to lay the groundwork for possible future territorial claims on the Korean peninsula and elsewhere,” concludes a 2012 Congressional Research Service memo.
The importance of Paektusan is one of the few things North and South Korea agree on. According to Korean myth, the nation was started on the mountain by Tangun, the son of bear-woman and grandson of heaven (the Manchu people also trace their origin to the mountain). South Korea’s national anthem mentions the mountain in its first line: “Until that day when Mt. Baekdu is worn away and the East Sea‘s waters run dry, God protect and preserve our country!” The country, which considers itself the rightful government of the entire Korean Peninsula, has also named a large Army unit and reconnaissance plane after the mountain.
North Korea takes it even farther, calling Paektu the “the most famous mountain in the world.” Pyongyang claims its former leader Kim Jong Il, father of the current dictator, was born there while his father, Kim Il sung, was fighting to liberate the country from the Japanese.
Outside experts say Kim Jong Il was actually born in the Soviet Union, but North Korea’s official news service will have none of that: “Born in a secret camp in Mt. Paektu, he (Kim Jong Il) grew up to be the son of Mt. Paektu, hearing gun reports as a lullaby, wearing clothes made of the powder-reeking military uniform of his mother, anti-Japanese war hero Kim Jong Suk, and using patched quilt… He is always alive in the hearts of the army and people of the DPRK, along with Mt. Paektu, a sacred mountain of the Korean revolution.”
The current leader, Kim Jong Un, is said by official propaganda to be from the “bloodline of Mt. Paektu” and to lead the “powerful revolutionary Paektusanarmy.” The name of the peak is used everywhere in North Korea from a figure skating contest to a missile.
Yet Korean claims to Mount Baekdu are questioned in a previously classified State Department cable we obtained under FOIA. Titled “Korea-PRC Boundary Discrepancy,” the cable notes: “Recent interagency review of US and other maps demonstrates significant variance in treatment of PRC/DPRK (note: China/North Korea) boundary in region of Mount Paektu.” The 1980 cable, from “SECSTATE WASHDC” to the US Embassy in Beijing, is classified “confidential.”
The cable reports the United States Defense Mapping Agency (USDMA) map of the region shows the border running south of the mountain’s famed crater lake (the body of water has various names, including Heaven Lake). “This boundary seems at odds with unsubstantiated reports appearing in the mid-sixties and 1970 that claimed PRC apparently recognized North Korean sovereignty over much of the previous disputed border area.”
“Prospective US cartographic depiction of this boundary is of great sensitivity owning to deification of Mount Paektu…would appreciate (Beijing) Embassy’s efforts to clarify situation ASAP.” The cable’s sender is listed as “Christopher,” presumably then-State Dept. Deputy Secretary Warren Christopher (the name of a senior official is traditionally affixed to many State Department cables, including those not personally sent by that official.)
So what did the State Department determine in 1980 about the ownership of Mt. Baekdu? It’s not saying, and two other documents that might provide the answer remain classified and were not provided to us. We were given parts of a fourth document, but much of it is redacted. Whatever is in those excised parts is sensitive enough that the State Department not just refuses to release it, but extended its classification after we asked for it.
The USDMA is now the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). We asked the NGA for its position on the border and a copy of its current map of the region; there was no response. There’s reason to think some confusion still exists with the mappers. In 2008, South Korean officials complained that US maps created by the NGA’s predecessor referred to Baekdu by the Chinese name “Chang Bai Shan” and that the error had spread to South Korean maps.
The Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress published 2008’s “North Korea: A Country Study,” the most detailed publicly-available government resource on that nation. It notes: “Part of the border with China near Mount Paektu has yet to be clearly demarcated. Koreans trace their origin to the area around Mount Paektu, and the mountain has special significance for contemporary North Koreans…” We requested more information from the Library of Congress but did not receive a response.
The South Korean Embassy also never got back to us. As for the Chinese, their Embassy sent us a special email address to use for our questions on the mountain, but we never got a response from it.
Even Google is involved in this controversy. South Koreans have repeatedly asked that Google Earth use the Korean name for the mountain. The (South Korean) National Geographic Information Institute told a Korean newspaper in 2007 that it had made “repeated requests.” “We found the mistakes last year and asked Google to revise them. We even sent an English-language map to the firm,” said Sin Sang-ho from the state-run organization. “However, the company did not change them. In fact, it has yet to give any response. It is a shame that the popular site refuses to get things right.”
We just checked and the Google Earth image of the mountain calls it by the Chinese names “Changbai Mountain” and “Baitoushan.” Notably, Google credits on the page include the “US Department of State Geographer,” raising the possibility that the State Department provided the Chinese name. The image does show the Chinese/North Korean border going across Heaven Lake, which is consistent with some accounts below.
Part of the confusion rests with the habitual secrecy of the two communist nations, North Korea and China, most closely involved in the border issue over recent years. After World War II, both North Korea and China reportedly claimed ownership of the peak. Various sources, many quoting a 2004 French academic paper published in “Chinese Perspectives,” claim North Korea then demanded 33 kilometers around the mountain’s peak. A 1963 (elsewhere 1962 or ‘64) agreement between China and North Korea, it is said, granted Pyongyang shared ownership, including three-fifths of Heaven Lake in the crater. When relations later soured between the nations, the PRC demanded 160 square kilometers around Paektusan as compensation for its losses while fighting for the North during the Korean War. There were even armed border clashes around the mountain from 1968-9, say the reports. Then in 1970, according to the academic paper, China dropped its demands for more of the mountain.
However, attribution for some of these claims is secondary and questionable at best. The information about China demanding compensation for the Korean War was based on an Indian newspaper story never confirmed by North Korea or China. That’s apparently why the 1980 State Department cable described reports of a Chinese/North Korean final agreement as “unsubstantiated.”
There’s no doubt the Koreans and Chinese have been negotiating over the region for centuries. A publicly documented 1909 treaty involving the border was reached between China and Japan, then occupying Korea. For understandable reasons, many Koreans assert their nation is not bound by that agreement (Japan and Korea are still locked in other arguments over mutual history and disputed territory.)
The focus now is on a series of research efforts in which Chinese academics have expanded claims about China’s historical reach. The most recent, called the “Northeast Project,” ran between 2002 and 2007, reportedly with millions of dollars in support from the Chinese government and related organizations.
It concluded that the ancient Koguryo kingdom, viewed in Korea as a key part of the nation’s history and precursor to the very name “Korea,” was actually a Chinese civilization more accurately called Gaogouli. This and related findings conclude Chinese kingdoms once controlled much of what is now North and South Korea. Chinese scholars have justified this research in part as “defensive,” designed to preempt false historical claims from Korea that could support Korean demands for current Chinese territory.
No matter their motive, the Chinese have followed up on the Northeast Project, according to Korean observers, with an attempt to cement a new historical understanding. China’s Foreign Ministry reportedly removed references to Koguryo from its web site on Korean history. The PRC then applied to get UNESCO World Heritage status for the mountain.
These moves have increased anti-Chinese sentiment in South Korea, according to media reports in that country. Mortal enemies during the Korean War, when China invaded South Korea, the nations established diplomatic ties more than twenty years ago and are now major trading partners. But during the 2007 Winter Games in China, South Korean athletes held up a banner reading “Baekdusan is our territory.” Responding to such displays, a Chinese official in 2008 announced Beijing and Seoul had developed a “common understanding” to keep the historical issues from becoming “an obstacle to the bilateral relationship.” Yet this “understanding” was apparently about contentious public statements, not the underlying historical dispute.
“That move (regarding the history of Koguryo) by China deeply hurt the feelings of Koreans,” Park Won-chul, a lawyer with a major law firm, was quoted as saying in 2009 in an explanation shared by many in his country. “We don’t lay our claim to the territory (in China) that once belonged to Korea. But for China to say the (Koguryo) kingdom’s history is part of Chinese history and the history of the people who once lived there are all part of Chinese people’s history, is a grotesquely preposterous argument.” (An inexact comparison might be the response of Americans if Canada claimed Mount Rushmore might be in its territory and asserted the Pilgrims were early Canadians.)
A major South Korean research institute, asked to respond to the 2012 US CRS study, put it more directly, saying it was China, not Korea, that was trying to use history to justify future territorial claims. “The PRC’s assertion that scholars in the Republic of Korea and the DPRK are studying Koguryo history in order to justify the future recovery of lost territory reveals a Chinese perspective in which the PRC government would in the future absorb the history of that area into Chinese territory,” the Northeast Asian History Foundation wrote in a statement.
The Koguryo issue is at the heart of the partially-redacted 2007 State Department document released to us. Called “PRC-ROK Koguryo Sparring Continues, Quietly, in Northeast China,” the cable includes reporting from a State Department official visiting the Chinese city of Ji’an, located in Jilin Province which borders North Korea (and is home to many ethnic Koreans). There the US official investigated “Koguryo-related tourism,” in which visitors, including many South Koreans, tour historical remains of the kingdom. However, the Chinese tour guides and Korean visitors disagree on the nationality of the kingdom, demonstrating “yet another difficulty in conclusively ending Koguryo-related tensions” between China and South Korea.
The first nine and last paragraphs –including the Summary and “Action and Reaction” sections – were removed from this cable before it was released to us. The State Department says this information is so sensitive its classification must be extended to July 2032
So does all of this historical debate really matter? A leading scholar of Korean history predicted in 2011 that China would be unlikely to rescind its grant of territory on the mountain because it would spark criticism from the West, plus demands from Chinese minority groups that their borders be redrawn. He concluded that such a move would convince the world China is a threat, a development Beijing would avoid.
How the global situation has changed over the past three years. China has declared an East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in its dispute with Japan over ownership of islands there and is ratcheting up pressure in the South China Sea against foes in other territorial disputes. Analysts note these recent Chinese moves seem inspired at least in part by the nation’s understanding of its historical territory. “They’ve been quite aggressive about asserting what they believe is their manifest destiny, if you will, in that part of the world,” said the US Director of National Intelligence earlier this year. The odds of a Chinese demand involving Korean territory, especially during a North Korean meltdown, no longer seem so remote.
“Chinese officials earlier informed Senate Foreign Relations’ Committee staff that China reserved the right to place troops across the border inside North Korea to prevent hungry or impoverished North Koreans from fleeing into China. These plans have been described not as an invasion, but as a pre-emptive move that would be taken in consultation with North Korean authorities. In addition, China has contingency plan options to respond unilaterally to situations within North Korea which Chinese officials might deem as potentially destabilizing,” says the 20012 Senate report. The authors concludes that China’s historical claims contribute to “a dynamic that leads away from eventual Peninsula unification” if North Korea collapses.
Confusion about the Chinese/Korean border, including from South Korea’s main ally the United States, seems unlikely to help prevent such a crisis.
In early 1950, US Secretary of State Dean Acheson implied South Korea was not in America’s Asian “defensive perimeter,” comments many historians believe emboldened North Korea and its Soviet and Chinese sponsors in their plans to invade South Korea later that year. Critics of current US policy say it has failed to explain and defend adequately the territorial claims of its Asian allies in the China Seas, potentially encouraging China to press harder. Could the same combustible mix be brewing in the Baekdu volcano?
|The State Department Records on Mount Baekdu/Paektu
|North Korea: A Country Study (2008), Library of Congress
|Google Earth Uses Chinese Name for Mount Baekdu/Paektu
|Google Earth Calls it “Changbai Mountain” 2/23/14
|North Korean Martial Song Referencing Mount Paektu
|Selected Online References China’s Impact on Korean Peninsula Unification and Questions for the Senate/Senate and CRS Reportshttp://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CPRT-112SPRT77566/html/CPRT-112SPRT77566.htm Google Mistakenly Names Korean Mountains, Citieshttp://koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/tech/2007/06/129_4693.html Paektusan, the “Sacred Mountain”/The Yalu and Tumen Rivers, and Control of the Seashttp://chinaperspectives.revues.org/806#ftn6 Northeast Project of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciencesht