SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea is fighting a battle with China over ancient history using one of the most powerful weapons in its arsenal — sappy TV dramas watched by hundreds of millions of viewers in Asia.
The dispute is over whether a 2,000-year-old kingdom, whose lands covered much of the Korean peninsula as well as parts of China, was an ancient Korean royal house or a vassal of China.
At stake is national pride in South Korea where the ancient origins of the Korean people have long been overshadowed by the histories and cultures of neighboring China and Japan.
“The Koguryo issue may be one of the smaller problems that China has but it is everything for Korea. Koguryo symbolizes the identity of Korea,” said Kim Woo-jun, a professor at the Institute of East and West Studies at Yonsei University in Seoul.
The spat heated up about two years ago when Beijing announced plans to seek listing for Koguryo sites on a United Nations cultural heritage list, firing up a long-standing campaign by China to claim the kingdom as its own and assert historical ties to lands in its modern borders.
South Korea was incensed. It used diplomacy and academic papers to argue its case but its popular television dramas have proven to be the most powerful tool.
Three South Korean television dramas on the Koguryo kingdom released in the past six months were hits at home and abroad, with scenes of galloping horses, court intrigue and sword fights.
But the television shows raised hackles in China and Hong Kong, where viewers supporting China’s claims to Koguryo crossed swords in cyberspace with those defending South Korea’s position.
The dispute became so emotive that the user-generated Internet encyclopedia Wikipedia blocked readers from contributing to the section on Koguryo “until disputes have been resolved”.
According to Seoul, the Koguryo Kingdom reigned from 37 B.C. to A.D. 668 and was a regional power fighting off Chinese invaders. The territory it once held is now home to many ethnic Koreans who live in China.
In China, scholars say Koguryo was founded in its territory and was a vassal state. They say the descendents of the royal house were assimilated into the Han Chinese people.
Debates over historical versus modern borders are argued all over the world. But they rarely fire up the passions of television viewers in the way that the argument over the Koguryo kingdom has in North Asia.
Television producer Lee Joohwan’s historical drama “Jumong” was a big hit in South Korea where it was a ratings winner. But some Chinese viewers railed against the series on the Internet, branding it a Korean attempt to rewrite history.
A Hong Kong broadcaster went so far as to change the names of the entities in the series to make the show more palatable to its Chinese-speaking viewers.
“Despite the controversy, I don’t think the drama would have been popular if it hadn’t been interesting,” said Joohwan.
The spat over Koguryo’s origins rubs salt into wounds in South Korea, which is in the midst of modern day territorial disputes with its neighbors.
Seoul is still arguing with Tokyo over its 1910-1945 colonial rule over the peninsula as well as territorial claims over desolate isles in waters between the two countries.
Many in South Korea also resent China’s control over part of a mountain considered sacred in Korean mythology.
Known as Paektu in Korean and Changbai in Chinese, the mountain straddles the China-North Korean border. Communist North Korea, with whom South Korea hopes to reunite in the future, ceded part of the mountain to China, its main benefactor, in 1963.
South Korean speedskaters caused a diplomatic incident when they held up signs saying “Mount Paektu is our Land” at the Asian Games earlier this year.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry summoned a South Korean embassy official to complain about what Beijing considered a political act at a sports event.
A few weeks later, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao tried to play down the controversy over Koguryo during a visit to Seoul.
“Research on the history of ethnic or territorial changes or movements should be based on the principle of separating academia from politics and reality from history ... and should not affect relations between two countries,” he told South Korean reporters.
But there is little chance that the dispute will end soon as South Korea prepares to fire a new salvo in the historical debate with the launch of a big budget blockbuster television drama.
“Taewang Sasingi” is the story of what Koreans consider to be one of the greatest kings of Koguryo and will air in September starring Bae Yong-jun, a favorite for fans in many parts of Asia.
Additional reporting by Jessica Kim