China eyes Mt. Pektu III

From the Korea Times:
China’s Ambition Over Mt. Paektu Angers Koreans
Lee Jin-woo
9/15/2006

A single torch lit at the top of Mount PaektuĀ - the Korean Peninsula’s highest mountain, erected near the North Korean-Chinese borderĀ - angered South Koreans earlier this month.

The torch was lit for the sixth Winter Asian Games to be held in Changchun, China from Jan. 28 to Feb. 4 next year. The host city’s mayor said the mountain was chosen as the torch flaming site on Sept. 6 because three rivers _ Tuman, Amrok and Songhua _ originate there. Tuman and Amrok rivers are also known as Tumen and Yalu in Chinese.

Not many South Koreans, however, see the move merely as part of the athletic event. Many see it as the Chinese government’s sly move to promote the mountain, which Koreans regard as a sacred place, as its very own.

Under an agreement struck in 1962, China and North Korea, two sovereign states and U.N. members, agreed to share the mountain. The North controls 54.5 percent of the mountain, and China occupies the remaining 45.5 percent.

On Sept. 5, another news report on China’s move to hold the 2018 Winter Olympic Games at Mount Paektu surprised South Koreans.

Based on a press conference by a Chinese official from Jilin Province in northeastern China, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported that China unveiled its intention to hold the international winter sports festival at Mount Paektu or Changbai-shan as it is known by the Chinese.

The report enraged many South Koreans, who have already been upset by China’s moves to put the 2,744-meter mountain on the UNESCO’s “World Geopark” list and similar efforts by Beijing to register it with the U.N. agency as a “World Heritage” site.

Dubbed the “Mount Paektu project,” China’s actions are believed by many South Koreans to be part of the “Northeast Project,” a Chinese academic project to reexamine ancient history in the region. Many Koreans view the project as an attempt to distort ancient Korean history in the northeastern territory of what is now China, including the Koguryo Kingdom (37 B.C.-A.D. 668) and the Palhae Kingdom (698-926).

Unlike the angry South Korean public and news media, the government has remained calm over China’s recent provocations.

“We acknowledge that a provincial government official in China did express a tentative future plan for the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, but the central Chinese administration has not revealed any plan,” an official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade told The Korea Times on condition of anonymity.

“There have been suspicions over the construction of a new international airport near the mountain, but it’s hard to link the project to the winter sports event,” he added.

Once the Fusong airport, located just a 10-minute drive from Mount Paektu, is completed by August 2008, some 540,000 passengers are expected to use it, reports said.

Another ranking government official also said most Chinese officials dismissed such allegations, saying, “Preparing for the 2008 Summer Olympics in China has made us too busy to push ahead with another massive project.”

On Sept. 8, Rep. Kim Gi-hyeon of the main opposition Grand National Party disclosed an internal document produced by South Korea’s Cultural Heritage Administration, which suggested that the Mount Paektu project is closely related to China’s plan to prepare for territorial disputes, which are expected after the possible unification of the Korean Peninsula.

The administration later said the document cannot be considered the government’s official stance over the dispute, but it has been collecting information on the matter.

Many South Korean academic and civic groups, as well as the press, have urged the government to join hands with the North to address the dispute.

The communist nation, however, has remained quiet.

Unlike in 2004, when China’s treatment of Korean history angered the two Koreas, the North has not issued a single statement denouncing its traditional ally.

The 2004 dispute seems to have subsided after Beijing promised to resolve the row through academic discussions and not allow it to develop into a political dispute.

Ryoo Kihl-jae, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said North Korea seems to have understood China’s desperate situation to push ahead with the “Northeast Project” to control various ethnic groups and suppress their increasing calls for independence.

“The Chinese government is having a hard time handling a number of minority ethnic groups,” Ryoo said. “Unless China dispatches a large number of its military units to Mount Paektu, North Korea is not likely to find fault with the recent moves.”

The professor was also skeptical about the possibility that North Korea would cooperate with the South to block any further attempts by Beijing to distort history.

“It’s hard to expect North Korea to cooperate with the South to confront China,” he said. “I believe the ongoing historical disputes with China should be resolved by scholars and civic groups, not by government-level talks.”

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