This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Gando Convention. Regrettably, even though relations between Korea and China have developed rapidly since the 1992 Korea-China diplomatic treaty, the issue regarding Gando continues to remain as unresolved as it was 100 years ago.
Korea`s belief of Gando can be summed up in its claims that Gando is Korean territory, whereas China rejects the assertion and claims there is no Gando.
Academics in both Korea and China have focused on the problem based the idea of nationalistic sentiment.
When China`s thoughts on Gando, as its own territory as part of its Northeast Project, were first disclosed to Korea in 2003, some academics as well as NGOs and political parties concluded that the Chinese government was aiming to claim Gando sovereignty.
South Korea sought to counter China`s claims by seeking an invalidation of the Gando Convention - under which Japan had transferred Gando to China - thus claiming South Korea`s sovereignty over Gando.
In September 2005, the "Return Gando Campaign Headquarters" held a proclamation ceremony of "Gando Day." Now, there are some who erroneously argue that if the Korean government fails to make an official sovereignty claim over Gando by 2009, it will lose Gando forever because a treaty is internationally confirmed within one hundred years even if it has defects.
Koreans` unique nationalistic sentiment regarding Gando has played a role in intensifying conflict between South Korea and China. Further, this type of conflict may well spread rapidly via the internet, with more and more South Koreans publicly questioning China online.
China has shown similar, nationalistic tendencies. The Chinese people`s strong, negative reaction toward the "Mount Baekdu ceremony" performed by Korean short track speed skaters at the Asian Winter Games in January 2007 clearly reflected the significance of the potential conflict between the two nations.
The South Korean government has essentially continued to remain mum on the Gando issue, but given the reality of this conflict, here is an outline of the issues which must be considered in deciding the future direction of the debate on Gando if steady progress is to be realized.
First, we need to clarify which areas Gando refers to. The further back in history we go to trace the origin of the name Gando, the wider the geographic area it tends to cover and the more ambiguous its boundary becomes. Emotional Korean nationalists involved in the "Return Gando Campaign" would designate Gando as the entire land east of Shanhaiguan, the eastern starting point of the Great Wall of China, or the vast area between the Songhua River (also known as the Sungari River) and the Heilong River (called the Amur River in Russia).
More reliable sources, however, show that Gando, as a small area of cultivated land opposite the Tumen River, was land which had been approved for agricultural cultivation to support the Joseon people who faced a great famine in the 1880s. According to a document, that was when the word "Gando" appeared for the first time.
Second, while South Korea may have been successful in raising the Gando problem as a social issue, academic research on the issue is still in the early stages.
The sovereignty problem of Gando came to light following a report that North Korea had transferred Mount Baekdu to China in the 1960s. At that time, a campaign for recovering Gando was launched, Cold War style.
Thereafter, in the summer of 2004 when the whole country was seething over China`s distortion of Goguryeo history under the Northeast Project, NGOs, political parties and some academics raised the Gando issue to counter China`s historical misrepresentation.
The Gando problem, thus raised, was a replay of the Cold War-style revisionist campaign of the 1960s, and therefore faced criticism that the argument was similar to the Japanese imperialist logic used shortly after the Russo-Japanese War.
Nevertheless, NGOs and political supporters continue to advocate the "Return Gando Campaign" and the "Invalidate the Gando Convention Campaign." Increasingly, these programs are receiving enthusiastic support online. The rage that the South Korean people felt over China`s provocations claiming that Goguryeo was a regime under China fueled notions that Gando is a "holy land" that needs to be returned to the South Korean people.
Third, we have to pay attention to the fact that the conflict between South Korea and China over Gando clearly mirrors the clash between the Qing Dynasty and Japan when the two were negotiating over Gando a century earlier.
Japan, which robbed Korea of its diplomatic rights with a protectionist treaty in 1905, claimed sovereignty of Gando, encompassing land south of the Tomun River and north of the Tumen River. But the Qing Dynasty rejected the notion of sovereignty discussions of Gando, arguing that the Yenji area within Qing had always been Chinese territory and that there had never been a region called Gando north of the Tumen River. At that time, the Japanese claim on Gando functioned as "invasion logic" toward the Yenji area in China, whereas the denial of sovereignty functioned as "resistance logic" against the Japanese invasion of the region.
Simply put, from the late 19th century into the early 20th century when Gando became an issue of national boundaries, Korea, China and Japan each had different perspectives on its sovereignty.
Korea defined Gando as the area within the Tumen River`s region which was cultivated by the-then Joseon people, whereas Japan also claimed the land - in an act of supremacy - but under the pretext of protecting the Joseon people. Further, even though the name Gando surfaced in the 1880s when border talks between Joseon and the Qing Dynasty were being held, the issue regarding the return of Gando was not raised. On the other hand, Qing and Japan had been clashing over Gando`s sovereignty from the beginning.
Japan, which was planning to occupy Gando after the Russo-Japanese War, exerted enormous effort to publicize that Gando was not Qing territory. Instead, Japan defined Gando as encompassing the entire of south-Manchuria. China realized Japan`s ambitions to invade Manchuria and thus rejected the name Gando and denied that any such discussions about the territory ever occurred at the time of the "Gando Convention" in 1909.
Japan, however, raised the issue actively and channeled its efforts into creating a strong foothold for invading Manchuria.
When considering the regional conflicts occurring in Northeast Asia today, politics, economics and nationalism cannot be considered independently.
Nevertheless, the development of a peculiar sense of nationalism in these areas can be discouraging. Foremost, with regard to China, it is using its new-found nationalism as a means of diverting peoples` aspirations toward democracy, which inevitably results from its splendid economic growth.
In the case of South Korea, it cannot be denied that the Korean people tend to react too sensitively to sovereignty and territorial issues. Even though Gando and Dokdo are, fundamentally, two very different issues, Koreans seem to be reacting to them in a similar way, which is a cause for grave concern. The political circles and NGOs need to reflect upon their approach to the Gando issue based on a mature nationalism. The Korean Constitution clearly defines Korea`s territory as consisting of the Korean Peninsula and its attached islands.
In the case of Japan, although it is clearly a member of the Asian region, it seems to be trying to secede from Asia and has thus become sardonic toward its neighbors.
To sum up, the hypersensitive nationalism among the peoples in Northeast Asia seems to be problematic. Rather than arguing over which nation Gando belongs to, it might be worthwhile to reflect upon the fact that Koreans first cultivated the land, and that the issue concerns people of a smaller and weaker nation who were once sacrificed by Qing and Japan.
The conventional perception of territory should change in the 21st century where globalization is the buzz word. Rather than dwell upon Gando`s sovereignty, we should seek wisdom regarding the joint development, common usage and common distribution of Gando, Manchuria and the Maritime Province area.
Hopefully, the Gando dispute may be used to establish peace and stability in Northeast Asia, with North Korea invited to join the process.
By Lee Chang-hoon