Last week, US President Donald Trump said that he had received a 10-minute Chinese-Korean history lesson from Chinese President Xi Jinping during their first meeting at his Mar-a-Lago resort earlier this month which made him come to the startling realization that the current North Korean crisis is “not so easy.” Apparently though, the lecture also left Trump with a shaky and inflammatory grasp on the region’s history.
“[Xi] then went into the history of China and Korea. Not North Korea, Korea. And you know, you’re talking about thousands of years …and many wars. And Korea actually used to be a part of China,” Trump told the Wall Street Journal last week just before he made his infamous “not so easy” remark.
While the history of relations between China and Korea is complicated, including a number of wars and invasions, Koreans generally bristle at the thought that they were ever part of China. For centuries, Korea was part of China’s tributary system, paying for protection from its giant neighbor, just like many other kingdoms including Vietnam and Thailand. But parts of Korea were very rarely under anything resembling direct Chinese control — the notable exceptions being when the Han dynasty set up four “commanderies” in the northern part of Korea in the second century BC and when both were put under Mongol rule in the 13th century AD.
With the Wall Street Journal interview so chock-full of outrageous statements and flip-flops to analyze over, the comment appears to have gone mostly unnoticed at the time until it was brought up by Quartz in an article on Tuesday.
Since then Korean leaders from across the political spectrum have criticized Trump’s inartful characterization of Korean history, calling it an attempt at undermining Korean sovereignty, the Washington Post reports. South Korea’s Arirang news cited an official on Wednesday who called the assertion that Korea used to be part of China “not worthy of a response.”
Meanwhile, Youn Kwan-suk, the spokesman for the main opposition Democratic Party, did issue an response, saying: “The 50 million South Koreans, as well as many common-sensical people around the world, cannot help but feel embarrassed and shocked.”
“It’s a clear fact acknowledged by the international community that, for thousands of years in history, Korea has never been part of China,” foreign ministry spokesman Cho June-hyuck added at a briefing in Seoul on Thursday.
As Trump is not known as an Asian history scholar, Kyung Moon Hwang, a University of South Carolina history professor, has charged Xi Jinping with putting a Chinese nationalist version of Chinese-Korean history into the US president’s head. “It’s possible that Xi said something like this, as such a story has been part of the nationalist history project under the Chinese Communist Party for a couple of decades,” Hwang told Quartz.
Though Hwang also conceded that Trump could have simply not understood the nuanced points that Xi was trying to make, or the history lesson could also just have been lost in translation.
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