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Impact of the Koguryŏ controversy on the historical consciousness of South Korea

Info: 1375 words (6 pages) Essay
Published: 10th May 2021 in International Studies

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In July 2004, history catapulted itself onto front-page news across all of South Korea. This firestorm of media attention was certainly not unwarranted, but one prompted by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) decision to jointly list tombs of the Koguryŏ Kingdom located in China and Korea as World Heritage sites. The Koguryŏ region itself has been subjected to these intersecting historical assertions since the 1980s, when Chinese scholars began to affiliate the ancient kingdom with national narratives of their own. Such narratives came to directly clash with the traditional frameworks of Korean nationalist historiography, in which Koguryŏ has long lodged itself in the historical orthodoxy of the Korean peninsula state as a precursor to modern Korea. As detailed by scholar John B. Duncan, these Chinese ‘efforts to deny that Koguryŏ’s part in Korean history was bound to be seen as a denial of Korean nationhood, as an act of aggression that threatens the very existence of Korea as a human collectivity.’ Beijing’s newly authorised world heritage status was thus met with fervent South Korean detestation, wherein such outrage only continued to swell when the state-sponsored Chinese Academy of Social Science proceeded to define Koguryŏ as a ‘vassal kingdom under the suzerainty of China’, as opposed to the autonomous Korean state depicted within the conventional bounds of Korean historiography. These Chinese claims to Koguryŏ’s heritage were to become the most controversial topic at hand for all means of Korean media, in which The Korean Times positioned the historical dispute as ‘a near declaration of war, only without guns’. The plethora of public response was unparalleled in its magnitude, from demonstrators dressed in Koguryŏ-era costumes protesting outside the Chinese embassy of Seoul to cyber-nationalists constructing ‘Defend Koguryŏ’ websites and demanding for state-sanctioned boycotts of Chinese imports. For a kingdom which collapsed over 1,300 years ago to draw such vast interest from the South Korean community, is in many respects, foreseeable given that history serves inarguable centrality in defining the national identities of today. However, it is when historical narratives of this ethnocentric nature propagate through overtly accessible mediums of popular and public history, that several egregious consequences arise for those who indulge in them. These implications permeate two paradigms of historical consciousness, the first where historical consciousness exists as a collective phenomenon intrinsic to the modern self-understanding of identity and another which relates historical consciousness to the cognitive capacity with which an individual can understand the past. Whilst collective consciousness for the past has been reinforced through the nationalist Koguryŏ narrative and its existence within popular history, this bolstering of patriotic spirit through historical thinking fails to productively assess competing historical viewpoints capable of broadening current scopes of historical knowledge, and only cultivates irrational hostilities towards diverging interpretations such as those proposed by China. These inherently subjective narratives and their presence within Korean public history also undermine the ability with which the Korean individual is capable of perceiving historical truth, where the undermining of objective historical scholarship distorts individual historical consciousness. The Koguryŏ controversy has therefore subsisted as a significant contributor to shaping Korean historical consciousness, albeit with consequences that have only deepened ‘the disjuncture which exists between the world as it is experienced in the present and the past as it is chronicled’, a rift that deserves to be acknowledged but certainly not widened by exclusively ethnocentric histories.



All humans have the capacity for memory, such that ‘all consciousness is mediated through it’.  German historian Karl-Ernst Jeismann beared such inherency in mind when he defined historical consciousness as the ability to seek ‘connection between interpretation of the past, understanding of the present, and perspective on the future’. It is hence not erroneous to posit that historical consciousness transcends the exclusive preoccupation with what has happened and constituted to history, and instead employs this knowledge as an element in shaping frameworks of thought in the present and determining those of its corresponding future. This ability to discern history is not one limited to the confines of individual competence, but instead extends itself further into territories of collective memory. Given that historical consciousness subsists as a perpetually intersubjective phenomenon that ‘is always filled with a variety of voices in which the echo of the past is heard’, the differing retrospective understandings are as numerous as those able-bodied individuals capable of developing an awareness for history. Consequently, when these distinct historical interpretations seep into the collective remembrance of a given society and proliferate through transmissive mediums, specific patterns of historical consciousness then emerge that become intrinsic to its respective cultural identity. It is both this degree of collective consciousness and the individual capacity for historical thinking, two primary modes of remembering that stretch beyond the timespan of human life, building historical knowledge onwards whilst nourishing one another to inform generations of the present and future. As posited by scholar Paul Tanzanian, whereas the former ‘offers narrative frameworks within which the patterns of historical thought can be developed, the latter permits criticizing, deconstructing and reformulating the contents of the past, that are in turn are reified for guiding human agency’. These characterisations of historical consciousness subsequently reinforce its valued potential in contributing to modern-day ideological infrastructures as an educative resource, enriching both our individual understandings of the past and our collective experiences in the present.


Korea possesses its own resplendent history and traditions dating from time immemorial. Those familiar with the foregoing statement ought to immediately distinguish it as one borrowed from the Republic of Korea’s very own constitution of 1948. Given that a 2002 study from the Harvard Institute of Economic Research bestowed Korea with its status as one of the most historically homogenous nations across the world, this claim to a ‘resplendent history’ exclusive to the Korean identity is perhaps justified.  And yet, the Korean peninsula’s bearings within the realm of historical academia has always been situated at the crossroads of several national pasts, where Korea’s historiographical orthodoxy perpetually clashes with that of Chinese narratives. Whilst much of this owes to the fact that varying historical civilisations bestrode the present-day border between China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, it remains true that the current ability to ascertain, at least on territorial terms, whether these societies were Korean or Chinese is inevitably clouded by the temporal distance of the contemporary era relative to the past. There subsequently exists a disconcerting incompatibility between the historiographies of each nation, one that has rendered itself most potently in the developments of the Koguryŏ dispute. Korean perceptions of the historical debate have since pervaded spheres of popular and public history with alarming haste, wherein efforts to defend the ancient kingdom from Chinese assertions flood the multitudes of mediums accessible to the Korean populace. When projected onto the historical consciousness of the Korean community, these historical narratives, supplemented by blatant subjectivity and nationalistic underpinnings, strictly deny the possibility of transnational history and instead depict China’s actions as a “preposterous scheme intent on destroying historical roots and national identity.”


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