Rivals square off in history battle

Thursday, April 26, 2007

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 the 2,000-year- old Koguryo 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.

“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.

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 TV shows raised hackles in the mainland 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 BC to 668 AD 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 descendants of the royal house were assimilated into the Han Chinese people.

Television producer Lee Joo Hwan’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 viewers.

“Despite the controversy, I don’t think the drama would have been popular if it hadn’t been interesting,” Lee said.

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 TV 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.