Ain’t no moun­tain high enough for Kim

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY MILES YU

The story Mon­day of North Korea’s obese leader, Kim Jong-un, scal­ing a 9,000-foot moun­tain — in leather shoes and neat dress coat, on a pair of legs that had un­der­gone op­er­a­tion and needed a walk­ing cane only a cou­ple of months ago — has stirred up a firestorm on China’s In­ter­net, the world’s largest closed cy­ber­com­mu­nity with over 600 mil­lion users known as Ne­ti­zens. How­ever, the most talked­about is­sue among the Ne­ti­zens is not North Korean state me­dia’s pro­pa­ganda pro­mo­tion of Mr. Kim’s mirac­u­lous feat April 18. There are plenty of sim­i­lar tales of pro­le­tar­ian bravado, told in good so­cial­ist re­al­ist style, per­me­at­ing China’s own state me­dia on a regular ba­sis.

The real con­tro­versy is how the Chi­nese state me­dia iden­ti­fied the moun­tain that the ro­bust Mr. Kim scaled: The of­fi­cial Xin­hua News Agency and other state-run news out­lets iden­ti­fied the peak by its Korean name, “Paektu (Baitou, Baektu or White­head) Moun­tain,” rather than the familiar Chi­nese name Chang Bai Moun­tain, the “Eternally White Moun­tain.”

This is re­mark­able be­cause it shows that the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment can be flex­i­ble on bor­der dis­putes when it wants to be, depend­ing on whether the dis­pute at hand suits Bei­jing’s geopo­lit­i­cal agenda. To many, such flex­i­bil­ity is tan­ta­mount to per­fidy be­cause the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment has vowed for many decades that it will never com­pro­mise on ter­ri­to­rial dis­putes of any kind, in a bid to demon­strate the Com­mu­nist Party’s in­fal­li­ble stands on the moth­er­land’s ter­ri­to­rial in­tegrity.

But China’s lead­ers seem to need the good will of both Py­ongyang and Seoul more this time, and yielded to the Korean sen­si­bil­i­ties by avoid­ing us­ing the Chi­nese name for the moun­tain in of­fi­cial press ac­counts.

“Call­ing it Paektu (Baitou) Moun­tain is akin to call­ing the Diaoyu­dao by its Ja­panese name, Senkakus (Jiangedao),” one an­gry com­menter said on the dis­cus­sion fo­rum of the Peo­ple’s Daily por­tal, echo­ing hun­dreds of mes­sages left on other key news por­tals. The Senkakus is an is­land chain in the East China Sea that is claimed and ad­min­is­tered by Ja­pan but is also wanted by China. What to call the is­land chain, ei­ther by its Chi­nese or Ja­panese name, has be­come the pri­mary bat­tle­ground on which to stake the sovereignty claim.

It would be unimag­in­able in to­day’s China that any­one would openly iden­tify the dis­puted is­lands by their Ja­panese name or call the dis­puted ter­ri­tory the Chi­nese call South Ti­bet by its In­dian name, Arunachal Pradesh, with­out re­ceiv­ing ei­ther a se­vere pun­ish­ment from the gov­ern­ment or a de­nun­ci­a­tion by the public for an act of trea­son.

The ter­ri­to­rial claim to the Paektu Moun­tain has been con­tro­ver­sial for cen­turies. This con­tro­versy has grown even more in­tense since the Kore­ans and the Manchus who ruled China as the Qing Dy­nasty from 1644 to 1911 con­sid­ered the Paektu Moun­tain their sa­cred an­ces­tral holy land. Over time, many Kore­ans moved to and set­tled into a vast area, roughly 17,000 square miles, north of the Yalu and Tu­men rivers, tra­di­tion­ally the bor­der be­tween China and Korea that in­cludes the Paektu Moun­tain and the so-called Gando re­gion. In 1712, the Qing and the Kore­ans reached a bor­der agree­ment that seems to have di­vided the Paektu into two parts. Yet the ex­act tex­tual mean­ing of the agree­ment re­mains murky and dis­puted.

In 1909, how­ever, Ja­pan, which had just emerged tri­umphant from the Russo-Ja­panese War and be­come the de facto colo­nial ruler of Korea, ne­go­ti­ated with the Qing court in Bei­jing the Gando Con­ven­tion, which placed the eth­ni­cally Korean Gando re­gion un­der Chi­nese rule. China has kept the Gando re­gion, known in China as the “Yan­bian Korean Eth­nic Au­ton­o­mous Pre­fec­ture.”

At the height of the Cold War, in or­der to pla­cate Py­ongyang in the tense Sino-Soviet spat, Mao Ze­dong agreed to North Korean leader Kim Il-sung’s re­quest to cede three-fifths of Paektu Moun­tain to North Korea. But North Korea rarely men­tions the Chi­nese two-fifths stake and treats the en­tire Paektu as its own, even mak­ing it part of the of­fi­cial North Korean state em­blem.

South Korea also dis­putes China’s own­er­ship claims to Paektu Moun­tain. In fact, it is a ma­jor of­fense in South Korea for any­one to even use the Chi­nese name Chang Bai Moun­tain for Korea’s holy moun­tain. In June last year, South Korean megas­tars Jun Ji-hyun and Kim Soohyun had to for­feit a $1 mil­lion en­dorse­ment deal with a Chi­nese wa­ter bot­tling com­pany that la­beled its wa­ter as com­ing from the Chang Bai Moun­tain. The two cul­tural icons in South Korea had to apol­o­gize to the na­tion for their “grave mis­take” in agree­ing to the en­dorse­ment.

China, on the other hand, has treated the Chang Bai Moun­tain as its own, with plans to de­velop tourism, host in­ter­na­tional sport­ing events and even at­tempt to reg­is­ter it as a Chi­nese World Her­itage Site, a move that has an­gered many Kore­ans.

The Seoul gov­ern­ment has de­clared the 1909 Gando Con­ven­tion null and avoid. For Kim Jong-un’s part, he first scaled the Paektu Moun­tain in Novem­ber, which was seen as an oblique ex­pres­sion of de­fi­ance against China’s harsher than usual dis­plea­sure over Mr. Kim’s ex­e­cu­tions of a pro-China fac­tion led by his un­cle Jang Song-thaek. A few weeks later, over 1,000 Chi­nese sol­diers staged a bois­ter­ous mil­i­tary drill just on the north­ern hill of the Paektu Moun­tain.

Miles Yu’s col­umn ap­pears Fri­days. He can be reached at mmilesyu@gmail.com and @Yu_miles.

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