Trouble Ahead? Chinese-Korean Disputes May Intensify

February 20, 2015 Topic: Security Region: Asia

Trouble Ahead? Chinese-Korean Disputes May Intensify

As Cold War glaciers melt, Chinese-Korean tensions may grow more pronounced.

The Christmas release of The Interview, however coarse in depiction, underscores the Korean peninsula’s tremendous geostrategic importance and potential for disruptive change. Brookings scholar Jonathan Pollack aptly terms it “the East Asian pivot.” Historically, it has been an important battleground—the latest major instance being the still-unresolved Korean War (1950-53). The current status quo is unsustainable, the future uncertain but surely dynamic. It therefore matters greatly that significant resource-rich peninsular land and proximate seas have attracted intense debate and contestation. These differences, primarily between China and South Korea today, are likely to involve other parties such as North Korea or a successor state and Russia in the future. Pointed disagreements, deeply intertwined with painful, contested history, will likely resurface as peninsular conditions shift and Chinese and Korean capabilities, particularly maritime, grow. Considering the historical basis and subsequent evolution of continental, maritime, and riverine disputes among China and the Koreas, and how all sides have thus far attempted to mitigate discord, offers insights into future developments in a vital but vulnerable region.


Overlapping Claims

China and the two Koreas enjoy some areas of convergence and cooperation. In the early 1960s, China compromised with North Korea over their disputed land border and riverine islands and shoals to counter Soviet pressure. More recently, China and South Korea have attempted to resolve overlapping exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and fisheries claims, and reduce illegal fishing. China and North Korea have developed trans-border infrastructure, and share electricity from the Yalu River’s Sup’ung Dam. All three nations, with Russia, are attempting to develop the border region’s economy.

Nevertheless, even these modest measures remain restricted by a troubled past. The Koguryo/Gaogeli kingdom’s history and border demarcation resulting from Japan’s annexation of Korea leaves many Koreans dissatisfied. Beyond arguing that Koguryo was an independent Korean kingdom, not part of the Chinese empire—which has broad symbolic resonance among the Korean public—some Korean nationalists and scholars question the very basis for the 1909 Gando Convention, under which Japan demarcated Korea’s border with China. Additionally, some Korean nationalists maintain that the territory now known as the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in China’s Jilin Province belonged to the Korean kingdom of Chosŏn since 1392, and was transferred to China at a time when Korea was repressed.

Certainly, only small numbers of Korean activists and scholars argue that territory currently administered by China should return to Korean jurisdiction. In the case of symbolically redolent Mt. Paektu/Changbaishan, for instance, it not the mountain itself that is contested, but the border around it. Because Beijing and Pyongyang split jurisdiction over the mountain itself in 1962, with part now under Korean administration, few Koreans holds grievances against China for “taking Paektu.”

While the Yalu and Tumen rivers influenced the larger boundary demarcations between China and North Korea, they are also some of the peninsula’s few navigable waterways, containing strategic islands. The Tumen, landlocked northeast China’s only potential waterborne access to the East Sea/Sea of Japan, is literally obstructed by history and neighbors’ rights. Here China was originally forced to compromise under pressure from imperial Russian expansion, beginning with the 1858 Treaty of Aigun, which effectively transferred over one million km2 of territory. While China retains rights to navigate the waterway, the value of direct autonomous access will only grow as Arctic ice melt increasingly opens a summer Northeast Passage offering a more direct Asia-Europe route. North Korea and Russia rarely adopt cooperative attitudes on this issue. Living within present realities, China currently pursues access to the Tumen’s northeastern outlet through DPRK ports. Given Chinese historical grievances against Russia, China’s rising maritime capabilities, North Korean sovereignty concerns, and Russian determination to deny China strategic advantage in the Pacific, Tumen access issues could generate tensions.

At sea, China has disputes with both Koreas, principally regarding EEZ demarcation. These are important given the zones’ rich fisheries and likely significant hydrocarbon deposits—the latter being particularly valuable given Chinese and Korean oil import reliance. Fishing tensions arise periodically, most dramatically in 2011 with the killing of a South Korean Coast Guardsman by an illegal Chinese fisherman. Currently, Pyongyang is far quieter than Seoul, but disagreements regarding the Yellow Sea could mount if there were no longer a North Korean regime beholden to China. Moreover, a unified Korea, freed from maintaining opposing armies along the 38th parallel, might pursue greater capabilities to uphold maritime claims. Beijing and Seoul also dispute jurisdiction over waters surrounding the submerged Ieodo/Suyan rock, which is now included in the air defense identification zones (ADIZ) of three states: Japan since 1969, China since November 2013, and South Korea as of December 2013.

Summary of Disputes

Before examining the divergent perspectives and unique dynamics with which each state approaches these disputes, it is useful to review them. Disputes may be divided into three categories: continental, maritime and riverine.

Continental Disputes

Continental disputes between China and the Koreas include the Koguryo/Gaogeli history dispute and the border dispute surrounding Mt. Paektu/Changbai. In 2002, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), in cooperation with a consortium representing China’s three northeastern provinces, launched a government-funded study, Northeast Borderland History and Current Situation Series Research Project, to analyze border region history. Two years later, in April 2004, the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s official website deleted Koguryo/Gaogeli from its coverage of Korean history. In March, Seoul launched its own Koguryo Research Foundation (renamed Northeast Asian History Foundation/NAHF in 2006). In September, the government in Seoul declared that it no longer viewed the 1909 Gando Convention (in which Japan negotiated the current Manchuria border) as valid. By January, however, Seoul was already diffusing tension. Park Heung-Shin, the ROK’s Director General of Cultural Affairs, acknowledged the controversy as an “academic endeavor” that should not “be put on a par with government initiatives.” In 2007, the Chinese official position on Koguryo/Gaogeli, according to Premier Wen Jiabao, was “separating research from politics and reality from history.”

The border dispute around Mt. Paektu/Changbai likewise has historical roots. Rich in coal, timber, and ginseng, the mountain remains contentious because both Manchus and Koreans view it as sacred. Symbolic value stems from Korean legend that the ancient god Hwanung impregnated a woman at the site who conceived Tan’gun, the first Korean state’s mythical founder (2,333 BC). Located in the Manchu homeland, the mountain is also the mythical birthplace of legendary Machu state founder Bukuri Yongson. This connection is important because Manchus today constitute China’s third largest minority (10.4 million). Further complicating matters, North Korea founder Kim Il-sung and filial successor Kim Jong-Il both falsely claimed birth on the mountain (Kim Jong-Il was actually born in the Russian military camp, Vyatsk, in 1942 while his father served in the Red Army there). The mountain retains significance for the Kims in part because Kim Il-sung allegedly rallied rebels there during 1930s Korean Revolution.

In 1961 both North Korea and China claimed the mountain in official publications. Beijing demanded Pyongyang forfeit 160 km2 surrounding the peak. In 1962, the two states reached a bilateral agreement; however, in 1968-69 local skirmishes occurred. By 1970, China ceased to pursue its claim aggressively.

NAHF states: “Agreements between Qing China and Japan in 1909 excluded Korea, which should have been a participant because this issue treated the border between Korea and Qing China.” NAHF declared the Gando Agreement “null and void” because it was conducted under the 1905 Protectorate Treaty, disallowing Chosŏn from being an active member in negotiations Tokyo executed. Similarly, Beijing today regards the 1945 Potsdam Declaration as having invalidated the Treaty of Shimonoseki/Maguan and any other “unequal treaty” under which Japan pressured China into relinquishing territory. Neither treaty resolved sovereignty of the area surrounding Paektu/Changbai Mountain. According to NAHF, during this period “Mt. Paektu… itself was not brought into the dispute.”

Maritime Disputes

Maritime disputes between China and the Koreas run both broad and deep. General disputes involve EEZ demarcation. According to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, states can claim 200 nm of exclusive economic zone from their territorial waters’ baselines. Distances between Chinese and Korean shorelines for the Yellow and East China Sea are beneath 400 nm at all points. Neither China nor either of the Koreas has taken any maritime dispute with the other to the International Court of Justice or its post-1994 successor, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. This is probably in part due to Beijing’s rejection of “third party intervention” in favor of “negotiation and consultation.”

More specifically, China and South Korea dispute the water surrounding the submerged rock Ieodo/Suyan. In 1987, South Korea affixed a warning beacon and in 1989 built an observation facility to measure ocean currents and accumulate environmental data. In 1996 Ieodo became a point of contention between Beijing and Seoul because the international community extended EEZs to 200 nm at this time. Ieodo’s location, formerly in international waters, became a part of a zone claimable by both China and South Korea. South Korea, undeterred, built the unmanned Ieodo Ocean Research Station on the rock in 2003.

Beijing believes that because the rock lies on China’s continental shelf, it is included in China’s EEZ; hence South Korea’s occupation of Ieodo/Suyan is illegal. In 2009 Beijing submitted a claim to the UN for Ieodo in response to Seoul’s submission of its own 200 nm EEZ claim. In 2012 China State Oceanic Administration Director, Liu Xigui, declared the Ieodo/Suyan is within China’s jurisdictional boundary. The ROK Deputy Foreign Minister, Kim Jae-Shin, then met with Zhang Xinsen, China’s ambassador to South Korea. Kim stated that Ieodo was firmly under the control of the ROK, which would not tolerate any Chinese claim.

Beijing and Seoul have conducted sixteen rounds of negotiations in fruitless attempt to resolve the Ieodo/Suyan issue. Some analysts believe China seeks to delay resolution.

Riverine Disputes

China and the Koreas also have disputes concerning two important rivers that divide China from the Korean Peninsula: the Yalu and Tumen. Disagreements surrounding the Yalu date back to 1963. At this time, Pyongyang offered Pidan/Chouduandao Island, inhabited by ethnic Chinese, to Beijing to express appreciation for Chinese assistance during the Korean War. The arrangement unraveled, however, and China evacuated nearly 50 Chinese families from the island. In the same year, China gave 90 percent control of the Yalu River’s mouth to the DPRK in exchange for free-navigation rights.

Today, the Yalu’s mouth, which feeds Korea Bay, remains the primary source of contention. Pyongyang controls Shindo/Shin Island. Beijing desires control because this landmass could anchor transportation and communication vis-à-vis Bohai Gulf oil extraction. Precisely because of this strategic position, however, Pyongyang is unwilling to relinquish control. As of 2013, Yalu disagreements do not strain Sino-North Korean relations significantly. Chinese and North Koreans conducted their fifth joint Yalu patrol in April 2013.

The Tumen River, which feeds the East Sea/Sea of Japan, is more contentious. The river, and Chinese oceanic access, has a complicated history. In 1858, Russian imperial expansion forced China to relinquish its entire Siberian coast, including the Tumen’s mouth. The 1860 Treaty of Peking confirmed this, making the Tumen’s final stretch the first-ever Russo-Korean border. In exchange for Russian assistance to end Beijing’s occupation by British-French forces, it certified Russian ownership of 400,000 km2 of formerly Chinese territory, including along the East Sea/Sea of Japan and Sakhalin.

Beijing does have Tumen transit rights, however. Per an 1868 treaty, Moscow affirmed unconditionally Chinese ships’ right to transit the Tumen’s mouth and parallel Korea’s shoreline for 15 kilometers to Fangchuan, China—provided that Russia was pre-notified. Further complicating this issue was Japan’s engineering of Manchuria’s statehood in 1910, which gave Tokyo a Tumen River border, and helped precipitate the 1938 Japanese-Soviet conflict on the Zhanggufeng Plateau near Fangchuan.

Through quiet but comprehensive border negotiations (1987-2004), China formally accepted Russia’s jurisdiction over its former seacoast territories, effectively reinforcing multiple concessions from previous periods of weakness. The Tumen thereby offers China’s only East Sea/Sea of Japan access. Specifically, in 1991 that it was determined that the last 17km of river represents the North Korea-Russian border. In principle, Sino-Russian agreements from the 1990s and early 2000s give China “navigation rights to the final stretch of the Tumen.” Unfortunately for Beijing, while “Moscow and Pyongyang have never denied China this right, they have rarely shown any co-operative attitude either.” China is currently pursuing Sea of Japan access through DPRK ports.

Divergent Perspectives

Not surprisingly, Chinese and Koreans tend to view their disagreements very differently. Chinese experts believe Korean interpretations of Northeast Asian history are skewed. Experts from both Koreas believe China uses overly broad historical interpretations to claim territories that are clearly Korean. They worry China is pursuing its own domestic agenda of ethnic integration at the cost of its neighbors’ sovereignty. The relevant parties’ approaches to disputes tend to be informed by several major considerations.

China’s approach has arguably varied the most of all major parties involved, influenced by two major factors: (1) the nature of the disputes—whether they are land-based, sea-based, or cultural; and (2) the degree to which China faces domestic or foreign pressure at a given time. Related to the second spectrum, are China’s conflicting imperatives to engage in multiethnic nation building while simultaneously attempting to preserve good relations with neighbors in order to safeguard security and economic development.

Both Koreas’ approaches have been more consistent. Pyongyang prioritizes regime survival through secrecy, symbolism, and special relations with Beijing. Seoul employs cultural symbolism to construct national identity. Today, in parallel to China’s neighborly relations concerns, each Korea has a strong economic and security rationale to avoid severely damaging relations with China. North Korea, in fact, has restrained itself throughout these debates, in part because of Beijing’s extensive economic aid and political protection. South Korea has voiced concern about historical issues, but its government has avoided commenting officially on the Koguryo/Gaogeli dispute. China is the DPRK’s and ROK’s largest trading partner. Both Koreas must weigh this against multiethnic nation building, however; their respective identities hinge in part on being among the world’s most racially homogenous societies. Additionally, in some respects their calculus is simplified by China’s superior military power.

Differing Dynamics

The divergence in Beijing’s approaches to land and sea disputes is striking. China has settled its previously extensive land border disputes with all twelve of its continental neighbors save India and Bhutan. By contrast, it has not resolved territorial and maritime claims completely with any of its eight maritime neighbors. (Despite maritime tensions over the years, China and Vietnam did settle one island dispute in the 1950s, and subsequently demarcated the Tonkin Gulf.) In 2011, when asked by one of the authors to explain this disparity, an expert at CASS’s Center for Chinese Borderland History and Geography stated that pre-1949 treaties had to be honored vis-à-vis continental neighbors such as Russia. By this logic, because no other states judged such agreements to be unfair, Beijing lacked redress. However, while Beijing resents all “unequal” treaties that it was forced to sign during the Century of Humiliation, its approach appears to vary based on strategic cost-benefit analysis. Through negotiations with Moscow, it relinquished claims to vast territories in order to obtain security, maritime focus, commerce, and technology deemed essential for development. While the expert failed to address the 1895 Sino-Japanese Treaty of Shimonoseki/Maguan directly, Beijing maintains that the 1945 Potsdam Declaration mandated return of all territories seized by Japan. Beijing thus perceives no treaty restrictions vis-à-vis maritime neighbors. Instead, it offers them “joint development,” but claims all sovereignty for itself—ignoring counterparts’ sovereignty claims deeply rooted in popular sentiment and coercing them when they respond.

A second major disparity in Beijing’s behavior lies in is its responses to internal and external threats. Absent internal threats to regime security, China rarely compromises in territorial disputes. In periods of high external threat, as M. Taylor Fravel documents extensively in his landmark book Strong Borders, Secure Nation, Beijing almost never compromises. As the United States and China engaged militarily during the Korean War and Washington pursued containment thereafter, China sought settlements in just two territorial disputes. Further, in the 1960s, when China split with the USSR and extreme military competition ensued, China did not attempt conciliation in any territorial disputes.

External threats have not affected Chinese behavior decisively with respect to its willingness to compromise in territorial disputes. From 1949-60, China had sixteen frontier disputes. Despite attempts from neighbors to resolve the claims, Beijing attempted compromise in only one. In the 1950s Washington pursued a containment strategy targeting Beijing after failing to wrest the entirety of the Korean peninsula from communist rule. The U.S. strategy involved an economic embargo against China and the formation of bilateral alliances. However, during this period of elevated foreign pressure, China did not cooperate in any disputes despite opportunities presented by neighbors (the sole exception being Burma). Rather, China delayed resolution of disputes until circumstances of political instability or internal threat arose.

The only time prior to 1960 where China attempted compromise on a frontier dispute was with Burma, in a process beginning in 1956. By 1960, China proved willing to submit to Burmese demands it had previously denied. The reason for this change was two-fold. First, China was able to use the agreement reached with Burma as a template for negotiations with India. Reaching an agreement with India would help China consolidate control over Tibet. Second, anti-Communist Nationalists had established bases in Burma; their activity increased with the Tibetan revolt. Accommodating Rangoon enabled Burmese cooperation against the Nationalists. Furthermore, Sino-Burmese dispute resolution in 1960 bolstered PRC stability in a way that was unnecessary three years earlier, when internal regime security threats were far less pressing. During the 1960s, Chinese leaders compromised repeatedly as internal threats to the regime arose.

A third factor in Beijing’s behavior is pursuing multiethnic nation-building and preserving neighborly relations—often contradictory. Concern with stability and regime security is linked in part to the multiethnic USSR’s dissolution and what some Chinese experts perceive as their nation’s similar potential for disintegration. To maintain stability, China emphasizes the unity of its many nationalities. The origin of attempts to claim all nationalities as part of a broader China dates to the chaos following the Qing dynasty’s collapse in 1911. Chinese scholars and politicians, in an effort to legitimize and consolidate power, then promoted the concept of “zhonghua minzu” (the Chinese nation). This archetype has subsequently represented a multiethnic yet cohesive Chinese state spanning several millennia. Beijing’s approach to the Koguryo/Gaogeli history controversy thus follows a larger pattern of Chinese attempts to maintain a multiethnic state. Yet China also values maintaining good relations with neighbors to promote security and thereby further economic development. Post-1978, to avoid further damaging Sino-Korean relations following major tensions, China has limited public statements concerning contentious Sino-Korean border issues, with the notable exception of the aforementioned CASS research project. Considering the nature of current Sino-Korean continental disputes, it is unlikely that China would choose to open itself to any territorial concessions, were a future united-Korea to press. Already, Beijing fears instability along the Sino-Korean border, which sustains even more illegal migration and human trafficking than the porous Sino-Burmese border.

North Korea, for its part, has consistently pursued regime survival through secrecy, symbolism, and special relations. Consistent with overall efforts to play a weak hand to maximum effect, Pyongyang has never publicized the boundary agreements it signed with Beijing in 1962. Kim Il-sung wanted to conceal his compromise over his purported birthplace and actual site of critical guerrilla activity he led during the revolution, which threatened his nationalist credibility. Yet the USSR’s 1991 collapse left China North Korea’s sole ally and benefactor. North Korea’s controversial nuclear program and a famine in the mid-1990s further strained the North’s economy, rendering it increasingly dependent on—and literally indebted to—China.

South Korea, meanwhile, has long employed symbolism to construct national identity. After World War II, South Korea advanced militarily, economically, politically, and socially, bolstering national pride. Since Beijing and Seoul normalized relations in 1992, bilateral trade has increased markedly. Beginning in 2003, China for the first time displaced the United States as South Korea’s main trading partner, with more than 50 percent of South Korean exports going to China. While benefitting from Chinese growth, however, South Korea also views China as a potential security threat. Coexistence with a great-power neighbor has never been easy for Koreans, who are wary of Chinese pursuit of territorial and maritime interests given previous Chinese expansion into and invasion of the Korean peninsula, e.g., during the Yuan and Qing dynasties. The Koguryo/Gaogeli debate remains relevant, in part because sharing the kingdom’s history, in Korean eyes, would undermine the goal of maintaining a distinctly non-Chinese national identity.


Examining the historical basis and evolution of continental, maritime, and riverine disputes among China and the Koreas suggests larger patterns of consistency and variation, and insights into the possible future evolution of some of the most important but understudied unresolved historical disagreements that permeate Northeast Asia.

Imperial Japan sought to use claims in Northeast Asia to justify invasion of the Korean peninsula and Manchuria, greatly complicating disputes and adding to their contemporary sensitivity. Today Koreans worry about Chinese claims, though this remains overshadowed by concerns about Japan’s claims on Dokdo/Takeshima Island. China and the Koreas have each pursued significantly different approaches with respect to portraying and pursuing disputes. China, with the greatest power and most complex equities, has emphasized different factors over time. It has long viewed northern Korea as a strategically vital buffer zone. Most recently, it also regards the DPRK as a source of valuable resources for Chinese state and private enterprises, and preserving its internal stability as the least-worst approach. China is therefore investing in infrastructure to facilitate economic development and resource extraction, though specific reliable data remain elusive.

South Korea has largely pursued a straightforward nationalistic approach, previously for construction of national identity under authoritarian governments, and most recently as part of democratic politics. Because Seoul refuses to acknowledge North Korea as a sovereign state, it does not recognize any attempts by Pyongyang to demarcate or compromise with China. In recent years, North Korea has prioritized regime survival, and thereby muted its public references to ongoing disputes with China. For example, while Beijing and Pyongyang by definition have an EEZ dispute in the Yellow Sea, there is no publicly available information on the nature of their overlapping claims there. North Korea is even cooperating, albeit in a guarded fashion given its acute internal security concerns, with China on basic border security, infrastructure, and economic development initiatives.

Pyongyang’s subordination of claims disputes with China to its overwhelming reliance on its gargantuan benefactor—which greatly benefits Beijing—has tended to suppress discontent regarding continental and riverine agreements, none of which borders South Korea. Meanwhile, Seoul actively disputes multiple maritime claims with Beijing. It has responded actively to Beijing’s recent unilateral announcement of an ADIZ that covers Ieodo/Suyuan, expanding its own ADIZ to cover the submerged formation and engaging in aerial patrols over the surrounding waters without notifying its neighbor—in defiance of Beijing’s apparent preferences. The rapidity and vigor with which South Korea has acted suggests that despite its reliance on China as its foremost trading partner, and general deference to China’s strongest stipulations, it is unwilling to fully subordinate manifestations of nationalism to the relationship’s economic logic. Over the next few years, therefore, it is likely that South Korea and China will have further disagreements in the maritime dimension, even as they continue to cooperate economically and both oppose Japan regarding historical issues.

A more fundamental question looms large, however: How would reunification of the peninsula change the dynamics of Sino-Korean territorial and maritime disagreements? While the Kim dynasty has displayed remarkable staying power as it enters its seventh decade of totalitarian rule, it seems unlikely to persist and transfer power successfully to a fourth generation given the inability of the system to allow for sustainable economic reform and growing unwillingness of the U.S., Japan, and even South Korea to reward crisis manufacturing and “shakedown diplomacy.” A unified Korea would seem unlikely to accept China’s positions regarding divergent views of history and sensitive regions, particularly concerning continental and riverine issues that are symbolically important to Korean identity, tangible, and zero-sum in nature—unlike EEZ and fisheries zones that may appear more abstract, lie far from permanent habitation, and are hence more amenable to compromise. If somehow consolidated and developed over time in a way that ameliorated the extraordinary burden of raising North Korean infrastructure and living standards, a united Korea could be a potent power in its own right. Already-formidable reservoirs of nationalism might be exploited and stoked further by political entrepreneurs seeking to diminish differences and expand common ground as part of a process of national reconsolidation. Under these conditions, it would be natural to seek to externalize domestic discord by emphasizing foreign disagreements, particularly involving history with Japan, military basing with the U.S., and territorial and maritime claims with China. One potential harbinger of the last concerns the Danwu /Dano Festival, which both Greater China and the Koreas claim as their own. Unfrozen from the constraints of an unfinished civil war and geopolitics stemming from the Cold War, Korean nationalism could truly become a force to be reckoned with.

Chinese policy-makers understand these risks acutely, however, and are well positioned to thwart them at present and mitigate them for the foreseeable future. Their first advantage is the reality of North Korea’s acute reliance on its only major benefactor, China. This dependency is likely to increase as the Kim regime faces growing challenges to its rule over time. Beijing can exploit this situation to exact explicit or implicit concessions regarding disputes, which Pyongyang would find unpalatable but likely unavoidable as it attempts desperately to cling to power. Particularly under the conditions Kim Jong-un has created with fatal purging of top officials, including his own uncle Jang Sung-taek, regime survival is to be preserved at all costs—even potentially the cost of mortgaging Korean patrimony. More broadly, Beijing is consolidating its position as a powerbroker over the Korean peninsula’s future, a reality with which Seoul must grapple as well. As part of any grand bargain involving North Korea’s evolution, China would likely exact concessions regarding disputes—particularly in the continental and riverine dimensions.

Thanks to the volatile forces of history and nationalism, however, even the most powerful national capabilities and diplomatic agreements cannot forever stifle disagreements among China and the present-day Koreas. They do not subordinate themselves completely to economic incentives or larger hard or soft power logic. Regardless of the peninsula’s future or the trajectory of related factors, disputes concerning historical interpretations and territorial and maritime claims among China and the Koreas will persist in some form. Understanding their critical dynamics will be essential to anticipating and responding to the opportunities and challenges of a pivotal region of the world that remains haunted by history.

Andrew S. Erickson is an associate professor at the Naval War College and an Associate in Research at Harvard’s Fairbank Center. He runs and co-manages Michael Monti, a member of the class of 2015 at the College of William and Mary, is pursuing a career in law.

Image: Wikimedia/Cheong Wa Dae/CC by-sa 2.0