China's "Northeast Project" is a national academic project whose aim is to confirm that northeastern China, including early Korean kingdoms that once were located there, has always been under the Middle Kingdom's control. Launched on Feb. 28, 2002, the project is run by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) and is carried out by the provinces of Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang. Over a five year period from 2002 to 2007, the project cost an astounding 20 billion yuan, though its conclusions have been hotly contested.
Due to its claim that the ancient Korean kingdom of Koguryo was part of China, the project met fierce resistance from Korea. While China had been excavating Koguryo tombs in Jian since 2001, its decision to publicize the project created friction between the two Asian powers. On June 24, 2003, a journal for the Communist Party of China, the Guangming Ribao, reported, "Koguryo was an ancient nation established by a Chinese minority tribe." In July of the following year, the Chinese Foreign Ministry made the same statement on its official website as the government embarked on a bid to register Koguryo remains as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In the face of strong protests from the Korean government and civic groups, Beijing decided to back off from its irredentist claims. In August of 2004, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wu Dawei visited Korea and made a five-point verbal agreement including a pledge that the Chinese government and state-run media would not seek any distortions of history. Shortly after, the Chinese Foreign Ministry deleted the articles on its website. In 2005, after a Chosun Ilbo report on the issue, the Chinese government removed a signboard at a Koguryo site in Jilin Province that claimed the Koguryo people, "did not share the same blood as the Korean people."
However, China has continued on with the project. Since 2004, it has been restoring the remains of Barhae, another early Korean Kingdom, in Heilongjiang and Jilin Provinces, in a bid to designate them as World Heritage Sites. Recently, the CASS website posted several papers that claim the Gija Chosun, Puyo, Koguryo and Barhae kingdoms as part of Chinese history and even that China's realm extended as far as Korea's Han River. For the 2007 Asian Winter Games at Changchun, China pointedly held its torch-lighting ceremony on the Chinese side of Mt. Baekdu, a landmark that is an important symbol of Korean identity.
While the Northeast Project appears to be a pretext for expanding China's borders, academics say Beijing's attempts to co-opt Korean history are part of a larger strategy that started in the 1980s. "China isn't making the claims just for historical reasons but for political reasons to claim dominion over North Korea in case of a changing political situation in the region," says Prof. Song Ki-ho of Seoul National University.