China Still Shielding Pyongyang from Domestic Media Criticism

Li Ruigang, head of Shanghai Media Group, was recently summoned to Beijing for a verbal drubbing on account of his company’s critical documentary about North Korea. This of course indicates the limits of criticism, explicit or implicit, of North Korea within China’s political system. Even in relatively open cities like Shanghai, one cannot go too far, and China needs constantly to keep in mind in monitoring its own media that the North Koreans are on guard as well for untoward inferences toward the DPRK in PRC’s ostensibly brotherly media. No matter how many vanilla reports are filed, at some point the dam has to break and the Chinese people are going to get a truer, less anecdotal or simply extrapolated, vision of everyday life in North Korea. Of course for Chinese in the border areas, more information is to be had, but for would-be viewers of the controversial documentaries in Shanghai, it is probably worse than they can imagine.

The penalization of Chinese media figures for investigating North Korea might also be a case of bad timing.  At a time when North Korea appears to have turned back to a conciliatory posture, the CCP leadership is reluctant to “punish” the North further by airing a documentary which would, apparently, add up to a loss of face for Pyongyang.  At the same time, the Chinese leaders might be overestimating the hunger among Chinese elites for hard information about North Korea.  Most people are going about their daily lives and it is unlikely that even a highly critical television program in a once-revolutionary city like Shanghai would cause people in China to mobilize into non-governmental organizations to aid the North Korean people or urge the overthrow of Kim Jong Il.

Documentary draws N Korea’s ire
Staff Reporters
South China Morning Post
29 Aug 2009

A documentary series about North Korea produced by Shanghai Media Group has drawn the ire of Pyongyang, whose complaints to authorities in Beijing have landed the group’s management in hot water. Executives and senior producers from the media group,…read more…

Refugees Flowing Into Yunnan from Myanmar

Apropos of yesterday’s posting on James Webb and Myanmar-China relations, Chinese newspapers report that between 10,000 and 30,000 refugees have crossed the rugged border from Myanmar into China. This was an area of real instability for the PRC, not incidentally, at the same time as the Korean War was ongoing. Estimates of more than 100,000 anti-communist guerillas roamed this borderland (with U.S. aid of course) in opposition to communist rule in 1951. The campaign to crush “counterrevolutionaries” was para-military in this particular area. And now again it is full of individuals whose meaning for the central government in Beijing needs to be questioned. This event might also serve as a kind of drill or preview for the CCP in the event of instability in North Korea, although I would imagine that refugee numbers there could be much larger. A situation to keep an eye on, to be sure.

Shanghai Daily
29 Aug 2009

Reflections on Fieldwork, Forthcoming, and the Battlefield of Peer Review


After using this blog to pump up my collaborative effort with Chuck Kraus in Journal of Korean Studies to understand a concrete instance of rebellion in North Korea, it occurred to me that I had another essay floating through the system about rebellion in an earlier period in Korea. I did some checking and it appears that my short article on the Tonghak Rebellion has been printed by Oxford University Press.

And so I have the small but distinct pleasure of deleting that promising yet dirty word, “forthcoming,” from my CV entry on the Tonghak essay. Somehow “forthcoming” recalls another word, one redolent with false confidence, evoking work that has apparently been done but cannot yet be seen, suggestive of a life that is being lived yet is somehow on hold: “fiancée.”  Publishers, like wedding planners, like to drag things out.  (Even the best blog posts, on the other hand, are like Las Vegas weddings: overly fast, poorly thought out, and unlikely to dwell within any deep and abiding current of affection, they nevertheless have been called into being.)

In a mere three weeks (an eye blink in terms of journal publication in the world of the printing press), another essay of mine will pass through what  Otto Rank called “the trauma of birth” and appear in ASIANetwork Exchange, a small but lively journal based at Illinois Wesleyan University. My article, whose full citation I am jealously withholding, regards the importance of Tessa Morris-Suzuki’s self-aware masterwork Exodus to North Korea. It’s a great book that has deep, deep insights into the underlying structures of post-colonialism in East Asia and the Japan-North Korea relationship. The journal was kind (perhaps wise?) enough to print an essay I wrote about the Mao biography (some might say anti-Mao screed) a few years back by Jung Chang and John Halliday, Mao: the Unknown Story, so it’s nice to be back in their pages.

Since it is August and the President is reading histories, we should recall that Chang and Halliday’s barnburner bio was an alleged favorite book of George W. Bush. While no one ever quizzed Bush about Mao, screened as the reporters were by CCP propagandist Hu Qiaomu White House Press Secretary Arie Fleisher, Bush did probably read a good chunk of Aquariums of Pyongyang.

Note to American conservatives: without French interest in human rights (or, more correctly, le droit de l’homme), Kang Chol-hwan’s cornerstone text of the free North Korea movement simply does not exist. Please keep that in mind next time someone makes some stupid comment about the French. In fact, they, the French, kick ass, and yet to my knowledge no great savior of the North Korean people or advocate of North Korean human rights on the American right or left has even bothered to translate, read, or discuss Juiliette Morillot’s spellbinding Evadés de Coree du Nord. It’s got all kinds of testimonies, pure ammo for the advocate, but, like some reader of the Village Voice presented with a rainbow-plated AK-47 commemorating the Stonewall demonstrations, you still refuse to pick it up. So I take it upon myself, dammit!

Speaking of testimonies, Kang, and human rights: thanks to some Quakers we know that inmates at the DPRK prison at Yodok this month are at least taking down a few tons of corn and barrels of gasoline with them on their way out of this life. The linked intelligence report is one of the more tragic-heroic documents I’ve read since I idly picked up Zarathustra from a pine shelf near the St. Croix River. Come to think about it myself, there is such dissonance in reading about events in North Korea from my current post in the northwest United States.


Since getting back to this country, I’ve been reflecting periodically on the power of place and experience. (I’ve also been stuffing my face with kalbi in the greatest K-town on the west coast north of Wilshire Blvd., e.g., South Tacoma Way.) Quite seriously, when I am in Jilin, Heilongjiang, or Liaoning province near North Korea, it is not my intent to seek out or to aid North Korean refugees; as I understand it, this could result in a rapid deportation for me and serious (perhaps deadly) consequences for them. Similarly, I have little contact with the standard suspects in work by folks like Mike Kim and filmmakers like those who produced Seoul Train. (This also goes for Laura Ling/Euna Lee, who produced a diplomatic incident, not a film.) Obviously this is vital work, but it isn’t my quest. More on this later in the post.

I also had several new thoughts on the notion of “fieldwork” thanks to a recent report on NPR about a certain marine biologist in Seattle who takes long sojourns to Greenland for research about the elusive narwhal whale. (The report generated lots of discussion the interweb, most of which was pretty dumb, but the original radio report is really worthy, even poignant. ) And this made me wonder what the essential elements of fieldwork were for me this summer, and the function of spending weeks alone or with a small team in pursuit of one cluster of facts (unknown facts!) and the risk of failure which this entails. Which is why one has to return to the site, to understand changes, and, if you’re lucky to renew friendships and renew yourself.

The place I seem to be returning to most often, apart from archives in Beijing and Berlin, are the Chinese borderlands with North Korea. And there, of course, I want to go well beyond the standard “let’s stare at those poor fucking North Koreans across the river” thing, because the North Koreans are not animals to be observed in some zoo. In fact, I don’t particularly like to take pictures near the border, yes, in part because things were on a bit of a high alert, and more than a few locals and cops advised me not to provoke our North Korean People’s Army colleagues across the river, but also because my main purpose is to talk to Chinese about their perceptions of the North, the things they have learned about that country, and then to talk to North Koreans who are legitimately (that is to say, legally) in the People’s Republic of China. This includes diplomats and restaurant workers, and in the future I hope to include more businesspeople and North Korean musicians or cultural workers in my circle of acquaintances.

Historians fetishize the archive, and we should. There aren’t many substitutes for the written word, or the old photograph, or the grainy film, or the blood on the spine of a book captured in Pyongyang in 1950. I wouldn’t trade my time in the archives for anything, and I wouldn’t have a career, I think, if I didn’t enjoy it and feel it to be deeply necessary for both myself and my species (and, yes, perhaps my national tribe as well) for me to be in there.

But going to the places and understanding how the facts have changed or remained over time, to me, is equally compelling. Perhaps there is a strain of presentism in the thought of most modern historians, which I also share. If we can’t use the history to understand where we are, why we cannot cross this particular river, why these children are throwing stones at me, why this North Korean male takes food from those women, how and why the Chinese are blasting drafts of dynamite into hillsides all the time, and why the flashlights blink at night out of that fabled North Korean darkness, then why bother?

Peer Review

There are a few more “forthcoming” peer-reviewed articles which should be coming out in the following months under my byline (I’ve no nom de plume yet, sadly) in the following august periodicals:

- China Quarterly (on Japanese war criminals in people’s diplomacy, 1950s)

- Popular Music and Society (a fabulously eclectic Routledge journal that will be printing my work on Sino-Korean propaganda songs of the Korean War),

- Acta Koreana (a top-secret project with some implications for a few ambitious cultural-diplomacy, track II types at State Department),

and perhaps others. There is one fabulous dark horse that has been under review for about eight months now that may, like tectonic plates under the Kuriles, be springing up soon, creating seismic waves, sending me swimming again in the ocean of war, the warfare of the editing room, the carbon stench of the typewriter. Oh, to be in the field! The hypothetical blood-lettings of the drafting-room make me feel like George Meade the night before Gettysburg. At some point one has to forget everything and get on Stonewall Jackson’s horse, even if your own creations take potshots at you. Or, to modulate the metaphor slightly, you have to stand like Ike McKaslin’s bear, reveal yourself even as your reviewer calls out the hounds and tears at your noble mass. Perhaps listening to more North American rap music (both Anglophone and anti-war Francophone) can steel me for the coming reviews and assure that retaliation is rapid, swift, and sure, because there is no such thing as what scholar Michael Breen so antiseptically calls “a permissive environment.”

In general, the process of peer-review is keeping me on my toes, but we’re entering another season here where more manuscripts need to be slammed into the cannon hatch to keep the pipeline going. At some point in future posts, I’ll probably explicate further on the above journal articles when they are actually consecrated into print. And in the meantime there are about twenty other article manuscripts, book and funding proposals to attend to before I get together with my fellow faculty to drink coffee and talk about the summer. It’s still summer, m.f.!!!!