Korean War Crimes

North Korean ladies protest American atrocities, DPRK textbook circa 1958 (collection of Adam Cathcart)

North Korean ladies protest American atrocities, DPRK textbook circa 1958 (collection of Adam Cathcart)

Part of any move to normalize relations with North Korea is going to necessarily entail putting to rest, or at least setting aside, the issue of war crimes and Korean War atrocities.

This article in the New York Times is a long-overdue assessment of the work of South Korea’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  Fortunately, the article includes a wealth of links.

I have also started a Korean War Crimes blog which is, naturally, nascent at the moment but which I will be updating periodically with the help of arduously striving students of war and reconciliation at Pacific Lutheran University and, perhaps, beyond.  Jeff Rud is a good example of one such student and I hope to include some of his evidence on the site, as well as to discuss various Korean War-related issues.

Chinese Foreign Ministry Statement Refutes Ling & Lee, Defuses Notion of Secret U.S.-North Korea Talks

Prim and businesslike PRC Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu had her work cut out for her today.

MFA Spokesperson Jiang Yu / 姜瑜

MFA Spokesperson Jiang Yu / 姜瑜

The reporters in the room were smelling blood — a high-profile editorial by America’s most famous ex-hostages in the L.A. Times asserted that the North Koreans had abducted from Chinese soil.  And this bombshell landed right in the middle of an equally high-profile visit of North Korean Vice-Foreign Minister Kim Yong Il to China.  Here was China, poised to lose some face, but also possibly working some back-room deals between Pyongyang and Washington.  The level of intrigue was higher than normal.

The first two questions at the press conference dealt with these issues in short order.  Of course, in the case of Ling/Lee, the question was longer than the answer.  And it’s a pretty good question, moving from the orthodox (“Regarding the American female reporters who had illegally crossed into North Korea…”  to the new and destabilizing “they have recently stated that they were taken from within China’s borders by North Korean border guards.”

The precise question then becomes: “Does China have any comment on this?  Will China open an investigation?”


Jiang Yu replies curtly and opaquely: “据向有关部门了解,没有发现你所说的那种情况,” or, “According to the understanding of relevant authorities, no one found the situation to be as you said.”

Google News takes some liberties with the translation, rendering it as: “As we understand from competent authorities, we did not find the situation as you described it.”  Our translations, and thus the implications of the remarks are slightly different.

Perhaps you prefer the Google translation, but regardless, Jiang’s use of 有关 (you guan, or “related”) as opposed to 负责 (fu zi, or “responsible”) designation for the people who deal with this matter is interesting — does she mean Chinese? North Koreans? — and adds to the layers of vagueness with which China would like to smother the story.

But thanks to the press pool person in Beijing and China’s slightly more transparent than it used to be news market, at least the cat is out of the bag in a more public forum.

The next question centers on the idea that American Stephen Bosworth, in Beijing, might meet with North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Yong Il.  China moves past this by expressing some boilerplate language about reviving the Six-Party Talks, but then revealing Kim is currently in Suzhou Jiangsu (probably supervising some foreign-currency gathering activities and stirring a few more rumors that North Koreans are studying Chinese economic model, which is probably part tactical, part real, and sure to be reflected in the work of Selig Harrison).

For the record, here’s the full text of the exchange:




(Note: As no English version of the press conference exists yet on the Foreign Ministry website, it is quite probable that the exact syntax of the question may be different; I am working directly from the MFA’s Chinese version of the press conference. I also apologize for neglecting my interest in Sino-French relations by not analyzing the question about Nicholas Sarkozy at the press conference.  Like Carla Bruni, the Chinese love to kick this guy around!)

On a side note, the Huanqiu Shibao carries this story of South Korean espionage in the PRC.

Beijing, June 2009 (photo by Adam Cathcart)

Scene in #8 Subway Station, Beijing, June 2009 (photo by Adam Cathcart)

Fistfuls of Chinese Earth, Breaths of Conspiracy, Fusillades of Propaganda

The Laura Ling/Euna Lee editorial has been partially translated and passed along, virtually without commentary or analysis, on the Daily NK’s Chinese website, which is accessible in China.

And the headline is, of course, “we were grabbed from Chinese territory.”   (This has an especially potent ring in Chinese, I might add: “从中国领土抓走,” evoking something sacred about the territory in a nationalist discourse which is the CCP’s stock-in-trade, something they learned darned well from the Nationalists.)  Why not?  The editorial by the CurrentTV reporters highlights the Chinese earth:

We tried with all our might to cling to bushes, ground, anything that would keep us on Chinese soil, but we were no match for the determined soldiers. They violently dragged us back across the ice to North Korea and marched us to a nearby army base, where we were detained [uh, no, ladies, you were already detained].

China has soil.  We know that now.  It’s a powerful image, one by which the authors link themselves to the very refugees dragged back into North Korea.   But it is also a very political act to highlight in this way.  And thus the Chinese headline on ling tu, or earth, territory.

While Daily NK is not widely read in China (as indicated by the lack of discussion about it on BBS / internet discussion boards and within the site’s own comments section), occasionally, when it suits the purposes of the mainland Chinese to do so, Xinhua or the Global Times will quote from Daily NK reports.  This is usually done in subtle ways when China wants to embarass North Korea.  The same tactic is used when Chinese reporters write “South Korean media reports [something denigrating about North Korea]” and don’t add caveats.   However, as I indicated, I don’t believe this story will take off immediately in China.  There are other reasons for this which I’ll explain subsequently.

North Korean Soldiers in China, encore

As for the topic of North Korean soldiers in China, the timing of this story about a witnessing of one who doffed his clothes to grab some goods across the river could not be better.  Here we have several photos taken of the stretch of river which (although the site does not mention, I can tell you based on having just been there) were taken perhaps 1.5 kilometers west of the main bridge connecting the two cities of Hyesan (DPRK) and Changbai (PRC) where legitimate trade occurs.

Sept 1 2009 NK returns to Hyesan across chest high Yalu, via Daily NK

Sept 1 2009 illicit trade across the upper reaches of the Yalu, Changbai/Hyesan

It brings to mind that when trade figures state that China supplies 80% of all goods in North Korea, if one were to estimate smuggled goods as well, that number might well reach even higher.

It also calls to mind a great deal of recent evidence mined in Good Friends’ Reports from defectors and cell phone conversations, dispatches which are somewhat less sensationalistic (perhaps due to more scrupulous translators!) than those of Daily NK.  These reports stress that corruption among border police has been a problem.

Coincidences, or, Fodder for Conspiracy Theorists

And corruption among border police has reached such levels that it was listed among Chang Song-Taek’s portfolio not long ago.  But most significatly, Kim Jong Il himself spoke to this issue of border security in a February 2009 inspection at Hoeryung city. And this wasn’t about Kangwon or the 38th parallel; he was there to tighten things up in North Hamgyong specifically.

My goodness.  Now there is a tidbit for the conspiracy minded!  Dear Leader travels to a North Hamgyong city on the Tumen River and calls for particular vigilance just a month before our intrepid trio of Ling/Lee/Koss and guide show up across that very river, mere tens of kilometers away, in nearby Onsong.  I have always been told that Kim Jong Il was prenatural, but that is really uncanny.  He really must be a brilliant man.

Almost as magnificently coincidental is the timing of the release of the LA Times editorial by Ling/Lee, which interests me primarily for the diplomatic and p.r. implications, not for the girls (dear God, I think we have had enough of them for quite a while, although they will be deigned experts for life on North Korea by the Oprah set) but for the Chinese government.

Isn’t it just a bit funny that the one shot the girls had left in their arsenal to cause international/diplomatic chaos was just played, e.g., to state that they were abducted from Chinese soil?  And that the revelation was timed just as the North Korean foreign minister was arriving in Beijing for four days of slated talks?

These girls are pawns, but their editorial was expertly timed to throw a nice little wedge in for the Chinese.  I wonder if someone over at State, or in the White House, or in John Bolton’s mustache, was really urging them to just revise it one more time, or to run it past a few more colleagues or vice presidents of marketing or government lawyers.

Let me be really clear here: It’s a loss of face and a p.r. problem for China to have this idea out that North Korean soldiers are arresting people on Chinese territory.

Pro-North Korean Propaganda in China

No wonder China is playing this down in its news media — there is really nothing to be gained.  So in its place — as something always has to fill the void — we get stories about initial market liberalization of the restaurant advertising business in North Korea (how bizarre, yet endearing, Xinhua leads us to think!), and two or three verbatim stories from Pyongyang’s KCNA about “over 170recent violations of North Korean airspace by American spy planes.

One function of these stories is to absorb the vocabulary which the Ling/Lee divulgence creates (“border” “territorial integrity” “spying Americans”) but to direct the discussion in a direction that highlights Sino-Korean solidarity and confuses the issue.

This tactic was seen when Jung Chang’s total character assassination book came out in 2005, the biography of Chairman Mao, published in Taiwan and the U.S., but completely banned in China.  (Having reviewed it for a journal and tought the book three times in university classrooms, I can see why.)  How did the CCP respond to Chang’s book?  I don’t have the notes from the Propaganda Bureau meeting, but in Zhao Ziyang-on-the-I’m-taping-over-my-grandkids’-pop-songs-on-the-mike-style, I think it went something like this: “Dear God, Jung Chang is one hot piece of spiritual pollution.  And her book, even though its just a Lutheran-ladies-in-the-church-basement-hotdish-reheat of Li Zhisui’s Private Life of Chairman Mao, is dangerous.  People are going to start wandering the countryside looking for Mao’s villas to rehabilitate and sell for huge profits, or, worse yet, they will recall that at one time our country’s foreign policy rested upon the principle of unity with Albania.  We know people are going to hear about this book and talk about it, so let’s just confuse people.  Do you remember that guy, what was his name?  Ross Terrill?  Yeah, the one who is now writing really mean books about us, calling us The New Chinese Empire and talking about how closed we are? Let’s get his old Mao biography translated, take out the acidic stuff, and market that mother in Xidan and in all the Xinhua bookstores — and call it ‘the newest Mao biography from the West!’  Get a few graduate students to work and let’s get it done tomorrow!”

And that is precisely what happened.  People, friends, real Beijing University scholars I knew, would, when posed with a question about Chang’s book, refer instead to Terrill’s book in conversations in summer 2006.  So this misdirection tactic has legs even among Chinese intellectuals, and you can’t Twitter them into submission to your facts.

Thus, returning to the day’s North Korea story, if we think of borders in North Korea, Xinhua leads us to imagine, it should be to condemnthose American spy planes.  The North Koreans are just concerned about their airspace, and what Chinese patriot couldn’t empathize.  I’m sure we all remember the rocky flaming shitstorm that descended on the U.S. embassy in Beijing in 1999 after the Belgrade bombing of their embassy and of course the April 2001 EP=3 incident, both of which netted China nice apologies kind of like the one Clinton reprised in Pyongyang. (“You can tell your people I kowtowed and I’ll go home and everyone will be impressed with my dignified non-apology apology.”)

But the Chinese netizens aren’t taking the bait.  No one really remembers the giant propaganda attacks on American aircraft over Korea and China during the Korean War, even though people like me spend days poring over Zhou Enlai’s thick handwriting in the Beijing archives about just that topic.  So it serves a purpose in the Sino-North Korean dynamic of returning, at least temporarily for a day and in the language of propaganda, to that fertile basis of their alliance: shared defense against the American imperialists, staunch defenders of their revolutionary sovereignty.

The netizens don’t really care much about the airplane story.  Two comments on a Huanqiu Shibao article?  No netizens have passion for it…

But in terms of how China is playing the media game of late with North Korea, we see some socialist solidarity at work, trying to calm things down with the DPRK and reward them for recent moderation.  Of course, the Ling/Lee thing threatens that facade.  Even if the two countries’ leaders have talked about the incident and had full transparency (which is absolutely unlikely, not to discount possiblity of communication on the matter; after all, the two countries have a new military hotline opened up), the fact that our favorite ex-hostages have come out with this news about Chinese territory, the socialist bloc here has a bit of something to deal with.

The last thing the Chinese government wants this month, as it leads up to the giant quivering and missle-revealing orgasm of October 1, is to have netizens and super-patriots get on some unstoppable wagon of debate about China’s “territorial integrity,” much less as the target of that ire would be a somewhat dangerous and unstable socialist neighbor state.  Can’t we keep people focused on Taiwan in this month that we reflect back on 1949 anyway?  And how happy everyone is?

There are master narratives to be upheld here, people!

Or, it’s just China watching its back for hatchets from Los Angeles.  Meanwhile, the Chinese Foreign Ministry (known by the bad-ass ackronym MFA, impossibly evoking the phrase “all up up in this muh” even as the building resembles the Death Star) happily hosts the North Korean envoys, who scatter plutonium-laced jars of precious mountain ginseng as little gifts around Beijing’s Chaoyang district and wonder why the hell it has suddenly become so hard to smoke a cigarette with impunity in the halls of the MFA, and then return to their embassy in Japanese cars that, like most of the commerce that goes on in the neighborhood, will breeze along irrespective of any dictate from Pyongyang.  Let’s hope the Foreign Minister can at least do some shopping while he’s in town; that is, unless he’s abducted by missionaries and spirited away to a third country.

Nitpicking Translations

And “third country”, I might add, is the right translation for Daily NK breathless reports about North Korean soldiers who run away to China.  Pyongyang, the website alleges, fears that the soldiers will run away “to a Third World country,” which is a very bad translation of the phrase 第三国。 Having lost their rights under U.S. occupation in Japan (along with the Taiwanese, something I discuss in depth in this scholarly paper based on documents in the U.S. National Archives and Chinese press reports from the 1940s) the Koreans of all people should be aware of this tricky term.  “Third Country National” (第三国人) was the epithet of the day.

You would think that a website that has as its mission, ultimately, to crack open the DPRK and transfer its population to places like Los Angeles via Mongolia (where Lee Myung Bak went this past spring to prep the conspiracy, to China’s consternation) would have a better handle on this concept as it is rendered in English.

Internet Babble Makes For Poignant Absences

Sometimes an item will soar up from incoherent babble of the Internet, and shine in a fashion that is so exceedingly incoherent, so counterfactual, so cognitively dissonant, that it actually becomes beautiful.

In researching a post I’ve been cogitating on and drafting for a few days now about prostitution in Hyesan, I found something that captured a real truth.

It was like the time in the Beijing airport when Mr. Choi, the head of a DPRK soccer delegation, told me with total assurance in his English, which itself had the aroma of solitude: “By yourself.  You study  Korean by yourself.”


Hyesan, DPRK (left); Changbai, PRC (right) -- photo by Adam Cathcart