Yalu River Notes: On Dandong

North Korea's Hong Kong? Perhaps. Image courtesy Shijie Zhishi, linked well below.

An empty optics firm looms on the horizon on the dirt-torn and perpetually expanding fringes of Xinchengqu, the new city being built southwest of Dandong. Photo by Adam Cathcart; click on the photo for more pictures.

The following is a cross-post from SinoNK.com.  And King Tubby (a regular commenter on both this site and David Bandurski’s essential China Media Project) points out a new Los Angeles Times article that deals with the matter of North Korean capitalism from a different angle. 

Along the frontier between North Korea’s North Hamgyong province and the PRC’s Yanbian Korean Autonomous Region, journalists, according to Chosun Ilbo, have been encountered problems with Chinese police.

Not so for Jeremy Page of the Wall Street Journal, who files a report which, amid all the other often completely baseless bloviating about rumors in Pyongyang, actually points the way forward to change of a sort in North Korea.

Entitled “Trade Binds North Korea to China,” Page’s dispatch virtually lays out a blueprint for further research and observation.

Among the questions prompted by Page’s work: Are North Korean cross-border traders an effective and powerful interest group in the DPRK today?  Is their relationship to provincial officials in North Hamgyong and North Pyong’an adversarial or symbiotic?  Does Jang Song-taek represent the interests of the trading elite, or an otherwise “pro-China” or “China-leaning” faction in Pyongyang? And, to be just a bit insouciant, why do the North Korean officials in or passing through Yanji prefer the Liujiang Hotel (which does not have a DPRK state-affiliated restaurant) when they could stay at the Rason Hotel (which assuredly does)?

To answer the question about Jang Song-Taek and the “new” (in the sense of “newly emergent”) Pyongyang elite and their relationship with China, it behooves us to look at the players on the Chinese side.

Dandong Leadership Watch (Part I) 

Last week at SinoNK, we discussed the role of the past Vice-Director for Public Security in Yanbian, and today, the provincial official in focus is the Secretary of the Dandong CCP Committee, Dai Yulin.

Dai Yulin / 戴玉林, CCP Party Secretary in Dandong

The highest-ranking CCP provincial and city leaders, or the most successful ones at least, are technocrats, and they tend toil away in provinces distant from their personal power bases.  Dai Yulin, born in 1959, is indeed a technocrat — with a doctorate in finance and two subsequent professorships in the same field — but he has been firmly entrenched in Liaoning province since at least the late 1980s, operating primarily within the tri-cornered circuit between Shenyang, Dalian, and Dandong.

In other words, he is a peninsular creature — that is to say, of the Liaoning peninsula, that economic counterweight to Kyonggi-do, which has the western part of North Korea caught in a kind of inevitable pincer of economic ties.

In particular, Dai is a Dalian man, having arrived there in 2001 and being promoted to vice mayor to the gregarious Bo Xilai [son of Bo Yibo], China’s most famous “princeling” and now in charge of Chongqing, in 2008.  Dai’s success in Dalian — a city which, in spite of three massive oil spills and a major chemical spill in the past 14 months of so, foreign columnists like Thomas Friedman still like to depict as a kind of ecotopia worthy of emulation by American mayors — resulted in his being thrown into Dandong at the unique historical juncture of August 2010, as plans began to materialize for accelerated ties with North Korea.  He was re-upped for the position by the CCP Party Congress in Beijing in July 2011.

Dai’s new office is in Xinchengqu; the entire city government has been moved out there.  The famous Yalu River bridge, as was pointed out by Tang Longwen in a very nice Shijie Zhishi article earlier this year, is a relic of Japanese imperialism, and hardly has the capacity for the kind of extensive mega-city and multi-national trade that China ultimately has planned to flow via Liaoning and North Pyong’an and onward to Pyongyang and points well south and east.  In other words, Dai’s new office is near the new $250 million bridge to Korea, which was reported on by the present author in dispatches from Dandong in June (here) and August of 2011.

(More photos of the construction in Xinchengqu are here, and then subsequently with more documents, thanks to Curtis, at NK Economy Watch).

By way of closing the argument about local ties and the relation of Chinese provincial officials to Pyongyang,  this analysis from September 2011 bears repeating in full:

At first I wondered: even in the midst of North Korea’s biggest wave of Chinese aid and investment since 1958, isn’t it a little bit unusual for the mayor of Dandong to go to Pyongyang?  And for KCNA to throw down not one, but three stories about the friendly visit?

And then I read a new piece in the Daily NK (which unlike so many DailyNK stories has much more than a just single source breathing rumors into a borderland cell phone) which describes a major purge going on in Sinuiju and surrounding North Pyong’an province.

…Occasionally one’s cross-border counterparts will simply disappear, and with them the claims to capacity or access of various kinds.

For Chinese officials in the northeastern provinces, the lesson is clear: always have friends in Pyongyang (preferably a handshake away from the Dear Leader), because the provincial cadre (even the ones you took out to karaoke, warbling away on the Dandong riviera) may not have your back after all.

And regardless of what North Korea does, money in the meantime is still flowing in Dandong, the little city with international ambitions. Not to veer into boosterism, but the city has indeed created an attractive investment environment for electronics and flat-screen manufacturers; a recent visit to the city of a representative from Philips was a focal point for Dai Yulin on December 15.

The interest in Sinuiju and the new Special Economic Zone — passed into law by the DPRK only on December 9 — is properly the subject of another post, one which will probably introduce SinoNK’s new Economic Analyst, Alan Ferrie.


Things Seen and Heard in Dandong

Updated: With apologies for the writer’s block (now fully shattered, one can hope), here are my impressions in the present tense from my recent time “roughing it” in Dandong and Kuandian, a Manchu autonomous county to the east and north which is pictured in these photos of PLA operations, and describe some action perceived and intimated in nearby Sinuiju, North Korea’s stunted “twin city” to Dandong.  An impressionistic mode seems appropriate…

Avant le deluge/ Prelude to the Afternoon of a Flood

– Night falls over Dandong on August 20. North Korean entrepreneurs wrap themselves around their PLA patrons on the sidewalk outside the Pyongyang restaurant warbling with songs of  “Arirang.”  The Dandong Riviera is being interlaced with a light drizzle, but no one seems concerned.  There is, after all, meat to be consumed, deals to be consummated, relationships to be forged, and exploitation to be avoided, mostly.  The lights eventually go down in the restaurant, but the cooks and staff sit under a few flourescent bulbs and eat slowly, while a couple of girls in t-shirts rehearse a new number on the drum set and a Casio keyboard, their rhythms and melodies unusually stilted and not yet ready for foreign patrons.  After all, as Chairman Mao said twice to Stalin, insisting that his ambiguity could be understood in the warmth of the Kremlin in winter 1950, “one has to clean the house before inviting guests.”

Someone is crying in the park across the street.  Between the waves of traffic, you can hear her sob.  But the North Koreans are all smiling.  The end of the day has come.  They are in Dandong, and life is good.  Three waitress-performers emerge out of the restaurant, arm in arm, all wearing the same patterned dress: black and white stripes, with white polka-dots.  They see the species of Western male in the window of the coffee shop; they smile and wave, not knowing he is finishing an essay about Kim Il Song’s bequeathal of Mausers to his defeated band in Manchuria.  But that was a long time ago.  Tonight, everyone is going home, and so even the imperialist deserves a wave and a smile.

Suddenly one of the polka-dotted girls runs back to fetch her umbrella, a pink and sturdy thing.  It has begun to rain.

The rain continues; it accelerates; it deepens on the road. Plainclothes policemen now circulate along these businesses fronting the Yalu River: You will need to evacuate, they say, the bullhorns limp in their hands.  Engines continue to run, but traffic dwindles.  The rain picks up.

I wander out of the coffee shop and over to look more closely at the Yalu: it is swollen; whole trees, roots and all, are riding the current down to the Yellow Sea.  Nothing will get in in the river’s way; it has achieved a kind of monolithic power, hypnotic and deadly.  All of Earth’s vitality and vengeance seems to be gathering up from its crouch; tendrils of current move wildly about on the surface.

It begins to rise; it has been beginning to rise; it seeks to end this beginning of a regenerated city; the river has a will; the face of God is smeared with mud.

I leap over the plastic police tape; the voices of the vendors are long gone; there is no one here.  There is no memory; the river’s urgency has destroyed recollection of anything other than itself.  I run from the river, but its presence remains palpable.  To be alone with this river with no regard for time is to invite annihilation.  Something reminds me of this.  Otto Rank, Freud’s underrated disciple, writes about man’s emancipation from water, from the mother figure, as a heroic act signifying birth and rebirth and creation of the self.  But the Yalu River is neither a mother nor a return to a pre-birth: in this moment it may as well be a guillotine, hoisting itself up a million long centimeters at a time.  Gravity will only protect us for so long, after all.

Just hours ago, the Yalu River bridge had been joyously lit, with processions of North Korean trucks moving north into the promised land!  Now it is blackened, the auburn lights on the bridge’s lower tracks almost swallowed by the torrent below.  On the Chinese side of the bridge, I stand under its stone pylons for a moment, pausing to admire the Japanese stone work.  Bulwark of imperialism, of Japan’s integrative impulse, this thing, too, might be swallowed.  The puddles underneath the bridge almost seethe with osmotic anticipation of being joined into something far more aggressive; a Sea of Water recalls a Sea of Blood, but the water is more numinous.

And of numbers: Wen Jiabao is in Gansu, the Dandong mayor is on the phone, and Kim Il Sung is dead.  The police are gone.  Minutes remain to the imaginary countdown to midnight, to August 21.

Suddenly North Korean music blares out from behind a door, a last spurt of defiance at the coming flood.  I run from it, and toward the main park on the Yalu River.

A brigade of volunteers is moving toward the coming flood and I move to join them, wondering what happens when the river breaks over wall.  Will it swallow these statues?  Chinese People’s Volunteers stand in bronze along the length now of this section; do their feet begin to corrode?  Can a statue drown?  What happens when a bronze monument to a war that saved a dying country goes unsaved, toppled by biology?  When nuclear seismology conceals nothing, when dams no longer can hold back the furious mockery of a planetary system far more capricious than even a North Korean dictator?  Why don’t the statues just put down their damn rifles and get to moving sandbags?

A cop sees me and realizes I am not a volunteer.  There is nothing to explain as he shouts at me; in Chinese fashion, I ignore him while doing what he wants.  I run back toward the city, hoping to get in through the new levy before they close it.  It is, thankfully, open, and midnight is falling.  A nearby banner reminds me that China is defending its border, which is to say, a little propaganda seems in order when Chinese traders are getting shot in their boats on the south shore of the Yalu and North Korean MiG jets are flying willy-nilly over the border.  But no machine guns seem able to solve the current dilemma.  Water doesn’t care for bullets.  Even a nuclear weapon would have little effect on this river.

A few locals are standing around in front of the customs house which reads in huge letters CHINA DANDONG.  Less than a block from the levy, where cars are squeezing through, an army reservist is arguing with a group of ten or eleven cops.  He is being exhorted to heed the commands and go throw down some sandbags.  He is not willing to do it.  He is livid with fear and anger.  Voices rise into pushing which rises into volleys of pugilistic knocks; the guy’s friend arrives to wrap up his buddy at the knees, attempting to tackle him for his own good.  Then even this last figment of a “harmonious society” flips when the cops start beating on the friend as well, who then joins in the collective thrashing.  Three minutes of blocked traffic later, two men are in a police van off to the jail, and the business of evacuation continues.

The argument virus has taken hold, however.  Around the corner two horrendously drunk men are shouting their brains out in the thickest possible Kanggye accents.  Although their voices contain every indication of an incipient outbreak of violence, they are holding one another like lovers.  Whole life stories are unfolded.  It is time for a settling of accounts.

I weave around them and stride off past the railway station, looking for the husk of a city block that marks my temporary neighborhood for the night.  The Dongyuan Hotel, after all, is being gutted by men who get up at four and are yawning by noon; dirt piles sit next to fake plants in the lobby; the place is abandoned to future commerce.  My new hovel instead sits across the street from a half-destroyed cluster of buildings from the late colonial period.  50 yuan a night.  Chimneys stick out of it like wartime Chongqing; in the lightning its strewn staircases are revealed as having no end; shades of David Copperfield’s climb.   Plants are growing wild all over the carcass of the ruins.  They luxuriate in the rain.  The rain pelts down outside the inn.  I have found it, but the door is locked.

Immediately a woman appears out of the blackness — “follow me,” she says, “they already sold your room here; thought you got out of town already.”  She looks enough like the sister of the innkeeper, about fifty-five and entreprising, and all my belongings here are on my back in any case.  Why the hell not?  In a city that is about to flood, there’s no use complaining when a roof over your head is offered.  No sense in sleeping in the ruins with rats and wild dogs; that’s to be done in cities that deserve such treatment, like Paris.

I wondered as I wandered, with whom the North Koreans would stay, because they nearly all of them lived near the river in the evacuated zone.  Perhaps the anticipation of their evacuation is why they had all been in such high spirits that night.  To see China in crisis mode, in action, to enter the society through a differing aperture — so long as one didn’t end up under the waves — would be a pleasure.  And the promise of a day off, of singing songs for oneself, of story telling, of useless time.   Once the mudslides hit the doors however, the future might be in doubt.   Thus whole years of experience are shoehorned into a single night of chance.

The lady moves efficiently into a doorway; I follow her, stepping over a bicycle into an inn with no sign and a peeling floor and past a comatose attendant.  Why are young men sometimes so much more asleep and oblivious than their matronly counterparts?

There is no need to take off one’s shoes in such a place.  The lady leads me forward like a patron saint or a small capitalist.  It is as if she has a candle.

We end up in a small room, the last one, she says.  “Just give me 30 yuan,” she gestures amiably, “I don’t need to see your passport.”  The world is going to hell and there is no need to run through the normal procedures. Under the light of her cell phone, she finds some exposed copper wires, sharpens them up, and jams them joyously into a plug which has been hanging precariously from a fan on the ceiling.   Things are in motion, including her, as she disappears.  I look around in my cube.  The walls are uneven; the floor exists in a state of wild disrepair; a centipede chugs steadily up among the skids of a wall corner.  But I love the place, because within its obtuse belly lies an object worthy of contemplation: a globe.

At that very moment trash begins to seep up the river walls.  The river is gorged with trash, flecked by millions of plastic bottles and bags.  It is the detritus of Chinese poverty and prosperity.  Kuandian, that afternoon, had been so strewn with trash in every river and stream bed.  It is as if the trash, pasted upon stones and impossibly high tree branches, testifies of the coming of something akin to a glacier, but swifter.  Layers of civilization in the trash.  Who knows what will wash up on the North Korean shore next week.  Presuming that they still have a shore.

In the room under a single light bulb, I sit and contemplate the globe.  When one is in Dandong, one can be found one’s place upon the globe’s surface.  Dandong is the place where the colors change, where the wedge of the sea begins to narrow, where the effluvia finds its way outward.

The next day I find my way outward.  I sit with a handful of PLA air force officers.  They remind me that the North Korean MiG rocketed all the way to Fushun because of “mechanical failure.”  A television reporter takes glorious shots of a helicopter taking off with aid in it while ten air force officers sit around drinking tea in a lounge with a 25 yuan minimum per-person drink charge. The ride to Beijing is turbulent, entirely.  I arrive in Beijing to see that the levies have apparently been punctured in Dandong.

No one in the capital seems terribly concerned.

Rustlings Near Ritan Park, Dragging Home Generators from Dandong, and Manhunts in Yanbian: Sino-North Korean Stories

The North Korean ambassador emerged in Beijing today to give a press conference at the DPRK Embassy, reprising themes from yesterday’s DPRK Foreign Ministry announcement of a desired peace treaty with the United States (an announcement reported here from one Xinhua’s stalwart guys in Pyongyang, Gao Haorong).  The ambassador noted that North Korea’s “goal has always been to achieve denuclearization,” or, stated in Xinhua-ese and mixed in with some chengyu-style idiom, “无核化是朝鲜政府始终不渝、一贯坚持的目标.”

I make an effort to spend at least three weeks a year floating around in the general vicinity of the Ambassador’s office near Ritan Park, and it’s fair in my mind to say that press conferences held in the North Korean embassy in Beijing are a rarity.

Perhaps the idea is not so much to pressure the Americans, but to get the word out in China that the North Koreans are reasonable people who just want to be secure from the possibility of American attack.  And I think there’s some traction for this point of view within China, regardless of whether the request for a peace treaty is genuine or just a feint for propaganda purposes.   The Dandong news service across the border from Sinuiju indicates as much, reporting on White House spokesman Robert Gibbs’ rejection of the North Korean proposal.

And speaking of Dandong,the  city which handles some 70-80% of all cross-border trade, Chinese merchants in the North Korean-China Friendship Markets report that  the most popular items bought by North Koreans in China include generators, with South Korean rice-cookers coming in a close second.  Of course the Huanqiu reader board uses this as an opportunity to disparage South Korea for pretending to be obsequious to China when in fact the South Koreans consider themselves to be at least a decade ahead of the PRC in terms of development.

Meanwhile a perusal of Yanbian’s main news portal yields a mysterious manhunt for a 47 year old male “Korean fluent in Chinese.” As the Gong’anju (Public Security Bureau) have the tendency to do in China, there is no information available about this fellow’s crimes, so it could be something simple, or he could be a South Korean missionary running around trying to contain damage done by Californian missionary Robert Park, who walked into North Korea via the Tumen River on Christmas Day.  But he’s worth 10,000 yuan, and thanks to a taxi cab camera in Yanbian, here he is:

The 10,000 Yuan Man, a la gauche, via Yanbian News

Another South Korean walked into North Hamgyong province on January 9 from somewhere near Tumen, reports Yonhap, an action which, I imagine, will keep things tighter than usual for jaunts to the border.

Finally, Yanbian is so full of interesting characters it’s hard to resist including this photo as well, as part of a story about parents trying to get compensation for an eight-year old kid who suffered a dog bite:

"出事的院子" , via Yanbian News

Reports of North Korean Chemical Weapons Wafting into Chinese Dandong

[post updated October 11, 1:57 a.m. Pacific Standard Time]

The Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun reports that potentially dangerous concentrations of sarin gas, a deadly nerve agent used most infamously in the First World War, was detected along the Chinese-North Korean border.  While the detection took place in November 2008 and February 2009, the story only broke yesterday as the result of PLA sources talking to the newspaper.

Isn’t the timing of this leak (of information, not toxic gas) rather interesting?  After all, the Chinese premier just came back from Pyongyang, where the PLA seemed rather cozy with their KPA counterparts.  But now someone in the PLA is reminding Japanese news sources, and their Western counterparts thereby, that all is not harmonious between PRC and DRPK.  North Korea remains a provocateur.

The full text of the report is available here in Japanese.

Asahi Shimbun's graphic -- Indicating the gas was detected outside of the urban center of Dandong.

Asahi Shimbun's graphic -- Indicating the gas was detected outside of the urban center of Dandong.

English versions of the story, such as the here via AFP, pretty faithfully convey the main content of the Japanese report, but leave out one of the more interesting details: Chinese special forces consistently monitor air currents from North Korea, and that Chinese military aircraft flew over the areas of China where the sarin was floating in and did their best to detoxify the area.  The Japanese report also discusses the possibility of chemical weapons being manufactured in the area of Sinuiju, the area that appears to be the source of the sarin.

Here is the AFP version.  Once again, we Anglophones don’t get the whole story:

TOKYO (AFP) – China has detected deadly nerve gas at its border with North Korea and suspects an accidental release inside the secretive state, a Japanese news report said Friday.

The Chinese military is strengthening its surveillance activities after detecting the highly virulent sarin gas in November last year and in February in Liaoning province, the Asahi Shimbun newspaper reported, citing anonymous sources from the Chinese military.

Sarin gas, which was developed in Germany before World War I, was used in the deadly 1995 nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway by a doomsday cult.

The Chinese special operations forces found 0.015-0.03 microgrammes of the gas per cubic metre when they were conducting regular surveys while there were winds from the direction of North Korea, the report said.

China suspects that there were some experiments or accidents in its neighbouring country, it said.

A rather free-wheeling discussion of the story is going on here on a slightly strange but potentially helpful Anglophone BBS.  Reports emerged in March 2006 that North Korea was gathering the basic ingredients for sarin.  The Straits Times, via AFP again, has a more extensive story on North Korean biological/chemical weapons programs hereThis news did not appear to receive big play in China, as it would have roiled the CCP’s aim to get people mobilized behind support of the Wen Jiabao visit and pushing for US-NK direct talks, but it was reported in a short sidebar in yesterday’s South China Morning Post, which is where I first encountered the story.

Finally, a German defense intelligence website reports on the story with an ominous graphic

Nervenkampfstoffe sind bereits in kleinsten Mengen tödlich. Die Angriffsfläche ist dabei der gesamte Körper.  Via Defense Pool.

Nervenkampfstoffe sind bereits in kleinsten Mengen tödlich. Die Angriffsfläche ist dabei der gesamte Körper. Via Defense Pool.

and the reminder that Germans were the first to develop sarin.  As they properly imply, the manufacture of sarin is not an expertise we should be privileging in the 21st century!

Coda: I myself am in possession of both Chinese and American documents (just two) from the early months of the Korean War that assert that the North Koreans were working on biological weapons themselves way back in 1950.  One has to put socialist modernity to good use, after all!  Of course, at the time, the Americans were happily using the rather large body of data coaxed out of Japanese war criminal Ishii Shiro, meaning that NK could simply have been engaging in some defensive research, with a little help from Soviet friends.

Cambridge on the Tumen: A Transnational Workshop

A small group of scholars gathered in Cambridge on Friday, May 23 for a conference centered on the Tumen River and a critical sub- region of Northeast Asia which has seen less critical attention than the issues surrounding it might indicate it deserves. Funded by the Beyond the Korean War Project  and including participants from the North Asian Borders Network, the workshop brought together a number of experts.

Among the issues explored at the workshop included migration, environmental protection, border security, development history, landscape, economic exchange, and artistic expression. Today the region is surrounded by a Chinese Yanbian, North Korean North Hamgyong province, and the Russian Far East. All of these areas represented the expertise of the conference, as follows.

The conference began with Dr. Hyun-Gwi Park of Cambridge University, who gave a pessimistic but fascinating summary of the Tumen River development project. The project had been initiated in 1991 with the help of the United Nations but has essentially been put on hold. Dr. Park said that the Rason project, a central element to the development plan, was in the hands fully of the North Korean leadership, which had chosen to “put it to one side rather than completely abandoning it.” The trilateral border region contains a combination of factors which were still potentially very promising for economic development: a combination of cheap labor provided from China and North Korea, Russian natural resources, investment from South Korea and further investment from “the missing but always potential partner,” Japan.

How does one define “the Tumen triangle region?”: It depends upon which cities are chosen as the endpoints; this lesson in geographical geometry was very much in order.

An interesting element in the presentation was North Korea’s role in it: North Korea was described by Dr. Park as the “enigma of the project…both a stumbling block and an essential participant.” The Long view of Qing provincialism and interprovincial competition was then taken, including a discussion of cross-border mobility wherein economic migrants could explore unknown areas and pursue their own economic opportunities. An example of this was ethnic Koreans from China who could go into North Korea without a visa.

The recalling of Qing imperatives in the region brought me back to an old thought: China’s impetus in supporting the Rason project is largely about frustration with the Treaty of Nerchinsk (1689) and feeling almost entitled to sea access from easternmost Jilin.

Russian settlement in the Far East has a long history through which the region can also be profitably investigated. There has ever been a kind of “internal colonization” within Russia; people in the Russian Far East can viewing Moscow through a transnational lens; China is a closer neighbor then Moscow. This world view is, in some ways, a reaction to the central government. Which is not to say that xenophobia does not exist in the Russian Far East, but the notion of Russian nationalism in that region does need to be questioned.

Kim Il-sung embraced the Greater Tumen Intiative in the early 1990s is a means, he thought, of reviving the DPRK’s east coast economy (centered upon Wonsan), but then of course he died in 1994 and this project was set aside again.  Using the west coast of Korea as a transnational counterfoil, it can be seen how goods might thus move from Inchon and up to Dandong and down to Pyongyang, forming kind of a semicircle.

My own paper presented some new research on the question of Chinese-North Korean relations from 1945 to 1949, focusing on the interconnection of Korean Workers’ Party with the Chinese Communist Party. The question of ethnic and national identities were heavily contested at this time, particularly on the Chinese side of the border. The paper looked at several biographies of lower-level officials in Yanbian in 1945 and 1946, and how several went “back” to Korea (some had never been there before) and ultimately participated the Korean War. Even among communist cadre, the legacies of Japanese imperialism and the Manchukuo experiment remained strong. Finally, there lie hidden in various archives and Chinese-langauge memoirs the possibility of alternate histories: there were, after all, several individuals in the post-liberation Yanbian region with an equal biography to Kim Il-song who ended up carving out their own spheres of charismatic militant influence.

The next paper was by Christopher Green, looking at changes in currency evaluation and foreign currency use in the North Korean economy since the 1990s. Green brandished a volume published in Pyongyang in the 1980s (and which he had recently purchased in Yanbian), dealing with issues not normally associated with Kim il song: Finance and economic management. Green thus sought to contextualize the Currency reevaluation of 2002 by asking a simple question: has this happened before? Kim Il-sung, as it turns out, presided over three previous currency re-evaluations — in 1959, 1979, and 1992. In every case, Green observed, these actions had been prepared by notifying the public in advance, providing people with ample time to exchange money, etc.  Clearly, what this context provides was further confirmation that the currency revaluation in 2009 was hastily planned, poorly executed, and done without much regard for past precedent.

John Swenson-Wright, professor of Japanese history at Cambridge, gave comment on the two papers, combining them and showing how they look at North Korea at a local level, finding alternate stories by digging into the archives or economic data and defector testimonies.  In combination with an earlier comment and synthesis by his Cambridge colleague Heonik Kwon, Dr. Swenson-Wright’s comments helped to cap a spirited exchange of ideas and comparative models, before the conference concluded with a viewing of the bracing film “Dumangang.”


Is China losing faith in North Korea? A Contribution to The Guardian

Having been asked to put something together for the Guardian‘s new North Korea network, I did, and had the following short essay included as part of a very fine panel:

One of the things you quickly realise from travelling along the full length of the Chinese border with North Korea is just how much of North Korea there is. China’s boundary stretches along four northern frontier provinces of the DPRK, stretching for hundreds of kilometres along the Yalu and Tumen rivers. Along those tributaries, there are at least five good-sized North Korean cities (Sinuiju, Manpo, Hyesan, Musan, and Hoeryong) which could easily absorb China’s attention during a crisis.

Whilst we tend to imagine a wholesale collapse scenario where chaos radiates outward from Pyongyang, we might better examine the possibility of chaos farther from the bright and labyrinthine capital city – and far closer to China. For instance, we might see a chemical accident in Sinuiju“terrorism” directed at Kimist monuments in Hyesan, theforcible expropriation of Chinese mining concerns within the DPRK, anuclear accident or even a volcanic eruption.

China is of course planning to handle such problems, but not for the first time. Documents in the Chinese Foreign Ministry Archive describe China’s intensive interactions with the DPRK during the last full-scale collapse scenario in 1950. China was able to absorb about 10,000 North Korean refugees on either end of the border, and the DPRK waspressing to set up consulates up and down the frontier so that they could themselves keep track of the outflow. At that time, North Korean military units moved into Chinese territory to escape bombing by US planes – such as happened in Hyesan.

The North Koreans have hardly forgotten the war or China’s massive aid and stationing of troops until 1958, but the recent warming between Seoul and Beijing is clearly troubling; Kim Jong-un’s level of trust in Chinese comrades is as limited as his contact with them. The international community needs to understand that North Korea doesn’t simply fear American nuclear missiles, nuclear submarines, and nuclear-capable bombers; the country’s leadership also is concerned about falling unwillingly into the embrace of its huge northern neighbour.

Travels to the frontier region, and conversations with China’s own North Korea experts, help to contextualise that the real struggle along that frontier is likely to be above all economic and cultural. But China does need to be ready for a catastrophe; appearing helpless before its own population in the face of the North Korean equivalent of Fukushima is not a scenario the Chinese Communist Party wants to face.

Citation: Adam Cathcart, et. al., “Is China Losing Faith in North Korea?,” The Guardian, 9 May 2014.

Don’t Believe the Hype

courtesy Rodong Sinmun, August 15, 2012

“Amazing!” says Bloomberg, channeling some rather bullish conference remarks by a Chinese member of the relevant investment committee, “North Korean special economic zones (SEZs) on the Sino-Korean frontier might be ‘the next Shenzhen’.”

Now stop for a second and read for the silence in this story.  North Korean representatives did not even attend the conference in question.

North Korean representatives don’t even attend most of the major regional conferences that regularly take place in Changchun, which is a (by North Korean standards) relatively fleet overland journey from the DPRK border.

Next to nothing has been done at one of the island zones near Dandong, as I reported from the border zone last month.  Until the DPRK trusts their own representatives enough to send semi-empowered delegations to gin up foreign investment, they will dependent on enthusiastic Chinese boosters, whose patience – as even China Daily and Global Times are now noting with greater obviousness – may ultimately wear thin.



Blockages and Breakthroughts: Cultural Diplomacy and North Korea

[A cross-post of an essay which I posted on SinoNK.com. -- AC]

Yesterday, Corée_Actualités launched a short missive which functioned as a kind of bouleversement of the normal: a 90-member delegation of the DPRK’s Unhasu Orchestra (consisting of 70 players) will be performing at the Salle Pleyel in Paris this coming March 21.  The French Radio Symphony Orchestra (l’Orchestre de Radio France) will be playing alongside Unhasu, under the direction of the South Korean conductor Chung Myung-Hwa. (Like most successful conductors, Chung holds a couple of jobs concurrently; he is also the director of the Seoul Philharmonic.) The Unhasu Orchestra, as readers may recall, is an elite bunch which was closely associated with Kim Jong Il and which continues to serve as the literal pulse of the fast-beating heart that is the revolution in Pyongyang. The Mangyongdae lass who pours coffee and plunks a bass guitar in search of foreign currency in the Dandong restaurant looks up to the orchestra with a kind of awe — there is no higher position for the entertaining elite, and the material benefits conferred to the orchestra members are substantial.  As the French press digests the story — which has inspired no features yet in Liberation.fr or LeMonde, but which surely will — we at SinoNK.com will endeavor to keep you informed.  In the meantime, the news, covered in brief at FranceTV’s “Culturebox”, sparked an analytical turn which is at hand presently. — Adam Cathcart

Blockages and Breakthroughs: Cultural Diplomacy and North Korea

by Adam Cathcart

Why Bother Analyzing It? Rodong Sinmun Front Page, Feb. 13, 2012

The present general consensus about cultural diplomacy and North Korea appears to rest upon the following assumptions:

a. North Korea’s blockade against Western culture has gone from near-total (under Kim Il Sung) to endangered but still vigorous under Kim Jong Un;

b. North Koreans, especially youth, are desperately in need of alternate modes of culture (essentially, ours if not precisely James Turnbull’s South Korea);

c. North Korean musical and performance culture has been stunted rather than stimulated by the cult of Kim family leadership;

d. North Korea’s relatively massive state expenditures on the arts are essentially about ideology, and building a core of loyal elites in Pyongyang;

e. Performances by Western or South Korean groups in North Korea are acts of “soft power” subversion which can serve to undermine the state;

f. Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un are essentially musical dilettantes whose primary purpose for attending any performance is to amplify applause and reveal the political stock of whatever generals are in the retinue;

g. the themes and message of North Korean music, and the musical bureaucracy, are not necessary to analyze, because they prevaricate against the very notion of individual expression.

Rodong Sinmun, February 17, 2012

Notice also what is completely absent from the above litany:

a. North Korean culture is exportable;

b. North Korea has one of the most comprehensive systems for musical education in the world;

c. the North Korean cultural bureaucracies, in terms of goals, budgets, and politics are completely comprehensible to their allied Chinese counterparts;

d. the North Korean bureaucracy is studying, but not imitating, how China is slowly privatizing its own socialist cultural industry ownership;

e. North Korea has a state Symphony Orchestra and a contemporary music ensemble capable of playing at the international level.

Very rarely does anyone challege any element of the consensus described, and rarer still does anyone have the temerity to argue for the unspoken elements laid out above.  Perhaps this is why the appearance of a certain Norweigian on the scene (covered with utmost delicacy by Evan Ramstad) has been so unsettling; with his accordions and flip-books, the artist appears to believe in actual cultural exchange.

The festival makes several discomfiting assertions; and not once do they mention the concentration camps! (But must the camps stalk the edge of every conversation of North Korea?  As Simone de Beauvoir complained about paramters on postwar French and American discussions of Stalinist gulags, such obligatory caveats become awfully wearisome; everybody knows the camps exist.) In any event, to the Norwegian publicist-summary:

Morten Traavik calls on both locals and visitors to Barents Spektakel [a festival in northern Norway] to take part in a pioneering record attempt and a test of our ability to act together as one: with the help of North Korean mass games instructors we will try to create Norway’s biggest living picture, hopefully with several hundred participants.

Following the signals of the North Korean instructors, every participant turns over pages of a colorful flip-book, becoming one of the hundreds of living pixels forming huge, shifting mosaic pictures of well-known motives from the High North. ME/WE also puts our communal spirit to the test: Are we western individualists able to subordinate ourselves to the collective discipline necessary to act together as one, if only just for some hours? Join the project and find out! [...]

ME/WE is Part 1 of a bigger project THE PROMISED LAND (along with Gold Stars and Norway on Norway) by Morten Traavik, that he has developed in North Korea through years of travels to the world’s most secluded country. This unique collaboration has resulted, for the first time ever, in a larger group ofNorth-Korean artists coming to Norway and Northern Europe, as participants in Traavik’s project. THE PROMISED LAND opens our minds for a possibility of dialogue, overcoming mutual suspicion.

According to Liberation.fr, the accordion players were invited to the festival, but Traavik was not sure if they would come or not. Meanwhile, elsewhere in Scandanavia, a Finnish ice skater has to apologize for entertaining North Korean kids at a recent competition in Pyongyang.

Sports as cultural exchange: There is a poignant scene in Robert Egan’s brashly carnivorous book, Eating with the Enemy, in which a team of North Korean female soccer players travels to the US for the Atlanta Olympics.  After a wild shopping trip to WalMart near an interstate highway, the team returns to the hotel, whereupon the team goalie goes to each room to collect the television cords so as to prevent the women from watching cable television. Perhaps this is a horrifiying moment; the replication on American territory of the DPRK’s information monopoly. It is the extension of a North Korean state cultural quirk into a new realm.  In a text that opens up a number of apertures, sometimes painfully so, this anecdote brings forward the notion of a refutation of the principles of cultural exchange even as one is engaged in it.

This is a point that could be similarly made when it comes to Chinese-language education in the DPRK: One could point to the growth of Confucius Institutes in Pyongyang as a sign of change.  The North Koreans seemed comfortable enough with the idea to allow Vice Premier Li Keqiang to visit Chinese language students at Kim Il Sung University.

Li Keqiang, Vice-Premier of the PRC, Speaks to North Korean Students of Mandarin at Kim Il Sung University, October 25, 2011; image courtesy Xinhua

By the same token, should China have any hopes for their language at a university named for a man who, in spite of being fluent himself, famously said “Why should we speak Chinese in our own country?” Perhaps we should be skeptical of the notion that Chinese language education in North Korea will aid in opening the DPRK up to further foreign influence. Chinese-fluent North Koreans, if their ideology remains solid, would just as soon join the online comment wars in defense of their system than supinely listen to their endless supply of would-be Chinese pedagogues.

And why should the North Koreans trust either the Scandanavians or the Chinese?  After all, when the Danish Embassy in the PRC decided to have a film festival entitled NORDOX in three major Chinese cities last December (as I discovered to my total shock that month, via pamphlet, in a small art gallery in Shanghai), the Chinese Cultural Ministry approved the screening in Beijing and Guangzhou of the film “Yoduk Stories [耀道故事].”  Do you suppose the North Korean Embassy noticed?

The meaning of cultural exchange in the North Korean context remains in flux.

Not only is it in flux, but the Unhasu Orchestra now occupies the center of the debate.  KCNA absolutely seethed earlier this month at a Chosun Ilbo critique of the orchestra’s recent work.  The North Korean article, most of which is reproduced below, is itself worthy of much, much more attention than it has heretofore received (emphasis added, my commentary in brackets):

KCNA Dismisses Rubbish in S. Korean Paper

Pyongyang, February 11 (KCNA) — The south Korean reptile paper Chosun Ilbo recently let loose a spate of invectives about the local performance tour made by the Unhasu Orchestra, the DPRK’s renowned art troupe.

Having no elementary understanding of the mass-based art, this paper echoed what was aired by Radio Free Asia engaged in the anti-DPRK smear propaganda. It claimed that “the performance was not received well by audience” and “it brought them burden rather than pleasure”.

This was wicked elements’ trumpeting aimed at doing harm to the single-minded unity of the party and people.

How can such human scum understand the people of the DPRK and its arts?

Inspired by songs, the Korean people’s 80 odd year-long just revolutionary struggle started, advanced and won victories.

The Korean revolution and people held aloft the banner of “Let’s always be cheerful although our path is thorny!”, the banner of confidence and optimism, during the Arduous March, the forced march.

In this glorious course, songs and arts in the DPRK have served as valuable ideological and moral pabulum [e.g., sustenance] for the people making revolution that a large quantity of food can hardly substitute.

Even after the loss of the father whom the Korean people deeply trusted and followed, they drew a thousand-fold strength and courage from the songs presented by the orchestra [which comes to personify the leader in the style of snow] after the start of the advance in the new year. It is setting the hearts of people afire with reverence for the leader in various parts of the country [including Wonson and Huichon]. Its performances evoked a lively response among audience as they helped consolidate the unity between the leader and the people [as per Kim Jong Il's theories, which have their roots in Germanic throught (see Acta Koreana article, cited below)] and aroused among them ardent longing for him.

The service personnel and people of the DPRK joined the orchestra in singing songs in tears and rose up, inspired by them. What the above-said media asserted is nothing but a shriek of despair made by those taken aback by the might of the arts, the hot wind raised by the orchestra more powerful than a nuclear bomb. [Mock KCNA all you like; this is easily the best sentence written by anyone in 2012, Rushdie and Keillor included.]

The reptile paper, a mixture of the American style and Japanese way of life, can never understand the true character and value of the DPRK’s arts.

They were so displeased with its local performance tour that they claimed it was unprofitable, the absurd assertion of a merchant. This suffices to guess their level of knowledge about arts. [The whole point being that profitability and market principles are an up-side-down way of looking at the arts; the whole point is that they are not profitable; rather, the point is that the state, understanding the need for Bildung, makes the outlays anyway for the spiritual health of the populace.]

In related news, a huge new Kim Jong Il cantata functions as the latest refinement of the ever-growing Gesamtkunstwerk cultural apparatus in the DPRK:

The Korean unification which seems destined to happen in our lifetimes (should we live to be as old as de Maiziere, the ex-East German Prime Minister who now dines for free amid the musical chairs of Unification Ministers in Seoul) is going to be absolutely ghastly when it comes to the question of culture and cultural integration.  Is North Korean culture completely destined for the rubbish bin of history?  Are North Korea’s cultural bureaucrats and musicians all going down with the regime, being tied so closely to it? Can the North Korean vision of art and culture be separated from the glorification of a man and a family who absorbed the lessons of Stalinism and left the rebel-turned-dictator in the dust? Or does North Korea have a distinct and viable future precisely because of its mode of culture, its “games”, its music, its sport, and its willingness to thrust the supremely faithful outward, where they shall perform, bathe in applause, collect the agreed-upon currencies and headlines and then pivot, homeward, where the great pedal tone of the revolution awaits, the Urthema, the body and Gestalt of the leader upon whose brow every anonymous worry has been cast, and from whose hand every benefit flows?

Further Reading:

Adam Cathcart, “North Korean Hip-Hop? Reflections on Musical Diplomacy and the DPRK,” Acta Koreana Vol. 12, No. 2 (December 2009): 1-19. (Full text as pdf. here.)

Adam Cathcart, “Inside North Korea: French Edition,” Sinologistical Violoncellist, September 5, 2011. (Includes footage of a hip-hop kid in Pyongyang.)

Isaac Stone Fish, “Pyongyang Rock City,” Foreign Policy, October 21, 2011. (In which the author is quoted.)

Darren Foreman, “North Korean hip-hop,” World of DarrenF, June 7, 2010. (In which the notion of KCNA-rap is spawned in London.)

Jaeyeon Woo, “NK Portrait: From Gulag to Toy Robot,” WSJ Korea Real Time, April 1, 2011. (Rap, Ryanggang-do kids, and “Yoduk Story” stories).

Kim Jong Il Dies in His Train: Updates

About an hour ago at noon Pyongyang time, Korean Central News Agency reported that Kim Jong Il had died yesterday morning in his train “from overwork.”

A Chinese reporter, Zhao Shuguang [赵曙光], who described in earlier reports the North Korea leader’s desire to make it to age 70 in the year 2012, and who has also been accused of fabricating reports to favor the North Korean leadership, is on the phone periodically from Pyongyang on a grainy connection.

KCNA’s website is stuck on December 14  17, and the Chinese Embassy website’s dispatch from this morning describes Ambassador Liu’s wife’s activities with women’s organizations in commemoration of the 94 anniversary of the birth of Kim Jong Il’s mother, Kim Jong Suk.

In the next couple of days I wouldn’t expect a great deal of elaboration from Pyongyang, but China’s “North Korea hands” like Lu Chao in Liaoning should be out in force explaining what bedrock — and relationships —  the Sino-North Korean relationship is presently resting on.

Readers of this blog can expect some more in-depth look at recent Sino-North Korean ties and where things stood prior to the announcement of Kim’s death.  Unfortunately, I am not in Dandong or Yanbian at present, but am at least in the PRC to navigate through the next few days and weeks of news.

The King is dead!  And now Hamlet is in Pyongyang.

Update 2:

Chinese markets are down significantly at the news of Kim’s death, along with something causing an equal number of tears on the mainland — lower real estate prices.

Newspaper Liaoshen Ribao in northeast China quotes KCNA as having Kim’s death stemming from MI, or myocardial infarction.

Ri Chun Hee [李春姬], usually identified in media reports as “an emotional North Korean television anchor” had in fact just gone into retirement recently, and came back for the announcement of Kim’s death.  Certainly there is something more to this story than meets the eye — perhaps another signal of a generational changing of the guard at KCNA, among other things.

Peter Simpson at The Telegraph writes:

North Korea’s main ally China, announced his death through its state media, Xinhua.

The report listed Kim’s various titles and mentioned his last visit to economic zones and for talks in North East China in August.

Beijing has been propping up the Pyongyang regime with financial aid, and had been to trying to persuade Kim to toe-dip into market economics – with some degree of success.

China has been facilitating the Six Party denuclearisation talks after Pyongyang successful detonated a nuclear device in 2006, sending shock waves around the world.

Yet Kim was often a thorn in Beijing’s side with his various threats of war and random and isolated military attacks on the South.

China has been fully briefed on North Korea’s planned handing of power over to Kim Jong-un, and is seen to prefer a stable if poor North Korea.

CNN reports, with some commenatary by the ever-solid Mike Chinoy:

His funeral will be held December 28 and the national mourning period extends until December 29, said the [North Korean] news agency.

North Korean and communist party officials “released a notice on Saturday informing” members of the Workers’ Party of Korea, military “and all other people” of Kim’s passing, according to KCNA.

The best reporting I’ve seen yet on the Chinese response to Kim’s death comes from the Sydney Morning Herald, which notes:

This morning the North Korean embassy in Beijing lowered the national flag to half-mast while the country’s customs authorities immediately shut the busiest border crossing, at Dandong.

A manager at Golden Bridge Travel Agency, on the Chinese side of the border at Dandong, said the border had been shut because of Mr Kim’s death but expected it to re-open by January 15.

The Sydney paper was the only one thus far to send a reporter to the North Korean Embassy in Beijing, where diplomatic staff or their families were bargaining for flowers with local merchants.

Bloomberg carries the full text of a North Korean announcement-obituary here, e-mailed to news agencies.

In a slightly strange move, Global Times is republishing articles from last year (but dating them 19 December 2011) reminding readers that the Workers’ Party of Korea conference of late September 2010 had cleared the way for Kim Jong Eun to assume power along with a cast of assembled generals and family members.

Huanqiu Shibao has a news page up on Kim Jong Il.

More updates to come from the Chinese media.

Update 3: CCTV reports from outside the North Korean Embassy in Beijing (video, mainly of Japanese and South Korean reporters).

At a Ministry of Foreign Affairs press conference, the following was the longest official statement made yet by China about Kim’s death:


答:惊悉朝鲜最高领导人金正日同志不幸逝世,我们对此表示深切哀悼,向朝鲜人民致以诚挚慰问。金正日同志是朝鲜人民的伟大领导者,是中国人民的亲密朋友,为发展朝鲜社会主义事业,推动中朝睦邻友好合作关系发展作出了重要贡献。我们相信,朝鲜人民一定能够化悲痛为力量,团结一心,将朝鲜社会主义事业继续推向前进。中朝双方将共同努力,继续为巩固和发展中朝两党、两国和两国人民之间的传统友谊、为维护朝鲜半岛和本地区的和平稳定作出积极贡献。[ Translation forthcoming ]

DailyNK reports that a single source inside Musan, a coal city in North Hamgyong Province snug  up against some remote cliffs of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Region of the PRC, states that the streets of Musan are loaded with police, and no one has been allowed to leave their homes.  This is the kind of assertion that could be confirmed or denied rather simply by sight by a two hour taxi ride by a Western reporter in Yanbian, if there were such a person.

Probably in express counterpoint to the above story, Li Liang, a Huanqiu Shibao reporter, writes tersely that in the aftermath of Kim’s death, matters on the Sino-North Korean border are “completely normal, with no sign of any changes or strange movements.”  [一位中朝边境的知情人士19日向环球网记者透露,目前,通过在中朝边境线上的观察,朝鲜边境情况一切正常,没有任何变化和异动。]

Chinese media reports that, having set Kim Jong Il’s funeral for December 29, the North Korean government will not allow foreign delegations to Pyongyang to attend the funeral.

Chinese netizen commentary on Huanqiu is wildly mixed, with “50 cent” or North Korean commentators paying homage to the eternal revolution and friendship, and others calling North Koreans “politically brainwashed,” stating that “Fatty Kim [金胖子/Kim Jong Eun]” would soon be “starving his people,” and applauding “the grand drama which has only just begun.”

It’s worth noting that the number one story on Huanqiu, the hawkish Chinese foreign policy newspaper/website, is not at Kim at all, but about the strict mobilization of the South Korean military.  Huanqiu readers and the passively hawkish strand in Chinese public opinion is presently primed towards anger at South Korea thanks to a recent fishing incident off of Incheon; Kim Jong Il could have picked a worse time to die.  Japan also has to tread extremely cautiously in this context.

CCTV reporters in Pyongyang interview some tearful passerby in the North Korean capital.

The Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang has a short official response which includes praise of Kim Jong Il’s “development of Korean-style socialism.”

A rather quickly-produced piece by Tan Liya [谭利娅], one of Huanqiu’s Korea hands, describes the emphasis in CIA reports on Kim Jong Il’s strangeness, and quotes International Crisis Group’s excellent Korea hand Daniel Pinkston on the subject of Kim Jong Eun’s inexperience.  This is the one public/legitimately doubtful reference to the subject of the successor’s youth that I have yet seen in Chinese media since the announcement of Kim Jong Il’s death.

In a semi-official interview with “a diplomatic officer formerly stationed in North Korea” (my money is on the current PRC ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoyuan), some frank discussion of Kim Jong Eun is forthcoming.  While Kim Jong Eun is young, the anonymous source states, “from the standpoint of the North Korean system, that is no problem at all.”  This interview makes 100% plain, without relying on a potentially later embarassing statement by the Foreign Affairs Ministry or Wen Jiabao, that China is going to prompt precisely zero questions in public about the legitimacy of Kim Jong Eun.

Update 4: Lu Chao, as predicted above, weighed in yesterday on Huanqiu Shibao. As with the preceding entry on the unnamed Chinese diplomat, Lu notes that the succession system in North Korea is not particularly problematic.  However, Lu is somewhat more transformationalist in his rhetoric:

新闻报出朝鲜领导人金正日去世的消息,令人很感意外。朝鲜是中国的友好国家,金正日在最近不到1年的时间连续3次访问中国,对中朝两国的友好是做出很大贡献的。金正日是朝鲜最高领导人,他的去世有可能引起国内权力的变化,或者说,是暂时真空下条件下的权力变化。很多人也在关注这个事情。[ Translation forthcoming ]




Hu Jintao went to the North Korean Embassy this morning to “offer condolences” upon the death of Kim Jong Il.  The Xinhua dispatch about this event was literally one sentence long, so no sign of who received Hu Jintao — making unclear if the North Korean Ambassador, much less the DPRK’s top “America hand” Li Gun, who was in Beijing on December 15 to negotiate food aid with the US, was in fact even in the building.

In a subtle reminder of China’s Dengist aspirations for North Korea today, Huanqiu TV relased a four-minute retrospective on Kim Jong Il’s sometimes racous first visit to China in 1983.  Presumably the footage of the then-putative successor with Deng Xiaoping in Beijing serves both as a reminder of China’s steady support for the idiosyncratic North Korean political system, but also as a means of envisioning that meeting that is sure to take place at some point in the not-too-distant future between Kim Jong Eun and Xi Jinping.

Yesterday (December 19), an envoy at the DPRK Embassy in Pyongyang surnamed Park [临时代办朴明浩] received a communication from Yang Jiechi, the head the three hundreed meters or so to the PRC Foreign Ministry for a meeting with the head of that gargantuan bureaucracy, Yang Jiechi.  The text of the message is summarized as:



The North Korean response to this communication is worth noting, as it includes express reference to “uniting around Kim Jong Eun”, which then becomes the headline for the story in China:


Taking a break from all the official-ese, Sinostand has a nice roundup of some Chinese netizen chatter on Weibo in response to Kim’s death (link via JustRecently)

Charles Armstrong’s obituary published on CNN is the first to raise, if only briefly, the Kim Il Song standard of success for Kim Jong Il.  If the testimonials in books like Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy or Dominic Morillot’s galvanizing Evades de Coree du Nord are any indication, there are some deep reserves of nostalgia in the DPRK for the Kim Il Song years, prior to the famine that erupted after his death and the rips that occurred in the social safety net.  To the extent that Kim Jong Eun can, with Chinese aid, begin a kind of “return to the past” to fulfill that old pledge of meat and kimchee in every pot, he might be more acceptable than his own father, all South Korean information to the contrary notwithstanding.

International Institute for Security Studies has a nice edge on the freak-out side of the ledger: war could break out at any time.  These views are summarized in a July 2011 podcast, and a very helpful free pdf. book chapter about domestic dynamics in North Korea.

Back to the PRC: This Huanqiu leading op-ed for the day on North Korean stability and change has already picked up 214 comments, with more to come.  And more translations and analysis to come in this space.

Update 5: A Huanqiu Shibao reporter (which could be Chen Gang or Zhou Yiran, two Pyongyang hands on the staff) spent some time driving around Pyongyang today, and filed an interesting report which makes the following clear: No Army soldiers are visible on the streets, and construction is continuing on the city’s ambitious apartment buildings for 2012.  Apart from that, descriptions of the large numbers of people flowing by foot to the Kim Il Song statue on Manggyongdae to pay wordless tribute; the old often cannot stand. No one talks to one another at these gatherings, others writhe around on the ice, and many do not want to leave.

Chinese media outlets are now relaying South Korean reports that the North Korean military fired off two long-range rockets over the East Sea/Sea of Japan on December 19, launched from South Hamgyong for a distance of about 120 km.  Obviously this complicates China’s efforts (as seen already in Lu Chao’s remarks, but are implicit and omnipresent) to depict American and South Korean provocations as the main obstacles to stability and peace on and around the Korean peninsula in this transitional moment.

In a Huanqiu BBS post by Luo Jianyi [罗竖一], a number of worrisome possibilities are raised. Luo is a kind of all-purpose Xinhua writer from Lanzhou, Gansu, hardly the voice of the Beijing consensus but a useful person to have around when you need an approved voice to deal in the open with some difficult possibilities; somewhere well below Lu Chao on the reliability scale but well above a normal netizen.








In a question only the French media would imply at such an early stage, Le Monde takes apart the North Korea propaganda apparatus, wondering how Mass Games and Arirang will continue to evolve under Kim Jong Eun.  (Recent events, by the way, put the dampers on what had been a warming bilateral informal relationship since 2009; France, along with Estonia, is the only European state not to have formal relations with the DPRK.)

Time to get started on the translations of the Chinese materials for readers who are interested in deciphering the specifics.

Update 6: Here is the full text of today’s (December 20) Huanqiu Shibao editorial about Kim Jong Il and his aftermath in North Korea:

朝鲜最高领导人金正日突然去世,中国迅速表示哀悼。这是东北亚的重要事件,无论朝鲜如何度过权力交替期,一些国家都会把这当成改变地区战略格局的契机,朝鲜的稳定和地区战略稳定都面临考验。中国此时的态度很重要。中国须坚决、明确地维护朝鲜的独立自主,保障朝鲜的权力过渡不受外部的干扰,保障朝鲜选择国家道路的自由。North Korea’s highest leader Kim Jong-il has suddenly died, and China quickly expressed its grief. This is a big event in Northeast Asia.  No matter what kind of changes in power North Korea goes through, some countries will all take this opportunity for change in their strategic posture in this region . North Korea’s stability and regional strategic stability is all being tested. China’s attitude is very important at this moment. China must clearly signal that it will protect North Korea’s independent self-rule, protect North Korea’s power from being disturbed from the outside, and protect North Korea’s freedom of choice for their national way. 

由于朝鲜新领导人金正恩比较年轻,一些国家对朝鲜剧变寄予期待,并有可能会为促成它的发生而采取各种行动。朝鲜是小国,放在普通的地缘政治条件下,不易承受压力。Because North Korea’s next leader Kim Jong Eun is relatively young, some countries expect huge changes in North Korea, and there is the possibility of stimulating the appearance of all kinds of actions and activities. North Korea is a small country, and to put North Korea into normal political conditions would make it very difficult for North Korea to accept the pressure. 

中国要坚决平衡外界对朝鲜施加的各种压力,做朝鲜权力平稳过渡的可靠后盾,在关键时刻为它遮风挡雨。中国态度明确所产生的力量,对朝鲜社会在过渡期保持战略信心绝非可有可无。China must establish an equal balance between the external countries’ pressure and North Korea, to be the power upon which North Korea’s stable power transition can rely at this key moment of strom and stress. China’s clear attitude and production of power, without any doubt, helps North Korean society keep strategically confident during the transition of power.  

朝鲜是中国的特殊战略伙伴,尽管其核问题等给中国带来不少麻烦,但中朝保持当前的友好关系,对我国获得周边稳定,对增加中国在东北亚、甚至在整个东亚的战略主动性都至关重要。North Korea is China’s special strategic partner. Although the nuclear problem has given China no small troubles, China and North Korea still maintain currently friendly relations, helping us with regard to stability on our borders, and playing an important and increased role in China’s strategic quality of action in Northeast Asia, or the whole of East Asia.    

中国国内一直有人认为中国为维系中朝关系付出了太多,而中国早已有过阿尔巴尼亚、越南的前车之鉴。这是给中国崛起的大战略算小账。国际关系从来此一时彼一时,中国用于交朋友的花费再怎么高,也比对付一个更恶劣战略环境有利得多,花费少得多。In China, there are some people who always think that China has helped North Korea too much in the relations, but China has “learned lessons from our predecessors” in experiences helping Albania and Vietnam. [Relations with North Korea] are just a little bit of money in [the context of] China’s rise and great strategic plan.  In international relations, epochs of history are not identical, and the cost of making friends is high, but would be much higher in worse strategic environment.   

事实上中国已为今天的中朝关系经营了几十年。如果中国任由其他国家和势力动摇中朝合作的战略根基,那才是中国外交的前功尽弃。这样的中国会被所有研究大国政治的人嘲笑。Actually, China today has kept relations with North Korea for so many decades.  If China were to let other countries disturb and change the basis for its strategy of Sino-North Korean cooperation, for China’s diplomacy, this would be to “relinquish the gains of past labor.”  

大国的战略信誉对中国越来越重要,中国要敢于为朋友担当,而不可在关键时刻退缩。这样,中国的朋友就会越来越多,反之会越来越少。The strategic trust [credit] of great countries is more and more important to China; China must do something for its friends, but it cannot retreat from the crucial point. In this way, China will have more and more friends.  If [it takes the other path], China will have fewer and fewer friends. 

从长远看,中国应该影响但不强制干预朝鲜国内的政治方向,尽量促成朝鲜走上正常、可持续的发展和安全之路。中国干涉朝鲜内政既累又不现实,但放弃影响则可能导致严重违背中国利益结果的出现。中国应长期做对朝鲜最有影响力的大国,但任何时候都不应试图对朝鲜国内政治进行操纵。Taking the long view, without forced intervention, China must influence North Korea’s internal political direction, trying its best to encourage North Korea in normal ways to take the path of sustainable development and security. Chinese intervention in North Korea’s internal affairs is a tired and unreal [cliche], but for China to give up its influence will obviously severely hamper the results of China’s advantages.

建议中国高级别官员及早以适当的名义赴朝鲜访问,在这个特殊时期保持与朝鲜新领导人的密切沟通,向平壤也向世界释放中国支持朝鲜权力平稳过渡的清晰信号。As soon as it is appropriate, Chinese high-level leaders will go to North Korea, and there they will intimately communicate with North Korea’s new leaders at this special time that Pyongyang can send a distinct signal to the world about China’s aid to North Korea’s peaceful transition of power. 

中国还应与俄罗斯加强协调对朝鲜半岛的立场,与韩美日及时通报朝鲜的情况和中国的态度,确保自己在后金正日时代的环朝鲜政治局势的构建中,处于积极主动地位,延续中国过去在朝鲜半岛问题上的独特优势。China still has to take a stance, along with Russia, toward the Korean peninsula, taking the attitude that North Korea should have increased cooperation with South Korea, the U.S., and Japan. In the environment of the post-Kim Jong Il era, amid North Korea’s construction of political power, China must continually actively position itself, continuing the past special successes of solving problems on the Korean peninsula.  

中国不必担心会因明确支持朝鲜平稳过渡,而导致与韩美日的紧张。恰恰相反,中国支持稳定、反对动荡的态度越明确,其他国家与朝鲜发生新摩擦的可能性就越小。这同样是中国让各方适应中朝友好不受朝鲜权力交班影响的过渡。说到底,中朝友好是当前东北亚保持稳定的重要基石。China does not need to worry that its support of a stable relationship with North Korea will cause worry to South Korea, the U.S., and Japan. China supports stability, takes an attitude of clear opposition to upheaval, and the possibility of outside countries having issues with North Korea is accordingly smaller.  Similarly, this means that Sino-North Korean friendship cannot be effected by the change of power in North Korea.  In a word, Sino-North Korean friendship is the most important cornerstone of today’s stability in Northeast Asia.