Borderline News from NK: Hyesan and Forest Fires

Hyesan is getting spruced up with some funds from the center.

Meanwhile, the ever-vigilant Juchechosunmanse digs up a real find:

Back in October North Korea watchers were perplexed by the fires in the DPRK’s northeast, namely in Ryanggang-do and Hamgyong-bukdo. The Daily NK has just reported [ed. in Chinese] that the forest fires were caused by people burning corn roots to get rid of insects and worms in areas such as Pungseo-gun in Ryanggang-do. Apparently it is part of a concerted effort to boost food production and everyone seems to be pressed to get ready for next year’s spring planting.

I rather rudely excerpted most of his enlightening post, but I do so because I’m quite glad to get this information.  I accordingly spent some time with the Daily NK’s Chinese page and have hopes to get a translation out soon.  The focus of the article, I should add, is that autumn harvest activity has been taking place sooner than usual, and that rural cadre are really bringing the hammer down to get food production up in whatever primitive ways they can.  Of course, fuel is almost non-existent, so they have to use cows or human labor to plow the fields, which are now freezing up.

Meanwhile, as it deals with environmental concerns, the Global Times carries this bizarrely-edited piece by a foreign observer in China entitled “Peaceful weather manipulation not a worry.”  Now why is it that most of us refrain from submitting manuscripts to Xinhua again?  Who wouldn’t love their name appearing underneath a headline like that?

Fortunately the mainland Chinese press gives a nod to the Daily NK  story not by covering the emerging North Korean famine and resultant forest fires, but by talking about forest fires caused by a downed plane in ROK’s South Cholla province.

And who needs news about the DPRK when you can argue with anonymous foes about the Korean Wave?  Not that they ever stop, but there is another long online spat on the Huanqiu’s BBS that starts with a post entitled: “You who swear at the ‘Korean idiots': Do you truly understand the history of the Republic of Korea?”  I suppose this counts as debate.

Finally, for comparison, see my previous analysis of the North Korean forest fires story in the Chinese press.

Flower Girls: Prostitution in Hyesan, North Korea

A fall 2009 dispatch from the Daily NK in Chinese (and its English translation) indicated that a prostitution scandal was breaking in Hyesan, North Korea’s fourth largest city, a gray metropolis which sprawls along the banks of the shallow Yalu river across from the Chinese city of Changbai.

[Google Map of Hyesan/Changbai available here.]

I spent a few days in Changbai in July 2009 to gather impressions of North Korean-Chinese interactions. From talking to locals, I collected a fair amount of anecdotal information about cross-border trade, social interactions in Changbai-Hyesan, and the impacts of the 150-day speed campaign in the DRPK. Just for the record, Hyesan appears to have quite a few more lights on at night (I counted more than forty) than more-wealthy Sinuiju. I also found some nice healthy Jilin marijuana plants all along the Chinese side of the river.

Apart from the occasional Daily NK article or intrepid Western photojournalist (like this in April 2009) who plays chicken with KPA border guards (“I point my camera, you point your rifle, we both get what we want”), it is an area not frequently traveled by Western journalists or academics.

As to the prostitution story: the energetic human-rights blogger Joshua Stanton picked up the story, necessitating another post-facto translation job on the part of your friendly author.

In any case, my task is to clean up and expand upon one Daily NK translation. Let’s get to it.

My modified format has the original Chinese followed by my modified English version. Blue indicates data that does not show up at all in the Daily NK’s original English version, but that is unquestionably part of the Chinese version of the same article. Orange indicates a significant change in interpretation more faithful to the Daily NK’s original version.

Citation: 李成进 [中国长春特派员], 惠山查处有组织卖淫案件: 公然在干部专用住宿设施中交易 … “皮条客”拿走收入的一半, Daily NK, 31 August 2009 Lee Sung Jin [Special Reporter in Changchun, PRC], Hyesan Investigation Reveals Incident of Organized Prostitution: In Boarding Facilities Expressly for [Workers' Party] Cadre, ‘Pimps’ Openly Walk Away With Half the Money, ” Daily NK, 31 August 2009.

Article text [Blue=new data previously untranslated by Daily NK; Orange=improved translation]:

[1] 有消息称,两江道惠山市近日查处了一起有组织卖淫案件,道党委派出的“非社会主义因素审查团”正在对主要住宿设施及青年惠山站附近的民居进行审查。According to information, Ryangang Province, Hyesan City recently investigated an incident of organized prostitution. The provincial Party dispatched an “Group for the Investigation of Unsocialist Elements” which is currently investigating the principal hotels and activities of residents near the Hyesan Youth Station.

[2] 两江道内部消息人士25日透露:“上月20日‘惠明旅馆卖淫案’被查出后,旅馆负责人和客房负责人、会计等被关进了道检察所。”“不仅是铁道旅馆、站前旅馆、惠山饭店,青年惠山站附近的民居也都被列为审查对象.” According to a leak from a Yangang Province source on [August] 25th, “After the ‘Hyemyung Inn prostitution incident’ blew up on the 20th of last month, the person responsible for the inn, the manager in charge of the rooms, the cashier and others were all locked up by the provincial prosecution office.Not only the Station Inn, but the inn behind the station [Wiyeon Rail Inn?], the Hyesan Hotel, and residential areas near the Hyesan Youth Station are the target of a series of inspections.

[3] 位于惠山市惠明洞的惠明旅馆是一所中央党干部们经常入住的国营住宿设施。但是旅馆的李某负责人和白某负责人从2005年开始组织惠山地区的女性从事卖淫。他们以1万 – 1万5千(朝元)的价格在干部专用客房留宿嫖客,以4千(朝)元的价格在普通客房留宿嫖客。 The Hyemyung Inn is located in Hyesan’s Hyemyung-dong district. It is a state-owned and -operated inn where central party cadre often stay. But from 2005, the superintendant, Mr. Lee and the manager Mr. Baek began to organize women in Hyesan areas to sell sex. They charged a price of 10,000 to 15,000 North Korean won per room for rooms only used by cadre, and 4,000 won per room to average customers.

[4] 据消息人士称,惠明旅馆的卖淫活动暗语叫做“卖花”。负责人根据嫖客的要求介绍不同价格的“花”。他们甚至召募刚刚初中毕业的女孩子从事卖淫。According to the source, prostitution activities at the Hyemyung Inn were spoken of in code as “flower sales.” The managers connected male customers to variously-priced “flowers” according to their demands. They even summoned girls who had just graduated from middle school to engage in selling sex at the inns.

[5] “卖花”的女性被分为四种:“红花”(10多岁到20岁刚出头)、“蓝花”(20多岁的未婚者)、“黄花”(有夫之妇)、“紫花”(寡妇)。由专门的‘皮条客’给负责人提供卖淫女。“皮条客”还以4:6、5:5的比率拿走卖淫女的收入。Girls “selling flowers” were divided into four classifications: “red flowers” (girls over ten years old through those just over 20), “blue flowers” (unmarried women over 2o), “yellow flowers” (married women) and “purple flowers” (widows). A specialized “pimp” provided the superintendant with the women through another supplier. The “pimp” and the prostitutes divided payments for their services with the suppliers at a 40:60 or 50:50 ratio.

[6] 消息人士称:“最贵的‘红花’的收费是2小时2万(朝)元,一夜4万元。”“这些”皮条客”与中国方面也有联系,卖淫女们甚至跨越国境到中国的长白县卖淫。The source said: “The most expensive ‘red flower’ costs 20,000 won for two hours and 40,000 won for the entire night….This pimp has connections on the Chinese side, so some prostitutes even crossed the border and went to Changbai county to work.”

[7] 旅馆负责人与厨房负责人的矛盾导致事件暴露. “惠明旅馆卖淫案”是因为旅馆负责人和厨房负责人的矛盾才得以大白于天下。厨房负责人被旅馆解聘后怀恨在心,把旅馆组织卖淫的真相给捅了出来。Contradictions between the inn superintendant and the kitchen manager caused the incident to be exposed. The “Hyemyung Hotel Prostitution Incident” happened because contradictions between the inn superintendant and the kitchen manager brought the incident out into the open. After being dismissed, the kitchen manager’s heart was full of hatred, and the painful truth came out [lit. "the truth was given out in jabs"].

[8] 道党委认识到事态的严重性,立即组织道检察所、道保卫部干部组成的审查团,将审查对象扩大到了两江道内所有住宿设施。道保安局和惠山市保安署还对青年惠山站附近及惠山市场周边等地的民宅进行了住宿审查。The provincial committee of the Party recognized the gravity of the situation, and organized the provincial prosecutor’s office and provincial Security Agency cadre into an inspection group to expand investigation of hotel facilities across Ryangkang Province. Furthermore, the provincial People’s Safety Agency [Pao-an] and the Hyesan city PSA agents were still carrying out inspection in the vicinity of Hyesan Youth Station and Hyesan Market and other areas to investigate lodging activities in people’s homes.

[9] 此次审查目的在于扫荡有组织卖淫和个人卖淫。This purpose of this investigation was to cleanse [the area of] organized prostitution and individual prostitution.

[10] 在审查过程中查出,惠山饭店和站前旅馆也经常性地组织过卖淫活动。As a result of the investigation, it was revealed that “Hyesan Hotel” and the inn behind the station had also been regularly engaging in prostitution activities.

[11] 站前旅馆是一所位于青年惠山站附近惠场洞的11层楼的普通住宿设施。它虽然是主要面向利用青年惠山站的列车旅客的住宿设施,但是据悉主要利用者更多的是嫖宿者。The inn behind the station is a common 11-floor facility located in Hyejang-dong near the Hyesan Youth Station. Although its primary aspect as a facility is to house rail passengers passing through the Youth Station, it is reported there are many more customers who arrive instead to spend the night patronizing prostitutes.

[12] 惠山饭店是外国人专用设施,只有中央党干部以上的本国人才能利用。这里主要向来自中国的商人们提供卖淫。Hyesan Hotel is used especially [exclusively] by foreigners, and is thus a is a place which, for Koreans, can only be accessed by central Party cadre and higher levels. Most people who come here are Chinese businessmen who use the prostitutes.

[13] 朝鲜的国营住宿设施实施有组织卖淫的事实早已从90年代末开始就在居民们当中流传。随着“苦难行军”的开始,粮食、用电、区南等问题导致住宿设施的运营面临困境。部分住宿设施就开始给卖淫人员或“皮条客”们提供客房。The fact that organized commercial sexual activity has been taking place in state-owned hotels has been circulating among the citizens since the late 1990s. Shortages of food, electricity, heating and other problems during the “March of Tribulation” period led to great difficulties in the operation of such facilities. [In this period,] a portion of the rooms began being given to prostitutes or “pimps” to use.

[14] 据消息人士讲,收押在两江道检察局的惠明旅馆负责人为自己辩解称:“为了旅馆的运营不得已而为之。”惠山饭店的负责人也诉称自己是为了筹措饭店的重装费用才以这种方式赚取外汇,并要求从宽处理。According to a source in Hyesan, when being put in the Ryanggang Provincial Investigative Office, the manager of the Hyemyung Inn told the policeIf I wanted to keep my inn in business, I could not do otherwise.” The Hyesan Hotel manager also begged for leniency, claiming that he had no choice but to engage in foreign-currency earning activities in this way to generate the necessary funds for re-modeling.

[15] 消息人士表示:“‘150天战斗’开始后,卖淫女的数量呈几何数地增加。”各种农村支援和建设劳动的动员次数增加,市场运营时间限制在下午4时以后,原本以做买卖营生的城市人口的收入随之大幅降低,最终增加了很多迫于生计卖淫的“生计型”卖淫女。The source also explained, “Since the 150-Day Battle began, the number of prostitutes has progressively increased.” As households are also beingmobilized in increasing numbers for farm aid and construction labor, markets are opening at past 4pm, the income of households in the cities has dramatically decreased. Ultimately this has resulted in an increase of women compelled into prostitution, or “survival prostitutes.”

[16] 朝鲜当局在8月8日实施的“关于贯彻党的群众路线,清除一切不正腐败现象”的讲演会上列举了具体事例对近来成为社会问题的卖淫活动做出了强烈的批判。The North Korean authorities, at an August 8 lecture meeting called “Regarding Implementing the Party Mass Line, Eliminating All Unjust Corruption” which took place on August 8th, strong criticism was made of prostitution activities among a list of specific examples of recent social problems.

[17] 但是朝鲜当局能否可以通过此类政治教育和审查及时查处和根除卖淫活动还是未知数。因为近来出了有组织卖淫,“生计型”的个人卖淫也开始在居民区扩散。 However, it is difficult to assess whether or not the North Korean authorities can really reduce prostitution activities via such political education and harsh inspections. Because with the recent revelation of organized prostitution, “survival-type” of individual prostitution has also begun to spread among the people.

Commentary (Numbers refer to paragraph numbers in original article.)

1. One aspect that gets underplayed in the translation is the extent to which much of the prostitution activity in North Korea is actually not organized; the article describes subtly how state pressure drives the sex trade into new places. In this sense, the very entropy of the North Korean sex trade forms a very different structural picture, than, say, the comfort women system which some persuasive writers like Joshua Stanton have drawn in with reference to this story.

3.  A minor point of fact emerges here which may shed some light on the marketization of North Korea: the Chinese version implies that “customers” could pay more for a room used by officials/cadre. In other words, “customers” other than North Korean officials may also be using the rooms designated for officials and paying the higher prices for sex. After all, as we learn later in the piece, Chinese businessmen are involved in paying for these services as well, and, having some familiarity with the culture of Chinese high rollers born in the 1950s, it seems likely they would be both willing and interested in paying whatever price to have the “prestige” of experiencing the high (and rather corrupt) life of a North Korean party cadre.

In the same paragraph, the phrase “ran a prostitution ring” comes up, and while it can be translated this waythe Chinese basically says “organized women in the Hyesan area to sell sex.” To me anyway, the very matter-of-fact way this source from Hyesan describes it implies less “human trafficking” than the possiblity of a rational choice made by the prostitutes, or, at a minimum, the lack of horror of the Daily NK’s source in talking about the matter.

4. Zhaomu [召募], the operative verb, to my knowledge, means “to summon,” not “to coerce.” I’m open to other interpretations, but it again the word choice of the translator leans one toward the idea that these women were forced into the work, when the Chinese source is more ambivalent if not opposite in its meaning.

Same thing with “as young as”; this appears to be translator editorializing, or “didactic translation.” I think the point is clear enough in the original version. Obviously if they just graduated from middle school, they are very young.

5. Although numerical data isn’t a strength of this article, one gets the sense that this is a big operation.

6. The bad thing about this article being written from Changchun is that sometimes people forget to consult their maps. The original version of the article says some of the prostitutes “went as far as Changbai to work.” Hello! Changbai is directly across the river from Hyesan.  For the record, Changbai itself is not a very big city (e.g., low demand for prostitutes), and is likely more of a gateway to the interior for human trafficking, not a destination.

7. The discussion of “contradictions” in true communist style among this kitchen manager and his ostensible boss must have been intense. It doesn’t appear that either one of them was getting incredibly wealthy from the enterprise. This notion of built-up resentments, the culture of vendetta, is one that I’ll leave for others to analyze.

8. Again, the new translation sheds further light on the throughgoing marketization of North Korean society and the state’s efforts to roll it back wherever it crops up. The cops are there not just to discover prostitution activities, but to figure out if private citizens (as happens in China) are renting out their dwellings to take a cut of the proceeds from various illicit liaisons.

12. Anti-Chinese sentiment in North Korea, anyone?

16. Paradoxically, a return to the ethos of the late 1950s and adherence to Kim’s writings of that era, minus the war shadows, would probably be welcomed by many North Koreans, that is, if the DPRK hadn’t already let the capitalist genie out of the bottle. Given what has been showing up in recent Good Friends reports, it seems quite likely that corruption, prostitution, etc., would indeed be the subject of Party meetings.

17. Here, for the first time, is your actual last sentence of the article. And like a “secret track” on some obscure death-metal band’s 33 1/3 record, it is damned ominous. In other words, the author seems to imply that now that the state has cracked down on brothels in Hyesan, the sex trade is simply going to metastasize into the general population. This is a cruel world people are living in.

A Final Note on Cultural Resonance and Regime Legitimacy

There is on last bit of tragedy in this story that may not be apparent to some. The hotel’s signification for the prostitutes as “flower girls” trods directly upon a major trope in socialist film in the DPRK; “flower girl” is also shorthand for a very popular film of the 1960s in the DPRK which features a pure girl who ultimately takes a tragic path in colonial Korea. (Film footage of the film “The Flower-Selling Girl,” or 卖花姑娘, can be viewed in the link; see also UC Santa Barbara scholar Kim Suk-Young, [who has already made a major contribution via her work in North Korean refugee memoir genre] in Illusive Utopia: Theater, Film, and Everyday Performance in North Korea, forthcoming with U. Michigan Press in 2010.) If it’s true — and I certainly don’t doubt it — this story of prostitution in Hyesan, as it spreads through the population, further alienates the Party from the people, because it raises all kinds of additional tropes for the Workers’ Party.

In some ways this is where the DPRK gets snared again in its own propaganda. The more the Workers’ Party appears to be acting like the Japanese occupiers, the greater the chance that their already tenuous legitimacy outside of Pyongyang and the KPA will evaporate forever. Yet, finally, in both these novels and in the fisticuffs of the two men running the prostitution ring in Hyesan, we are reminded of the impulse for vengeance. It is a powerful idea in North Korean art, of angry brothers vowing death to the defiler, the stories of families enraged by the choices they face. If the Hyesan prostitution story holds true, there are some very angry and ashamed brothers, fathers, and husbands walking around the northern edge of Ryanggang province. If in fact the relevant inn managers are still alive in two years’ time, I would be very surprised.

Here, in closing, is the plot synopsis for “The Flower Girl,” via a DPRK press release (via Koryo Tours) and NK Econwatch. It is definitely something to think about:


As it teaches the truth that the exploited and oppressed should turn out on the road of struggle and revolution in order to carve out their destiny, the revolutionary opera has gripped the hearts of the people for its ever-increasing attraction and vitality.

The opera is based on the profound seed theory that a flower girl selling flowers out of sorrow and filial piety eventually emerges in a struggle and revolution. It raises the serious socio-political point that any amount of devotion and sympathy can’t save the destiny of the poor in a society where exploitation and oppression prevail.

Watching the opera, the audience grasps the truth that the people of a stateless nation who have been deprived of sovereignty [food] are more dead than alive, and only when they set out on the road of revolution to fight can they defend the sovereignty of the nation [their wombs and their dignity] and enjoy a genuine life as an independent people.


Prostitution in Hyesan, North Korea

Snug up against the small but still bustling Chinese city of Changbai (Jilin province), Hyesan lies along the Yalu River, spreading from West to East as the closest urban gateway to sacred Mount Paektu.  According to the country’s Meteorological Administration, Hyesan is the coldest big city in the DPRK.  Cross border-trade is an important part of what goes on in the city, yet, Hyesan is, in some ways more than other cities in North Korea, attempting to guard the image and the history of its own revolution.

It is therefore in some ways alarming to learn that a prostitution ring implicates hotels in Hyesan catering to Workers’ Party officials.  Although the English version of the linked article does not pursue it, here are given a powerful image of corrupt North Korean government officials currying favor with Chinese businessmen by introducing them to prostitutes, some of whom are described as “older than 10″ in the original Chinese version of the story.

In a subsequent post, I’ll be analyzing this problem further and revealing several tidbits that the English language version of the article ignores, obfuscates, or sensationalizes.  I’ll leave you with one minor example: the North Korean government actually sent Health Department workers to various areas in and around Hyesan to investigate further instances of organized prostitution.  However, the Daily NK translation — perhaps reflecting a need to further demonize a country that is already doing a swell job itself of being hated — leaves out any mention of the Health Department workers, focusing instead on those nasty Public Security agents who are also apparently trying to root out this very, very pernicious form of corruption which itself is related to the food crisis.  These women, by the way, are called “survival prostitutes.”

For some reason, although their report was supposed to deal with cross-border sex trafficking, the CurrentTV reporters didn’t bother going to Changbai, which is the place to learn about Hyesan.  What a pity!

Hyesan, seen from a faux-marble faux-Tang dynasty style pleasure boat on land in the Chinese city of Changbai (photo courtesy Wikimedia)

Hyesan, seen from a faux-marble faux-Tang dynasty style pleasure boat on land in the Chinese city of Changbai (photo courtesy Wikimedia)

Survey of Hyesan *North Korea* and Surrounding Border Areas

Earlier this summer, 2009, I spent several days each in various sections of the border between North Korea and China.   As the holder of a U.S. passport, I am not allowed into these regions of DPRK territory, but there are still significant phenomenon one can gauge from a trip to various parts of the border.

Along with some brief observations, selected photos of North Korea are available on my new photos blog.

My apologies for not posting directly from said areas, but I wanted to spend more time on the road and less sucking down ashes and trying futilely to connect my USB in peripheral internet bars.   These photos date from early July 2009.


Author and friend above North Korean city of Hyesan [the primary commercial border crossing is just above our heads]

In the PRC Changbai Autonomous Korean County above North Korean city of Hyesan and the primary commercial border crossing on this section of the Yalu River; pockets laden with 山楂.


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.

Chronicling the History of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in the PRC: 1990 Edition

Ambassador Jim Hoare has written a delightful and very informative essay for, the website for which I serve as chief editor. When based in Beijing in 1990, Ambassador Hoare took a trip up to Yanji with Warwick Morris (who, unbeknownst to him at the time, was another future UK Ambassador to North Korea). Their photographs and recollections are included in a newly released (and free) e-journal, entitled The Tumen Triangle Documentation Project, Vol. 2, which all are invited to peruse and enjoy, via

There are also essays in this issue of TTDP about traveling from China to Rason, the China-DPRK drug problem, interviews with refugees from the border city of Hyesan, and even a look at Kim Il-song and the history of North Korean potato cultivation in the northern provinces. Chris Green, the international managing editor of DailyNK in Seoul, has written an excellent piece on the topic of the “yuanization” of North Korea, surely something scholars at Yanbian University have shown great interest in.

I was unable to shoehorn my own new writing about the Hyesan-Changbai juncture into the text, but the pdf. only shines all the better for the self-initiated exclusion. Do have a read; you won’t regret spending the time.


Monday Notations

Chinese Central Television is reporting on the protests in Manhattan/New York and other American cities.

An essay by Chris Green in Seoul challenges the notion of “free markets” in North Korea and provides an illustration by Stephan Haggard of cross-border exchanges with China.

The Daily NK describes how life next door to China has driven up housing prices (and the weight of government decrees) in sprawling, visible Hyesan.

A short but feisty post by Graham Webster on the World Policy Blog argues that it’s useless to project some hope for reformist changes on to heir apparent Xi Jinping; I would add that the same holds true for Xi-ist (what is the parallel expression to “Dengist” or “Maoist” with reference to Xi anyway?) policy toward North Korea.  Of course the entire notion of strategic ambiguity or the prospect of possible change is of itself a kind of tactical card.

Readers needing a shot of idealism in combination with their Northeast Asian borderlands news need only look to London, where a 17-year-old painter has produced a rather lovely work which she will be auctioning off as an effort to “support the persecuted church in North Korea.”

Nicholas Eberstadt is fed up with North Korean intransigence and famine and argues (sharing a kind of fury with Victor Cha) for an “intrusive aid” approach in the DPRK.  I would only add that perhaps unmanned aerial drones (a topic that has sent North Korean newspapers into positive fits) might be used to drop grain into North Korea, but this would be beyond the pale.

Mainichi Daily News reports that several Hiroshima bombing survivors are currently living in North Korea, and that doctors may pay a special visit to the DPRK for health check ups on these individuals.

I’ve been doing my best to keep up with plans for musical exchanges with North Korea, but this article from the left-wing Seoul paper Hankoryeh gives a detailed sense of the outlook for inter-Korean orchestral exchanges.

By way of acknowledgement, my thanks goes to Chris Green for the comment which led me back to his Destination Pyongyang, and to Richard Horgan for the string of tweets which led to several excellent articles described above.

Kim Jong Il in China: 28 Things You May Have Missed

Cross-Border Economic Development

1. Indeed, the Rodong Sinmun [劳动新闻/Worker's Daily], North Korea’s key ideological mouthpiece, has said nothing of Kim Jong Il’s since his junket to a Hamgyong fruityard. But what has flowered in place of news of Kim?  The halls of Pyongyang, at least the ones with lighting, are suddenly again flush with economic optimism.

The phrases present in this Rodong Sinmun, May 20, editorial had gone into deep remission.  The North Korean leadership, we can only assume, feels confident that Chinese aid can pitch them forward headlong into the future (notwithstanding the fact that 6 million of the DPRK’s 24 million people are starving).

2. Analysis of all of this is needed, and one of China’s top North Korea bloggers rises to the task:


Roughly, while Kim Jong Il is trying to “transmit craziness” to the world community and heighten concern about his food difficulties and military potency, he is also – and this is interesting – trying to restore Sino-North Korean relations to a state resembling that of the 1980s.  Economic junkets and implicit promises of reform were a core piece of those relations.  However, the economic linkages of the 1980s never really took off, whereas today, North Korea is ever-deeper in the economic embrace of China along the frontier and otherwise.  In the 1990s, during the height of the famine, Kim Jong Il not once travelled to China.  This was clearly a mistake.  North Korea appears to have learned something from its recent past [前车之鉴].   Perhaps, finally, there is no going back.

3. Another very astute point made by the Chinese blogger is the unifying imperative of both the internal situation in North Korea (and, implicitly, China) with the complex international situation.  This includes the democratic wave in the Middle East and the need to improve domestic stability in both countries.  Thus the answer is to present not only a united Sino-North Korean front to the world, but to render that front even more united than before:


The mechanics of Kim Jong Il’s visit are less important than its effects and what it accompanies: another wave of economic cooperation with China.  Economic ties with North Korea are far, far more important to the Chinese leadership than blustering about North Korea’s nuclear program.

4. Criticism of the DPRK will remain a salient part of the PRC’s media arsenal, but this is done in more subtle ways that do not damage fundamentally the international united front with North Korea.  Where, after all – other than on Sinologistical Violoncellist – do you read stories in English about North Korea-bashing in the Chinese media?

Thus, to economic cooperation, which continues apace:

5. China and North Korea will launch a new borderlands developments initiative next week, and these developments near Sinuiju and on islands in the Yalu River are making the rounds on various government-approved  internet bulletin boards.  In particular, this Chosun Ilbo story is getting a great deal of attention from netizens:

6. North Korea is doing a great deal more than it has in the past to promote Chinese investment.  Witness this – the most detailed KCNA story on the subject I have seen to date — about Chinese investment in Rason, the port in the northeastern corner of Korea.  Of special interest is the frank admission that China is footing the bill for the port’s renovation:

7. Just as the North Korean regime essentially said “hell with it” to the public distribution system in the late 1990s and allowed small market activities so that people knew they should fend for themselves, the DPRK is today more or less admitting that China is going to be increasingly important certain segments of economic life.  Again, the survival imperative is at the core of this: North Koreans know the economy needs an infusion from somewhere, and internal complaints about the Chinese ascension – and they certainly exist – are easy enough to stifle.

8. North Korea has emphasized how much they value Chinese investment in Rason – or done a damn good job in covering up an accidental death – by commemorating the drowning of a Chinese businessman who is said to have saved the lives of two North Korean girls who were somehow just floating in distress of the Rason coast.  A ceremony was held in early April in Pyongyang and Zhang’s stone-faced widow and son were there to accept awards on behalf of a grateful nation.  (Link with photos.)

9. Unfortunately, according to internal sources, North Korea still can’t find enough Chinese investors who are willing to trust their North Korean counterparts.  The limits of rhetoric thus become evident.

10. Not that North Korea isn’t trying hard, and also drumming up interest from European firms as well.  At the International Trade Exhibition in Pyongyang on May 17, a whole host of DPRK international trade officials showed up to meet the Chinese ambassador, as well as a host of businesspeople, including Germans, French, and Italians.

11. But at the same time, the moribund nature of everything economic in North Korea seems clear.  No one has mentioned this, but in last site visit prior to moving east through some devastated provinces which he completely ignored on his way to China, Kim Jong Il managed to stare forlornly at some fruit, coughing up some of the same old boilerplate:

And speaking of Kim….

Personal Politics

12. Kim Jong Il has regained weight, his swagger, and high heels

13. While he was crossing over the Tumen River, North Korean media released this unusual and soaring endorsement by a “Chinese VIP”  (Chen Zongxing, discussed later in this post) who endorsed Kim Jong Il’s rule and anticipates it will alst at least through 2012 :

14. Kim Jong Il proceeded to meet with Dai Bingguo in little Mudanjiang city. (with photos) in a trip that might have been prophesized had anyone been paying attention:

On May 10, the Chinese Embassy had been summoned to Mangyongdae Hall in Pyongyang for a good long meeting with the DPRK’s head of Public Security [李明洙/Li Myong Jo] at which the two countries’ Public Security Bureaus agreed on “the strictest” precautions (obviously in reference to the Dear Leader’s visit, as can be seen in retrospect).  Link with photos:

Stories like the above, which go totally unreported in even the Wall Street Journal or the Guardian, along with stories like this in the Chinese media (“Kim Jong Eun Visit Speculated for Early May”) make you wonder: even given latitude for the differences in political culture, is it really fair to say that China is “habitually secretive about such trips” by Kim Jong Il?  As with everything else, it depends what you are paying attention to prior to the “disclosure” of Kim’s appearance in China, and what your definition of “secretive” is.    Perhaps more people need to read “North Korea Leadership Watch.”

15. As for possible meetings with Xi Jinping, so far the Chinese media is mum, as per protocol, but one “inside source” (maybe a friend in the Foreign Ministry in Chaoyang) states that Xi Jinping doesn’t want to be photographed with Kim Jong Eun, in any event:

16. Kim Jong Eun, perhaps, is busy holding down the fort in Pyongyang, making sure that the press duly commemorates a speech his absent father made twenty years ago (when the heir apparent, it bears noting, was all of six years old) about architecture theory:

17. In a story about the paradox of youthful leadership transition in North Korea, the Chosun Ilbo speculates that the DPRK’s new cadres are actually likely to be more aggressive than their predecessors:

Meanwhile, the “American imperialists” were also rather busy…

The U.S. Angle

18. The new US diplomatic team on North Korea is rather remarkable, and rather expert.  I strongly recommend you get to know Sydney Seiler, a Koreanist who has studied Kim Il Sung’s rise to power, via this Chosun Ilbo rundown:

19. The core outline of what the US wants – nuclear de-escalation before resumption of normal trade – is made clear in this extensive interview about North Korea with Kathleen Stephens, the excellent US Ambassador to South Korea:

20. KCNA has yet to jab at Seiler – surely they will start name-calling eventually – but the North Korean media put out again a  warning about the deployment of US unmanned drones in Asia-Pacific:   As I mentioned a few days ago, the use of unmanned aerial drones by the US in East Asia, if in fact this becomes policy, has already become, paradoxically, a major plus for the North Korean regime.  Can you imagine a more perfect method of pumping up a mobilization-weary populace to be vigilant of foreign threats than that?  It also has already brought the Sino-North Korean security and military apparatuses closer, closing ranks against the common threat.  Drones over Hyesan?  As much as Douglas MacArthur would love the idea, couldn’t we leave MacArthur in the grave and the North Korean textbooks and just stick with satellites?

General Sino-North Korea Relations

21. Returning to the endorsement of Kim Jong Il given in Pyongyang on May 19-20 by the Chinese official: it was Chen Zongxing, in Pyongyang along with Ma Zhongping (马中平), chair of political conference in Shaanxi Province, there with a led a group of Chinese officials from May 16-20.

In a meeting with Kim Yong Nam, Chen uttered what is likely to be the most high-level characterization of the Sino-North Korean relationship that we get, absent a Wen Jiabao eruption on his junket in Seoul.  Via the Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang, which, like me, translates very little of value into English,



22. After praising Chinese “multilateralism and supporting the unique development of China’s “green economy” in KCNA, it was time for the annual spring rice-planting by Chinese embassy in Pyongyang, for pictures, see also

23. In a May 4 speech celebrating “Youth Day,” PRC Ambassador in Pyongyang assures his North Korean colleagues of the ideological reliability of young Chinese people working for the Embassy.  Is this a response to North Korean nervousness about liberal Chinese youth?  Or is it just another statement of filler orthodoxy that kills another thirty seconds before the Ambassador can enjoy those blessed three seconds of solitude with the obligatory glass of alcohol that makes such events tolerable to officials who would rather be stationed in London?

If Chinese youth are becoming more liberal, they are going in a very different direction than the core North Korean leadership, or so it appears.  And the Global Times, by the way, seems to agree: Chinese under age 35 have little attachment to the type of “Red culture” so praised by the North Koreans.

24. For the May 1 holiday, Chinese embassy staff took a misty holiday to the DPRK mountains.  In a virtually abandoned park, they enjoy some beverages – both their water and their orange drink, unsurprisingly enough, are brought from China.

25. On April 28, the Chinese Ambassador met with the North Korean cultural official Park.  The main business at hand was to announce the North’s intention to organize the  “13th International Film Festival” in Pyongyang to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth.

Judging from the Embassy’s summary of this meeting, it seems that Park did most of the talking.  His remarks begin by stating how well North Korean revolutionary films have already succeeded in giving the North Korean people a positive picture of the Chinese people.  (A whole list of films is then reeled off, probably while Ambassador Liu nods with false curiosity and a student at UC Santa Barbara finds new fodder for summer research.)

Perhaps most interesting are this section of Park’s remarks:


“[I] hope that the Chinese government and the Chinese Embassy can continue to give great support [大力支持] to the Pyongyang International Film Festival, which will allow the North Korean people to encounter films which [give them] even more understanding of the revolutionary spirit [革命精神] of the Chinese people, traditional [Chinese] culture and the colorful realism of life in China.  At the same time, we hope that both sides can quickly [尽快/jinkuai] move forward with friendly cooperation in the area of film-making, so that our two countries’ film industries can reach a new and higher level of exchange.”

And, as a coda, a few more links and fragmentary notes from the Chinese-North Korean border…

Borderland News

26. Contrary to the Chosun Ilbo report, the Chinese Ambassador to US was NOT at the launch of recent abductions report; China is not sending any signals of anger at the DPRK for snatching people over the Tumen river:

However, more news has emerged about a 1999 Tumen river body snatching of a South Korean agent by North Koreans:

27. In a story that, for me, does not pass the sight test –since I’ve met several dozen of these young ladies – the Daily NK asserts that North Korean waitresses in China supposedly need surgery on their eyelids before they go abroad:

But fashion matters: After noting a struggle between young women and state minders over extravagant earrings (just check my Twitter feed for that), Daily NK reports on a recent public trial in Sinuiju for those caught watching South Korean movies:

28. Finally, there are parallels between tracking a wild predator and the type of journalism and analysis that we need to do to understand the Kim trip.  This one is propitious: A trail of torn throats and paw prints in the mud: photo evidence of the rare Northeastern tiger roaming the Sino-North Korean frontier.  Photos:

The News from North Korea: Relations with China, Aerial Drone Denunciations, Green Totalitarianism, and the Middle East

Since the emergence of putative successor Kim Jong Eun into the public eye, the North Korean news media — specifically the Korean Central News Agency, or KCNA — has taken pains to publish more content about two things: youth, and the international situation.

What this equates to is an expanded view of what North Koreans are encouraging people to talk about, and how the state frames problems of the day.  It also means that there is simply much more content up on the slate-grey KCNA English-language website, and that the content needs to be culled for emerging themes.  Thus the present post.

To summarize the significance of the last two weeks of news from North Korea (just in the aftermath of the Jimmy Carter visit to Pyongyang), a few themes bear noting:

- Information about China is handled extremely gingerly in North Korea; on the one hand, the regime wants to make clear that it has positive relations with its orthodox socialist neighbor Beijing (and, implicitly, that material gains will follow this warming trend of the past two years).  On the other hand, China is depicted as the source of fake goods, fake news, and people who bow to Kim Il Sung.

- There has been a serious upsurge in news about unmanned aerial drones.  Someone in Pyongyang is either legitimately worried about U.S. spying and assassination capabilities, or cognizant that whipping up public anxiety over foreign drones makes for good summer vigilance propaganda, or, more likely, a combination of both.

- North Korean leaders are clearly very anxious about the events in the Middle East, including the Syrian protests and events in Pakistan.

- North Korea continues with its cultural diplomacy, making slight inroads; a new and interesting theme is to stress environmental cooperation with Germans.

Here, then, are the links in question, with some glancing annotations:

North Korea and China

The single most “must-read” KCNA story summarizes an article about US aerial drones in the Sino-North Korean border region.  The Huanqiu Shibao is China’s foremost (nationalistic, intensely Party line) foreign affairs daily, and North Korean diplomats and media professionals read it scrupulously.  I will endeavor to find the Chinese article in question, but the fact that North Korean propagandists are taking this up is rather noteworthy.  When it comes to facing off against American military technology, China and North Korea still present the image of a strong united front.  LINK:

Staying in the North Korean-Chinese borderlands, North Korea now pledges to turn the Sinuiju side of Yalu into a showcase socialist funland.  Given all the attention given lately to foreign investmen in Rason, clear on the other northeastern end of the border with China, we might interpret this as a sign that Sinuiju development, while far slower, is nevertheless on the agenda of the Pyongyang leadership.  We will see how this idea moves forward, if at all.  LINK:

North Korea’s rhetorical committment to economic 

development in the border region is seen by a very unusual report of an official who is neither Kim Jong Il nor his son following up  on a site visit at the Hyesan Youth Mine

Although it may appear unrelated, a major article recollects Kim Il Sung’s directions on geology; in my interpretation, such articles give cover to the fact that North Korea is giving major mining contracts to China

…now, for reasons of time, the annotations get punchier and less grammatically accurate.  Enjoy!   

North Korean state publishing officials are visiting Beijing

An earthquake hits extreme NE edge of North Hamgyong province

Interesting timing — Kim Il Sung’s 1993 Works are now off the press.  But an important, infrequently asked question is: Will North Korea be able to manipulate Kim Il Sung’s legacy so as to retro-approve of the new China policy?

Dependent on Chinese largess, North Korea is unable to publish much about social problems/dangers in the PRC, but such items are increasing.  Thus i

It might be argued that North Korea has been far more successful in controlling the popular image of South Korea than that of China. For a North Korean system predicated on the trope of its own unique superiority, Chinese success is almost more dangerous than that of ROK.

Chinese delegation makes “deep bows of reverence” to Kim Il Sung statue: Stories that depict Chinese visitors worshiping Kim Il Sung: about the only way that North Korea can today assert any form of superiority.

More North Korean meetings about tourism cooperation with China

 North Korean News Items About China

KCNA: “China Intensifies Education of Children”

Kim Il Sung University delegation travels to China

China as example for North Korea: school anti-drug campaign lauded by KCNA

China as a land of Maoist mobilization practices when described by NK


KCNA dispatch implies corruption among Chinese cops

North Korean Cultural Diplomacy

Chopinist or isolationist? North Korea is still sending pianists abroad

North Korea really believes in a diplomacy of sports teams and orchestras

NK high school students perform benefit for Palestinian youth in Pyongyang

NK would so love to pry Mongolia away from the ROK but cannot

North Korea and the US/Japan

US Navy commissions new carrier: to NK, another sign we’re about to invade

Safe to say: we are in for another North Korean anti-Japanese summer

Unlike its reports re: Japan, NK media assures no radiation in China

KCNA: “Japanese businesses are going bankrupt like flies”

North Korea and the Middle East

NATO denies hitting DRPK’s Tripoli embassy, via Xinhua of all agencies

Huanqiu blog response supports NK system, wonders how NK will retaliate for NATO Libya damage

Via Libyan TV: NK embassy damaged in NATO bombing (in English this time)

Worried about news already leaking into universities in Pyongyang about the revolutions in the Arab world, NK media is trying hard to give the impression that all is OK in Syria

North Korea finally reports on Syrian demonstrations, May 5: of course they are depicted only as anti-US actions

KCNA reports on “false reports” from Chinese media Does this have a whiff of Jasmine?

Is NK able to attack ROK facilities in Baghdad and Afghanistan?

DPRK Foreign Ministry watch: new ambassador to Oman

Drone-haters: North Korea excoriates US “murderous atrocities” in Pakistan

Must-read KCNA/Huanqiu Shibao on US aerial drones in Sino-NK border region

Highly orthodox Minju Chosun report equates Philly handguns with aerial drones

North Korean media have been bringing up Pakistan more than usual

North Korea and the Environment

North Korea praises itself in the field of green cities

According to Good Friends reports, North Korean “greening” projects are onerous for civilians and inspire anti-China rumors.

North Korean “green diplomacy”: Chinese ecologist granted DPRK award

A little bit of pro-German, pro-environment sentiment in NK press

VERY curious NK report about Korean dams protest in Germany Echt?

Kim Jong Il “called for continuously and energetically doing fish farming as a mass movement.” NK waters are already overfished! 

Jang Song Thaek dutifully listens as Kim Jong Il says NK must “make sure that every place where water is available teems with fish.” (see KCNA, 12 May 2011)

NK looks to increase crab harvest in northeastern seas: Russia not upset?


NK media reminding troops and officials not to plunder food from locals

The late spring ideological campaigns in North Korea have begun in earnest

“…spreading bourgeois ideology, culture and lifestyle…divest man of his soul and body and cause social chaos.” KCNA 13 May ’11

NK notes worldwide food crisis as subtle justification for domestic misery

Rodong Sinmun hints that North Korea wants to abrogate its int’l debts

Fighting the Obama Effect in NK: Obama as symbol of US “expansionism”

Where does France stand at the UN on the nuclear North Korean issue?

North Korea: Examination Materials

I recently completed a month-long lecture series on North Korean-Chinese relations at Pacific Lutheran University.  Because these lectures were occasioned by a course I teach at PLU (hell yes I teach courses, credits and grades dropping from my very fingertips!), I had the pleasure of writing an exam on the topic.

Here, in no particular order, are a few of themes or questions which were covered in the lectures and which my students consequently suggested that I should have put on the exam.  But who cares that they were on an exam?  What matters is that they have content and merit, and deserve further discussion.  (Thus their appearance in this forum.)

Is this really necessary?  Do we really need to be asking yet more questions about North Korea and Sino-North Korean relations?  Shouldn’t we first try to get answers about some questions of agreed-upon significance, like how many nukes North Korea has?  Or if Jimmy Carter’s visits to Pyongyang accomplish anything at all?  Or if Kim Jong Eun wears a foreign wristwatch?

Well, quibble though you might with certain of them, very few of these questions resemble the rather elementary questions to which North Korea and its relationship with China are treated in our present environment of English-language media analysis, a few really good blogs notwithstanding.

So, to the questions:

- What long-term opportunities (financial and political) would be presented to China by a peaceful collapse of North Korean political power?

- In what ways does the North Korean obsession with Mount Paektu strain relations with China?

- Does the history of the 7th century (e.g., the destruction of the northern power of Koguryo by the southern power of Silla, in alliance with the Chinese Tang dynasty), constitute a template for unification of which the DPRK leaders should be fearful today?

- What role does the small North Korea-Russia border in the extreme northeast of the peninsula play in balancing (or unbalancing) the Sino-North Korean dynamic?  Is North Korea able to balance China off of Russia now, or are those days of navigating between Beijing and Moscow truly in the past?

- What role did the U.S. occupation of Japan play in the formation of the North Korean state system?

- How did Mao Zedong’s rationale for intervention in the Korean War in 1950 differ significantly from that of the Ming dynasty during the Imjin War in 1592?  Is it possible that Mao in some sense retained a desire to secure North Korea in a neo-tributary system?

- What similarities exist between the present-day North Korean system (and its “court politics”) and that of the Qin dynasty as depicted in the works of Sima Qian?

- How and why are the concepts of sadae/sadaejuui and juche embedded in (North) Korean culture?

- List the current statistics for the relative military strength, in terms of troop estimates, for the ROK Army, the PLA, the Japanese SDF, and USMC/USAF/USN in East Asia.  With which one (or ones) of these military forces does the Korean People’s Army have anything approaching parity?

- To what extent was the Korean War a proxy war, and to what extent was it a civil war?

- The story of North Korean refugees seems fantastic, politicized, and laden with imaginative tropes. Is it really as bad for North Korean refugees as it seems on YouTube?

- What is the proper label for Sino-North Korean relations?  Is this a “brotherhood forged in blood”, a “pragmatic partnership”, a “friendship betrayed”?  Suggest a few taglines for the relationship and justify your new label.  Could we call both China and North Korea “unruly allies”?

- Why does North Korea go to such great lengths to propagate myths of Kim Jong Il’s “birth” at Mt. Paektu?  Does it matter that, as “the Text” asserts, his birth was foretold by a sparrow, illicited a double rainbow, and that a new star appeared in the sky?

- In what ways is the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Region a crucible for new North Korean culture?  Can it be considered “a Third Korea”?  In what ways does it run countercultural to the ways of Sinicization?

- Compare the Chinese de facto absorption of North Korea during the Korean War to  German reunification of 1990.

- Can the Tumen Tiger avoid extinction? What barriers exist to the survival and flourishing of this species?

- Are the golden cows along the Chinese side of the border really happier than their North Korean counterparts across the Tumen?

- How have Chinese goals for Korean unification changed since 1950?

- Describe the impacts of, and the Chinese reponses to, the North Korean nuclear tests of October 2006 and May 2009.

- Kim Jong Eun was recently pictured in North Korean state media holding a pair of binoculars upside down at a military exhibition.  In what ways does this image, and the way it was covered in Chinese state mdia, represent larger problems and anxieties about Jong Eun’s possible succession?

- Although North Korea militantly emphasizes its cultural independence from China, in what ways does North Korean language — both colloquial and bureaucratic — exemplify Chinese influence?

- How did Chinese and Soviet communism, Asian philosophies such as Daoism and Confucianism, Chinese Legalism and Korean fortitude combine to create or otherwise influence North Korean policies and politics?  Is it fair or accurate to summarize North Korea’s political system merely as “Stalinist”?

- Do technology and cultural transfers into North Korea along the Chinese border like USB drives full of songs or DVDs of South Korean movies constitute a “new culture wave” in North Korean society?  Is it fair to write about a “Chinese wave” in North Korea akin to the “Hallyu/Korea Wave” that has been so objectified in East Asia?  What elements in North Korea’s traditional culture (and official state culture) would resist Chinese influence?

-  Briefly describe problems associated with both the garrisoning of the Ming Army in Korea and the stationing of Chinese troops in North Korea from 1950-1958. Is it fair to say that China and North Korea have both internalized the lessons of these events?

- North Korea is indeed a “shrimp between whales,” but it is also a skilled practitioner of “judo diplomacy” whereby the “whales” are adeptly tossed around.  After describing a couple of salient examples of the above point, argue that either China or Japan (pick one and explain your choice) is most often on the receiving end of North Korea’s manipulations.

- Are the North Korean notion of juche and the Chinese notion of tributary relations inherently at odds?  In what ways does each nation temper its ideologies in the practice of foreign policy in order to keep Sino-North Korean relations relatively smooth?

- Describe the unique role that Sinuiju plays in North Korean history and in contemporary interchange with the PRC.

- Describe how and why Hyesan has become a “model city” for Kim Jong Il since the 1960s.  Why do South Koreans and occasional foreign observers travel to the city today?

- In the context of analyzing U.S. involvement in the Korean War, critique or support the statement “The first mistake was putting MacArthur in charge.”

- In what ways does heavy North Korean patrolling of the northern frontier give lie to the statement that the DPRK enjoys “brotherly relations” with the PRC?

- For people just beginning to pay attention to North Korea and its relations with China, why is a brief description of the Korean War so important?  Is it possible to understand North Korea, or Chinese policy toward North Korea, without reference to the Korean War?

- At the end of the day, when it runs out of calories, energy, and alternatives, is North Korea truly locked into a sadae/submissive relationship to China?

Cogitating Korea and Strategically Flexible Syllabi, Wiedervereinigung in the Shadow of the Reichstag, Berlin -- photo by Kuroda Chiaki

A Few Brilliant Observations

Asked to evaluate Douglas MacArthur’s tactical decisions in November-December 1950, student Adam Hoagland, while ignoring the General’s significant decision to firebomb Sinuiju and drop the Tarzan bomb on Kanggye, put forth a methodically brilliant Sun Tzu-based critique of old man SCAP:

MacArthur made the fatal mistake of underestimating his enemies and their drive to resist.  He did not concentrate his military power but spread it too thin to push forward or hold a position.  He did not study the terrain to find the best advantage or weaknesses.  He was not formless in his tactics but used a very recognizable and predicatable advancement of troops.

Had only Hoagland been a Sinologist in SCAP’s employ, a man of ambition who had MacArthur’s ear in 1950, then an understanding of Chinese military strategy might well have prevailed.  But he was not, and it did not.  MacArthur also failed to respect his senior commander (e.g., Harry Truman) and, to my knowledge, never stood up for the returned POWs from Korea when implications of communist “brainwashing” were leveled at them.

Since my students have all read Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian, the history of the Qin dyansty, I tossed out a hypothetical question: What would happen if we had a modern day re-appearance of the assassin Jing Ke, who was sent from Yan to kill Qin Shihuangdi around 210 B.C., in Pyongyang acting on behalf of the CCP?  In other words, I asked the students to consider the historical template of Jing Ke in the contemporary Sino-North Korean context.  What would happen if China sent an assassin — a modern-day Jing Ke — to kill Kim Jong Il or his son?

Amanda Fitzhenry, a student who plans to study in South Korea, answers, and does so in detail which is far, far better than I could have mustered myself:

If Jing Ke were to infiltrate the North Korean capital, it would need to be shown in a way of supporting or worshipping Kim Jong Il.  The fact that Jing Ke was in the rural area would not be able to work in the DPRK situation because of the limited ability to travel.  To be able to be in Pyongyang, Jing Ke would need to be a trusted man to the North Korean Workers’ Party and willing to risk the gulag for his family and himself.  His mission would provide China with the chance to obtain North Korea (and Mount Paektu) for China.  But, with the downfall of the DPRK would come instability for the region with 24 million people fleeing, as well as the economic duty to rebuild the country.

One final observation: In the space of little less than a decade, my North American university students have become progressively more convinced of China’s capability to handle anything.  That is to say, presenting the students with a scenario whereby China would totally absorb North Korea is never really scoffed at: China, we now presume, has all the resources in the world to rebuild North Korea and could, somehow, convince the South Koreans to stay in Seoul in the event of a Chinese takeover north of the DMZ.  A tall order indeed, and hardly likely to occur, but old Robert Kaplan’s essay in Atlantic Monthly in 2006 about just such a scenario has many more adherents in American universities that one might expect.