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.

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:

问:据报道,朝鲜最高领导人金正日于12月17日逝世,中方对此有何评论?

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 ]

对于这个问题,我个人看来,因为朝鲜已确定了领导人接班体制,所以,很可能会平稳接班。但是,就算在这样的情况下,也会对朝鲜国内造成较大影响,朝鲜国内各方面的状况都会有很大变化。因为接班人毕竟太过年轻,国内也有一些不稳定因素。

对于东北亚来说,如果朝鲜权力能够平稳过渡,东北亚局势将不会受很大的影响。但如果权力不能平稳过渡,则会形成极大的冲击。

同时,因为朝鲜半岛的局势直接涉及到美国在东北亚、朝鲜半岛的利益,所以,美国也肯定会对此高度关注的。但我认为,朝鲜半岛的和平稳定应该也是符合美国目前的战略需求的,所以,美国也不会希望发生动乱。总而言之,无论是对朝鲜,对东北亚,还是对更大范围的国际局势,目前还只能是个观望期。我们最大的希望是朝鲜能够平稳与和平过渡,权力实现平稳接班。我们对此密切关注。

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:

杨洁篪强调,金正日同志是朝鲜党和国家的伟大领导者,为朝鲜社会主义革命和建设事业贡献了毕生精力,建立了不朽功勋。金正日同志是中国人民的亲密朋友,中国党、政府和人民对金正日同志的逝世深感悲痛,中国人民将永远怀念他。

杨洁篪表示,我们相信在朝鲜劳动党和金正恩同志领导下,朝鲜人民一定会团结一心,化悲痛为力量,推动社会主义建设各项事业继续取得新的成就,并为实现朝鲜半岛的持久和平与稳定作出新的贡献。

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:

朝方对中方唁电深表感谢,表示金正日同志的逝世是朝鲜党和革命的巨大损失,朝鲜人民沉痛悼念金正日同志,将紧密团结在朝鲜劳动党和金正恩同志周围,继续把朝鲜社会主义事业推向前进。

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.

众所周知,朝鲜半岛的核危机问题,一日不解决,那么无论是对朝鲜自身,还是对其周边国家来讲,一日就不得安宁。譬如,朝鲜一旦因为核武器遭遇诸如美国这样的强敌,那么大量的难民将会涌入中国等周边国家,而造成不少问题。

但就一定程度来讲,金正日这位政治强人的存在,暂时维持了国际政治力量的某些平衡。

如今,金正日这位政治强人的逝世,首先是打破了某些平衡。如此,美国等国家会不会乘虚而入?韩国等周边国家会不会采取新的“遏制”朝鲜的方式?凡此等等,并非没有可能,而任何可能的实现,都会对朝鲜周边,乃至对亚洲和太平洋区域等地产生一定的影响。当然,也不排除朝鲜会因此获得新生的可能性。但纵观历史,以及金正日继任者的作为,这种可能性几乎等于零。

其次,金正恩能否把好朝鲜这艘航船的舵,是一个不小的疑问,而这可能会引发一些变局。

金正日之子金正恩,早已被朝鲜官方确认为朝鲜国的第三代领导人,且权柄在握。但其毕竟年仅28岁,而从政时间非常短,他能不能凭借自身的才干和其祖上的余威,以及沾亲带故之权贵的支持,像其父亲和祖父一样地统领朝鲜,把住朝鲜这艘航船的舵,这是一个不小的疑问,而这可能会引发一些变局。何况,金正日的逝世,可能会导致朝鲜内部由于权力转移问题而出现内讧。如此,朝鲜将面临严峻的考验。

再者,世界上与朝鲜友好的国家,也有可能会因为金正日的逝世而调整与朝鲜的国家关系。

总而言之,笔者认为,金正日逝世对世界的影响不可小觑。尽管金正日生前曾经希望重启六方会谈。

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.     

Emerging Chinese Narratives in the Sino-Korean Border Zone // 环球广播的中朝边区报道

The Korean border news narrative of the Chinese Communist Party seems to be changing in some subtle and perhaps fundamental ways.  As Michael Rank first pointed out on North Korea Economy Watch, the Huanqiu Shibao is now reporting on security problems with North Korean refugees along the Tumen River, and doing so in a relatively aggressive manner:

A Chinese report has highlighted how villagers on the North Korean border live in fear of desperate North Korean refugees who rob and steal from them.

The villagers have launched a new internet monitoring system to guard against the refugees who frequently escape across the Tumen river, according to the Chinese-language report.

Inhabitants of Sanhe, near the town of Longjing in Jilin province, were in constant fear of “illegal border-crossers who would rob, steal and cause disturbances” until, in cooperation with the police, they installed an alarm system to warn each other of possible infiltrators. [...]

The Sanhe area, which covers 182 sq km, has only 1,600 inhabitants, 90% of whom are ethnic Korean, and most young people have left the area to seek work elsewhere, including South Korea and Japan. (A separate report shows photos of another border village, Nanping near Helong, which has similarly been blighted by young people leaving the area. Only 1,700 people still live there out of an original population of 4,000, while the primary school has five teachers and only three children).

“This journalist walked around [Sanhe] for over 10 minutes and only saw old people, women and children. But the Sanhe area faces danger from across the river,” the report says.

To illustrate the threat posed by refugees, it tells how in spring 2003 a North Korean woman in her 70s and her son in his 40s were killed in a border incident in Sanhe, and also mentions how in 2004, after the red light system had been installed, villagers seized a North Korean border guard who had crossed the river and begged for food from a farmer who had just slaughtered some animals.

The report says the river is only 50 metres wide at Sanhe and is shallow enough to be crossed by children.

It notes that borders “are not only a geographical concept, but also involve extremely complex [matters of] security and struggle.”

The police chief said that after the monitoring system was launched, “there have basically been no more cases of illegal border-crossers entering the village to take part in illegal activities.” However, he added, “But border security must not be relaxed because ordinary people are the most direct victims” [if it were relaxed].

A separate group of photographs illustrates the Huanqiu narrative.

Obviously, this emergence of a heightened Chinese public narrative of upping border security against dangerous North Koreans in the inner Tumen valley occurred precisely at the same time the PRC was launching some very ambitious-sounding economic projects with North Korea on the bookends of the border region.

It seems evident that the CCP, perhaps fearful of resentment at the large amounts of largesse being thrown at North Korea, is hedging its bets and giving itself rhetorical space in the border region.  As is usual these days, the emphasis is on security.  (The headline praises the ‘ten household system’ whereby villagers team up to report suspicious behavior.)

The Party media’s open acknowledgement of problems posed by North Korean refugees into China is, of course, about fifteen years overdue, and includes no discussion about the reasons for North Korean flight into China, but it is notable nevertheless.  The narrative of smooth and harmonious domestic “social management” trumps the need to save face for North Korea.

One of the most interesting aspects of the above story is how the Huanqiu Shibao itself becomes part of the story, and how the Xinhua apparatus is promoting this story as an example of hard-hitting, verismo, serve-the-people journalism:

Part of what we have here is the trope that the Party is able to correct itself.  As the (somewhat ficticious and certainly disposable in the event of martial law) narrative goes in China, the news media and the internet serves the vital function of hearing the voices of the people.  Patriotic reporters are a key piece of this narrative.

Cheng Gang is one of those writers, and he is presently Huanqiu Shibao‘s top borderlands reporter.  Last December he made a foray into the Rajin special economic zone, a visit which brought to light a few interesting facts which, to my knowledge, this blog remains the only English-language outlet to have acknowledged or covered.

(As a side note, it remains simply astonishing how many otherwise critical reporters and bloggers will believe basically unsourced allegations stemming from Chosun Ilbo that Chinese troops were occupying Rajin, and then, when Cheng Gang emerges as an actual source from Rajin emerges, totally miss the boat.  Does Xinhua have to translate it into mangled English in order for a reportable event to have actually occurred?  This is why, in addition to actually reading the Chinese media, one has to read German media about China, because German reporters, unlike, apparently, most Anglophone reporters other than Michael Rank, read and cite the Huanqiu Shibao.  Yes, the periodical is owned and run by the People’s Daily, but it also has a swarm of reporters who are occasionally allowed to extend the boundaries of discourse so long as the extension serves the national interest of the PRC.)

How do we know Cheng Gang is patriotic?  Besides regularly reading his stuff?

This 15-minute Huanqiu TV reportage from the borderlands is led by Cheng Gang, and it is not to be missed.  An absolutely classic revolutionary-era cutaway technique is used at the Sanjiaohe border post near Hunchun, where there is a flashback to the evil days of imperialism when China ceded its northern Pacific coastline to the Tsars.

The Chinese access to Rajin thus becomes swallowed into the much more capacious narrative of national revival and restoration, and is not bound by nattering contemporary concerns such as UN Security Council Resolution 1874 which was intended to punish North Korea economically.  In other words, the CCP is Li Hongzhang, and anyone who stands in the way of China assuming its rightfully central and monolithic role in East Asia is, well, Kaiser Wilhelm II, or a Romanov, whichever you prefer.

Along the lines of a renewed central push for reporting from the border region, a cluster of Huanqiu sources for your edification:

Cheng Gang’s June 10 dispatch from Rajin

- Huanqiu’s reference to a North Korean blueprint for economic opening up until 2020

- A back-door acknowledgement that right across the Tumen River in the city of Musan that there is “Asia’s largest iron ore mine” from which Chinese companies might profit

- A back-door complaint that Hyeryong is the source of the refugees that disturb security in Chinese border towns

- A gallery and update from the Hwanggumphyong zone near Sinuiju

- More details on Yalu River border security in historical context

Reference Material:

Adam Cathcart, “Leasing of North Korean Port Arouses Suspicion”: Huanqiu Shibao on China’s Ten-Year Lease on DPRK Rajin,” Sinologistical Violoncellist, 11 March 2010.

Barbara Demick, “China Launches Economic Projects in North Korea,” Los Angeles Times, 10 June 2011.

Sino-North Korean Extravaganza at Rajin, June 9, 2011

Coda: DailyNK reports that DVDs of the moving “Crossing” are becoming popular in North Hamgyong province among the very population of struggling workers and DPRK citizens depicted in the film.  Fortunately for those of us living outside of the Sino-North Korean anti-YouTube Firewall, the film, and its “my-emotions-are-being-manipulated-but-I-love-it-anyway” soundtrack, is available.  This, by the way, is precisely the sympathetic narrative of North Korean refugees which we do not see in China — where the dystopian “social managment” of the DPRK drives men to run, and to work as yet another subsection in China’s floating population of Wanderarbeiter.

Sunday Links: Korea

1. Joshua Stanton’s analysis of Sino-North Korean relations on One Free Korea is stuffed with things worth thinking about.  Of course, when he equates the Global Times with the Nazi organ Voelkische Beobachter, I, speaking as someone who actually reads the Global Times (usually in its Chinese version, not through partial characterizations of articles by Reuters or AFP or South Korean papers) as well as a sometime reader of the old Voelkische Beobachter in the Nazi archives (where I’ve been getting my hands dirty all last week), find Joshua’s comparison to be gratuitous.

Do you find it at all strange or frustrating when people beat up on China for what it publishes in Global Times/Huanqiu Shibao when those same people are unable to provide so much as a link or an article title?  I think it stretches credibility as much as it undermines the old humanist ideal of ad fontes, taking the truth from the sources themselves.  Time for a Reformation of sorts, led by the mere 20,000 non-ethnically-Chinese Americans who speak Mandarin and read Chinese characters!  Or we could just continue to rely on Chris Buckley’s expertise for Reuters in Beijing.  After all, isn’t that what our foreign correspondents are for, anyway, to do our reading for us?

2. It appears that North Korean border guards have killed another two Chinese nationals, this time near Musan, a mining town directly on the Chinese border.  Here’s a photo of the city I took last year (click image for links to my other Musan posts):

The dark green side with the vegetation is China; the arid, clear cut side is Musan.

3. June was a pretty dead month on the website of the Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang, but on June 30, the Chinese Ambassador visited a Sino-Korean agricultural company, apparently outside of Pyongyang (link in Chinese, but interesting photos).  Oh yes, there was also singing and dancing, a must for any act of socialist friendship, even here in Germany, where some North Korean students from Kim Il Sung’s alma mater (1923-1925, see link), apparently came to win math competitions.

4.  Good Friends, the Buddhist organization in Seoul, has finally gotten out their reports for the month of June; one account however, is being disputed by the Daily NK’s inside sources.  An interesting test case for defector testimony veracity, something to think about as in this article in which the Daily NK, sourcing Radio Free North Korea, reports that “anti-Kim leaflets” have appeared in Hoeryong, another significant border city in North Hamgyong province. Again, it makes you wonder.

5. KCNA, the North Korean news agency, reports that Chinese media delegations were in Pyongyang, and that  “the performance goes on” in Sinuiju of a mobilizing play about the Chollima era (imagine that you’re nostalgic for how great things were in the 1960s in North Korea — it’s quite a commentary.   KCNA further reports that the border city of Hyesan has enjoyed some new construction recently, of an anti-Japanese martyr’s monument and cemetery, that is.  Hyesan is already studded with these kinds of things, but, as Kim Jong Il was recently there, it’s clear he continues to focus on monument building in equal or greater measure than economic development.  This piece lumps the DPRK in with China as targets of US nuclear threats in the 1950s.  And don’t miss this piece:

Anti-US Song Popular in Korea

Pyongyang, June 28 (KCNA) — The song “Death to the U.S. Imperialist Aggressors”, created in Juche 49 (1960), is still popular in Korea.

The song encourages the servicepersons and civilians to the struggle against the U.S. imperialists and the south Korean puppet regime.It was played by the band in various events, including a Pyongyang army-people rally and revenge-vowing meetings of working people’s organizations, held on June 25, the day of the struggle against the U.S. imperialists”.

Reflected in the song is a strong will of the Korean people to always keep themselves ready for action and decisively frustrate the reckless war provocation moves of the U.S. imperialists and the south Korean regime of traitors.  It also contains the idea that the Korean army and people, led by General Secretary Kim Jong Il, will surely emerge victorious in fight with the U.S. imperialists.

And here we have more proof that the Sinuiju Student Incident of 1945 is on the mind of the present regime in Pyongyang.  If you haven’t read my bio lately, I’ll immodestly remind you that co-author Chuck Kraus and I appear to be the world’s foremost experts on that crucial and unique moment of open rebellion in North Korea, at least until someone surpasses our account of the Incident published in 2008 in Journal of Korean Studies at Stanford.

6. This KCNA article is a subtle refutation of the story that China has turned its back on North Korea’s version of the history of the Korean War.  These meetings in Shenyang are rarely reported in the Chinese press, which makes you wonder if this is something that happens in the North Korean consulate in that city.   But this is a very curious and interesting piece.

7.  Finally, don’t miss this collection of stories from London Korea Links, a great site which not only cites Sinologistical Violoncellist but includes some beautiful photos and has this priceless comment:

As if everything to do with North Korea isn’t depressing enough, Mount Baekdu will erupt in the next few years. http://bit.ly/9WVVgO

Happy Independence Day, America!  Last year I celebrated by grilling some fish and swimming with some Chinese cops and their families and my crazy friend Bang Zi in Ji’an, a little city with ancient Koguryo tombs just on the North Korean border.  And North Korea was so kind to reciprocate by testing rockets then!  So today seems sanguine as I witness the long aftermath of Germany’s football victory yesterday (screaming the lungs out in nationalistic fury for an adopted motherland, once again experiencing that odd German duality of total joy in the present while standing on the site of commemorated and unthinkable atrocities)….So today it is on to tilling intellectual fields in Berlin and thinking about Korea.  I’m landing in Seoul — that other bifurcated land — in less than 48 hours, so may be silent on the blog front for a bit.

Did North Korea Really Threaten “Nuclear Attacks”?

[Update: KCNA has now posted the full text of the relevant statement (h/t Igor).  The nightmare scenario that prompted it -- of a U.S.-ROK contingency plan for an invasion of North Korea -- is illustrated graphically here at the site of the French-North Korean Friendship Association. Some slight BBS activity on China's Huanqiu site is directed at praising North Korea's courage in defying the U.S.  Xinhua reporter in Pyongyang, Zhao Zhan, here relays the latest March 27 KCNA dispatch attacking American hypocrisy on human rights issues, indicating that for today, at least, Beijing is in a supportive mode toward North Korea.  And linked via the image below is Huanqiu's "big news page" on the recent sinking of the South Korean Navy ship.]

Original Post: The newswires are bristling with reports of North Korea’s latest alleged provocation:

March 26 (Bloomberg) — North Korea said its military is ready to unleash “unprecedented nuclear strikes” against the U.S. and South Korea following a report the two are preparing for possible political instability in the communist country.

“Those who seek to bring down the system in the DPRK, whether they play a main role or a passive role, will fall victim to the unprecedented nuclear strikes of the invincible army,” state-run Korean Central News Agency quoted an army spokesman as saying, using the acronym for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

KCNA criticized a report in the March 19 issue of South Korean newspaper Dong-A Ilbo that U.S. and South Korean officials will meet in April to discuss contingency plans for internal upheaval in the North.

“Wow,” you might say to yourself, “that’s a very big deal.  I wonder if the North Koreans are in fact sane, or if this statements portends some kind of military coup.”   And I might agree with you.  But then you stop to think — can you trust the veracity of the reports?  How would you fact-check this story?  Well, unfortunately, none of the variants of the story seem to give the reader the courtesy of a hyperlink to the original statement.

Hmm.  Given the current highly derivative state of Anglophone reportage in East Asia (masterfully — and necessarily! –  documented here by the Nieman Labs at Harvard), it behooves one to dig a little deeper before accepting these reports at face value.

So we visit the KCNA pages (both English and Korean), but find no such statement promising nuclear attack — yet.  (Both pages are still stuck at March 25; the closest thing one can find is a dispatch in Korean [no translation exists] denouncing U.S. support of Israel’s settlement expansion in the West Bank.)  So you’re stuck as well — the story has gone completely viral, but you have no access to the original quote.  So then what?

Check the Huanqiu Shibao, or cue Sinologistical Violoncellist for a snappy translation, that’s what!  The ictus is timely, or, here is how Huanqiu Shibao journalists Zhao Zhan and veteran DPRK reporter Gao Haorong report the story:

朝鲜人民军总参谋部发言人26日在平壤警告说,如果美韩继续进行旨在颠覆朝鲜体制的阴谋活动,朝鲜将进行“令对方难以预测的打击”。朝鲜中央通讯社当天援引这位发言人的话报道说,美国和韩国最近宣称朝鲜“有发生剧变事态的可能性”,并讨论了“共同应对的方案”。这说明美韩“毫无与朝鲜改善关系的意愿”,暴露了他们“一心想颠覆朝鲜体制的野心”。

发言人说,针对这一形势,朝鲜军民将“进一步加强自卫的核遏制力,并使所有强有力的打击手段保持动员状态,以一举粉碎敌人的任何挑衅”。朝中社当天援引韩国《东亚日报》的报道说,最近,韩国“国防研究院”等部门在美军的主持下召开会议,认为朝鲜“有发生剧变的可能性”,并讨论了共同应对的方案。美韩将于6月和7月在夏威夷再次举行这样的会议。(记者高浩荣 赵展)

The key sentence in the above dispatch is this one:

发言人说,针对这一形势,朝鲜军民将“进一步加强自卫的核遏制力,并使所有强有力的打击手段保持动员状态,以一举粉碎敌人的任何挑衅”。

or,

The [North Korean Army] spokesperson said that in the light of these circumstances, the North Korean military would “take steps to strengthen the power of [our] self-defensive nuclear deterrent, so as to use all of our power to concentrate to stabilize the state of affairs, so as to smash in one stroke the provocations of the enemy.”

Please note that this is very different than “unprecedented nuclear strikes.”  And given how much rhetorical fire that KCNA has been directing lately to internal enemies, are we sure they don’t mean to say they’ll bomb Musan if they have to?

Now, KCNA does not issue releases in Chinese, but, generally speaking, translations from Korean into Chinese are a whole lot smoother than those into English.  That may be the case in the present instance, which would mean the Western press is very seriously overreacting thanks to a bum translation.  Or — and this may be even more likely — China is trying to tone down North Korean provocations in the PRC domestic press so as not to stir up a wave of anti-North Korea sentiment.  We will see where this goes, in any case…It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that China tried to tone down what North Korea quite likely intends to be a strong shot across the rhetorical bow of its adversaries (e.g., most everyone).

"Could I please have some more complete information, please?" -- image courtesy Seattle Craigslist "Rants and Raves" page

Mobile Phones and Subversive Activity in the DPRK

I did some translation work just now on Curtis Melvin’s site and thought I might toss it up on S.V. for readers who don’t frequent NK Economy Watch.  (Unthinkable! )

Melvin quotes this Donga Ilbo story which describes the connection between an assassination attempt at a North Pyong’an train station on Kim Jong Il in 2004 (not to be confused with An Hyo San at the Harbin station!).

So once again you, the beloved reader, get original content not available anywhere else!  (Well, besides on NK Economy Watch thanks to my hyperactive mouse.)

The original source for the story is an article in the Chongqing (Sichuan, PRC) Evening News, excerpted in full at this Tiexue BBS site:

Here is relevant Chinese text [translation by Adam Cathcart]:

2004年4月22日中午时分,朝鲜平安北道龙川郡发生了一起严重的火车爆炸事故,导致近200人死亡,1500多人受伤,另有8000多幢房屋被毁。有分析认为,这次造成灾难性后果的朝鲜火车爆炸案,是一次针对朝鲜领导人金正日的暗杀企图。4月22日龙川爆炸事故时,有线索表明不良分子使用了手机,唯恐内部情报外泄,所以手机业务被停了。

On April 22, 2004, around noon, the story is that in North Korea’s North Pyong’an Province, Ryongchon County, a serious train explosion caused the deaths of nearly 200 people and injured more than 1,500 people, while more than 8000 homes were destroyed.

Some analysts believe that the catastrophic consequences of this North Korean train explosion followed from a attempted plan to target North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il for assassination

At the time of the April 22 Ryongchon explosion, clues collected along the tracks indicated that unhealthy elements had used mobile phones. For fear that internal information would leak [to the outside], the mobile phone business would be stopped.

The last sentence is pretty interesting; the phrase used is “唯恐” which means “for fear that,” but it can also lead into the idiomatic expression 唯恐天下不乱 which means “in order that all under Heaven remain unchaotic,” which seems to be a tactful dynastic-type allusion to the idea that the DPRK could ignite whenever.

停止移动电话服务举措的命令由朝鲜国防委员会直接下达,特别是在权力机关或特殊行业就职的人员使用手机受到了严格的限制,原先持有的手机也被没收。朝鲜在境内全面禁止使用手机之后,花大笔钱购置手机的居民大为不满,因为1台手机机身和入网费共约1300美元,在一夜之间就成了废品。

The order to stop mobile phone services came down directly from the [North] Korean National Defense Committee, particularly [stating] that the authority/rights of those in special business sectors to use mobile phones was [henceforth] strictly limited and that previously held mobile phones [should be] confiscated.

After North Korea totally banned mobile phone use within its borders, many residents/citizens, having spent big money (about 1300 USD for everything including accessories and network access fees) to purchase mobile phones, became dissatisfied due to the fact that their cell phones had been rendered into scrap overnight.

As a side note, I wonder why this news is leaking out of the PRC at a time when Kim Jong Il is said to be mulling over a return trip to China, which would almost certainly be taken by train (through the same station?). It’s a bit mystifying. But then again, Chinese readers probably have more sympathy for North Korea’s striving elites than is often acknowledged and Xinhua, perhaps, puts this story out as a gentle reminder (at a time when people are getting arrested for downloading “unharmonious content” onto their mobile phones) that life in the PRC could be much, much worse.

Musan, North Hamgyong Province, on the Sino-NK border -- photo by Adam Cathcart

"Can you hear me now, Minneapolis?" -- image courtesy Autumn Compton and the Most Wanted

Further Evidence China is Displeased with North Korean Currency Reform

On December 8, the Huanqiu Shibao carried an item headlined “South Korean Media Reports that Two North Korean Citizens Illegally Trading Currency Were Executed [韩媒称两名朝鲜居民因非法兑换货币被枪决],” marking the first time in my memory that China has drawn such explicit attention to North Korea’s arbitrary system of justice.

Not only does the appearance of this news further reinforcing that China is displeased, it indicates that Xinhua isn’t above quoting from sources like Open Radio North Korea when the need arises.  (Radio Free Asia has an excellent report on the currency issue here, but the Open Radio North Korea can be seen here in Korean and here in English.)

As to the story regarding executions for illegal currency trading, this is, again, a serious departure in Chinese coverage on North Korea.  And as such, Chinese readers may be raising their eyebrows.  So let’s move to the netizen comments on the piece:

“Good and ruthless, such backward economic practices are just waiting for everyone’s support /  好狠,搞得经济这么落后就等着大家支援。

“Right, if you don’t support them economically, they will scream that they have to develop nuclear weapons /  是的,你们不经济支援他就叫嚣要发展核武器。

“The North Korean government isn’t wrong here; they can still wipe out the wealth disparity!  / 朝鲜政府不错这样还真能消除贫富差距!”

“This is South Korean media…how much can we trust it? / 韩国媒体的话。。有多少能信?”

“North Korea and South Korea are one thing: totally anomalous.  / 朝鲜跟韩国一个样,都变态。”

“If China had this kind of legal power, there wouldn’t be any greedy officials or greedy merchants left!  如果中国有这执法力度,贪官贪商早就没有了!”

“Is this also news?  Also hearsay?  Also rumor, also truth?  Is it or isn’t it?  新闻也?道听途说也?谣也事也?是也非也?

“Valiant / 强悍啊 [qiáng hàn]“

“Barbarous country / 野蛮 [ mán]国家 “

“I estimate that it is a rumor created by a South Korean. / 估计是韩国人造的谣。”

“After the revaluation, wealthy people will have no way to live, their bitterly gained wealth will wearily be given to the poor people, and those on top will become poor simultaneously; it’s lamentable in many ways.  /  被平均后富人又得白手起家了,幸幸苦苦积累的财富要平均给穷人,一下子就和穷人同一档次,是多么可悲。”

“How can South Korean people’s media be trusted? / 韩国人的媒体怎么才能相信?”

[Several comments deleted by board administrator; calls for "civilized posting."]

“Barbarous country / 野蛮 [ mán]国家 ” [again]

“This incident is truly frightening. / 这个事情真可怕”

“Kingly way, happy and safe land.  [Irony alert!]  / 王道乐土

“South Korean idiots can’t be believed!  It’s blather!  韩棒子不可信!胡扯 [ chě]!”

“Yes, we believe Chinese Central Television. / 我们还是相信cctv啊”

“How can this be?  How can this be?  How can this be? This is impossible!  This is truly impossible! /  怎么可能?怎么可能呢?怎么可能哪!不可能!绝对不可能!”

There’s a lot to analyze amid these comments, but chief among them might be the inherent societal support for North Korean capitalists and capitalism.  I don’t think this is some mirage, as the Chinese speak from experience.  And I would interpret the final comment as an expression of outrage against North Korea rather than an expression of indignance against South Korean rumors, although it can be read both ways.

It is further interesting that China is less and less interested in protecting North Korea’s media flank.  For instance, China kept its Chen Zhili [陈至立] coverage fairly low-key (visits to Chinese war memorials in Pyongyang, etc.), while allowing the currency story to instead dominate the North Korea news narrative in the week before Envoy Bosworth’s arrival in Pyongyang.

Chinese businessmen are having a very hard time working in North Korea presently and assert that moving between Sinuiju and Pyongyang is almost impossible.  That’s a pity, because the Sinuiju-Pyongyang rail corridor has some of the best, most carefully-tended agriculture in the entire DPRK, as the Good Friends organization reports. At the same time, an under-reported story has been the increasing North Korean restrictions on Chinese cell phone usage by Chinese traders in the border areas.

Ironically, the currency reforms have increased the power of Chinese in the border areas of North Hamgyong province, according to Open Radio North Korea:

On December 2, a source in Musan reported that there are no limits on the amount of money Chinese can exchange for North Korean currency. Especially near the border area, there are more private travelers from China than in Pyongyang or other cities which are not near the border. These travelers possess a large amount of North Korean notes in order to purchase North Korean souvenirs and to travel within North Korea. North Korea authority allow them currency exchange without limit since they are foreigners.

Two issues arise from this:

First, there are increasing numbers of North Koreans who try to exchange their old bills for new ones through Chinese since Chinese can always exchange their old bills.

Second, the exchange rate near the border areas is better than that in Pyongyang. Since exchanging money is much easier for the Chinese, the value of old bills relative to US dollars decreases in border areas, by smaller increments than in Pyongyang. In fact, compared to the exchange rate of 1:6000 in Pyongyang on December 2nd, the exchange rates in Sinuiju and Musan were 1:5000 and 1:4500 respectively.

Environmental Movements and the DPRK [II]

In an earlier post I went off the handle in Beat style and demanded that the U.S. and China get serious about both engaging and pressuring the North Koreans by focusing on environmental issues:

Send Stephen Chu to pound on the table at the Six-Party Talks!

Blast down the tunnels at the DMZ for joint seismic research!  Tag the tigers endangered and let them leap over the Tumen like ice-clawing journalists!

Study roots in glass jars, trajectories of smog-plumes, hail the ghosts of heroic engineers past!  Let North Korea make new children’s stories of labor heroes who stop those voracious Chinese from blowing up whole mountaintops to extract their concrete for Changchun’s burly girders!

etc.

The DPRK’s release of hundreds of tons of water down the Imjin River and into South Korea, where the North Korean water caused a flood on Sunday and killed six people, puts this issue into sharper relief.  (See Stanton and Marmot for further gnashing of teeth.)

Unfortunately the same old tropes return with this incident.  Korean Broadcasting Service reports that Lee Myung-bak, unsurprisingly at a cabinet meeting, ordered a full investigation of the incident, making demands for apology and transparency that North Korea is unlikely to meet.  And it’s a strange incident indeed, as it occurred in the midst of a short warming trend, and Pyongyang isn’t above using an incident like this to deepen ties with (sources of much-needed largesse in) Seoul.

But today’s 61st anniversary of the DPRK’s founding makes it an additional loss of face for NK if they simply admit their infrastructure is crumbling. So it’s hard to imagine either an apology or some conciliatory step which connects to the “smile diplomacy” that Victor Cha talked about recently an a solid interview with the Council on Foreign Relations.

As for journal articles about DPRK water management policies more generally, we seem to have more data from the Chinese side (as in this example from Jilin province) on account of coordination on Yalu hydro dams in particular.

Pyongyang needs to be pressured to cleave to the international environmental standards to which it has already agreed to adhere.  The agreements which it has signed include the Climate Change Convention and Biodiversity Convention.  (In the print world, p. 403 of Yonhap’s 2003 North Korea Handbook includes more detail).  North Korea’s aging factories are also contributing to global warming (see breakdown on DPRK CO2 emissions as of 1999 here.)

Along similar lines, the DPRK’s pollution of the Tumen River could morph into a situation where still-muzzled but increasingly vigorous Chinese environmental NGOs would start firing back. Because building the case within Chinese popular opinion for an anti-North Korea platform, unfortunately, can’t be justified on human rights violations alone. Building in multiple pressure points versus Pyongyang, including the use of environmental issues, would seem to require something more nimble than the blunt politics of apology into which East Asia seems to get so easily mired, notwithstanding the obvious North Korean culpability in the recent Imjin River incident.

DPRK water resource management presents us with a muted but present case of Chinese criticism of North Koreans on that front. Via Greater Tumen Initiative,dated July 10 2009:

Major sources of water pollution in the DPRK portion of the Tumen watershed include Musan Iron Mine, Undok Chemical Fertiliser Plant, Kraft Paper Mill and Hoeryong Paper. Recourses’ exploitation within the Tumen region also resulted in serious deforestation, soil erosion and other forms of environment degradation caused the Tumen River water pollution. The pollution threatens the Russian Far East Marine Reserve and Khasan wetlands, worsens life condition of the population of the region and raises costs for the regional industries. Effective protection of the Tumen River and the improvement of its water quality are urgent tasks that require the cooperation of the GTI member countries. Capacity building and information gathering are also needed in all three areas of the Tumen watershed.

Too bad, bucked up by contact with Cuban comrades, Pyongyang is blasting out recently against the forces of globalization, which maybe include environmental standards and political critiques.

In response, we find this atrociously arrogant KCNA dispatch of September 4 (entitled “Giant Edifices Mushroom in DPRK“) in which the regime brags about its ability to, yes, build dams.

In the future, I hope to connect with my friends in Fisheries, including Amanda Bradford, of the University of Washington.  Amanda is one of the foremost global experts on the western Pacific grey whale, an endangered spieces which elides with North Korean waters — another example of the boundless meeting the hard edges of geo-political conflict.  Her work with Russian researchers, and the extent to which data can be culled from North Korea, is something I’m keeping an eye on.

Finally, it should be noted that the North Koreans themselves provided an opening to include environmental issues and exchanges in our Track II interactions with them, specifically requesting more environmental cooperation, when they met with former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson last month in New Mexico, USA.   Call it tactical, but it’s an opening nevertheless.  Fortunately I have some backup on this, via ChannelNewsAsia’s  reporting on Richardson’s meeting and subsequent exchanges:

Asia Society scholar John Delury, who recently returned from a five-day trip to North Korea, said he was struck by the warm welcome that North Koreans extended to him and other US visitors.

It did suggest to me that the environment in North Korea is one where they’re getting indicators that a thaw is occurring,” said Delury, associate director of the New York-based Asia Society’s Center on US-China Relations.

“I think the ball is now in the US and South Korea’s court to decide how to play this,” he said.

“There is a lot of self-fulfilling prophecy. If the Obama administration is determined to see only the negative here and mistrust any gestures, then it’s not going to strengthen those in North Korea who are saying let’s open up, let’s go back to the dialogue,” he said.

Western Pacific Grey Whale

North Korean Children's Story

North Korean Children's Story

Kim Il Song’s _Works_ and Anti-Chinese Sentiment in the DPRK

Kim Il Song’s Works form part of the backbone of any serious student’s reading about North Korea.  Although this lengthy, often pedestrian, heavily edited, and occasionally fabricated collection runs to 40 volumes, there are still far too many gold nuggets in this slag mine to ignore.   In this short essay I want to root around in the Works briefly to excavate the foundations of a potential resurgence of anti-Chinese sentiment in North Korea, as this sentiment is likely only to grow among both official circles and among the North Korean populace.

Today it appears likely that North Korea has no intention of following the Chinese path to reform, and that, while trans-border trade (both legal and illegal, including substantial remittances from the estimated 300,000 North Koreans in China) and contracts with China for, say, mines outside the moribund city of Hyesan, are still important, that in terms of an emotional response, China’s ongoing economic renaissance is cause for both fear and loathing in the North. 

North Koreans like Kang Chol-hwan in 1994 may have been enraptured temporarily by Chinese wealth, but today the faces on the southern side of the Sino-Korean border are both weary and angry.   Faced with an inability to turn the rage inward, we can imagine how China and the overweight, arrogant Chinese, particularly those who drag race and then shout across the river, throwing food across the Tumen for entertainment as if feeding live chickens to tigers at a Harbin zoo ,become a target of North Korean nationalism.     

North Korean Relations with, and Views of, the Chinese

Before his disasterous attempt to unify Korea by force, Kim Il Song several times explicated his support of the Chinese Communist Party in their civil war with the Nationalists (who ultimately ended up on Taiwan).   His support was not merely rhetorical: we recall via the work of researchers like Bruce Cumings and Kim Donggil (and to a much lesser extent my own published work) that the North Koreans had loaned the CCP the services of some 50,000  troops for use in the Chinese civil war.   

It was this act of socialist solidarity, along with a host of anti-American hatreds and a keen grasp of the Korean follies of the Sui dynasty, that Mao recalled in deciding to send Chinese troops into the maelstrom of the Korean War on October 19, 1950 (discussed below by a World-Cup clad young professor in Dandong in 2007):

Kim Il Song’s subsequent periodic declarations of thankfulness to the Chinese brothers for their aid against the American imperialist invaders are fascinating to revisit these days when the Sino-North Korean alliance is badly, badly frayed, to the extent that the protocols have changed.  When China has a major ethnic rebellion on its hands, Beijing receives no cards of sympathy, no courteous news release from KCNA

Yet there is an intensive strain of anti-Chinese thought running through Kim’s Works, and indeed in North Korean culture.  We see it in everything from Kim’s instructions on historical research of the Koguryo period to his recollections of wicked Chinese landlords/warlords of the colonial period.  And he recalls obliquely how the Chinese Communist Party readily sold him and his comrades out in the early 1930s with the sanguine traumas of the Minsaengdan incident.   Ergo, the fact that North Korea desperately needs Chinese aid today and remains in mutually supportive treaty arrangements with the PRC does not preclude the growth of anti-Chinese sentiment in the DPRK.   And the existing criticisms of China in the DPRK’s canonical documents ranging from Kim’s Works to the novels of Han Sorya to children’s books published in Pyongyang could easily be augmented: Chinese as greedy capitalist landlords, and (though this last is much more subtle and implied) the perfidy of the Chinese Communist Party.

Think about the deep interest taken in history by the DPRK media, a media that publishes bulletins on “freshly discovered” events of 1932 or 1946 as normally and ubiquitously as celebrity gossip in the West, and think further still on how the DPRK editors manipulate or manufacture history for their own purposes.  If the DPRK wants to go anti-Chinese, the propagandistic basis for such a move has long ago been laid.     

Underneath various declarations of eternal friendship lies a veiled distrust.  North Korea’s largest cities (absent Hyesan, Sinuiju, and Musan) were only briefly occupied by American forces in winter 1950  — but all of North Korea had the experience of a (reasonably but almost completely forgotten and unstudied by the West) Chinese occupation from 1951-1958.  Or do you suppose the North Koreans, with their mastery of the memory hole technique, have simply forgotten about that aspect of their past?  It is unlikely they have, and unlikelier still that the North Korean leadership, particularly the old guard which dominates the administration of the Korean People’s Army (KPA), does not have a visceral grasp of the idea that Chinese armies can dominate all the lands north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).   Just because China has no desire to occupy and administer North Korea does not mean that the North Koreans do not have nightmares that it might happen again. 

The Chinese, for their part, certainly would do everything possible to prevent this scenario, unless of course the alternative is an American occupation of the smashed DPRK, in which case we have problems.  Although the United States has a great deal of experience in invading, occupying, and rebuilding state institutions in formally totalitarian countries, some Iraq-style occupation of North Korea is practically unthinkable from budgetary and cultural standpoints, and should be equally horrifying to Washington.  But there are probably a few planning documents over in the Pentagon and in Seoul which I have not read about this topic.  Any readers aware of discussions about post-Kim North Korea, that is to say, looking forward to the mess of a post-DPRK yet not yet functionally unified peninsula, please enlighten with comments or links.      

Citations:

Kim Il Sung, “On the Occasion of Founding the Anti-Japanese People’s Guerrilla Army: Speech at the Ceremony to Found the Anti-Japanese People’s Guerrilla Army,” April 25, 1932, Works, Vol. 1, June 1930 – December 1945, (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1980), p.47.

Kim Il Sung, “On Relinquishing the Guerrilla Zones and Advancing Over Wide Areas: Speech Delivered at the Meeting of Military and Political Cadres of the Korean People’s Revolutionary Army Held at Yaoyinggou,” March 27, 1935, Works, Vol. 1, June 1930 – December 1945, (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1980), p.89.

Kim Il Sung, “Speech at the Farewell Meeting in Honor of the Home-Going Chinese People’s Volunteers,” March 11, 1958, Works Vol. 12, pp. 156-160.

Kim Il Sung, “On Properly Preserving Historical Remains and Relics,” [on using Koguryo history for patriotic education ] April 30, 1958, Works Vol. 12, pp. 196-201.

Kim Il Sung, “Militant Friendship Between the Korean and Chinese Peoples: Article Carried in the Renmin Ribao on the Occasion of the 10th Anniversary of the Founding of the People’s Republic of China,” September 26, 1959, Works vol. 13 pp. 330-342.

Myers, Brian. Han Sŏrya and North Korean Literature: The Failure of Socialist Realism in the DPRK. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994.

Endnote: Although it is a vital, one might even argue foundational, aspect of contemprary North Korean-Chinese relations, the Minsaengdan Incident does not have a Wikipedia entry, meaning that enthusiasts and North Korea watchers who are not professional historians have to work a little harder to gain access to what happened and what it means.  (A Google search for the term appears to net a garbled array of North Korean propaganda and, for many, inaccessible JSTORS journal citations.) It is my hope that a talented history student (perhaps one of my undergraduate charges at Pacific Lutheran) might begin to fill this gap after reading credible sources by Charles Armstrong and one particular University of Washington dissertation.

Unrest in Tonghua

Not so long ago there was a gigantic brawl at a (huge) steel factory in Tonghua, Jilin province, that left one dead and the news media all aflutter.   Another sign emerges that China could come apart at the seams at any moment!

Tonghuas location in the PRC, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Tonghua's location in the PRC, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

I spent a couple of days in Tonghua last month, as it is a major gateway city to the North Korean border.  While aspects of the city were somewhat miserable (no public library, in contrast to equally scrappy Baishan, an hour up the road), pollution was typically bad for a northeastern manufacturing city, and development is not nearly as fast as it ought to be, there was no sense whatsoever that the city was about to break into flames.

This points to a problem with the implicit interpretation of Western media reports — the assumption is that unemployment at one factory or unrest by a group of workers could trigger the whole house of cards to collapse.

I simply don’t think this is true.

While Tonghua is relatively poor in comparison to Shenyang and Dalian, the economy is nevertheless expanding, the government is getting people into new houses.  Cab drivers — for me usually the best barometer of societal mood — were unequivocal about the state of Tonghua’s economy: neither really great nor really bad.  Corruption is certainly a problem, but not to the point where people are out in the streets.  Rather, the danger here for the CCP is that the government “iron rice bowl” mentality cannot be delivered on.   In this sense, and in its manufacturing output, Tonghua is important for the Communist Party.

But an incident at Tonghua Steel, no matter how immense, and though it will be certainly remarked upon by the locals,  is not about to send the entire city reeling into anger at the Party.  The situation reminds me of Liaoyang, where I spent a great deal of time the summer after major labor protests reported by the New York Times (I believe in 2003).  The lack of local consciousness about the protests in their aftermath, the unwillingness to engage in anything resembling a subversive conversation about the events or the fate of the labor leaders, was truly remarkable then, and it is again today.

Yet, between strikes in Heilongjiang, the action in Liaoyang (and the potential for more in Shenyang’s burly suburbs and poor/dirty offshoot cities like Fushun, where I also travelled recently), and Tonghua, you have had enough material to study that fertile nexus between labor unrest, official corruption, and public responses in the last five or six years.

Just wait until North Korea cracks open!  Then we will truly have something to talk about with regard to the labor market and social changes in these borderland regions.

North Korean factory in Musan, about an hour from Tonghua; photo by Adam Cathcart

North Korean factory in Musan, about an hour from Tonghua; photo by Adam Cathcart