Assessing the Jang Song-taek Effect: The View from Yanbian

North Korean official w/ the national football team in Johannesburg, courtesy Chosun Ilbo

North Korean official w/ the national football team in Johannesburg, courtesy Chosun Ilbo

I spent the month of April in northeast China, and had the opportunity to speak to several knowledgeable interlocutors about Sino-North Korean relations. In particular, the aftereffects of the purge of Jang Song-taek were of interest — at least as much interest as the rare materials I was able to pick up and research in Yanbian. In reviewing my notes for an upcoming talk at the Korea Economic Institute in Washington, D.C., I ran across the following two paragraphs from a typed summary of a structured conversation I had with an academic in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture. He’ll remain anonymous, but this fellow is very plugged-in and I am inclined to accept his point of view as rather well-grounded in fact.

With respect to Rason, our interviewee saw the Wen Jiabao visit to Pyongyang in October 2009 as key; after this, he asserted, Kim Jong-il personally traveled to Rason for the first time in 18 years. China lay down very clear conditons (成规) for DPRK to follow. But the DPRK was extremely indecisive in following through (朝鲜的不确定性还是很大). Summing up the impact of China’s (and Wen Jiabao’s) gamble on DPRK economic receptivity , he called it “a big loss for China” (大失望). With respect to Jang Song-taek, our interviewee saw him as “a bridge” between the two states, and self-evidently an economic leader in his own right. Jang’s purge created a new “obstacle (障礙)” for relations with China. It isn’t simply that Jang is gone, it is also to recognize the fact that it takes time to pair up with new partners (慢慢搭配) on the DPRK side, and so the recovery can hardly be expected to be instantaneous. The interviewee, noting that it was his personal deduction (推断), said he thought China had already been rather upset with North Korea in 2013 and that the nuclear test angered the CCP leadership and changed their calculus. Choe Ryong-hae’s visit to Beijing in May did little to assuage the Chinese emotion. There was also the matter of China canceling tourist visits in 2013, closing the border, and denying the other side currency, thereby demonstrating a certain level of pique which can be felt more palpably in the borderlands.

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.


Yanbian News

I’ve just shot off a voluminous bolt of Tweets on the subject, but thought I might wax on the plus-140-characters side of things here on S.V. regards recent activity in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in northeast China, snug up against the North Korean border.

Do you suppose we will learn anything new with the publication — tomorrow! — of the Ling sister memoir of Laura Ling’s captivity in the DPRK, her sadly monolingual cloak-and-dagger activities seeking out prostitutes and sold brides in Manchuria?  I should certainly hope so.  As a down payment on that new knowledge, here is a bit of context which may not be included by the Lings in their Oprah-endorsed exposé.

Coursing through the various online channels into Yanbian, one finds themes of construction/destruction, law and order, and, of course, a drive toward more foreign investment.

A new (temporary) footbridge is going in at the same spot where people used to shoot across tied to a wire, into a shoreside theme park/outdoor bierstube:

And new roads are being blasted.  To me, this photo represents much of what China is about today — it might even make Stalin, were he alive, choke with envy:

News has now hit Yanbian as regards to South Korean assignation of guilt to the DPRK for the Cheonan sinking.  No comment yet from northeastern netizens, and perhaps none to be found on the regional websites.

Somehow I missed the news, but back in December (not long before yet another American  walked across the Tumen demanding Christian salvation via Kim Jong Il) Yanbian officials had a big conference on environmental protection:

Normally the above kind of photos (via Yanbian’s government site) induce sleep or sarcasm, but I’ll tell you, standing on the Chinese side of the border and staring at clear-cut (and often smoggy) North Korea makes one really grateful that the PRC is making big strides in terms of environmental consciousness.  I can say that without being accused of self-censorship by the New York Times, can’t I?

Law and order is similarly prevalent in Yanbian these days.  A trio of “April 16″ murderers were recently tried in court, and, I believe, themselves received death sentences.  True to its Legalist tradition, the PRC publishes photos of the parents of the convicted killers, upping the shame factor exponentially.  I thought this photograph, set in front of some huge slogans promoting military readiness, was most powerful from a series:

Student activities are also included here.  The Public Security Bureau in January kicked off a serious drive to “purify the cultural environment” around Yanbian University and high school campuses, cracking down on “black” (e.g., illegal/unregistered) internet cafes.

But probably the most important law-and-order story concerns the promulgation, on March 15, of a new law aiming to reduce the trafficking of women and children nationally [ 《关于依法惩治拐卖妇女儿童犯罪的意见》的通知 ].  The press release was put out on April 7, so we aren’t running too far behind on this one.  At some point I might aim to get a more full translation out, particularly given the public attention that is going to be paid to the women-trafficking issue thanks to the Ling sisters (Laura and CurrentTV were working on a documentary on this issue when she foolishly crossed into the DPRK and was arrested).  The press release also carries some precious statistics, while never explicitly mentioning that the problem, at least in the autonomous prefecture, primarily concerns foreign nationals (e.g., North Korean women).

Related Post: Crimes and Misdemeanors in Yanji,” February 8, 2010.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"出事的院子" , via Yanbian News

Return from Yanbian

My apologies for the paucity of recent posts, friends.  The author of this blog has been smashing through the Chinese borderlands with North Korea, pen in hand, laden with a camera, now borne aloft on new experiences.

In the aftermath of this journey, there are scores of things I would like to say about North Korea and Chinese views of that state.  Along with a few of my extra photos, I will be offloading said views and first-hand accounts onto this blog in the coming weeks.   Fortunately, none of it involves 1. my being kidnapped or 2. walking across the border into North Korea.  (As for 1., I was momentarily trapped in a cab by some miscreants who claimed to be Uighur terrorists at about midnight one evening on the outskirts of Yanji; fortunately I muscled and talked my way out of this situation without relinquishing funds or dignity and was fine.  And they were Han, not Uighurs.  And, as for the second point, although I was very close most of the time to North Korea, for anyone who is not a returning refugee bringing food or cash back home, crossing into that country without permission is both irrational and pointlessly dangerous.)

In all, it was a lovely journey and I am looking forward with great anticipation to describing it further, along with further analysis of related geo-political issues, most of all that badly misunderstood and changing rubric of Sino- North Korean relations.

And some local descriptions of areas such as Ji’an, Linjiang, Changbai Automous Korean County, Yanji, and that Russianized outpost of Hunchun.

Today, following a 36-hour stint back in Beijing to clamber my way through a gang of Huadong Shifan University scholars and collect an armful of documents from the Foreign Ministry Archive, I am now tasting the fruits of internet liberty and the abundance of newspapers which are the domain of the Bundesrepublik, e.g., Deutschland, e.g., Germany.  Yesterday Frankfurt, today Hamburg, tomorrow Berlin.

Finally, a bit of inspiration from Eliezer Gurarie, our favorite scientist in Helsinki/Seattle, whose offering prompted me to return to the blogging method, and to do so forthwith:

the trickle of data oozing through the cracks in the great firewall has gone calando, calando, calando to an deafening fermata, not unlike sightings of the baiji in the long water of the golden sands.

is it the perturbations among the arid sands of the sinic occident?  or in the febrile jungle of the cathcartian heart?  these are the questions that haunt us here, perched in the glass aeries of academe in helsingfors, looking eastward through warm winds, fanciful thunderrolls and heavy baltic mists.

in any case, the silence, we hope, will be broken.

And it has now been broken indeed, not with a Mahlerian thunderclap, but with a modest post, of modest means, tapped out in the modest corner of a Hamburg train station…

Cambridge on the Tumen: A Transnational Workshop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ears Plugged, Fuses Lit

Just prior to the tolling of the bells that marked the turning of the year, I was fortunate to have an essay published in South China Morning Post on the subject of China’s leadership and the evolution of their attitudes toward North Korea. Written with two excellent co-authors (Roger Cavazos of Nautilus Insitute and Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga of London School of Economics), the full version of the essay can be accessed here with no paywall.

As with so many things (yet hardly all things) Sino-North Korean, once you dig deep enough, there is a Yanbian connection at work.

Yalu River Notes: On Dandong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dandong Leadership Watch (Part I) 

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

Dai Yulin / 戴玉林, CCP Party Secretary in Dandong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Kim Jong Il Dies in His Train: Updates

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update 2:

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

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

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

Peter Simpson at The Telegraph writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More updates to come from the Chinese media.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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



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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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








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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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