Americans in Pyongyang: Detainees, Prisoners, Hostages, and Pawns

An exquisitely rendered photograph of an American apology to the DPRK from 1968 and the USS Pueblo Incident, part of a new exhibition in Pyongyang glorifying the "Songun leadership" of the young Kim Jong-il. Image via Chosun Central Television.

An exquisitely rendered photograph of an American apology to the DPRK from 1968 and the USS Pueblo Incident, part of a new exhibition in Pyongyang intended to glorify the “Songun leadership” of the young Kim Jong-il and drive home the propensity of the United States to relinquish all dignity in its militarized and espionage-heavy dealings with North Korea. Image via Chosun Central Television.

Yesterday, North Korea gave the US media momentary access to three American nationals currently detained in the DPRK. Finding the right terms to capture what function these three unfortunate men are serving at the moment is tricky at the moment. For convenience, let’s just start with nouns: “Detainee” is probably the most neutral designation, though for certain intrepid lawyers even this language has been tainted by post-9/11 practices and the erosion of habeus corpus at home. So we are hamstrung, and left with other choices of noun to describe the three Americans: “hostages” (much to be said for this designation), “prisoners” (though this is not true in the conventional sense of “inmates of a prison,” unless one’s definition of that term is stretched to include those who are unable to leave a North Korean hotel), or “well-coached, likely terrified and pliant Americans serving the opaque goals of North Korean foreign policy” (a bit on the long side, and hardly kind).

Since North Korea keeps minute surveillance on the foreigners within its sovereign boundaries and has the kind of legal system that can carry out a trial and levy a death sentence on someone like Jang Song-taek so quickly that it evokes the Chinese phrase”先判后审” (first the verdict, then the trial), for the sake of simplicity, let’s go with “hostages.”

You have to feel bad for the journalists sent to run this particular errand as well; they’re put in an awful predicament whereby to simply tell the North Koreans “no, we refuse to give you the publicity and amplification you so clearly are demanding” means to turn down what amounts to a major story that might actually justify one’s presence (and the bureau’s expenditure) in a country where all of one’s competitors are trying to figure out how to turn their state-guided tour of a water park and equestrian facility into some kind of compelling narrative about dictatorship.

Far more useful would be more putting of this story into a historical context which might include this, this (and this), and this, although the Wall Street Journal‘s quick analysis and links to the full interview footage is also not bad.

You might also take this little sign as indicating that the CNN “interviews” with the hostages were being actively guided and the specific questions prompted by North Korean officials, even though the Associated Press insists that its subsequent meetings with the men featured “uncensored questions.” While the AP can boast that it is the only American news agency with a bureau in Pyongyang, the fact that the North Koreans effectively gave the scoop to greenhorn CNN reporters indicates that whomever controls North Korea’s international media strategy is well above any feelings of sentimentality. Unless, of course, CNN is here being rewarded for past “good behavior,” i.e., having been pliant in 2009 when it facilitated Pyongyang’s orchestration of a nearly-identical scenario that led to the dispatch of former President Bill Clinton to the DPRK — as documented in two books that did extremely well with people who want their information about North Korea to be endorsed by Oprah Winfrey. In other words, we have been in this nasty little situation before.

Incidentally, I was supposed to have been in the DPRK port cities of Rajin-Sonbong (Rason) yesterday with a delegation from the European Parliament, but I had to cancel my participation in the trip. After yesterday’s distasteful spectacle, and having actually read the US State Department’s updated travel warning to North Korea (which is far more strenuous than it used to be, and highly recommended for readers of any nationality), I can’t say I regret the decision.

 

Reading North Korea’s Explosive Critique of ‘Opposite Number’

Channel 4 HQ in London, image via Wikimedia Commons

Channel 4 HQ in London, image via Wikimedia Commons

While some sections of North Korea’s Foreign Ministry and various Friendship associations were in middle of a major operation to woo foreign audiences via wrestling, Kim Jong-un was tending to the military. More to the point, his National Defence Commission was hammering out a very angry salvo threatening Britain. As there is no permanent hyperlink to the text of the threatening missive yet, I’ll paste it all in below. For background on the issue, see Channel 4’s own press release about the show (presumably read by someone on the NDC with Internet access, the trigger for the outburst) and this AFP story.

I’ll have more writing later about cultural exchange between Britain and the DPRK, since presumably the NDC is at the apex of all bureaucracies in North Korea, and their threat would ostensibly have some negative impact in the realm of soft power and regular exchanges. At least the missive ends with a minor paean to “hard-won relations” between Great Britain and the DPRK.

Hopefully the North Korean Ambassador in London isn’t being tasked with having to personally fluster British TV bureaucrats, as I would assume he has a few other more important and tangible items on his plate at present. And goodness knows the DPRK leadership is nervous (or at the very least needing to prepare) for an assault on its human rights record at the United Nations this autumn, of which the UK is no small part. Well. 

Sometimes you think that the North Korean leadership has a carefully calculated master plan, and other times it just feels like they are improvising and lashing out just to buy space and time while an actual strategy is formulated. UK-North Korea relations are bigger and more robust than one movie script alone can torch, but a missive like this cannot be seen as anything other than a shot across London’s bow, and thus needs to be taken into account: 

 

British Plan for Producing Anti-DPRK Movie Under Fire

Pyongyang, August 31 (KCNA) — A spokesman for the Policy Department of the National Defence Commission of the DPRK issued the following statement on Sunday:
    Recently the British 4th TV channel producers openly made public a plan for producing and airing a serial TV drama-style movie malignantly slandering the DPRK.
    The movie is nothing but a conspiratorial charade painting a wrong picture of the DPRK’s reality as it is based on a sheer lie intended to give impression that the DPRK’s nuclear treasured sword for self-defence was manufactured by “illegally acquiring” nuclear technology from Britain.
    The broadcasting service is blustering without hesitation that the purpose of the movie is to tell the world that the DPRK is the “most closed country on the earth” and the “biggest threat” to the Western world.
    No matter how desperately the producers of the above-said TV channel, hooligans and rogues under the guise of artistes, may work to falsify the reality, they can never hide the truth.
    The DPRK’s nuclear treasured sword for self-defence is the proud fruition of the defense industry in the era of Songun based on its own efforts, technology and resources from A to Z.
    The Juche-oriented nuclear power of the DPRK which is on the ultra-modern world level is so powerful and tremendous that no one can imagine.
    The U.S., a master hand at plots and fabrications, dares not deny this hard fact.
    Those who are talking about “illegal acquisition of nuclear technology” are no more than blind fools and idiots bereft of even elementary ability to discern the truth.
    The gravity of the situation lies in that this despicable burlesque is being orchestrated at the tacit connivance, patronage and instigation by “Downing Street”.
    This mud-slinging is a premeditated politically-motivated provocation and deliberate hostile act to hurt the dignity of the supreme leadership and tarnish the sovereign authority of the DPRK and its international image.
    It is not exaggeration to say that Britain is the country with inborn disposition of blindly copying the American-style diplomacy.
    This is evidenced by the fact that when a movie company of Hollywood distributed a preview of a reactionary movie peppered with the story hurting the dignity of the supreme leadership of the DPRK after producing it, the British broadcasting service deliberately used it for staging such charade.
    The British authorities should not forget even a moment the lesson drawn from the incident in which that it was sentenced to permanent death because of “poems of evil” which groundlessly slandered a country in the Mideast in the past.
    Reckless anti-DPRK hysteria would only bring disgrace and self-destruction.
    The British authorities should throw reactionary movies now being planned or in the process of production into a dumping ground without delay and punish the chief culprits.
    This would help prevent any hurt to the image of the UK and preserve the hard-won diplomatic relations between the DPRK and Britain.
    It would be well advised to judge itself what consequences would be entailed if it ignores the DPRK’s warning.

Ambassador Liu Makes a Visit to Rason, North Korea

PRC Ambassador Liu Hongcai in Rason, July 2-4, 2014. Photo via Chinese Embassy, Pyongyang.

PRC Ambassador Liu Hongcai in Rason, July 2-4, 2014. Photo via Chinese Embassy, Pyongyang.

The Chinese-North Korean relationship is hardly in full comradely bloom, but neither is it in a state of total breakdown and acrimony. Rason, the port/SEZ in the extreme northeast of the DPRK and a relatively short drive from China and its Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, is a good case in point.

One month ago, Liu Hongcai, the Chinese Ambassador in Pyongyang, made a trip around the Rason Special Economic Zone which went essentially unremarked upon. Xi Jinping was in Seoul on precisely the same dates. But Xinhua did not report on the Rason visit, and was thus in line with global media outlets (like the Guardian, for whom I wrote a piece on the dominant theme) in emphasizing how Xi’s visit was an explicit rebuff to North Korea and in fact indicated that relations were worsening.

As Choson Exchange has argued in a couple of useful translations from the Chinese media, things in Rason seem to be going just fine. And, spanning further along the border, Hankoryeh points out that the story about some Chinese oil “shut-off” to North Korea is completely overblown when put into its proper economic context. From the North Korean standpoint, trade with China is still huge, and Rason remains an important (if still under-utilized) node in that trade relationship.

Keeping China in Check: How North Korea Manages its Relationship with a Superpower

On the 24-hour train from Pyongyang to Peking; "Le retour à Pékin se fait en train. Un voyage de 24h auquel participe également un militaire nord-coréen."  Photo A. de la Grange, via Le Figaro

On the 24-hour train from Pyongyang to Peking; “Le retour à Pékin se fait en train. Un voyage de 24h auquel participe également un militaire nord-coréen.” Photo A. de la Grange, via Le Figaro

The following essay was published at the China Policy Institute blog, University of Nottingham, on 28 July 2014 (link). 

Around the world today, knowing how and when to deflect the will of the Chinese Communist Party seems to be something of a common theme. Beijing’s confidence is manifested at every turn: When one of its top leaders arrives in London, China seems to expect nothing less than audiences with the Queen, massive and obligatory profits, and silence about Tibet. Chinese state propaganda continues to promote a version of history that emphasizes victimization by the West, but by and large the country’s government now gets what it wants.

Why, then, when China looks at its impoverished neighbour North Korea, does the PRC seem so stymied, and even impotent?

Economic leverage has been a key tool in Beijing’s kit. But, just as the existence of large economic ties does not ipso facto prevent war from breaking out between China and Japan, the notion of strong economic ties between China and North Korea does not necessarily lead to outright Chinese influence – or China’s ability to use that leverage. The DPRK is surely dependent upon foreign trade with China, Chinese oil, and consumer goods, and North Korean businesses operating legally in China are a major contributor to the Pyongyang regime’s balance sheet.

Pyongyang’s ability to survive on very little, and the implicit threat of its collapse, make it almost impossible for China to shut off this flow. A shutting-off of cross-border trade would not simply represent a backtracking after years of slow growth, it would be a total contradiction in Beijing’s broader policy to open up frontier areas for transportation and trade. Such a policy would also lead to a great deal of illegal cross-border activity which the PRC is already rather annoyed at having to police.

Cultural influence, or ‘soft power’ has been another element of Beijing’s global strategy. There are equivalents of the ‘Confucius Institutes’ in Pyongyang, with an estimated 700 graduates per year. But North Korea keeps its small population of overseas Chinese under careful surveillance (Kim Jong-un finally allowed them to have landline telephones, an improvement) and at Chinese New Year’s parties in Pyongyang, foreigners outnumber North Koreans. Chinese students at elite universities in Pyongyang will occasionally swap USB sticks with North Korean friends, but the content absorbed is just as likely to be Japanese pornography as tracts about marketization.

Kim Il-song was mortally opposed to Chinese language education in the DPRK, telling his successors not to trust Chinese capitalists. There is no need to conjure up a ‘last testament of Kim Jong-il’ to argue that anti-Chinese sentiment is hard-wired into the ruling arts of the North Korean leadership.

Using military power in North Korea is hardly a hypothetical for the PRC, which undertook three draining years of total conventional war against the US and United Nations in Korea (1950-1953) and spent another five years of occupation and reconstruction of the DPRK (1953-1958). Mao’s gamble that intervening in the Korean War would not result in either a huge defeat or American nuclear attacks on Chinese soil paid off. But Chinese leaders today have very little stomach for another war to either destroy or save the DPRK; North Korea’s nuclear deterrent provides yet more reason to stay out.

North Korea’s unique historical position as a sovereign state that had been fully occupied by Chinese communist troops understandably makes the North Koreans touchy and prone to exaggerated claims of Kimist power and genius. It also makes the Chinese extremely halting when any suggestion is tendered that such a turn of events could again come to pass. Even the fatuous editors elevated as ‘public intellectuals’ in PRC state media have to recognize Beijing’s sense of ambivalence in this area.

If history helps to immobilize China’s freedom of action with North Korea, the communist giant’s relationships in the region also prevent it from making much progress. Outright hatred of Abe Shinzo means that there is next to no policy coordination between Japan and China on North Korea – very much to the benefit of Pyongyang. And every forward step taken to heighten the symbolism of China’s relationship with Seoul makes North Korea all the more recalcitrant and obdurate. When Xi Jinping went to the South Korean capital on 3 July, the DPRK media said he shared Park Geun-hye’s ‘dog’s dream of denuclearization’; less than three weeks later, the country’s top political and military organ, the National Defence Commission chaired by Kim Jong-un, called China ‘weak-willed…clinging to the malodorous coattails of the US.’

North Korea is no poster child for doing Beijing’s bidding. Assertions that North Korea is China’s “savage attack dog” make for exciting reading, but are completely off-base. It is North Korea’s refusal to heed China’s pressure and insistence that in so many ways makes the country noteworthy.

 

 

 

Stephan Haggard’s Comment on Sinuiju SEZs

Hwanggumpyeong Island in 2011; image courtesy Al Jazeera news

Banners in lieu of factories on Hwanggumpyeong Island in 2011; image courtesy Al Jazeera news

Stephan Haggard is frequently described as one of the top North Korea analysts in the United States; his breadth of interest, range of expertise, and command of massive amounts of data, along with his keen analytical eye all serve to confirm his standing in the research community.  I was therefore glad to see that he took interest in one of my recent papers on the subject of North Korean Special Economic Zones in and near Sinuiju, the city that serves as a major conduit for North Korean trade with the People’s Republic of China:

Adam Cathcart’s SinoNK is one of our go-to sources, in part because Cathcart and the writers for the blog visit the border zone frequently, and in part because they draw heavily on Chinese sources others don’t pick up. Cathcart was recently in Washington where he presented a new paper at the Korea Economic Institute on the Hwanggumpyeong and Wihwa SEZ’s. (A direct link to the full text is here; for further background, see our own posts on the two zones and investment more generally.)

A new look at the zones is warranted by the fact that they appeared to fall under the management of Jang Song-thaek; as we noted at the time, Jang’s fall raised the question of whether North Korea’s commitment to the zones would continue. Cathcart provides an excellent overview of the troubled history of the two islands. He details early Chinese critiques, including that North Korea was not investing in basics such as flood control, as well as ongoing institutional and legal squabbles. Outside of investment in a costly bridge—Cathcart estimates as much as $350 million—the lack of Chinese investment in the zones reflected ongoing problems even prior to Jang’s demise. Cathcart details negative reactions to Jang’s purge in China, but he also makes an interesting and obvious link we had missed: that North Korea’s push to set up SEZ’s occurred at the same time as the Jang purge and effectively sidelined all of the effort that the Chinese had invested in the two islands; as Cathcart points out, one of the proposed SEZ’s in Sinuiju would be directly competitive.

Cathcart concludes that there are still political forces in China that are seeking continuity with the zone projects, in effect trying to calm the waters. But the larger arc of Cathcart’s narrative is that the North Koreans seem unable to commit to such projects in a sustained and credible way. The open questions are “why.” Possible answers include fear of Chinese dominance, ongoing struggles over rents, and interference from conservative forces opposed to the effort. Our favored explanation, however, is simple failure to understand the institutional and physical infrastructure required to make such projects work. A must-read piece for anyone interested in the prospects for reform.

Inter-Korean Sports Diplomacy: Comment in the Washington Post

A North Korean tug-o-war in Pyongyang for May Day, 2014. Image via Chosun Central TV.

A North Korean tug-o-war in Pyongyang for May Day, 2014. Image via Chosun Central TV.

Adam Taylor runs a key foreign affairs blog for the Washington Post. Today he was kind enough to ask for my views on this story of his about North Korea offering to send cheerleaders to Incheon for the Asian Games.

Here is the full text of my response:

I do think that [the offer to send a cheerleading squad to the South]  is important and noteworthy; I do not see this as just some throwaway proposition that North Korea only plans to use as leverage (and ultimately cancel, though that is always possible) in the short-term.

If you are an optimist, it indicates that the softer line taken towards South Korea by the North Korean regime early in 2014 still has a chance and that there is still room in North Korean ruling circles for an opening of peaceful gestures toward the South. In spite of calling the South Korean president some really awful names and complaining rather loudly about South Korean-US military drills earlier this year, North Korea still has the capacity to reach out to Seoul. Anytime you have North Koreans agreeing to send an official delegation of their own people to South Korea for any reason, it is a big deal, I think you take it, and I think you say yes.

At the same time we cannot lose sight of the fact that North Korea has periodically and since its very beginnings, gone on these kind of charm offensives with South Korea, as part of a larger strategy of manipulation of South Korean public opinion — and in the past, attempts at the full subversion of the South Korean state. Not that these are a bunch of “pom-pom commandos”; I’m sure they will follow every rule set out for them.

[...] Consider Kim Jong-un’s emphasis on sports and on sports diplomacy. To the extent that he has put his mark on the North Korean leadership system and on ruling think, I that he does next to throw his weight around when it comes to matters of sport and sport diplomacy. The Dennis Rodman visit being one very important example.

Like musical ensembles, sports are one of the few ways in which North Koreans can leave the country officially and take trips; I think that’s a really important conduit. It does not mean that they’re all going to discoverJohn Locke and Adam Smith, but I think that it does open their eyes a bit and make for some fascinating interactions.

Maybe the big game here is that North Korea is looking towards 2018 when the ROK will host the Winter Olympics; I think that Kim very much wants to keep the door open for possibly cohosting events. (Chris Green has a great essay on this here: http://sinonk.com/2013/05/28/skiing-in-choppy-waters-north-korea-lays-out-the-pyeongchang-hustle/) That be good for his prestige and would feed into this notion he’s promoting internally of North Korea’s international importance.

Finally because his wife, Ri Sol-ju, was part of this cheerleading delegation at 2005 to Seoul, we cannot discount the fact that she might have personally lobbied for this; she might have had great experience then and want others to experience it today. It could be a nice reward for some über-loyal members of the elite to take such a trip; it’s obviously once-in-a-lifetime event.

Guardian Contribution: Xi Jinping and the Dog Days of Summer

Xi Jinping; via Xinhua

Xi Jinping; via Xinhua

For all the international frisson which is being generated around Xi Jinping’s preference for travelling to Seoul over Pyongyang, there is one large demographic that seems unlikely to know or care anything about it: the North Korean people. For the 23 million people trapped within the otherworldly bubble of DPRK state media, the current news cycle is far more fixated on the revolutionary repertoire of an obscure Russian wind band than the itinerary of China’s head of state. To the extent that they might be discussed at all outside of North Korean elite circles, Xi Jinping’s diplomatic goals in the South Korean capital do not perturb the North Korean regime in the least.

Nevertheless, ire must be displayed for the proper audiences. And, since well over 80% of its non-peninsular trade is with China, the North Korean state has to resort to indirect insults. One article referred to withstanding the “pressure of the great power chauvinists.” Another article in the Party newspaper called Park Geun-hye’s goal of denuclearization (a goal very much shared by Xi Jinping) a “dog’s dream.” Meanwhile, Kim Jong-un demonstrates an almost Rabelasian appetite for, and delight in, watching missile launches.

China has seen far worse, however, and the Chinese Communist Party continues to build up its northeastern frontier with the Korean peninsula. The Party Secretary for Jilin province was recently on the Sino-North Korean border, talking in Xi-inflected language about “accelerating the interconnection of Northeast Asian transportation routes” via new high-speed trains, and making the borderlands safe and prosperous.

Trade with North Korea continues, even as reports emerge of problems with oil exports, deadly accidents and a total cessation of construction on two islands leased to China. Perfectly-timed defector narratives recently asserted that a letter to Chinese leaders helped to seal the death sentence for Kim Jong-un’s very uncle this past December.

The People’s Republic of China has had diplomatic relations with Seoul since 1992, but its business ties to South Korea date back another decade. And South Korean business leaders are meeting with Xi in force on July 4, investing heavily in Northeast China and gambling on the long-term prospect of gaining access to the minerals and manpower north of the 38th parallel. China’s greatest leverage with Pyongyang is geographical, and Chinese dynasties have made a pattern of allying with southern Korean kingdoms to extinguish disrespectful foes in the north. As Xi Jinping cozies up to South Korean capitalists and dreams his canine dream of a nuclear-free peninsula, the North Korean leadership might keep that in mind.

This essay will appear shortly as part of a roundtable on the Guardian’s North Korea network