On PRI’s “The World” re: Show Trials and North Korea’s Foreign Relations

PRIYesterday I spoke on a broadcast interview with Public Radio International; topics included tourism, show trials, US-North Korean relations and of course China’s relationship with North Korea.  Text and audio of the interview is available in full on the PRI site.

New Allegations of a Chinese Link to the Jang Song-taek Purge & Execution

Jang Song-taek

Jang Song-taek in China, 2012 | Image via China Daily / Reuters

According to what would appear to have to be a very high source cultivated by New Focus International, sometime in early 2013 (i.e., in the aftermath of the satellite launch, or maybe the 3rd nuclear test) Jang Song-taek wrote “the Chinese leadership” a letter explaining he wanted to reform North Korea’s economy and rebalance the DPRK’s locus of power away from the Party and into the Cabinet.

The text of the letter (presumably read over the phone by New Focus’ source, or written down by someone extremely reckless and brought out by hand) described Jang’s view that North Korea had moved away from its administrative fundamentals established by Kim Il-sung.

Jang Song-taek’s alleged letter, coincidentally, works perfectly in keeping with New Focus International‘s historical interpretation of the 1980s (as described in the book Dear Leader), complaining that “following Kim Jong-il’s rise to power through the Party since the 80s, the country has functioned as a KWP-pivoted system.”

Is this enough to get a top official executed in North Korea? Perhaps. We aren’t supposed to ask questions about the way the system works, particularly when the questions or dirty laundry are being shared directly with unnamed Chinese counterparts.

According to New Focus, the main problem was that Kim Jong-un had given his uncle some leeway to approach Chinese leaders with this indecent proposal, suggesting again that the new leader’s diplomatic acumen and understanding of the system over which he presides was not very high.

During the “four day investigation” of Jang’s wrongdoing by the Ministry of State Security, Jang was said to repeatedly state that “the contents of the letter had not only had the approval of Kim Jong-un himself but his active support.” Thus the need for summary execution — leaving reformist impulses in the grave with Jang, and not implicating the new Supreme Leader.

While a few other details exist that bear discussion (the role of the Sinuiju SEZ, impact of the rumours domestically, ongoing crackdowns, partial confirmation of the story via the 13 December execution document, to name four), it seems that this story adds rather more weight than New Focus has done previously on the scenario of a powerless or at the very least, conflicted and ineffective, Kim Jong-un.

What Was Kim Jong-un’s Top Aide Doing in Beijing?

A fascinating item appeared recently in the Chinese press which explained that Ma Won-chun, a top aide to Kim Jong-un in North Korea, made a surprise visit to Beijing in early June. Naturally I had to translate it,  writing up a few thoughts along the way on the purpose of the trip, the historical background, etc. Fortunately, Christopher Green, who edits the “Jangmadang” series at Sino-NK, perceived it to be sufficiently newsworthy to merit its publication at that site. The introduction to the piece follows:

Ma Won-chun: Senior Kim Aide Appears in Beijing

by Adam Cathcart

Is Kim Jong-un ever going to take a trip to Beijing to meet his Chinese counterparts? The trendlines for such a bilateral meeting have been awfully poor of late. One of the most plugged-in Koreanists in Washington, DC, Scott Snyder (Council on Foreign Relations), recently wondered out loud if the lack of a bilateral meeting was a sign that both sides were willing to pack it in in their relationship; perhaps the inertia was such that no one in Pyongyang could move it forward (see video at 1:13:40).

Amid these doubts, China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, will be making a trip to Seoul to meet South Korean President Park Geun-hye on July 3-4. There is a going to be a huge amount on the agenda in Seoul, and not a small amount of bilateral progress to discuss. Meanwhile, in the aftermath of Jang Sung-taek’s summary execution, North Korea appeared to move the goalposts on its Special Economic Zones with China, launched rockets that threatened Chinese commercial airliners, and required the PRC’s Foreign Minister to talk about “red lines.

While the overall outlook has been rather unencouraging, Chinese-North Korean relations have not been at an absolute standstill this calendar year. Small steps are being taken to keep the relationship and its various facets intact. The North Korean Ambassador in Beijing, Ji Jae-ryong,wasn’t purged along with Jang Sung-taek; he recently showed up at a party as well as as being guest of honor at a performance of the China Song and Dance Ensemble just before that group headed to the DPRK for more than a week. Tourism is picking up in small projects along the shared frontier, and new bridges are slated to be built. Kim Jong-un took a strange “dry run” for a state visit by acting out a red-carpet exit of his jumbo jet in an act of orchestrated political theater that almost made one forget that he had blown off the Mongolian President in Pyongyang and still has yet to have a proper bilateral with a fellow head of state.

The recent appearance of Ma Won-chun in Beijing is the strongest recent sign that Kim Jong-un is keen on heading to the Chinese capital at some point in the possible future. Ma is no ordinary envoy. He is the nominal brains behind Kim Jong-un’s building campaign, and recently appeared in a military uniform having made the leap to the National Defence Commission (국방위원회), a body which many analysts, North Korean diplomats, and the Socialist Constitution all identify as the supreme organ of power in North Korea.

Leading a delegation of some 21 people (including the DPRK Ambassador to China), Ma was identified as head (국장) of the DPRK’s National Defence Committee Planning Office (국방위원회 설계국). His journey was unofficial, not reported by KCNA, and nor was it in the Chinese media until very recently. Even then only one single event was reported, a June 10 visit to a library at a technical institute in Beijing that had taken place many days previously. What follows is a direct translation of the press dispatch about the event from the University, whose events homepage no longer lists it, but which Phoenix News, a mainland-friendly outlet based in Hong Kong and a solid venue for CCP voices who cannot be quoted in Xinhua for whatever reason, carried it in its entirety.

There is nothing earth-shattering here, unless it is the image of Kim Jong-un’s aide spending some time online and asking questions that might lead to further insights about online surveillance of students, a favorite activity at Chinese universities. Nevertheless, the notion of Ma’s visit going public at all is surely of note, and the size of his delegation, as well as the fact that he went as a representative of the National Defence Commission, is surely of import. We might further speculate about a possible meeting with Wang Jiarui, excursion to Zhongnanhai or the PRC Foreign Ministry, and whether Ma managed to conveyed to CCP counterparts something well beyond admiration for library computers: His boss’ desire to get on a plane to Beijing. One can only imagine what the response might have been.

Read the full translation at Sino-NK.

Preferred citation: Adam Cathcart, “Ma Won-chun: Kim Jong-un’s Senior Aide Appears in Beijing,” Sino-NK, June 27, 2014. 

Abusive Convenience: Chinese-North Korean Relations

In the lengthening aftermath of the Jang Song-taek execution, writers who are fond of metaphors for Chinese-North Korean relations can take heart. The bilateral relationship which had been “like lips and teeth” continues its transition into a new era, one of bleeding lips, or, as the historian Shen Zhihua puts it, a “marriage of convenience” experiencing serious discord.

In order to properly review recent changes and action in the bilateral relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang, we need to do more than read the latest rumor; we need to investigate the broader arc of Sino-North Korean relations in the months after the Jang Song-taek purge. From the Chinese perspective, things with Pyongyang are going poorly, and Beijing’s strategic discourse on North Korea continues its pattern of gradual change.

Read the rest of the essay at the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute blog

Also, Nottingham’s CPI blog editor, Jon Sullivan, has an updated personal website which is well worth a regular visit for full-time Sinologists, students, and the China-curious.  

Comment on Haggard: The North Korean Restaurant Franchise

Stephan Haggard is an endless source of extreme quantities of highly enriched North Korea information. His ‘blog’ posts (which are usually more like mini-journal articles, trenchantly done but lighter and more fluent in style)  at Witness to Transformation place him at the prow of a mighty and miraculously regular enterprise, so it’s only courteous to add data in the form of a comment if you’ve got something worthwhile to share.

On a recent post by Haggard on the question of foreign currency and North Korean restaurants, I shared the following comment:

…There is a lot of movement from place to place (North Korean businesses seem largely allergic to high rents); no sooner have you located a North Korean restaurant than it is demolished or is moved. In other words, one has to be careful in adding up businesses that in fact may be the same business in a new location. Is the “newest” North Korean restaurant/karaoke bar in Yanji a retooled version of the one that used to be in the Luojing Hotel? Beats me. I think they make a hell of a lot more money doing karaoke than serving food. Incidentally, a Budweiser (beer of champions, and imperialists) is about 8 times cheaper at these places than the North Korean beers which are presumably hand-imported, and often bottled (illegally) in used Qingdao bottles. Careful economizing runs parallel to the epicureanism.

Along those lines, this essay by Chris Green deserves more discussion — because it considers the notion of North Korean profit margins outside of the criminal sphere, to which the rest of us are fluttering irresistibly.

Personally (signposting for a tangent…), I think the restaurants need to be considered from the cultural aspect, as this certainly does come into play from the North Korean control point of view. The restaurants are bubbles of North Korea which endure and are sustained precisely upon a direct, if not wholly uncontrolled, exposure of the workers to foreign capitalism, foreigners, and of course South Koreans in Izod shirts. Perhaps if more South Korean youth groups touring China would make stops into such establishments, a few more minds could be changed (or washed, depending on your perspective), even as the Songun melodies blare on…

China and Conflict on the Korean Peninsula: The Return of the Great Powers Conference in Leeds

On July 3, I’ll be giving a paper at a conference of historians and policy makers at the University of Leeds on a subject near and dear to the hearts of many readers. The abstract follows:

The Korean peninsula is regarded as northeast Asia’s key flashpoint, not only for inter-Korean violence, but possible US-China conflict. As the North Korean leadership continues to push forward with its ‘byungjin line’ of nuclear weapons development, the US ‘pivots’ to Asia and China’s regional balance of power continues to grow, what are the prospects for a wider war breaking out in Korea? This paper will lay out the salient issues and drill down into China’s strategic calculus with North Korea, discussing how the discourse is slowly changing, even as the communist allies remain locked into patterns of cooperation dating back to before the Korean War.


I. Power Relations in Northeast Asia

A. China’s neo-tributary goals mixed with neo-Mahanian rhetoric

- ‘sadae’ (submission to the great)

B. Tyranny of the Weak

II. North Korea’s Nuclear Programme

A. Tests & miniaturization

B. Kim Jong-un as the new face of an old system

C. Changes since December 2012

- ‘Nukes and Peace,’ Rodong Sinmun

III. External Responses

A. Republic of Korea / Park Geun-hye

B. China  / Xi Jinping & Li Keqiang

C. Japan / Abe Shinzo

IV. Conclusion – A Word about Sources

In the Shadow of Jang Song-taek: Lecture in Washington, D.C.

On Thursday, June 19, in Washington, D.C., I gave a lecture and participated in an extensive Q & A on the subject of post-purge North Korean Special Economic Zones in China. The Q & A for the event, hosted by the Korea Economic Institute as part of its Academic Paper Series, starts at about minute 45 of the above video; the pdf of the working paper itself is available here.  Journalists who would like to speak or correspond with me about the subject further can contact me at a.cathcart@leeds.ac.uk.