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

Pan-Asianism and the Japanese Wartime Empire

This past spring, upon the invitation of Peter Anderson, I gave a lecture to all of the first-year History students at Leeds University on the following topic, as part of a module on world history. Some of the reading materials listed at the conclusion are paywalled (or, like Marc Driscoll’s stunning Absolute Erotic, Absolute Grotesque, should just be bought), but most are free, and all are worth reading. The lecture summary:

Before the Second World War merged with East Asia via the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbour in December 1941, Western colonial powers were entrenched in the region. Uprooted by the Japanese military in 1941-42, Western powers successively lost Hong Kong, Singapore, Indochina/Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, and were in danger of losing control over Bengal, the eastern edge of British India. Upon what basis did Japan undertake this massive project of throwing off the heavy bonds of Western colonialism? And how did they justify their rapid imposition of a new and often brutal style of colonialism, one cloaked in the propaganda of pan-Asian liberation?

A new wave of documentation about Japanese crimes in this process has emerged, including forced labor, killing and humiliating of Anglo-American (and French and Dutch) prisoners of war, and the creation of a military brothel system into which women from across the region were forced. Yet recent work on the spread of Japanese empire suggests that pan-Asianism was a more magnetic and complex phenomenon than a paper-thin justification for Japanese economic and cultural exploitation of its massive new Asian empire. This lecture explores the forced retreat of Europe from East Asia, Japanese ideologies and practices of both domination and collaboration, and the role of race in the Pacific War.


E. Hotta, Pan-Asianism and Japan’s War, 1931-1945 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

C. Aydin, “Japan’s Pan-Asianism and the Legitimacy of Imperial World Order, 1931–1945,”The Asia-Pacific Journal (2008).[Available online.]

Elizabeth van Kampen, ‘Memories of the Dutch East Indies: From Plantation Society to Prisoner of Japan’, The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 1-4-09 (2009).[Available online.]

M. Driscoll, Absolute Erotic, Absolute Grotesque: The Living, Dead, and Undead in Japan’s Imperialism, 1895-1945 (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2010), Chapter 7 [‘The Opiate of the (Chinese) People’,  pp. 227-262] & Intertext 1 [‘A Korean is Being Beaten: I, a Japanese Colonizer, am Being Beaten’, pp. 119-131].

T. Ishimaru, Japan Must Fight Britain, trans. G.V. Rayment (London: Hurst & Blackett, 1936), pp. 160-163, 170-176, 271-280.

H. Hirofumi, ‘Government, the Military and Business in Japan’s Wartime Comfort Woman System’, The Asia-Pacific Journal (2006).[Available online.]

Lord Rennell of Rodd and Viscount Mountbatten of Burma, ‘Travels in Japanese-Occupied Malaya: Discussion,’ The Geographical Journal , Vol. 110, No. 1/3 (Jul. – Sep., 1947), pp. 36-37. [URL:]

M. Gandhi, ‘A Letter to Every Briton,’ 6 July 1940. [Available online.]

D. Ford, ‘British Intelligence on Japanese Army Morale during the Pacific War: Logical Analysis or Racial Stereotyping?’,The Journal of Military History , Vol. 69, No. 2 (Apr., 2005), pp. 439-474 . [URL:]

J.Dower, War Without Mercy: Race & Power in the Pacific War (New York: Pantheon Books, 1986), Chapter 1 (‘Patterns of a Race War’, pp. 1-14) and Chapter 4 (‘Lesser Men & Supermen, pp. 94-117).

S.Connor, ‘Side-stepping Geneva: Japanese Troops under British Control, 1945-7’, Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 45, No. 2 (2010), pp. 389-405. [URL:].

T. Marukawa & D.L. Bhowmik, ‘On Kobayashi Yoshinori’s “On Taiwan”’, positions: east asia cultures critique, Volume 12, Number 1 (Spring 2004), pp. 93-112. [URL:

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.”


Kim Ki-nam and North Korea’s Orchestral Politics

Kim Jong Eun commands attention for obvious reasons. His charismatic heft, however, also manages to obscure a number of the other personalities at the apex of North Korean politics who arguably do more to make the whole system run. Within this group there are a small handful of individuals who deserve a great deal more critical attention, and none more so than Kim Ki Nam. He is in his mid-80s, runs the Party Propaganda and Agitation Department, and was one of the pallbearers for Kim Jong Il at that funeral way back in December 2011 (not to mention travelling to Seoul for Kim Dae Jung’s funeral in 2009). He has managed to avoid the fate of many of his colleagues; nobody outside of North Korea has so much as questioned the stability of Kim Ki Nam’s place in the power structure. He is never the subject of rumors.

In a regime where the execution of top officials can be publicly justified on the grounds that the official in question had not applauded with sufficient enthusiasm or paid only scant attention to the placement of a carved inscription to the glory of the Mount Baekdu lineage, to be in charge of propaganda is no laughing matter. And indeed, Kim Ki Nam has been receiving regular jolts of recognition of his bureaucratic and ideological power. Of late, he has been addressing huge and full auditoriums, and acting in all ways as an authority in the matter of Kim Jong Il’s legacy and its interpretation. At the strangely orchestrated airshow for Kim Jong Eun in May, it was he standing at the top of the steps in a privileged role, just behind the “first couple.”

To all appearances and as would befit his bureaucratic role, Kim Ki Nam has also been a key part in allowing a reshaping of propaganda and repackaging of traditional messages in an ostensibly new, and female, skin.

In other words, behind the ostensibly “sexy” content of the Moranbong Band there is a deeply conservative agenda at work. The content of their performances and the visuals in particular behind the players indicate a deep connection to what can only be called “Kim Jong Il revivalism,” an effort to create a contemporary tie to the early 1970s in North Korea (not coincidentally, a period of moderate prosperity).

It is significant that the direction taken in the band’s activities was solidified and endorsed at the recent Party congress on arts. Never underestimate the power of such a meeting in a socialist country to solidify the direction being taken in the performing arts. For while this is indeed pro forma “propaganda,” it is also more than that: The performing arts have seen small but tangible changes toward internationalization in the Kim Jong Eun era, possibly more than any other field.

The Kim Jong Il slogan about “keeping your feet on the land while looking out at the world” is not entirely theoretical for the classical music performing elite. Before he disappeared from public view, the concertmaster of the Unhasu Orchestra played under conductor Loren Maazel when the New York Philharmonic visited Pyongyang in 2008. A Japanese conductor performed Beethoven’s Ninth in 2012 and the Munich Chamber Orchestra brought Mozart and some avant-garde Polish music to North Korea. To state that such visits leave no imprint at all among music students in North Korean conservatories would be insulting.

In terms of the ability and interaction with foreigners of its performing arts, North Korea today is not China in 1966; it is much more like China in 1973. There are ample individual signs of change and openness in the classical music sphere. These changes are far from pervasive, but, as ever, with firmer patronage from above or a partial relaxation on international exchanges, it could be opened up and moved even faster. In other words, music is an area where North Korea feels proud of its achievements, understandably so, and can feel confident about pushing ahead with exchanges on a more or less equal level.

The North Korean musicians I have met are all extremely talented, and also extremely loyal to the state. The fact that I have rehearsed with some of them by playing a bit of “Czardas” on an ersatz cello may have no bearing whatsoever on their political outlook, and why should it? Certainly studying and playing their music has not turned me into a devoted follower of Kim Il Sung. Until we are blaring the Overture to “Egmont” over the DMZ, effectively weaponizing Beethoven, there will be room for musical exchange.

Perhaps we need to ask a different set of questions. If North Korea is anything like the former Soviet Union, there are intelligent musicians within the system who are not entirely pleased with their present lot. And short of the defection or internal exile that a small number may suffer, those questions are pragmatic. What does Kim Jong Eun really mean when he says, “Study the working style of the Moranbong Band”? How much latitude for self-expression can be found on the margins of the propaganda state? How much contact is allowed with foreign specialists? Is it possible for one’s ensemble, including the Moranbong Band, to take a tour abroad? Why have some members of the Unhasu Orchestra been reassigned to other orchestras, while others seemed to disappear? How do we use the highest-possible endorsement of the Moranbong Band as a wedge to accelerate the acquisition of foreign culture within North Korea, without incurring the wrath promised in Rodong Sinmun to those who bow to cultural imperialism and long to connect with the global internet?

Kim Ki Nam seems primed to bang on about the greatness of Kim Jong Il until he retires, which would be extraordinary, since few people go out on top. The significant question for those of us outside of the physical (but within auditory reach of) the country, is how to interpret and encourage the kind of limited cosmopolitanism going on at present.

This essay was originally published  by Daily NK, the Seoul-based online newspaper run by North Korean defectors, on 30 May 2014. Romanization of names and places thus cleaves to the Style Guide of that organization.  

Chongqing Hothouse: At Rana Mitter’s Wiles Lectures at Queen’s University, Belfast

Rana Mitter, a major historian of early 20th-century China, is currently in Belfast delivering a series of lectures (which I am attending and commenting on) on the history of Chongqing during the “War of Resistance” (1937-1945). Mitter is the author, most recently, of a major study of the second world war in China; he has a wonderful history of production of monographs and has also edited a special issue of the European Journal of East Asian Studies. His work has focused on primarily the Republican period, but he strides confidently over and through various periodization and conceptual divides in contemporary Chinese history, and he is also an able comparativist. One is thus averse to defining him arbitrarily: He looks now at big questions, questions of Chinese modernity, questions of Chinese nationalism, questions of China’s role within the great global crucible of World War II, but he does so with a deft touch to the individual narratives. He is certainly interested in Chiang Kai-shek, and has done a lot of great deal of reading into that man’s unique diary (Psalm 9 was a favorite) in the Hoover Institution Archives. But the people, and the institutions, which gathered around Chiang are in some ways of more interest to the lecture. In the past, Mitter has looked at Chinese journalists like Du Zhongyuan whose wide scope (even when that scope is highly nationalistic) indicates some room for various possible versions of China that might have emerged after 1945 had circumstances been somewhat different. Disposing of a massive counterfactual with a quick aside, Mitter said “I’m sure Chiang Kai-shek, were he alive today, would look at Shanghai and say ‘Yeah, that’s what I meant,’ whereas Mao would just put his head in his hands.” The wit and wisdom of Rana Mitter will continue to illuminate the lecture halls and passageways of Queen’s University, Belfast, for another two days, at which time, like a storm, or a wartime capital freed from old burdens and yet festooned with expectations, many of those gathered here shall move over land and water, navigating through formations which may be novel, but have never been wholly new.

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.

Researching the Moranbong Band: An Abstract

Even before Kim Jong-il’s tremulously-announced death in Dec. 2011, the North Korean musical-cultural apparatus-elite-complex was in valedictory mode, producing huge orchestral canatas that expressed a perfect –and complete– vision of the Dear Leader’s full contribution to the ongoing North Korean revolution. Had Kim Jong-un chosen to take up only these modes of cultural commemoration, they were clearly within his grasp. Instead, months after his father’s death, Kim Jong-un moved quickly to organize and premiere a new medium and ideological instrument– the Moranbong Band. This paper seeks ideological transference that spans the Kimist succession process, delving into the many meanings and heavy importance of the Moranbong Band as a reward for regime elites, as a court orchestra in the Bourbon model, as a method of mass education, as a diplomatic implement, and as an instrument of militarization and “Songun culture” which seeks to limit and control even as its apparent cosmopolitanism/Weltläufigkeit would appear to suggest otherwise. It builds upon my work with Steven Denney on the Unhasu Orchestra and previous writing on DPRK music and musical diplomacy.

Two Unnoticed Details after the Pyongyang Apartment Collapse

imageAs will surprise none of his regular readers, Joshua Stanton has criticized the AP for not covering the event of an apartment building collapsing in North Korea’s capitol sooner.  Stanton’s profane title notwithstanding, his post points rather to a line of inquiry that is potentially interesting: Even though “we” have a bureau in North Korea and are able to read a growing number of defector outlets for news from that country, we are still sometimes completely dependent on the DPRK itself informing us of major events. The status of singer Hyun Song-wol (i.e., that she is still living) is another case where defector outlets and foreign media reporting had either no information or outright disinformation, and the DPRK state media finally provided something conclusive. In a way, that gives North Korea a certain power over news narratives that it could use more often.

But what I find even more interesting is the lengths to which the North Korean government went to make sure that journalists and diplomats from friendly countries, including China, were not able to cover the event. This has gone completely unremarked in the recent coverage in English about the apartment collapse.

Like the AP, Xinhua (the state news agency for the Chinese Communist Party) has a bureau in Pyongyang. After the accident, the North Koreans set up a visit for the Xinhua bureau, the Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang, and a number of other foreign diplomatic attaches — not to the sight of actual news (i.e. the accident) but instead sent them to Wonsan, a city rather far away on the east coast of Korea. She Baiyu, the Xinhua photographer in North Korea, thus produced a photo essay praising the care with which Kim Jong-un has lavished the Songdowon International Youth Camp in Wonsan.

This kind of activity allowed the North Korean state to claim it’s working harder than ever to improve the lives of the people, while keeping prying eyes out of the streets of the capital city while they finished the extensive clean-up of what must have been an incredibly chaotic site.

Chinese media coverage of the accident was quite muted at first, not even including a photograph of the apologizing official. This to me indicates that the CCP saw too many parallels for its own good in this case, and didn’t want it to be used to obliquely criticize corruption by CCP cadre and lax standards at building sites all over China. And besides, the Xinhua bureau wasn’t necessarily even around to cover it — clever, on the part of the DPRK minders and managers of foreign journalists.

There are a few other points that might be made: This incident indicates how effective the country’s media blockade is, it indicates how much power (and how big the budgets are) in the hands of the military ruling clique, it indicates that the Workers’ Party does want to maintain at least the perception of public accountability, and it indicates what anyone can perceive by going to North Korea or its periphery — that the country’s infrastructure is often in very shoddy condition. Even in Pyongyang, the center of the revolution, the amount of investment and the level of skill being applied to the task of construction has severe limitations.

* This post is based upon an e-mail response to Adam Taylor, the foreign affairs blogger for the Washington Post, who was kind enough to include a couple of my thoughts and a reference to my Twitter feed in his May 20 essay “If a building collapsed in Pyongyang, would anyone know it?” I also spoke with the Post‘s bureau chief in Seoul, Chico Harlan, who kindly quoted me in his May 18 article for the paper’s print edition, entitled “North Korea discloses apartment collapse in Pyongyang.”