Thanks to the ever-productive Joshua Stanton at the very useful but hopelessly Anglophone (and somewhat impervious) command post for North Korean counter-revolution known as One Free Korea, I got motivated to do some more analysis of Chinese sources touching upon the recent flare-up in the sea to the west (and north!) of the DMZ in Korea.
As I see it, Chinese media strategy as regards the Korean crisis for the past month has centered upon the following themes:
- Downplay the KPA’s having initiated Yeonpyeong incident, but allow some sympathetic reporting and photos regarding civilians on the island so as to reinforce the general harm that war poses;
- Yoke responsibility for tensions on both Koreas, keeping in mind the need to reconsolidate relations with Pyongyang in the wake of certain discomfiting (Wikileaks) disclosures of discussions that reveal at least the possibility of serious internal fissures in the alliance with the DPRK;
- Call repeatedly for Six Party Talks, preserving the central PRC role in mediating, and also precluding some North Korean lone deal with Washington via Bill Richardson or whomever comes calling;
- And imply in the sizable yet nevertheless endemically vague wave of anti-Liu Xiaobo articles that China, yes, China was deserving of the Nobel Prize for Peace due to its even-handed handling of the Korean peninsula situation. (This last theme was hardly prevalent, but I picked up between the lines in more than a couple of places.
Today, the Xinhua news tack is to freak out over the ROK artillery drills, leaving South Korea standing as the final provocateur, making their firing live artillery into an empty slate of sea in the direction of Shandong province front-page news pretty much everywhere.
This means that the DRPK can get some positive reinforcement for its restraint in not retaliating. The Global Times today spells it out in an op-ed which by North Korean standards is either fairly clever, or indicates how desperate China has become to quiet this whole thing down. (Applause for North Korean Restraint,” which wins the prize for most unlikely headline of the year…)
Criticizing North Korea in the Chinese Press
However, it might be worth noting that while South Korea seems to get little more than verbal rifle butts from Beijing’s English-language media of late (anger over military drills, unusually straight statements that Seoul can never unilaterally unify Korean peninsula, etc.), the Chinese-language press in the PRC always makes a few things clear:
- North Korea is overly arrogant (see May 2010 writings after “nuclear fission” announcement)
- North Korea is poor, and its leadership (as opposed to its socialist system) is weird
- South Korea has vastly superior armaments (a fact which is persistently and specifically reported on in China)
- South Korea has public opinion and civil society (the absence of which in DPRK is obvious)
- Responsibility for peace on peninsula is in large measure up to South Korea, because North Korea basically refuses to change.
The tendency to go easy on North Korea in English publications, while critiquing them in Chinese, has been more evident lately. Yesterday’s Global Times (basically the English-language foreign-affairs offshoot of People’s Daily) op-ed “US destructive role in Northeast Asia” can be contrasted with today’s Chinese-language op-ed, “但愿朝韩的心理昨天扯平了(“If Only Yesterday['s Drills] Psychologically Equalized North and South Korea).”
A few highlights from the latter piece include: “The power and pressure of the ROK-US military alliance on North Korea doesn’t need to be demonstrated. Even if North Korea has already taken up nuclear weapons, American nuclear power could wipe North Korea from the map. This, and the fact that South Korean population outnumbers North Korean by a factor of two or three, and has economic power even more times larger than North Korea, is also clear.”
I don’t know about you, but apart from the first sentence, that sounds like something Mike Mullen might say openly, that is, if he felt like making North Korea really very mad. But this appears in a nationalistic/pugilistic standard Chinese publication on foreign affairs, and no one notices, and KCNA keeps its mouth shut about it.
Is it the case that the North Korean Embassy in Beijing simply does not read the Huanqiu Shibao? Is it possible that couched in its criticisms of South Korea, the Chinese media is in no way rather forcefully reminding the DPRK that it would get very badly beaten in a conventional (or even a nuclear) war?
In other words, it is a mistake to judge China’s actual thinking (or its actual _stance_) on the North Korean issue by what they tell you they think in English. The domestic discussion in China of the Korea problem is still barnacled with all manner of inconsistencies and barriers to information, but it deserves a little better treatment than the assumption that Shen Dingli in Shanghai and Lu Chao in Liaoning represent the uncritical consensus on the DPRK.
Shen, by the way, has a nice op-ed in today’s National Defense Journal (国防时报）entitled 忠告朝韩兄弟，战争不是游戏 (Even If Koreans are Loyal Brothers, War is Not a Game). This outlet is rapidly becoming one of my “favorite” papers in China, and it has a kind of symbiotic relationship with Huanqiu Shibao. In any case, the editorial reminds us of something which you simply will not hear in the Western echo chamber, which is that China fought a war from 1950-53, one of the ultimate aims of which was to expand the range of North Korean territory for the purpose of securing a durable and dignified peace for the North, but that the cease-fire agreement could not settle upon who owned the islands upon which the artillery controversy is now playing. Complain about Shen Dingli’s dogmatism if you must, Mr. Stanton, but applaud how his dogma appears to be attached to facts which might sometimes bear repeating.
Reassessing Wars and Occupations in North Korea
If Chinese criticism of North Korea counts as progress toward a more “globalized outlook on the DPRK” inside of China, we see the same in the realm of historical analysis. Popular magazines in China are now recounting the Korean War as having been started by a North Korean “advance” into the South. (Sure, you might add, it is in fact 60 years late, but it is after all the anniversary season in China, and therefore time to consolidate and capitalize upon master narratives). So Kim Il Sung is looking a bit worse for wear these days, even while core publications like the National Defense Journal hold up the justice of the intervention. Granite Studio has a good post on evolving Korean War narratives, and some speculation on Xi Jinping’s Korea policy.
Myself, I’m waiting for the big retrospective on the Chinese occupation of North Korea from 1953-1958. Or is the only place to learn about that in the Foreign Ministry Archive in Beijing or the Hoover Institution Archive in Palo Alto, California?
Isn’t it completely ridiculous that the very people who are constantly barking about the coming Chinese “occupation” of a post-collapse North Korea (see: Kaplan, Robert, Atlantic Monthly) know next to nothing about how the PRC and the Chinese “volunteers” operated in those five lean years?
Fortunately there are many more documents and information available about Sino-North Korean relations in the 1960s, in the form of an extensive new North Korea International Documentation Project working paper which spends over a hundred beautifully footnoted pages recalling a time (1968) when the DPRK was agitating for war and chafing about China’s new path.
There are a few possible untruths in there (such as that ethnic Chinese loaded the frozen bodies of dead ethnic Koreans on to some random “freight train” going into the DPRK in 1967-68 and wrote anti-revisionist slogans on the bodies, which is unlikely on multiple levels), but on the whole, it reveals the tensions between North Korea and China at a very different (yet somehow similar) time.
Yanbian and the Border Region
On Yanbian, don’t miss this post (from the Korean) by Lee Yoo Eun about possible volcanic explosion of Mount Paektu/Changbaishan.
And the Global Times, citing uncited reports in the Singapore Lianhe Zaobao, has a good human-interest-meets-geostrategy post on war fears ratcheting up in the Sino-North Korean border region, and indicates that Chinese troops may be filing into Ji’an on the Yalu River.
Heinrik Bork On China’s Role in the Crisis
Occasionally someone who has not enlisted in the ROK military or (Dear God!) memorized “The Pledge of Allegiance” will tender analysis of the Korean Peninsula, and will do so in a way that renders the North Korean strategy clear. Don’t miss the linked essay below by Heinrik Bork. Any man who can fence at length with Japanese revanchist manga man Kobayashi Yoshinori and do justice to the German view of the Rape of Nanking, and spend a couple of decades capably in Asia, has my vote of confidence.
I actually don’t agree with Bork’s assertion that China is walking on pins and needles with the DPRK simply because it fears a refugee influx (after all, China’s capacity to handle natural disasters and flood/earthquake relief in recent years has given the regime a great deal of confidence in these areas — witness the $250 million donation to Pakistan by Wen Jiabao for that country’s disaster relief), but this is solid stuff over all. We are, as Bork says in his article “Korea Crisis: The Role of Beijing and the Useful Dictator,” only “in the early stages of atomic poker.”