Monday Notations

Chinese Central Television is reporting on the protests in Manhattan/New York and other American cities.

An essay by Chris Green in Seoul challenges the notion of “free markets” in North Korea and provides an illustration by Stephan Haggard of cross-border exchanges with China.

The Daily NK describes how life next door to China has driven up housing prices (and the weight of government decrees) in sprawling, visible Hyesan.

A short but feisty post by Graham Webster on the World Policy Blog argues that it’s useless to project some hope for reformist changes on to heir apparent Xi Jinping; I would add that the same holds true for Xi-ist (what is the parallel expression to “Dengist” or “Maoist” with reference to Xi anyway?) policy toward North Korea.  Of course the entire notion of strategic ambiguity or the prospect of possible change is of itself a kind of tactical card.

Readers needing a shot of idealism in combination with their Northeast Asian borderlands news need only look to London, where a 17-year-old painter has produced a rather lovely work which she will be auctioning off as an effort to “support the persecuted church in North Korea.”

Nicholas Eberstadt is fed up with North Korean intransigence and famine and argues (sharing a kind of fury with Victor Cha) for an “intrusive aid” approach in the DPRK.  I would only add that perhaps unmanned aerial drones (a topic that has sent North Korean newspapers into positive fits) might be used to drop grain into North Korea, but this would be beyond the pale.

Mainichi Daily News reports that several Hiroshima bombing survivors are currently living in North Korea, and that doctors may pay a special visit to the DPRK for health check ups on these individuals.

I’ve been doing my best to keep up with plans for musical exchanges with North Korea, but this article from the left-wing Seoul paper Hankoryeh gives a detailed sense of the outlook for inter-Korean orchestral exchanges.

By way of acknowledgement, my thanks goes to Chris Green for the comment which led me back to his Destination Pyongyang, and to Richard Horgan for the string of tweets which led to several excellent articles described above.

Deals, Development, and Dead Refugees: Get Ready for the New Status Quo on the Sino-North Korean Border

Among the activities which I undertake each year, there is one for which I reserve a special vim.  There on the grand third floor, at the end of the classical reading room of the New York Public Library, I sit for a single day, perhaps two, burrowing down into a rather large collection of propaganda aimed at North Koreans dating from the 1950s.   As I leafed through these materials last week, budging up against its antiquarian typed “finding guide”, smudging my fingertips with ink which had been intended to impress upon me the blessings of freedom in Korean, a contrary thought occurred.  All things considered, the North Korean government has battled with relative success against the immense doses of propaganda (literally billions of leaflets) dumped into it since the birth of the proto-state in 1945.

Possibly no people on the post-World War II planet have been as propagandized, and as counter-propagandized, as the people of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.  The battlefield changes — the news cycle becomes more taut; the northern neighbor now partakes of South Korean and Japanese rumor —  but the central fact is constant: the DPRK remains  under siege from potentially corrosive, ever-voluminous, and essentially hostile outside information. The story of how and why North Korea manifestly fails to explain itself (or why its pretenses at explanation are so barbed and misshapen) falls into a knowledge gap peculiar to our early twenty-first century.

No less peculiar, however, is the propagandizing of Western (and South Korean and Japanese ) audiences as well about North Korea.  In their immortal but  tragically-unread-in-North-America-outside-of-Quebec reportage from the Chinese-North Korean border, French journalists Juliette Morillot and Dorian Malovic describe the tautology of lies and misinformation which suffuse our intermittent news reports about the borderlands.  Everyone wants something different, after all: Christian missionaries need justification for their dramatic transgressions of Chinese laws, American hawks need proof of the PRC’s complicity with North Korea’s every evil act, and the South Koreans need motivation for their own companies to recover the minerals and the commercial rights of the north.  Even the North Koreans need something, which is of course the diffusion of the idea that hundreds of thousands of hungry and poorly-adjusted refugees could pour over the border.  (What good is leverage if you never prove that you have it?)  For their part, scholars of the region need tension in order to justify their own existence and their hard-won expertise.   North Korea is a Rorschach blot and the lines and smears lend themselves to embellishment on the part of the viewer.

Men sit in gilded reading rooms.  Below, the mercenary commercial tumult of New York, dingy trains conveying goods and ideas from every possible corner of the earth, that is, apart from that swath of land once blackened and singed from Sinuiju to Chongjin.   Scholars sit in meditation in the frozen American northeast, leaning forward, crackling down type, their studies arcing out on the buzzlines, the peroration of speculative futility twists around, rapidly gathering again into pixels brazenly assembled….

Brazen, indeed!  The work of the Chinese in the Chinese northeast!  That “sanctuary,” that “rear area,” that immense frontier somehow conquered not by the white man Sergei Witte and his Romanov tribe, that colossus dripping with railroad spikes and pregnant with revolution, conquered not by the Japanese nor by their conglomerates, controlled at no time by Syngman Rhee nor his metallic successors, no, and never was it American, and never shall it be so.  It is of such incredible interest for an Anglophone to witness, no less than it was a century ago.  A great power rises, marshalling Manchuria’s natural potential, understanding its axial qualities, seething with the total force of an entire nation leveraging it forward, seeking a seaport.  A port! a port!  My kingdom for a port!  (Ice-free, if you please…)

Master of All He Surveys: A Chinese Exec. Surveys the Shandong Coastline; next stop North Korea

JoongAng Ilbo reports on an investment deal in Rajin-Sonbong, the extreme northeast of Korea, where a Chinese company (Shangdi Guanqun / 商地冠群投资有限公司) is said to be ready to sink $2 billion.  The company specializes in mineral extraction and chemistry; a short press release on the deal in Rajin describes (h/t Curtis Melvin), while other stories describe its interest in “ecological aquaculture” and low-carbon technologies.  This company is also making deals to mine ore in Egypt and to assist with nuclear technology (?) in Israel.

As alarmist as the stories are in JoongAng and its English followers, it seems clear that none of the reporters read (or none of their editors care to advocate inclusion of) what is the standard Chinese reference publication/daily paper on foreign affairs, the Huanqiu Shibao.  Readers of this blog will recall that the Huanqiu‘s December 21 2010 article, and a  March 2010 article (translated here), telegraphed most everything that the Western press is today hyperventilating about.  Really, people, is it that much to ask?

In other news, a new bridge has broken construction on the southern reaches of the Yalu (map and photo, story in Chinese).  And so you get the point: this border today hosts a pastiche of themes.  Do we in the West applaud China for attempting to integrate North Korea into the world economy (of which China is a huge part, of course), or fold North Korea into the same sort of sphere that we reserve for Africa when we think of Chinese investment and penetration?  Is it possible to have it both ways?

As for new allegations of refugee massacres on the border — perfectly timed to coincide with the visit of Secretary Gates to China, conveniently enough — you can follow the action over at One Free Korea.

Chinese Capitalism Floods North Korea

A op-ed of mine which I wrote last week on the subject of Chinese influence and the prospects for reform in North Korea was published yesterday in the Duluth News-Tribune.   The piece is linked here [Update: Full text below.]

Chinese Capitalism Floods North Korea

Pyongyang’s broad boulevards are gradually being emptied, as Workers’ Party officials filter home to the provinces.  The Party Congress – touted as the probable coming-out event for Kim Jong Il’s son-successor, indicative of possible change on the peninsula – has reportedly been postponed due to “natural disasters” such as recent floods.

Last month I witnessed frantic efforts in the northern border city of Sinuiju to stitch together defenses against the rising Yalu River.  The city was flooded anyway, and tons of crops were destroyed in one of North Korea’s few breadbasket provinces.  North Korea can still talk credibly about its nuclear deterrent, but the state’s inability to handle basic domestic matters like levy construction and grain distribution is now taken for granted.  The state is not only sclerotic, it is also tone deaf: even as Sinuiju was drowning in the Yalu’s waters, Pyongyang’s news boasted of new swimming pools in the capital and showed Kim Jong Il showering his attention upon an opera troupe.  Propaganda promised “opening the gates to a prosperous nation” in 2012, but the gates have opened instead upon a storm of rumors about Kim Jong Il’s declining health, possible bickering over the successor, and near-certain internal disputes about the degree to which the Stalinist economy can survive the shock of opening up.

The relationship between possible change and the dynastic Kim regime remains curious.  Virtually the entirety of Kim Jong Il’s adult life has been devoted not to economic matters, but instead to the expansion of a cult of personality in which loyalty to the Kim dynasty – not the Workers’ Party or the nation – is held up as the ultimate virtue.  Kim’s recent trip to northeast China and his snub of Jimmy Carter highlighted this North Korean quirk.  Even as Kim Jong Il continues to laud the ancient revolutionary exploits of his father (the regime’s founder Kim Il Song), he manages to reveal the primary flaw held by his son, the 27-year-old would-be successor, Kim Jong Un: a manifest lack of experience.  Like a newly reincarnated Dalai Lama, Kim Jong Un is a blank slate, and seems set to be directed by old hands.  In this case, the eminence grise appears to be his uncle Jang Song Taek, a ruthless bureaucrat who even the normally reserved Chinese media describe as the younger Kim’s “supervisor.”

While domestic acceptance of a possible Kim Jong Un regency appears unclear, much more open is North Korea’s growing embrace of Chinese tutelage and investment.  The Chinese Communist Party has been steadfast in its support of North Korean economic liberalization, not merely to avoid a North Korean collapse, but because China can make money in the process.  Leaders in Beijing are continually dispatching trade and tourism delegations to the North, dumping tons of industrial waste in North Korea, and helping Chinese firms to snaffle up lucrative contracts in the mining industry.  Having surveyed nearly the entirety of the 800+ mile length of the North Korean border with China over the past several years, I can state with confidence that no amount of American prodding is going to move China into the US camp in opposition to North Korea, or bring China to support vigorous sanctions against its neighbor.  The Chinese model is gradually winning in North Korea, and a class of North Korean entrepreneurs has developed along the border.  Moreover, China’s own local needs mean that developing the border region takes priority over punitive steps which might slow North Korea’s nuclear development.

The lives of the North Korean people remain difficult beyond imagining, but China’s path seems to lay out the most realistic, non-violent, and least costly path that will allow the population to increasingly take its own fate into its hands.  Whether or not the model that emerges is Chinese or the leadership remains that of the Kim family, it seems clear that North Korean Party delegates have a great deal of work to do in satisfying the basic needs of a hungry population starved also for change.

Destruction of the Old Customs House in Changbai, Jilin Province, PRC, across the Yalu from Hyesan, DPRK, Whose "Monument to the Pochonbo Battle" Can Be Seen In the Background -- photo by Adam Cathcart

Sino-North Korean Links for July 26, 2010

Korean War Monument, Missoula, Montana -- photograph by Adam Cathcart

Note: I’m breaking slightly from my previously-announced fortnight blogging hiatus to try something new: a sort of collection of links on North Korea and Sino-North Korean relations which attempts to combine the advantages of Twitter while removing the fragmentary nature of that platform. (You can subscribe to my Twitter feed here.)  I certainly intend to continue with the production of monumental blocks of prose that you may have come to expect here, but feedback on format and utility of the following entry would be welcome.

North Korean Bluster

National Defense Commission is in the driver’s seat in Pyongyang with another explicit nuclear threat

Pyongyang alleges US is openly talking about “preemptive nuclear strike” on North Korea

The Cheonan effect: war preparations centralize power in the Nat’l Defense Commission//NK much directly threatens nuclear retaliation for US-ROK drill in this Minju Chosun op-ed

China’s Huanqiu Shibao puts out a long article headlining that US-South Korea joint exercises are “the largest since 1976″ and that “statements by both U.S. and North Korea are growing increasingly fierce” [美韩34年来最大规模军演今开幕 美朝互递狠话]

Closing thought: What would the summer of 2010 have looked like in the DPRK absent the Cheonan incident and resultant war ramp-up?  Conversations on currency failures, grain shortages, unproven new leadership, Kim Jong Il’s precarious health, need for market reforms, disbelief that 2012 will see “strong and prosperous nation,” nostalgia for Kim Il Sung.  To use a completely unjustified metaphor, it’s like asking what Japanese domestic/military politics would have been like in 1934 absent the Manchurian Incident.  Once you let the torpedo out of the tube (or drain the troops into Liaoning province), there’s no going back.

Circuses and Opera for Kim Jong Il

Disquieting June 24 KCNA headline combo: “NK Determined to Maintain Nuclear Deterrent; Kim Jong Il Enjoys Circus”

Pyongyang Circus performs for Chairman Kim; he holds forth on _juggling technology_.

Someone else has got to be running the store: Kim Jong Il still obsessed with Tchaikovsky

KNCA piece on the Pyongyang Circus feels definitive: Kim Jong Il is not exercising any kind of day-to-day control over the Workers’ Party.

Borderlands Update

Report that China is leasing & renovating port space in Chongjin, DPRK

N. Hamgyong strategy: “Recruit Women as Officials instead of Incompetent Men”

North Koreans get more succession propaganda via discussion of Kim Il Sung’s “newly discovered” remarks on tree carvings

Flooding is serious in North Pyong’an province

Hyesan homicide by hungry NK man linked to resentment of nouveau riche (English) (中文)

Report from scene of Chinese oil spill in Dalian asserts that North Korea is concerned about environmental impacts

Last performance of North Korean opera in Dalian

Huanqiu Shibao/Global Times Features

A huge and multi-featured webpage rolling out the red carpet for the North Korean port of Rajin

Coverage, but not necessarily support, for North Korea’s announcement of possible “nuclear holy war [核圣战]” against the U.S.

A photo gallery of images taken by tourists in North Korea

Parting thought: War clouds over North Korea might dampen enthusiasm for some international travelers, but Huanqiu Shibao isn’t at all shy about promoting travel to the DPRK.

"See North Korea's Fine Changes in Rajin; Excitement of 5000 Chinese Businessmen There to Move Forward"

Liquid Architecture and Measured Resistance

Perusing the nifty KoreAm blog, and finding Eugene Kim’s posts on architecture to be worthwhile, I found some photos of a newly-designed floating stage on the Han River in Seoul.

Seoul's Floating Stage -- via My Modern Metropolis -- click pic for photo gallery

Rather than conjuring visions of the Hollywood bowl, I first thought that Seoul looked like a Yanji with a lot more money.  But then my second thought was of Tacoma, the singed kalbi center of the south Puget Sound:

My home base, docked in the Port of Tacoma, Washington, across from the Museum of Glass and the University of Washington-T; photo by Adam Cathcart

All this fluidity makes my head spin — and thus am reminded of the need for structure, for restrictions, for pulse, meter, and tonality.  And for donations to Haiti.

Thus I am glad to invite colleagues and readers from the Seattle area to see me in the cello section of next weekend’s Brahms Requiem as organized for earthquake relief by the Northwest Mahler Festival.

Fortunately I’ve been keeping up with the German Romantics: Brahms Cello Sonata op. 38 in e minor, that plaintive pre-symphonic, angst-ruh-und-sehnsuchtvoll composition was on my program two weeks back in Olympia, and the weekend has already been generously offering up slabs of Schumann, Brahms’ great mentor, and Schubert, that graceful shadow of  early 19th century Vienna:

Claudia Pendleton in Seattle, le quatier Ballard -- photo by Adam Cathcart

I’m very hopeful that within the next five months, I’ll have some news here about, and/or excerpts from, a new Brahms Sonata, the Schubert Arpeggione, and, if the Matterhorn be possible to climb, the Brahms F major sonata.

Yesterday, Mount Ranier, active volcano/Shiva the destroyer, filled the horizon at Pacific Lutheran University, prompting explosions of late Brahms -- photograph by Adam Cathcart

For today, at least, as Americans slaughter fatted calves, wild goats, snouty boars, thickened bison, and all manner of other animals on this great and inviolable day of pagan feasting, we can:

- celebrate also the return of the prodigal son from the DPRK,

- imagine North Korean kids wandering around Huchang wondering if they, like Kim Il Sung, will ever get a taste of wild and wicked Badougou across the Yalu, and

- think of Mount Paektu and wonder who is behind the latest and greatest upswing in Kim Jong Il worship.  Someone’s been imitating their father again, and this time it is the youngest son’s turn to take Hyesan as the great pivot point of personality-cult inflation.

Borderline News from NK: Hyesan and Forest Fires

Hyesan is getting spruced up with some funds from the center.

Meanwhile, the ever-vigilant Juchechosunmanse digs up a real find:

Back in October North Korea watchers were perplexed by the fires in the DPRK’s northeast, namely in Ryanggang-do and Hamgyong-bukdo. The Daily NK has just reported [ed. in Chinese] that the forest fires were caused by people burning corn roots to get rid of insects and worms in areas such as Pungseo-gun in Ryanggang-do. Apparently it is part of a concerted effort to boost food production and everyone seems to be pressed to get ready for next year’s spring planting.

I rather rudely excerpted most of his enlightening post, but I do so because I’m quite glad to get this information.  I accordingly spent some time with the Daily NK’s Chinese page and have hopes to get a translation out soon.  The focus of the article, I should add, is that autumn harvest activity has been taking place sooner than usual, and that rural cadre are really bringing the hammer down to get food production up in whatever primitive ways they can.  Of course, fuel is almost non-existent, so they have to use cows or human labor to plow the fields, which are now freezing up.

Meanwhile, as it deals with environmental concerns, the Global Times carries this bizarrely-edited piece by a foreign observer in China entitled “Peaceful weather manipulation not a worry.”  Now why is it that most of us refrain from submitting manuscripts to Xinhua again?  Who wouldn’t love their name appearing underneath a headline like that?

Fortunately the mainland Chinese press gives a nod to the Daily NK  story not by covering the emerging North Korean famine and resultant forest fires, but by talking about forest fires caused by a downed plane in ROK’s South Cholla province.

And who needs news about the DPRK when you can argue with anonymous foes about the Korean Wave?  Not that they ever stop, but there is another long online spat on the Huanqiu’s BBS that starts with a post entitled: “You who swear at the ‘Korean idiots': Do you truly understand the history of the Republic of Korea?”  I suppose this counts as debate.

Finally, for comparison, see my previous analysis of the North Korean forest fires story in the Chinese press.

North Korea Test Fires Two Missiles: Chinese Media Reports on DPRK

Mainland Chinese media may not be reporting on the alleged sarin gas leaks from Sinuiju towards Dandong, but they aren’t shy about being quick off the starting blocks when North Korea test fires another two short range missiles today.  Huanqiu Shibao releases a short report, giving it some prominence on the website, based on reporter Gao Youbin [高友斌] and a South Korean government statement.  No comments yet on the Huanqiu BBS, however.

The story on the short-range missles may be brief, but the Huanqiu links it to a big page it has constructed about North Korea’s long-range missiles, replete with the following scary banner:

Huanqiu Shibao's big page banner for the Taepodong missles

Huanqiu Shibao's big page banner for the Taepodong missles

Hat tip to ROK Drop for the link and the steady analysis.

Gao Youbin may have given the missile test drive-by treatment because he was busy today filing another report (in Chinese) on the current fate of North Korea’s ban on Japanese cars which the DPRK attempted to mandate this past summer.  (According to my personal observations, almost all of their fleet in the Chinese embassy in Beijing are Japanese.)   Interestingly, the main source for this Chinese reportage is the Good Friends organization which interviews North Korean defectors and provides very valuable digests of the conversations on their Blogspot website every week.  Gao, the Huanqiu Shibao reporter and therefore a decent barometer of what is allowed in this rather nationalistic 5-times-a-week newspaper, calls Good Friends “a South Korean humanitarian organization (韩国一个福利组织)”!  I would consider this another minor slap in the face to North Korea, and a small victory in the ground war for information sharing.

One last thing worth noting: the Huanqiu‘s headlinenotes that “More than 70% of cars inside [North Korea] are Japanese” which could also be taken as a minor insult to the DPRK, even if it’s true.

China is not likely to be happy about this latest missle test.  Mainly because we are supposed to still be basking in the fetishistic afterglow of Beijing’s own rollout of new missiles at the October 1 National Day Parade!  My other favorite international affairs tabloid in Beijing, Qingnian Cankao (Elite Reference), rolled out a big front page spread about American fascination with the National Day missiles in their October 10 most recent issue.  (While Huanqiu Shibao has moved to a Monday-Friday publication pattern, to my knowledge, Qingnian Cankao is on a Monday/Thursday schedule.)

"American Academic on Obscure U.S. Defense Website Implies that China Has Even More Powerful Missiles than Were Hauled Past Mao's Glorious Visage on Tiananmen"

"American Academic on Obscure U.S. Defense Website Implies that China Has Even More Powerful Missiles than Were Hauled Past Mao's Glorious Visage on Tiananmen"

Elite Reference’s BBS is naked of any mention at all of North Korea, but there is plenty of dialogue about how proud Hong Kong was of China’s 60th anniversary, and discussion about Mao and Zhou Enlai’s vision for China’s internationalization.

However, back at the Huanqiu site, there is a nice bit of Japan-bashing going on.  Apparently Japanese media figures who guard against an East Asian union as an affront to the bedrock alliance with the United States allow us to veer back into statements like: “Those little Japanese really like to kill people,” and “This sounds like ‘The Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere,” and, my personal favorite, “Japan will always be America’s running dog.”  But hey!  At least those “running dogs” are selling cars to your proud North Korean allies, buddy!  Somebody has got to do it.

Toyota Truck in Hyesan, North Korea -- Red Banner Promotes the 150 Day Struggle Campaign -- photo by Adam Cathcart

Toyota Truck in Hyesan, North Korea -- Red Banner Promotes the 150 Day Struggle Campaign -- photo by Adam Cathcart