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

Report of North Korean Military Buildup along the Jilin Border

10,000 More North Korean Troops Along Chinese Frontier

The Daily NK quotes sources inside North Korea indicating that the Korean People’s Army will, for the next six months, be building up its forces in Ryanggang province around the large border city of Hyesan.

courtesy Wikipedia

courtesy Wikipedia

A total of 10,000 new troops are expected.  According to the source, talk in the DPRK has it that the moves are being taken in response to a Chinese buildup in adjacent Jilin province:

The source said, “The rumor doing the rounds is that they are increasing the size of the army unit in Yangkang Province in response to a missile base the Chinese have constructed at Antu near Mt. Baekdu and their posting of mechanized forces near Changbai,” hinting that the expansion of the Army Corps members is partly out of concern for China.

However, in response to a Chinese demand in August of last year, North Korea relocated both its 2nd 14.5mm Anti-Aircraft Gun Company (a.k.a Jedang Ridge Company) and an independent platoon known as the “Gotdongji Platoon” to Masan Ridge, which is approximately five kilometers from the Yalu River border. Before the move, the Jedang Ridge Squadron’s 12 guns were aimed directly at the Chinese city of Changbai in Jilin Province, directly across the border from Hyesan.

[But]the Chinese missile base indicated by the source is actually located in the vicinity of Dunhua, which is in the interior of the Yanbian Autonomous Prefecture, far from the North Korea-China border, so it seems that the true reason behind the expansion may be different from the official explanation.

The buildup, if accurate, could also be described as stemming from the domestic need to keep would-be refugees contained inside the North.  But it is also very possible that the news of this buildup is a means of the DPRK trying to use somewhat conventional negotiating tactics against the PRC.  Heretofore, the main threat NK posed to China was the “gun to my head” argument or, put another way, North Korea’s potential to open the border and release hundreds of thousands of refugees into China.  Along with recent nuclear tests along the border, this type of news could be interpreted as a conventional means of making the PLA sit up straighter, heightening Chinese respect for North Korean arms.  I could of course be very wrong about this, but it may signal a significant type of change, particularly if the regime grows in militarist confidence.

This increase in troop numbers on the northern frontier can come back also to this idea of encirclement of the DPRK.  As Russia increases its missile defenses in the area, we can see how the Northern frontier could also be seen by Pyongyang as a major new focus for their defensive paradigm.  After all, the Chinese have their own secret talks with the Americans, get closer every day in spite of empty propaganda cannonades to the American military, and American analysts fantasize openly about getting to a “permissive defense environment” along the PRC-DPRK frontier in order to infiltrate American commandos (as opposed to journalists) into the North.   Not to mention new allegations of China preparing a special “occupation force” / DPRK government-in-exile, allegations which I think are overblown, but nevertheless are out there.

One quick correction to the Daily NK translation from the Chinese: NK Anti-Aircraft weapons were “directly across” from Changbai, not “pointed directly at.”

More Troops=Civilians Bear the Burden

And the civilians are definitely complaining about the troops.  In my travels there, it was pretty obvious merely in terms of body language that the villagers were living in what felt like a kind of occupation.  The troops come to town: as a North Korean peasant, you don’t cheer, you don’t offer your daughter’s hand in marriage.  Instead, you pony up what little grain you have.  Isn’t this reminscent of Chiang Kai-shek’s national army in 1947, anyone?  And isn’t it a major violation of the Kimist/Maoist edict for the army to remain “like a fish in water” with the people?  North Korea needs to find a receipe for sustainable army-civilian coexistence if it is going survive.  Because we seem to have fallen back into the ethos of the Japanese occupation of Korea, with the KPA reprising as the Kanto army and North Hamgyong’s sweating provincial head following Kim Jong Il nervously around shrines and masquerading as Col. Terasuki.

The Daily NK elaborates:

Regardless of the reason, the news of the fresh troops has not gone down well with the local people, according to the source. He explained, “With the news of 10,000 additional soldiers coming into Hyesan, many citizens have become concerned. It is already difficult for them to deal with the existing number of soldiers.”

Besides forces affiliated to the 10th Army Corps, the Raider Unit in Baekam, the Raider and Anti-Aircraft Missile Unit, the Huchang County Medium-Range Missile Unit, the 43rd Gapsan County Sniper Brigade, the Samjiyeon County Escort Bureau Unit, Hyesan City Bureau No. 8 (the Bureau in charge of supplying armaments and ammunition) and the Yangkang Province Border Patrol Brigade are all stationed in Yangkang Province, causing civilians to complain that the number of soldiers already exceeds the number of civilians.

And this is another way to assure they get more labor out of these people.  Army units are less likely to shirk labor tasks than, say, the Democratic Youth League.  There is no end in the Good Friends reports about problems with people simply not showing up for their corvée responsbilities.

Perhaps the ideal text one should be reading in order to understand how such a regime ultimately crumbles is not Lenin’s Tomb, but rather Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian on the end of the Qin dyansty. The monument-building, the harsh legalist punishments, the outrageous demands for corvée labor, the courtly intrigues, the belligerent foreign policy: it resembles the Kim dynasty’s late years as much as the Qin dynasty’s late years.   Here, choices all lead to death, making resistance and rebellion the only act of free will in such a system.

A Chinese in Pyongyang [cue "An American in Paris," but with a guzheng or pan'sori warble in pentatonic mode]

In other DPRK-PRC news, huggable Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao will be making a state visit to North Korea from October 4 to October 6.  This news comes via the (Chinese) Global Times, which promotes the visit as a banner right next to the announcement of the October 1 parade.  Apparently Chinese leaders are capable of, as Ai Weiwei says, “reveling in their own glory” while making new mechanations to hold it down in the northeast.   According to Global Times, Wen will have a series of meetings with North Korean leaders “on issues of common concern” (no explicit mention in this short release of nuclear problem) and participate in activities to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Chinese-North Korean diplomatic relations.   Whether or not Wen asks his colleagues about Hwang Jang-yop’s latest jeremiad, or how things are going with the anti-aircraft weapons and the prostitutes in Hyesan, is anyone’s guess.

Fortunately, there are some knowledgeable white men from the State Department shuttling around Asia gently helping to remind the Chinese not to spend too much time talking about such sundry details:

KUALA LUMPUR – Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to North Korea next week is sending Pyongyang “a clear message” on the need to return to nuclear talks, a top US envoy said on Monday.

US Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, who is visiting Malaysia as part of a five-nation Asian tour, welcomed the trip announced by North Korean state media as an emphatic push towards the “six-nation” talks.

“We are quite appreciative of the fact that China, like other countries involved, has sent a very clear message to North Korea that there is unanimity among all countries in the region about the need for them to return to the six-party talks and to resume the path of denuclearisation,” he said.

“The fact that they are hearing this message from China as well as the countries in the region helps to reinforce a strong message,” he told a news conference.

“I feel optimistic that in all of the interactions that North Korea has had now that they are getting an unmistakable message that… there are no divisions and differences among the countries that are involved.” [AFP, via Khaleej Times in Dubai, one of my new favorite newspapers].

I wish someone would have learned this from the way that Zhou Enlai handled negotiations with George Marshall in Nanking in 1946: Never, ever broadcast that the CCP is going to do precisely what you have told them to do, even when you are convinced they bring your talking points into their closed-door meetings.  Even when Zhou Enlai is so charming and sends your journalists beautiful handwritten letters on gorgeous stationary that your daughter loves!  Somehow we seem have have forgotten that even the sturdiest-looking of “united fronts” can be toppled when the balance of power turns.

Hyesan, Ryanggang Province -- photo by Adam Cathcart

Hyesan, Ryanggang Province -- photo by Adam Cathcart

Flower Girls: Prostitution in Hyesan, North Korea

A fall 2009 dispatch from the Daily NK in Chinese (and its English translation) indicated that a prostitution scandal was breaking in Hyesan, North Korea’s fourth largest city, a gray metropolis which sprawls along the banks of the shallow Yalu river across from the Chinese city of Changbai.

[Google Map of Hyesan/Changbai available here.]

I spent a few days in Changbai in July 2009 to gather impressions of North Korean-Chinese interactions. From talking to locals, I collected a fair amount of anecdotal information about cross-border trade, social interactions in Changbai-Hyesan, and the impacts of the 150-day speed campaign in the DRPK. Just for the record, Hyesan appears to have quite a few more lights on at night (I counted more than forty) than more-wealthy Sinuiju. I also found some nice healthy Jilin marijuana plants all along the Chinese side of the river.

Apart from the occasional Daily NK article or intrepid Western photojournalist (like this in April 2009) who plays chicken with KPA border guards (“I point my camera, you point your rifle, we both get what we want”), it is an area not frequently traveled by Western journalists or academics.

As to the prostitution story: the energetic human-rights blogger Joshua Stanton picked up the story, necessitating another post-facto translation job on the part of your friendly author.

In any case, my task is to clean up and expand upon one Daily NK translation. Let’s get to it.

My modified format has the original Chinese followed by my modified English version. Blue indicates data that does not show up at all in the Daily NK’s original English version, but that is unquestionably part of the Chinese version of the same article. Orange indicates a significant change in interpretation more faithful to the Daily NK’s original version.

Citation: 李成进 [中国长春特派员], 惠山查处有组织卖淫案件: 公然在干部专用住宿设施中交易 … “皮条客”拿走收入的一半, Daily NK, 31 August 2009 Lee Sung Jin [Special Reporter in Changchun, PRC], Hyesan Investigation Reveals Incident of Organized Prostitution: In Boarding Facilities Expressly for [Workers' Party] Cadre, ‘Pimps’ Openly Walk Away With Half the Money, ” Daily NK, 31 August 2009.

Article text [Blue=new data previously untranslated by Daily NK; Orange=improved translation]:

[1] 有消息称,两江道惠山市近日查处了一起有组织卖淫案件,道党委派出的“非社会主义因素审查团”正在对主要住宿设施及青年惠山站附近的民居进行审查。According to information, Ryangang Province, Hyesan City recently investigated an incident of organized prostitution. The provincial Party dispatched an “Group for the Investigation of Unsocialist Elements” which is currently investigating the principal hotels and activities of residents near the Hyesan Youth Station.

[2] 两江道内部消息人士25日透露:“上月20日‘惠明旅馆卖淫案’被查出后,旅馆负责人和客房负责人、会计等被关进了道检察所。”“不仅是铁道旅馆、站前旅馆、惠山饭店,青年惠山站附近的民居也都被列为审查对象.” According to a leak from a Yangang Province source on [August] 25th, “After the ‘Hyemyung Inn prostitution incident’ blew up on the 20th of last month, the person responsible for the inn, the manager in charge of the rooms, the cashier and others were all locked up by the provincial prosecution office.Not only the Station Inn, but the inn behind the station [Wiyeon Rail Inn?], the Hyesan Hotel, and residential areas near the Hyesan Youth Station are the target of a series of inspections.

[3] 位于惠山市惠明洞的惠明旅馆是一所中央党干部们经常入住的国营住宿设施。但是旅馆的李某负责人和白某负责人从2005年开始组织惠山地区的女性从事卖淫。他们以1万 – 1万5千(朝元)的价格在干部专用客房留宿嫖客,以4千(朝)元的价格在普通客房留宿嫖客。 The Hyemyung Inn is located in Hyesan’s Hyemyung-dong district. It is a state-owned and -operated inn where central party cadre often stay. But from 2005, the superintendant, Mr. Lee and the manager Mr. Baek began to organize women in Hyesan areas to sell sex. They charged a price of 10,000 to 15,000 North Korean won per room for rooms only used by cadre, and 4,000 won per room to average customers.

[4] 据消息人士称,惠明旅馆的卖淫活动暗语叫做“卖花”。负责人根据嫖客的要求介绍不同价格的“花”。他们甚至召募刚刚初中毕业的女孩子从事卖淫。According to the source, prostitution activities at the Hyemyung Inn were spoken of in code as “flower sales.” The managers connected male customers to variously-priced “flowers” according to their demands. They even summoned girls who had just graduated from middle school to engage in selling sex at the inns.

[5] “卖花”的女性被分为四种:“红花”(10多岁到20岁刚出头)、“蓝花”(20多岁的未婚者)、“黄花”(有夫之妇)、“紫花”(寡妇)。由专门的‘皮条客’给负责人提供卖淫女。“皮条客”还以4:6、5:5的比率拿走卖淫女的收入。Girls “selling flowers” were divided into four classifications: “red flowers” (girls over ten years old through those just over 20), “blue flowers” (unmarried women over 2o), “yellow flowers” (married women) and “purple flowers” (widows). A specialized “pimp” provided the superintendant with the women through another supplier. The “pimp” and the prostitutes divided payments for their services with the suppliers at a 40:60 or 50:50 ratio.

[6] 消息人士称:“最贵的‘红花’的收费是2小时2万(朝)元,一夜4万元。”“这些”皮条客”与中国方面也有联系,卖淫女们甚至跨越国境到中国的长白县卖淫。The source said: “The most expensive ‘red flower’ costs 20,000 won for two hours and 40,000 won for the entire night….This pimp has connections on the Chinese side, so some prostitutes even crossed the border and went to Changbai county to work.”

[7] 旅馆负责人与厨房负责人的矛盾导致事件暴露. “惠明旅馆卖淫案”是因为旅馆负责人和厨房负责人的矛盾才得以大白于天下。厨房负责人被旅馆解聘后怀恨在心,把旅馆组织卖淫的真相给捅了出来。Contradictions between the inn superintendant and the kitchen manager caused the incident to be exposed. The “Hyemyung Hotel Prostitution Incident” happened because contradictions between the inn superintendant and the kitchen manager brought the incident out into the open. After being dismissed, the kitchen manager’s heart was full of hatred, and the painful truth came out [lit. "the truth was given out in jabs"].

[8] 道党委认识到事态的严重性,立即组织道检察所、道保卫部干部组成的审查团,将审查对象扩大到了两江道内所有住宿设施。道保安局和惠山市保安署还对青年惠山站附近及惠山市场周边等地的民宅进行了住宿审查。The provincial committee of the Party recognized the gravity of the situation, and organized the provincial prosecutor’s office and provincial Security Agency cadre into an inspection group to expand investigation of hotel facilities across Ryangkang Province. Furthermore, the provincial People’s Safety Agency [Pao-an] and the Hyesan city PSA agents were still carrying out inspection in the vicinity of Hyesan Youth Station and Hyesan Market and other areas to investigate lodging activities in people’s homes.

[9] 此次审查目的在于扫荡有组织卖淫和个人卖淫。This purpose of this investigation was to cleanse [the area of] organized prostitution and individual prostitution.

[10] 在审查过程中查出,惠山饭店和站前旅馆也经常性地组织过卖淫活动。As a result of the investigation, it was revealed that “Hyesan Hotel” and the inn behind the station had also been regularly engaging in prostitution activities.

[11] 站前旅馆是一所位于青年惠山站附近惠场洞的11层楼的普通住宿设施。它虽然是主要面向利用青年惠山站的列车旅客的住宿设施,但是据悉主要利用者更多的是嫖宿者。The inn behind the station is a common 11-floor facility located in Hyejang-dong near the Hyesan Youth Station. Although its primary aspect as a facility is to house rail passengers passing through the Youth Station, it is reported there are many more customers who arrive instead to spend the night patronizing prostitutes.

[12] 惠山饭店是外国人专用设施,只有中央党干部以上的本国人才能利用。这里主要向来自中国的商人们提供卖淫。Hyesan Hotel is used especially [exclusively] by foreigners, and is thus a is a place which, for Koreans, can only be accessed by central Party cadre and higher levels. Most people who come here are Chinese businessmen who use the prostitutes.

[13] 朝鲜的国营住宿设施实施有组织卖淫的事实早已从90年代末开始就在居民们当中流传。随着“苦难行军”的开始,粮食、用电、区南等问题导致住宿设施的运营面临困境。部分住宿设施就开始给卖淫人员或“皮条客”们提供客房。The fact that organized commercial sexual activity has been taking place in state-owned hotels has been circulating among the citizens since the late 1990s. Shortages of food, electricity, heating and other problems during the “March of Tribulation” period led to great difficulties in the operation of such facilities. [In this period,] a portion of the rooms began being given to prostitutes or “pimps” to use.

[14] 据消息人士讲,收押在两江道检察局的惠明旅馆负责人为自己辩解称:“为了旅馆的运营不得已而为之。”惠山饭店的负责人也诉称自己是为了筹措饭店的重装费用才以这种方式赚取外汇,并要求从宽处理。According to a source in Hyesan, when being put in the Ryanggang Provincial Investigative Office, the manager of the Hyemyung Inn told the policeIf I wanted to keep my inn in business, I could not do otherwise.” The Hyesan Hotel manager also begged for leniency, claiming that he had no choice but to engage in foreign-currency earning activities in this way to generate the necessary funds for re-modeling.

[15] 消息人士表示:“‘150天战斗’开始后,卖淫女的数量呈几何数地增加。”各种农村支援和建设劳动的动员次数增加,市场运营时间限制在下午4时以后,原本以做买卖营生的城市人口的收入随之大幅降低,最终增加了很多迫于生计卖淫的“生计型”卖淫女。The source also explained, “Since the 150-Day Battle began, the number of prostitutes has progressively increased.” As households are also beingmobilized in increasing numbers for farm aid and construction labor, markets are opening at past 4pm, the income of households in the cities has dramatically decreased. Ultimately this has resulted in an increase of women compelled into prostitution, or “survival prostitutes.”

[16] 朝鲜当局在8月8日实施的“关于贯彻党的群众路线,清除一切不正腐败现象”的讲演会上列举了具体事例对近来成为社会问题的卖淫活动做出了强烈的批判。The North Korean authorities, at an August 8 lecture meeting called “Regarding Implementing the Party Mass Line, Eliminating All Unjust Corruption” which took place on August 8th, strong criticism was made of prostitution activities among a list of specific examples of recent social problems.

[17] 但是朝鲜当局能否可以通过此类政治教育和审查及时查处和根除卖淫活动还是未知数。因为近来出了有组织卖淫,“生计型”的个人卖淫也开始在居民区扩散。 However, it is difficult to assess whether or not the North Korean authorities can really reduce prostitution activities via such political education and harsh inspections. Because with the recent revelation of organized prostitution, “survival-type” of individual prostitution has also begun to spread among the people.

Commentary (Numbers refer to paragraph numbers in original article.)

1. One aspect that gets underplayed in the translation is the extent to which much of the prostitution activity in North Korea is actually not organized; the article describes subtly how state pressure drives the sex trade into new places. In this sense, the very entropy of the North Korean sex trade forms a very different structural picture, than, say, the comfort women system which some persuasive writers like Joshua Stanton have drawn in with reference to this story.

3.  A minor point of fact emerges here which may shed some light on the marketization of North Korea: the Chinese version implies that “customers” could pay more for a room used by officials/cadre. In other words, “customers” other than North Korean officials may also be using the rooms designated for officials and paying the higher prices for sex. After all, as we learn later in the piece, Chinese businessmen are involved in paying for these services as well, and, having some familiarity with the culture of Chinese high rollers born in the 1950s, it seems likely they would be both willing and interested in paying whatever price to have the “prestige” of experiencing the high (and rather corrupt) life of a North Korean party cadre.

In the same paragraph, the phrase “ran a prostitution ring” comes up, and while it can be translated this waythe Chinese basically says “organized women in the Hyesan area to sell sex.” To me anyway, the very matter-of-fact way this source from Hyesan describes it implies less “human trafficking” than the possiblity of a rational choice made by the prostitutes, or, at a minimum, the lack of horror of the Daily NK’s source in talking about the matter.

4. Zhaomu [召募], the operative verb, to my knowledge, means “to summon,” not “to coerce.” I’m open to other interpretations, but it again the word choice of the translator leans one toward the idea that these women were forced into the work, when the Chinese source is more ambivalent if not opposite in its meaning.

Same thing with “as young as”; this appears to be translator editorializing, or “didactic translation.” I think the point is clear enough in the original version. Obviously if they just graduated from middle school, they are very young.

5. Although numerical data isn’t a strength of this article, one gets the sense that this is a big operation.

6. The bad thing about this article being written from Changchun is that sometimes people forget to consult their maps. The original version of the article says some of the prostitutes “went as far as Changbai to work.” Hello! Changbai is directly across the river from Hyesan.  For the record, Changbai itself is not a very big city (e.g., low demand for prostitutes), and is likely more of a gateway to the interior for human trafficking, not a destination.

7. The discussion of “contradictions” in true communist style among this kitchen manager and his ostensible boss must have been intense. It doesn’t appear that either one of them was getting incredibly wealthy from the enterprise. This notion of built-up resentments, the culture of vendetta, is one that I’ll leave for others to analyze.

8. Again, the new translation sheds further light on the throughgoing marketization of North Korean society and the state’s efforts to roll it back wherever it crops up. The cops are there not just to discover prostitution activities, but to figure out if private citizens (as happens in China) are renting out their dwellings to take a cut of the proceeds from various illicit liaisons.

12. Anti-Chinese sentiment in North Korea, anyone?

16. Paradoxically, a return to the ethos of the late 1950s and adherence to Kim’s writings of that era, minus the war shadows, would probably be welcomed by many North Koreans, that is, if the DPRK hadn’t already let the capitalist genie out of the bottle. Given what has been showing up in recent Good Friends reports, it seems quite likely that corruption, prostitution, etc., would indeed be the subject of Party meetings.

17. Here, for the first time, is your actual last sentence of the article. And like a “secret track” on some obscure death-metal band’s 33 1/3 record, it is damned ominous. In other words, the author seems to imply that now that the state has cracked down on brothels in Hyesan, the sex trade is simply going to metastasize into the general population. This is a cruel world people are living in.

A Final Note on Cultural Resonance and Regime Legitimacy

There is on last bit of tragedy in this story that may not be apparent to some. The hotel’s signification for the prostitutes as “flower girls” trods directly upon a major trope in socialist film in the DPRK; “flower girl” is also shorthand for a very popular film of the 1960s in the DPRK which features a pure girl who ultimately takes a tragic path in colonial Korea. (Film footage of the film “The Flower-Selling Girl,” or 卖花姑娘, can be viewed in the link; see also UC Santa Barbara scholar Kim Suk-Young, [who has already made a major contribution via her work in North Korean refugee memoir genre] in Illusive Utopia: Theater, Film, and Everyday Performance in North Korea, forthcoming with U. Michigan Press in 2010.) If it’s true — and I certainly don’t doubt it — this story of prostitution in Hyesan, as it spreads through the population, further alienates the Party from the people, because it raises all kinds of additional tropes for the Workers’ Party.

In some ways this is where the DPRK gets snared again in its own propaganda. The more the Workers’ Party appears to be acting like the Japanese occupiers, the greater the chance that their already tenuous legitimacy outside of Pyongyang and the KPA will evaporate forever. Yet, finally, in both these novels and in the fisticuffs of the two men running the prostitution ring in Hyesan, we are reminded of the impulse for vengeance. It is a powerful idea in North Korean art, of angry brothers vowing death to the defiler, the stories of families enraged by the choices they face. If the Hyesan prostitution story holds true, there are some very angry and ashamed brothers, fathers, and husbands walking around the northern edge of Ryanggang province. If in fact the relevant inn managers are still alive in two years’ time, I would be very surprised.

Here, in closing, is the plot synopsis for “The Flower Girl,” via a DPRK press release (via Koryo Tours) and NK Econwatch. It is definitely something to think about:


As it teaches the truth that the exploited and oppressed should turn out on the road of struggle and revolution in order to carve out their destiny, the revolutionary opera has gripped the hearts of the people for its ever-increasing attraction and vitality.

The opera is based on the profound seed theory that a flower girl selling flowers out of sorrow and filial piety eventually emerges in a struggle and revolution. It raises the serious socio-political point that any amount of devotion and sympathy can’t save the destiny of the poor in a society where exploitation and oppression prevail.

Watching the opera, the audience grasps the truth that the people of a stateless nation who have been deprived of sovereignty [food] are more dead than alive, and only when they set out on the road of revolution to fight can they defend the sovereignty of the nation [their wombs and their dignity] and enjoy a genuine life as an independent people.


Prostitution in Hyesan, North Korea

Snug up against the small but still bustling Chinese city of Changbai (Jilin province), Hyesan lies along the Yalu River, spreading from West to East as the closest urban gateway to sacred Mount Paektu.  According to the country’s Meteorological Administration, Hyesan is the coldest big city in the DPRK.  Cross border-trade is an important part of what goes on in the city, yet, Hyesan is, in some ways more than other cities in North Korea, attempting to guard the image and the history of its own revolution.

It is therefore in some ways alarming to learn that a prostitution ring implicates hotels in Hyesan catering to Workers’ Party officials.  Although the English version of the linked article does not pursue it, here are given a powerful image of corrupt North Korean government officials currying favor with Chinese businessmen by introducing them to prostitutes, some of whom are described as “older than 10″ in the original Chinese version of the story.

In a subsequent post, I’ll be analyzing this problem further and revealing several tidbits that the English language version of the article ignores, obfuscates, or sensationalizes.  I’ll leave you with one minor example: the North Korean government actually sent Health Department workers to various areas in and around Hyesan to investigate further instances of organized prostitution.  However, the Daily NK translation — perhaps reflecting a need to further demonize a country that is already doing a swell job itself of being hated — leaves out any mention of the Health Department workers, focusing instead on those nasty Public Security agents who are also apparently trying to root out this very, very pernicious form of corruption which itself is related to the food crisis.  These women, by the way, are called “survival prostitutes.”

For some reason, although their report was supposed to deal with cross-border sex trafficking, the CurrentTV reporters didn’t bother going to Changbai, which is the place to learn about Hyesan.  What a pity!

Hyesan, seen from a faux-marble faux-Tang dynasty style pleasure boat on land in the Chinese city of Changbai (photo courtesy Wikimedia)

Hyesan, seen from a faux-marble faux-Tang dynasty style pleasure boat on land in the Chinese city of Changbai (photo courtesy Wikimedia)