On the Inoki Visit to North Korea

Inoki Kanji in Tokyo, May 20, 2014

Inoki Kanji in Tokyo, May 20, 2014

Given the amount of public interest in the just-concluded visit of Japanese and American wrestlers to Pyongyang, led by lawmaker (and former wrestling star) Kanji Inoki, I thought I might share a few comments I prepared just as the visit was getting underway.


I think this particular trip is much more about Japan-DPRK relations than some sop to warmer relations with the United States (via the wrestlers or the erstwhile rapper). The core delegation is Japanese, Inoki is a viable (if somewhat eccentric) interlocutor, and North Korea stands very much to gain for looking more open to Japan at this particular moment.

It isn’t a coincidence that the Inoki visit is going forward just a few short weeks prior to what is going to be one of the more important and delicate moments in Japanese-North Korean relations since Koizumi went to Pyongyang for a short visit in 2002 – the unveiling of what is broadly called ‘the abduction report’ but which will also attempt to explain the fate of what I think are a few thousand Japanese who died in 1945-46 during the Soviet invasion and before the DPRK, properly speaking, existed.

I find it interesting that North Korea is willing to talk to Inoki and will meet with a number of right-wing Japanese lawmakers, and that, relatively speaking, they have dialled back seriously on the anti-Japanese drumbeat in their official media. It took Pyongyang more than ten days to muster a comment on the visit of Japanese lawmakers to Yasukuni Shrine on 15 August, and they have yet to go after Prime Minister Abe Shinzo for his written message to the same venue on the same day; and they probably won’t go after him for that. There was also the meeting of the foreign ministers for the two countries at ASEAN, which I think was part of North Korea’s plan, certainly.

So the point is that the Inoki spectacle gives the Japanese public a different frame through which to view North Korea, and that it’s very much to Pyongyang’s benefit.


One of the most interesting aspects of the Inoki spectacle, like the Rodman spectacle before it, is the question of interactions with North Koreans. We tend to ask questions like ‘will this impact everyday North Korean views of the United States (or Japan)’? And what about the North Korean athletes that they meet in Pyongyang? Do such visits ‘change hearts and minds’?

Well, first, the North Koreans who are allowed to meet foreigners on such sanctioned trips are already generally very well vetted, and extremely loyal to the system and to the Kim family. You can imagine that their momentary contact with an American or a Japanese athelete is important, but it’s not going to be a situation where the scales are suddenly falling from their eyes – if anything, the loyalty to the leadership system is more intense, because it is the leadership that has cared so much for them that the leader has gone out of his way to arrange for this visit and the education it will bring in terms of sports technique and, consequently, national power. These athletes are going into what in some ways is situation without any context or administrative undergirding – there is no Japanese or American cultural center (let alone an Embassy) in Pyongyang where the students could follow up on any kindled interest in US culture. Notice who is interpreting for these groups – they will often change, and the same young interpreter who had Dennis Rodman’s ear on one visit will not be seen on the next visit.

More interesting and more important, really, are the North Koreans in positions of power who such athletes are allowed to meet with. Kim Jong-un went out of his way to appear accommodating to Rodman and Rodman’s delegation, meeting them each personally and reportedly even spending time with them in private, having parties, etc. This is done in part just for the leader’s entertainment and enjoyment. Seen cynically, there is something positively arcane about it, the importing of jokers and circuses for the amusement of the young king – but of course the top elites who allow such visits to go forward are not ignorant of the international media feedback loop, and so one can put an ‘international friendship’ bow around what is otherwise a bit of a lark for Kim Jong-un.

If you want to be much more serious and supportive of the event, you say that it ‘opens up channels of communication’ between states and peoples – I think this phrase is somewhat misleading, because, like an artery, if nothing is moving through it, it’s not actually a channel but is an unhealthy wall. If there is no mechanism for follow-up, if one’s interlocutors change – and keep in mind that Inoki was the last foreigner to meet Jang Song-taek before he was purged and killed – then you are forced to start over at every stage and the notion of ‘progress’ via such visits is illusory.


Finally there is the question of propaganda to consider. You will often hear the phrase ‘useful idiot’ bandied about, and North Korea’s use of foreign individuals in state media is clearly rendered in a rather exaggerated way for the state’s benefit, showing us as somewhat obsequious.

But who cares? If an American, European, or Japanese lawmaker visits Kim Il-sung’s birthplace, they can now do so knowing that it is OK to wear a wrestling mask around the place. Bowing to a statue isn’t going to kill anyone and the last time I checked, we didn’t lose the Korean War and we have a few dozen B-52 bombers on the way to Guam; a few photos of foreigners bowing to a statue of the two dead Kims is not going to change that basic fact. (This is of course very different when North Korea has arrested/detained Americans who are then forced into humiliating public apologies; but even that does not seem to bother people as much as it did during the 1950s.)

If North Korea is willing to let in more foreign athletes, musicians, artists, journalists, etc., being stuck into a few propaganda photos is a fairly small price to pay. Not to mention the fact that the revenue gained by the state in such ventures is negligible; it also costs the state a great deal to conduct surveillance on the foreigners it lets in, to construct ‘massive edifices’ like Masikryong Ski Resort to impress them, etc.


North Korea and China seem to use cultural events to work alongside bilateral disputes, such that exchanges go forward and at least preserve the veneer of normality between the two countries. We saw this after Jang Song-taek’s death, when Chinese song and dance ensembles visited North Korea for Chinese New Year, and the participation of a major national group from Beijing that came to Pyongyang in April for the arts festival. Because Chinese and North Korean official culture is still very Party-centered, they do have more inherent compatibility, but the principle is the same: We may be having serious disputes over a whole host of matters, but we are going to keep going with these very limited but also important musical and cultural exchanges, because appearances of comradeship still count.

I don’t think the ‘ping-pong diplomacy’ is quite the right parallel (largely because US-DPRK relations are structurally not ready for a wholesale interface, not to mention the fact that North Korea isn’t about to end its own Cultural Revolution-level cult of personality and turn toward ‘reform and opening up.’


Stephan Haggard’s Comment on Sinuiju SEZs

Hwanggumpyeong Island in 2011; image courtesy Al Jazeera news

Banners in lieu of factories on Hwanggumpyeong Island in 2011; image courtesy Al Jazeera news

Stephan Haggard is frequently described as one of the top North Korea analysts in the United States; his breadth of interest, range of expertise, and command of massive amounts of data, along with his keen analytical eye all serve to confirm his standing in the research community.  I was therefore glad to see that he took interest in one of my recent papers on the subject of North Korean Special Economic Zones in and near Sinuiju, the city that serves as a major conduit for North Korean trade with the People’s Republic of China:

Adam Cathcart’s SinoNK is one of our go-to sources, in part because Cathcart and the writers for the blog visit the border zone frequently, and in part because they draw heavily on Chinese sources others don’t pick up. Cathcart was recently in Washington where he presented a new paper at the Korea Economic Institute on the Hwanggumpyeong and Wihwa SEZ’s. (A direct link to the full text is here; for further background, see our own posts on the two zones and investment more generally.)

A new look at the zones is warranted by the fact that they appeared to fall under the management of Jang Song-thaek; as we noted at the time, Jang’s fall raised the question of whether North Korea’s commitment to the zones would continue. Cathcart provides an excellent overview of the troubled history of the two islands. He details early Chinese critiques, including that North Korea was not investing in basics such as flood control, as well as ongoing institutional and legal squabbles. Outside of investment in a costly bridge—Cathcart estimates as much as $350 million—the lack of Chinese investment in the zones reflected ongoing problems even prior to Jang’s demise. Cathcart details negative reactions to Jang’s purge in China, but he also makes an interesting and obvious link we had missed: that North Korea’s push to set up SEZ’s occurred at the same time as the Jang purge and effectively sidelined all of the effort that the Chinese had invested in the two islands; as Cathcart points out, one of the proposed SEZ’s in Sinuiju would be directly competitive.

Cathcart concludes that there are still political forces in China that are seeking continuity with the zone projects, in effect trying to calm the waters. But the larger arc of Cathcart’s narrative is that the North Koreans seem unable to commit to such projects in a sustained and credible way. The open questions are “why.” Possible answers include fear of Chinese dominance, ongoing struggles over rents, and interference from conservative forces opposed to the effort. Our favored explanation, however, is simple failure to understand the institutional and physical infrastructure required to make such projects work. A must-read piece for anyone interested in the prospects for reform.

Abusive Convenience: Chinese-North Korean Relations

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

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

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

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

Pyongyang Machiavelli: All of Kim’s Men


[This essay was originally published at The Diplomat on April 17, 2013.]

The man at the helm in North Korea today is an accident of history, surrounded by vestigial assertions of narcissistic genius that are de rigueur for North Korea’s depiction of its own leaders. More than any time since the young Kim Il-song was surrounded by Soviet generals in the 1940s, the North Korean leader today is dependent upon advisors.

Advisors and officials below the rungs of the Kim family may not play an overt role in North Korea, but they are vital. And they need to be known, not least because they can be blamed, and possibly executed, when problems arise. The North Korean state marshaled the power of the North Korean rumor mill when it indicates that discord among advisors can be exploited by North Korea’s adversaries, when in fact it cannot.

In terms of how he handles his own advisors, Kim Jong-un shows every indication that he is operating from manuals set down by his grandfather and father. Kim Jong-un is frequently likened to the young Kim Il-song, North Korea’s guerilla fighter, Sovietized soldier, and state founder.

Kim Il-song’s early experiences are particularly salient for his grandson: The elder Kim had been surrounded by older, more experienced advisors, most of whomhappened to be Soviet Generals. (Kim Il-song also lacked strong fluency in the Korean language and a domestic powerbase, thanks to having spent long years abroad.) After the Korean War, Kim Il-song had been restless in purging his rivals from inside the Party. He was uncommonly successful. After 1956, there was no longer such thing as an internal opposition in North Korea. Assertions today of a possible internal resistance movement or factional opposition to Kim Jong-un akin to the Stauffenberg conspiracy in 1944 Germany or South Korea in the 1961 are simply off-base; such a movement would be not simply rootless, but completely ahistorical.

Kim Jong-un’s advisors today are the descendants of the victorious elements in those purges. He is enabled by a web of advisors with a clear influence on the policy formation and implementation in Pyongyang.

Who are these advisors? How do they inflect the North Korean approach to governance, statecraft, culture, and diplomacy, which are all interwoven in the DPRK?

Jang Song-taek, Kim Kyong-hui, and the Family |  There is no shortage of rumors in South Korea about the duo of Jang and Kim who are near to Kim Jong-un. Among the more interesting rumors was that Jang opposed recent nuclear tests and was being purged (he emerged at Kim Jong-un’s side about two days later), that Kim Kyong-hui is an alcoholic and “seriously ill,”that Jang Song-taek is a reformer, etc. etc.

However, iconography is everything in North Korea. This is how power is projected and pictured in the theater-state that is the DPRK. Taking a “hard-facts” approach is particularly needed when approaching what we know about the working of the North Korean state. The individuals discussed here are assumed to be close to Kim Jong-un and influential in the policy process because they are depicted as such in verifiable state media or histories or memoir literature, not because of rumors transmitted from the South Korean press or from analysts who purport to have “inside information” from Pyongyang.

Jang Song-taek is a particularly interesting case, not least because he acted rather like a head of state. On his visit to China in August 2012 it seemed abundantly clear that Jang Song-taek enjoyed the limelight, basking in the glow of the Chinese and world media, and giving few obsequious flourishes to his nominal boss. (Kim Jong-il, recall, never had a full “state visit” to the PRC due to his own peculiarities, and the Chinese were dying to have the appearance of a solid state-to-state relationship, which Jang gave them.)

Jang was pictured next to Kim Jong-un at the crucial moment of the December 13 rocket test and has been in close proximity to Kim Jong-un since he followed behind him at Kim Jong-il’s magisterial funeral procession. However, Jang has seemed willing to be in background when the occasion has warranted, such as the more recent meeting of Kim Jong-un with his Strategic Rocket Forces command. The possible growth of a mini-personality cult for Jang seems to have gone nowhere; he lacks the necessary blood connection to the Kim family and the construction of legitimacy in the DPRK, as the state media continues to iterate, goes through Mount Paektu, synonymous with the Kim family. Given the choice, the North Korean people might rather have Jang as the most influential advisor rather than the often-parasitic military, although he technically holds the rank of General himself and is occasionally seen in uniform.

Jang was also present in November 2012, when Kim Jong-un appeared on horseback with several of his family members and close aides. While one analyst said the event was primarily about Kim Jong-un’s “building legacy, burnishing image and making sure future sculptors get the statue right,”  the appearance of his cohort was also significant. Like the appearance of a long documentary in January 2012 revealing details about Kim Jong-un’s life, the equestrian episode was a key moment in the DPRK’s visualized politics. Kim Kyong-hui, the sister of Kim Jong-il and thus the aunt to the current leader, appeared at this gathering (as did Kim Jong-un wrap-around sunglasses). Kim Kyong-hui is married to Jang Song-taek, although the two never show anything resembling public affection. .

Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, was also seen in full vigor on horseback. While the younger sister is recently described by a family intimate as “a shrew-like woman [and] a free-spirited tomboy” unable to handle a specific bureaucracy, her appearance in November was a public indication that the sister remains close to the ruling circle. As no public discussion is allowed in North Korea as regards a contingency plan if Kim Jong-un happens to die, the sister’s presence is at least a nod at keeping a generation of Kims in power, indicating that while the state is still congratulating itself for “solving the  problem of inheriting the leadership,” rule might be transferred laterally rather than devolved down to Kim Jong-un’s infant.

Kim Ki-nam and the Old Guard | Family ties extend not just down, but up in terms of age and ability.  Kim Ki-nam is a significant individual who is less often discussed than Jang Song-taek , but who is no less important to the successful implementation of the North Korean agenda. Kim Ki-Nam is in his 80s, and has been at the heart of Pyongyang politics since at least 1953.  He was Secretary of the KWP’s Central Committee during the dark famine days of the late 1990s, and was a steadily conservative voice then for developing the economy along military lines.

Today his portfolio encompasses propaganda and agitation, activities which receive a massive budget line used not just for concerts, but Rushmore-esque mountain inscriptions and statues to the immortality of Kim Jong-il. Presumably he carries out this agenda to model societal loyalty to the Kim family and reinforce that North Korea cannot be led by anyone other than Kim Il-song’s progeny. The fact that Kim Ki-nam played an important role in the decades-long struggle for Kim Jong-il’s own succession has made him a valuable aide. His placement, just behind Kim Jong-un and the young leader’s uncle at Kim Jong-il’s funeral cortege, was an indicator of his importance.

Of the core Party elders, few have played a more prevalent role publicly since Kim Jong-il’s death than Kim Ki-nam. Jang Song-taek may be seen fairly frequently, but he does not speak.  Kim Ki-nam is both seen and heard, usually pronouncing on the legacy of Kim Jong-il or the artistic direction of the new DPRK.  Kim Jong-un may be the face of the future, but the direction of the propaganda and the young successor’s place in it is also very much coming from men like Kim Ki-nam with strong living experience in navigating North Korean state propaganda through immense external cultural shifts. If Kim Jong-un has a speechwriter, it is probably Kim Ki-nam or people working under his auspices.

Jon Yong-nam: Keeping the Youth in Line | An interesting younger antipode to Kim Ki-nam who is interested in the same thing — ideological continuation — is Jon Yong-nam, the head of the Kim Il-Song Socialist Youth League for about the past year and a key voice in keeping students at all levels quiescent at worse and heavily politicized at best. In the discussion of the next generation, we can see Jon’s value. He is given huge stadiums full of red-kerchiefed children to lecture, and is maintaining a steadfast line. Like the Chinese leader Hu Jintao, we can expect Jon Yong-nam to use the Youth League base as a means of rising higher in Pyongyang’s politics.

In debates over North Korean cultural parameters represented by the semi-edgy Moranbong Band, Jon would certainly have a seat at the table over the overall cultural approach to North Korean youth, a key demographic and allegedly a cornerstone of pro-Kim Jong-un sentiment.  It is unclear if Kim Jong-un’s wife, the much-watched Ri Sol-ju, takes an active role in debates over public taste in music, but her appearance at Kim’s first inspection of the Moranbong’s “demonstration concert” would indicate that she may have some degree of influence in that field.

Finally, Jon Yong-nam’s proximity to Kim Jong-un can be seen in the fact that his predecessor was sacked by the new leader just months after having met Chinese Vice-Premier and heir apparent Xi Jinping in Beijing. Kim Jong-un thus cut off one more appendage of possible Chinese contagion while elevating a trusted subordinate. Jon has been rather busy this spring, and is one of the most frequently-quoted North Korean leaders apart from Kim Jong-un himself.

Conclusion | In June 2012, Kim Jong-un shocked the world by purging the man who had been pictured as his mentor on the platform of power in North Korea: General Ri Yong-ho. Like the proverbial dog who is boiled after his master has bagged the hare, the General had outlived his usefulness. For a man who had been posed as second-in-command (and thus one step up from Kim Jong-un) when Kim Jong-il was still alive and greeting powerful foreign friends, it was a staggering fall. There is next to no reliable information on where Ri is presently, but the message was rather clear: Kim Jong-un is in charge, and he controls the barrel of North Korea’s proverbial gun.

Kim Jong-un may have come to power in the absence of strong overt rivals, but, when it comes to taking his own path apart from senior influence, time is on his side. A brief glance at a recent Supreme People’s Assembly podium presents a startling contrast in terms of age: The civilian side was stocked with cabinet members born in the 1930s and 40s, while the military side was decidedly younger. We will see if Kim Jong-un is content to let most of his elder advisors live out their remaining influential years in Pyongyang’s opulent and complex center without purging them first.

Adam Cathcart is a lecturer in Asian history at Queen’s University, Belfast, and editor of the website SinoNK.com.


Lux Sinica: China’s Civilizing Influence in North Korea

It takes more than a few days, or perhaps a few weeks, to sift through all the reports, speculation, and rumors surrounding Kim Jong Il’s “new deal” with China.  At the end of the day, though, it seems that a single question aids in interpreting the phenomenon: To what extent has Kim Jong Il’s visit to China spurred the North Korean regime to embrace even the appearance of a reformist direction? 

In other words, is there any indication, however small, that Kim Jong Il or his Korean Workers’ Party is internalizing themselves or mobilizing society toward a policy approximating that of Deng Xiaoping in the early 1980s?  Given how much the North Korean leadership is said to despise Deng Xiaoping, perhaps the “Dengist direction” is not the ideal way to phrase a move toward North Korean reform, but certainly the CCP leadership does not shirk from the label or the idea.  But let us review the recent evidence:

New Slogans in Pyongyang

A couple of weeks ago, the Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang was the only place this new North Korean slogan (something like “Based on the Local, Step Into the World”) was being discussed.  (For an English rendering of the story via Google, click here.)

New Slogans in Pyongyang -- image courtesy PRC Embassy in Pyongyang

Now the slogan is getting aired in a more prestigious publication, the “International Herald Leader,” one of the more rational and widely-read foreign affairs weekly tabloids published in Beijing.  In his full-page spread on the DPRK entitled “North Korea Wants to Rush Toward ‘A Powerful Nation’ [朝鲜要向‘强盛大国’冲刺], the paper’s man in Pyongyang, Zhang Li [张利] writes extensively of the new slogans.

There is of course the idea, too, that the North Korean regime could just be doing this to string along people like you and me, offering up the appearance of, or the possibility of, reforms, and then taking no actual further steps in that direction.  Certainly it would not be the first time such a thing happened. And we should be mindful that North Korea does quite a lot (the 2009 nuclear tests being a signal example) without necessarily considering what the impact is on their Chinese patrons.  But even when we are striding through a Potempkinian landscape, we need to take note of the details!  There is some evidence that Pyongyang’s more persistent propaganda emphasis on living standards and economic growth is at the very least reaping some benefits in giving Chinese elites (e.g., 知识分子 or literate people who consume news) some idea that their support of North Korea is resulting in tangible and positive changes in the DPRK.

Confucius in Pyongyang

In other good news for Beijing, Chinese language education appears to be making solid inroads in Pyongyang.  Estimates such as those in Bruce Bechtol’s 2010 book Defiant Failed State, and articles by people like Robert Kaplan, tend to toss off statements about the Chinese taking over North Korea with ease.  Why else would the PRC be rebuilding roads along the border and fixing up bridges?  This group of analysts frequently make hay from the notion that China has huge competitive advantages in its business and other interactions with North Korea.  In fact, if language is the barometer the Chinese are at a disadvantage; Kim II Song cut off Chinese language education in North Korea at the knees in the late 1950s.  This makes the PRC even more reliant on Yanbian Koreans for commercial interaction with the North, using Yanbian as a channel.  Reliable statistics about numbers of Chinese speakers in the North are hard to come by, but we do know that the small Chinese minority (North Korea’s only bona fide ethnic minority) has been among the most closely watched sectors of the society and, unlike in places like Malaysia or Philippines, has been unable to spread its mercantile spirit into the greater society.  It has also been in a kind of linguistic quarantine.

We do know that North Korean teachers of Chinese were studying at Beijing University, laying the foundation for the big event in Pyongyang.  See my 18 February 2010 essay, “Confucius Institute Outreach to DPRK.”

Thus it is a turn of events to find that the Confucius Institute in Pyongyang appears to be thriving.  And lest you think this is not a particularly big deal in the orbit of North Korea’s foreign relations, consider how obstinate the DPRK has been about language and cultural education toward European states with whom it is also distinctly in a warming phase:  The German Goethe Institute was forced out of Pyongyang because of restrictions and the French Alliance Francais (disclaimer; I am a card-carrying member) cannot get into Pyongyang no matter how many delegations of French socialists make their obeisance to Mangyongdae.  So the Workers’ Party is embracing finally the building of the linguistic infrastructure necessary to do business with China, in in China.

(Click here for photos of the Confucius Institute party in Pyongyang, via the Chinese Embassy in the DPRK.)

One of the more palatable aspects of my fieldwork along the North Korean border are the conversations I am able to have with probably a couple dozen North Korean waitresses in China.  Setting aside the somewhat asinine claim that these girls are all spy-seductresses whose command of taekwando is worthy of a James Bond plot, one of the main reasons they come to the mainland to work is to acquire Chinese language.  One said to me not long ago “it will be very useful for doing business when I go back to Korea,” nodding earnestly.  I very much doubt that this person is some completely brainwashed cog whose study of Chinese is part of some grand plan of North Korea to deceive China into thinking relations are friendly.  She and others are well aware that Chinese is the business language of the region and are acting accordingly.  It seems that, rather belatedly, the North Korean state is having the same revelation.

Return to Chinese Cultural Superiority?

One possible problem that the North Koreans are already facing, and have been facing since the Koguryo locked swords with the Sui, is that of Chinese cultural superiority.

China’s recent action with Vietnam indicates how strong this kind of cultural chauvinism can be, seeing China inherently as the older brother.  How deep this notion is ingrained in China’s diplomacy can be seen in a recent standoff with Vietnam in the South China Sea.  As Wang Hanling, director of Chinese Academy of Social Scienes’ Centre for Oceans Affairs and the Law of the Sea, said to the South China Morning Post on 13 June 2011 (p. A4) stated of the Vietnamese:

If the big brother bullies the younger brother, that is not good and is something that should not happen.  If the little brother challenges or bullies the older brother, it’s just ridiculous.

At a time when China is under attack from Western European states for not following European models of Enlightenment – seen expressly in the case of Germany and Ai Weiwei and art exhibits in Beijing – it is all the more important for Beijing to be able to pose itself as a benevolent tutor for the region, to behave, in other words, as a Confucian hegemon.  In a recent podcast with some big names in China analysis, Jeremy Goldkorn paraphrases Martin Jacques in terming this “Tributary System 2.0.”  In the context of bilateral relations with the DPRK, the label can be considered rather true.

Wen Jiabao stated it most clearly on his overseas junket, but the trope of China’s civilizing influence in the DPRK comes through in smaller channels as well.  A semi-official blog carried by Huanqiu Shibao states Kim Jong Il came to China for “enlightenment” as well as aid:



Kim Jong Il came to China this time, and what did North Korea get from China?  To use just one sentence to describe it, one could say that ‘North Korea has gained a future….’

This kind of Chinese salvationist rhetoric for North Korea sounds almost white and missionary.

An early analysis of Kim Jong Il’s presence in Nanjing by the Huanqiu Shibao offers up further, somewhat simplistic, reflections on Chinese success in helping the North Koreans stagger forward into modernity.  But in so doing, the story necessarily becomes a frank admission of Kim’s need for aid and “education,” even if the slogans are optimistic: “金正日版南巡讲话,” etc.

The same ambivalence, the balancing of Chinese auto-glorification with acknowledgement of Kim’s recalcitrance, appears on a different Huanqiu BBS.  Covering a story on North Korea’s high tech industry, the report is said to emerge out of the quarter of Zhongguancun [中关村], a high-tech district near Beijing University positively bursting with circuitry, programmers, and ambitious hawkers of soft- and hard-ware.   (Anyone who has purchased a laptop in Zhongguancun, receiving deep assurances of total loyalty from a serviceperson, and then returned to get a hand with something only to find that the young Turk with whom you had just last week been having lunch with to bond after a big purchase has already moved to Shanghai will know what I mean.)  The 

Huanqiu blog promotes North Korean computer production as yet another sign that China is helping the DPRK into the modern age, or, as the North puts it weirdly, “CNC Technology.”  But the netizens cannot resist: the first commenter on the blog, obviously aware of the North Korean propaganda line on Kim Jong Eun as the harbinger of all things digital and binary, asks: “Is the Little Dictator Going to Increase Production/小霸王升级版?”

Quite naturally, there are more than a few North Koreans who find this whole state of affairs galling, and one of them is, in all likelihood, Kim Jong Il.  He is nothing if not his father’s son.  Kim Jong Il can only continue with what DailyNK aptly calls his “China Angst,” gaining some small solace from his pet areas: cooperation and funding for broadcasting work and 2012 movie festivals.

Kim’s angst, his pushback against China, and his effort to carve out the latitude for freedom of action outside of Beijing’s orbit, is, however, the subject of a subsequent post which draws the very productive people at KCNA and my new Weibo feed of links on Sino-North Korean relations.

The News from North Korea: Relations with China, Aerial Drone Denunciations, Green Totalitarianism, and the Middle East

Since the emergence of putative successor Kim Jong Eun into the public eye, the North Korean news media — specifically the Korean Central News Agency, or KCNA — has taken pains to publish more content about two things: youth, and the international situation.

What this equates to is an expanded view of what North Koreans are encouraging people to talk about, and how the state frames problems of the day.  It also means that there is simply much more content up on the slate-grey KCNA English-language website, and that the content needs to be culled for emerging themes.  Thus the present post.

To summarize the significance of the last two weeks of news from North Korea (just in the aftermath of the Jimmy Carter visit to Pyongyang), a few themes bear noting:

- Information about China is handled extremely gingerly in North Korea; on the one hand, the regime wants to make clear that it has positive relations with its orthodox socialist neighbor Beijing (and, implicitly, that material gains will follow this warming trend of the past two years).  On the other hand, China is depicted as the source of fake goods, fake news, and people who bow to Kim Il Sung.

- There has been a serious upsurge in news about unmanned aerial drones.  Someone in Pyongyang is either legitimately worried about U.S. spying and assassination capabilities, or cognizant that whipping up public anxiety over foreign drones makes for good summer vigilance propaganda, or, more likely, a combination of both.

- North Korean leaders are clearly very anxious about the events in the Middle East, including the Syrian protests and events in Pakistan.

- North Korea continues with its cultural diplomacy, making slight inroads; a new and interesting theme is to stress environmental cooperation with Germans.

Here, then, are the links in question, with some glancing annotations:

North Korea and China

The single most “must-read” KCNA story summarizes an article about US aerial drones in the Sino-North Korean border region.  The Huanqiu Shibao is China’s foremost (nationalistic, intensely Party line) foreign affairs daily, and North Korean diplomats and media professionals read it scrupulously.  I will endeavor to find the Chinese article in question, but the fact that North Korean propagandists are taking this up is rather noteworthy.  When it comes to facing off against American military technology, China and North Korea still present the image of a strong united front.  LINK:   http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2011/201105/news08/20110508-17ee.html

Staying in the North Korean-Chinese borderlands, North Korea now pledges to turn the Sinuiju side of Yalu into a showcase socialist funland.  Given all the attention given lately to foreign investmen in Rason, clear on the other northeastern end of the border with China, we might interpret this as a sign that Sinuiju development, while far slower, is nevertheless on the agenda of the Pyongyang leadership.  We will see how this idea moves forward, if at all.  LINK: http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2011/201105/news09/20110509-25ee.html

North Korea’s rhetorical committment to economic 

development in the border region is seen by a very unusual report of an official who is neither Kim Jong Il nor his son following up  on a site visit at the Hyesan Youth Mine http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2011/201105/news09/20110509-28ee.html

Although it may appear unrelated, a major article recollects Kim Il Sung’s directions on geology; in my interpretation, such articles give cover to the fact that North Korea is giving major mining contracts to China http://tinyurl.com/3vscpu5

…now, for reasons of time, the annotations get punchier and less grammatically accurate.  Enjoy!   

North Korean state publishing officials are visiting Beijing http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2011/201105/news14/20110514-31ee.html

An earthquake hits extreme NE edge of North Hamgyong province http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2011/201105/news13/20110513-12ee.html

Interesting timing — Kim Il Sung’s 1993 Works are now off the press.  But an important, infrequently asked question is: Will North Korea be able to manipulate Kim Il Sung’s legacy so as to retro-approve of the new China policy?

Dependent on Chinese largess, North Korea is unable to publish much about social problems/dangers in the PRC, but such items are increasing.  Thus i

It might be argued that North Korea has been far more successful in controlling the popular image of South Korea than that of China. For a North Korean system predicated on the trope of its own unique superiority, Chinese success is almost more dangerous than that of ROK.

Chinese delegation makes “deep bows of reverence” to Kim Il Sung statue: Stories that depict Chinese visitors worshiping Kim Il Sung: about the only way that North Korea can today assert any form of superiority.

More North Korean meetings about tourism cooperation with China http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2011/201105/news17/20110517-29ee.html

 North Korean News Items About China

KCNA: “China Intensifies Education of Children” http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2011/201105/news16/20110516-16ee.html

Kim Il Sung University delegation travels to China http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2011/201105/news04/20110504-32ee.html

China as example for North Korea: school anti-drug campaign lauded by KCNA http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2011/201105/news05/20110505-05ee.html

China as a land of Maoist mobilization practices when described by NK http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2011/201105/news09/20110509-14ee.html


KCNA dispatch implies corruption among Chinese cops http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2011/201105/news12/20110512-11ee.html

North Korean Cultural Diplomacy

Chopinist or isolationist? North Korea is still sending pianists abroad http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2011/201105/news16/20110516-22ee.html

North Korea really believes in a diplomacy of sports teams and orchestras http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2011/201105/news04/20110504-34ee.html

NK high school students perform benefit for Palestinian youth in Pyongyang http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2011/201105/news12/20110512-26ee.html

NK would so love to pry Mongolia away from the ROK but cannot http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2011/201105/news08/20110508-02ee.html

North Korea and the US/Japan

US Navy commissions new carrier: to NK, another sign we’re about to invade http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2011/201105/news17/20110517-08ee.html

Safe to say: we are in for another North Korean anti-Japanese summer http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2011/201105/news06/20110506-16ee.html

Unlike its reports re: Japan, NK media assures no radiation in China http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2011/201105/news04/20110504-16ee.html

KCNA: “Japanese businesses are going bankrupt like flies” http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2011/201105/news17/20110517-10ee.html

North Korea and the Middle East

NATO denies hitting DRPK’s Tripoli embassy, via Xinhua of all agencies http://news.xinhuanet.com/english2010/world/2011-05/12/c_13872223.htm

Huanqiu blog response supports NK system, wonders how NK will retaliate for NATO Libya damage http://bbs.huanqiu.com/thread-630814-1-1.html

Via Libyan TV: NK embassy damaged in NATO bombing (in English this time) http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/43002467/ns/world_news-africa

Worried about news already leaking into universities in Pyongyang about the revolutions in the Arab world, NK media is trying hard to give the impression that all is OK in Syria http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2011/201105/news10/20110510-11ee.html

North Korea finally reports on Syrian demonstrations, May 5: of course they are depicted only as anti-US actions http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2011/201105/news05/20110505-08ee.html

KCNA reports on “false reports” from Chinese media http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2011/201105/news05/20110505-33ee.html Does this have a whiff of Jasmine?

Is NK able to attack ROK facilities in Baghdad and Afghanistan? http://english.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2011/05/17/2011051700584.html

DPRK Foreign Ministry watch: new ambassador to Oman http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2011/201105/news17/20110517-02ee.html

Drone-haters: North Korea excoriates US “murderous atrocities” in Pakistan http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2011/201105/news16/20110516-08ee.html

Must-read KCNA/Huanqiu Shibao on US aerial drones in Sino-NK border region http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2011/201105/news08/20110508-17ee.html

Highly orthodox Minju Chosun report equates Philly handguns with aerial drones http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2011/201105/news10/20110510-18ee.html

North Korean media have been bringing up Pakistan more than usual http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2011/201105/news17/20110517-01ee.html

North Korea and the Environment

North Korea praises itself in the field of green cities http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2011/201105/news17/20110517-20ee.html

According to Good Friends reports, North Korean “greening” projects are onerous for civilians and inspire anti-China rumors.

North Korean “green diplomacy”: Chinese ecologist granted DPRK award http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2011/201105/news17/20110517-28ee.html

A little bit of pro-German, pro-environment sentiment in NK press http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2011/201105/news12/20110512-04ee.html

VERY curious NK report about Korean dams protest in Germany http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2011/201105/news15/20110515-06ee.html Echt?

Kim Jong Il “called for continuously and energetically doing fish farming as a mass movement.” NK waters are already overfished! 

Jang Song Thaek dutifully listens as Kim Jong Il says NK must “make sure that every place where water is available teems with fish.” (see KCNA, 12 May 2011)

NK looks to increase crab harvest in northeastern seas: Russia not upset? http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2011/201105/news10/20110510-30ee.html


NK media reminding troops and officials not to plunder food from locals http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2011/201105/news05/20110505-24ee.html

The late spring ideological campaigns in North Korea have begun in earnest http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2011/201105/news13/20110513-16ee.html

“…spreading bourgeois ideology, culture and lifestyle…divest man of his soul and body and cause social chaos.” KCNA 13 May ’11

NK notes worldwide food crisis as subtle justification for domestic misery http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2011/201105/news13/20110513-10ee.html

Rodong Sinmun hints that North Korea wants to abrogate its int’l debts http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2011/201105/news12/20110512-13ee.html

Fighting the Obama Effect in NK: Obama as symbol of US “expansionism” http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2011/201105/news12/20110512-20ee.html

Where does France stand at the UN on the nuclear North Korean issue? http://j.mp/fW8u9C

China-North Korea Succession Tiff?

The Asahi Shimbun again stirs the pot with a compelling report on Sino-North Korean relations, making some new assertions that China opposed North Korea’s hereditary system of succession recently and this past May.  Asahi’s sources indicated that North Korean grey-eminence-behind-the-throne Jang Song-taek may have twice traveled to Beijing in the May-June 2009 window both before and after the DPRK exploded a bomb on the Chinese frontier and as a means (allegedly) of preparing the way for would-be–successor Kim Jong-Eun to travel to Beijing.

I was in Beijing hanging around the North Korean embassy on the day the successor was supposedly in town; one of my sources in China (for what it’s worth) later stated that he had dinner with Kim Jong-Eun and was impressed with his intelligence.

The Daily NK covers the action here in English, but nothing is better than the Asahi’s graphic:

courtesy Asahi Shimbun

More to the point, China is reacting fast to the news, elevating the Foreign Ministry’s spokesman response to a press question on the report.  Since it isn’t yet available in English, I’ll render it here:

问:据日本《朝日新闻》报道,去年5月份朝鲜进行核试验后,中国要求朝鲜核,实施改革开放,并建议取消朝鲜的领导人世袭制。报道还称,6月份朝鲜秘密派遣金正日的接班人金正恩访华。请证实。 Question: According to a report by Japan’s Asahi Shimbun, in May of last year, after North Korea went ahead with its nuclear test [in spite of] China already having asked North Korea to renounce nukes and carry out reform and opening up, [China] suggested that North Korea eliminate its system of hereditary leadership.  The report also states that in June [of 2009], North Korea secretly sent Kim Jong Il’s successor Kim Jong Eun to China.  Please confirm.

答:有关报道是完全不属实的。中方奉行不干涉别国内政原则,我们不会对其他国家内政事务进行干涉。我们希望朝鲜走适合本国国情的发展道路,在国家建设中不断取得新的更大的成就,希望中朝友好关系不断向前发展。 Answer: These reports are completely unverified.  The Chinese side operates on the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries; we are unable to interfere in the internal political affairs of other countries.  We hope that North Korea develops on a path appropriate for its national conditions, that national construction continues uninterrrupted and gains new and greater success; [we] hope that Sino-North Korean friendly nieghborly relations will not be hampered and continue to move forward and develop.

关于金正恩访华,去年我已多次作出澄清。有关报道好像又在暗示我,这个“可以有”,但我的回答是:“这个真没有”。  Regarding the visit of Kim Jong-Eun to China, last year I already clarified this many times.  It seems as if the related reports are back again to suggest to me that “there could have been,” but my response is “there really weren’t.”

Source: Huanqiu Shibao, online headline “中方否认压朝放弃领导人世袭 [Chinese Side Does Not Pressure North Korea to Abandon its Leadership Succession]” which brings one to longer extracts of the MFA Press Conference entitled “外交部就中美关系奥巴马会见达赖等答问 [MFA on Sino-U.S. Relations, Obama's Visit with the Dalai Lama, and other issues]“

China Times covers it here (in traditional Chinese) and “Secret China,” a site I’ve never seen before, has a report (in simplified Chinese) here.

And speaking of Chinese characters, there seems to have been a change in how mainland media spell the unseen successor’s name: Whereas before it was 金正云, now they’re going with 金正恩.  Perhaps someone from the DPRK Embassy called Xinhua or the Foreign Ministry?  Opacity abounds.

But maybe North Korea is really mad about this story going public, and they are certainly sensitive about Chinese meddling in their court politics.  Perhaps that’s why, after a huge barrage of gifts listed as sent to Kim Jong-il for his birthday from around the world, KCNA writers stopped and made it sound as if the only thing China sent was a floral basket to the DPRK embassy in Beijing from a private citizen who had ties to the Kim family in its guerilla years.  You gotta know who your friends are…

Newsstand across from Ritan Park and the DPRK Embassy in Beijing -- where North Korean diplomats pick up their Huanqiu Shibao -- photo by Adam Cathcart