Obedient, Intransigent North Korea in the Chinese Media

Thanks to the ever-productive Joshua Stanton at the very useful but hopelessly Anglophone (and somewhat impervious) command post for North Korean counter-revolution known as One Free Korea, I got motivated to do some more analysis of Chinese sources touching upon the recent flare-up in the sea to the west (and north!) of the DMZ in Korea.

As I see it, Chinese media strategy as regards the Korean crisis for the past month has centered upon the following themes:

- Downplay the KPA’s having initiated Yeonpyeong incident, but allow some sympathetic reporting and photos regarding civilians on the island so as to reinforce the general harm that war poses;

- Yoke responsibility for tensions on both Koreas, keeping in mind the need to reconsolidate relations with Pyongyang in the wake of certain discomfiting (Wikileaks) disclosures of discussions that reveal at least the possibility of serious internal fissures in the alliance with the DPRK;

- Call repeatedly for Six Party Talks, preserving the central PRC role in mediating, and also precluding some North Korean lone deal with Washington via Bill Richardson or whomever comes calling;

- And imply in the sizable yet nevertheless endemically vague wave of anti-Liu Xiaobo articles that China, yes, China was deserving of the Nobel Prize for Peace due to its even-handed handling of the Korean peninsula situation.  (This last theme was hardly prevalent, but I picked up between the lines in more than a couple of places.

Today, the Xinhua news tack is to freak out over the ROK artillery drills, leaving South Korea standing as the final provocateur, making their firing live artillery into an empty slate of sea in the direction of Shandong province front-page news pretty much everywhere.

This means that the DRPK can get some positive reinforcement for its restraint in not retaliating.  The Global Times today spells it out in an op-ed which by North Korean standards is either fairly clever, or indicates how desperate China has become to quiet this whole thing down.  (Applause for North Korean Restraint,” which wins the prize for most unlikely headline of the year…)

Criticizing North Korea in the Chinese Press

However, it might be worth noting that while South Korea seems to get little more than verbal rifle butts from Beijing’s English-language media of late (anger over military drills, unusually straight statements that Seoul can never unilaterally unify Korean peninsula, etc.), the Chinese-language press in the PRC always makes a few things clear:

- North Korea is overly arrogant (see May 2010 writings after “nuclear fission” announcement)

- North Korea is poor, and its leadership (as opposed to its socialist system) is weird

- South Korea has vastly superior armaments (a fact which is persistently and specifically reported on in China)

- South Korea has public opinion and civil society (the absence of which in DPRK is obvious)

- Responsibility for peace on peninsula is in large measure up to South Korea, because North Korea basically refuses to change.

The tendency to go easy on North Korea in English publications, while critiquing them in Chinese, has been more evident lately. Yesterday’s Global Times (basically the English-language foreign-affairs offshoot of People’s Daily) op-ed “US destructive role in Northeast Asia” can be contrasted with today’s Chinese-language op-ed, “但愿朝韩的心理昨天扯平了(“If Only Yesterday['s Drills] Psychologically Equalized North and South Korea).”

A few highlights from the latter piece include: “The power and pressure of the ROK-US military alliance on North Korea doesn’t need to be demonstrated.  Even if North Korea has already taken up nuclear weapons, American nuclear power could wipe North Korea from the map. This, and the fact that South Korean population outnumbers North Korean by a factor of two or three, and has economic power even more times larger than North Korea, is also clear.”

I don’t know about you, but apart from the first sentence, that sounds like something Mike Mullen might say openly, that is, if he felt like making North Korea really very mad.  But this appears in a nationalistic/pugilistic standard Chinese publication on foreign affairs, and no one notices, and KCNA keeps its mouth shut about it.

Is it the case that the North Korean Embassy in Beijing simply does not read the Huanqiu Shibao?  Is it possible that couched in its criticisms of South Korea, the Chinese media is in no way rather forcefully reminding the DPRK that it would get very badly beaten in a conventional (or even a nuclear) war?

In other words, it is a mistake to judge China’s actual thinking (or its actual _stance_) on the North Korean issue by what they tell you they think in English.  The domestic discussion in China of the Korea problem is still barnacled with all manner of inconsistencies and barriers to information, but it deserves a little better treatment than the assumption that Shen Dingli in Shanghai and Lu Chao in Liaoning represent the uncritical consensus on the DPRK.

Shen, by the way, has a nice op-ed in today’s National Defense Journal (国防时报)entitled 忠告朝韩兄弟,战争不是游戏 (Even If Koreans are Loyal Brothers, War is Not a Game).  This outlet is rapidly becoming one of my “favorite” papers in China, and it has a kind of symbiotic relationship with Huanqiu Shibao. In any case, the editorial reminds us of something which you simply will not hear in the Western echo chamber, which is that China fought a war from 1950-53, one of the ultimate aims of which was to expand the range of North Korean territory for the purpose of securing a durable and dignified peace for the North, but that the cease-fire agreement could not settle upon who owned the islands upon which the artillery controversy is now playing. Complain about Shen Dingli’s dogmatism if you must, Mr. Stanton, but applaud how his dogma appears to be attached to facts which might sometimes bear repeating.

Reassessing Wars and Occupations in North Korea

If Chinese criticism of North Korea counts as progress toward a more “globalized outlook on the DPRK” inside of China, we see the same in the realm of historical analysis.  Popular magazines in China are now recounting the Korean War as having been started by a North Korean “advance” into the South.  (Sure, you might add, it is in fact 60 years late, but it is after all the anniversary season in China, and therefore time to consolidate and capitalize upon master narratives).  So Kim Il Sung is looking a bit worse for wear these days, even while core publications like the National Defense Journal hold up the justice of the intervention.  Granite Studio has a good post on evolving Korean War narratives, and some speculation on Xi Jinping’s Korea policy.

Myself, I’m waiting for the big retrospective on the Chinese occupation of North Korea from 1953-1958.  Or is the only place to learn about that in the Foreign Ministry Archive in Beijing or the Hoover Institution Archive in Palo Alto, California?

Isn’t it completely ridiculous that the very people who are constantly barking about the coming Chinese “occupation” of a post-collapse North Korea (see: Kaplan, Robert, Atlantic Monthly) know next to nothing about how the PRC and the Chinese “volunteers” operated in those five lean years?

Fortunately there are many more documents and information available about Sino-North Korean relations in the 1960s, in the form of an extensive new North Korea International Documentation Project working paper which spends over a hundred beautifully footnoted pages recalling a time (1968) when the DPRK was agitating for war and chafing about China’s new path.

There are a few possible untruths in there (such as that ethnic Chinese loaded the frozen bodies of dead ethnic Koreans on to some random “freight train” going into the DPRK in 1967-68 and wrote anti-revisionist slogans on the bodies, which is unlikely on multiple levels), but on the whole, it reveals the tensions between North Korea and China at a very different (yet somehow similar) time.

Yanbian and the Border Region

On Yanbian, don’t miss this post (from the Korean) by Lee Yoo Eun about possible volcanic explosion of Mount Paektu/Changbaishan.

And the Global Times, citing uncited reports in the Singapore Lianhe Zaobao, has a good human-interest-meets-geostrategy post on war fears ratcheting up in the Sino-North Korean border region, and indicates that Chinese troops may be filing into Ji’an on the Yalu River.

Heinrik Bork On China’s Role in the Crisis

Occasionally someone who has not enlisted in the ROK military or (Dear God!) memorized “The Pledge of Allegiance” will tender analysis of the Korean Peninsula, and will do so in a way that renders the North Korean strategy clear.  Don’t miss the linked essay below by Heinrik Bork.  Any man who can fence at length with Japanese revanchist manga man Kobayashi Yoshinori and do justice to the German view of the Rape of Nanking, and spend a couple of decades capably in Asia, has my vote of confidence.

I actually don’t agree with Bork’s assertion that China is walking on pins and needles with the DPRK simply because it fears a refugee influx (after all, China’s capacity to handle natural disasters and flood/earthquake relief in recent years has given the regime a great deal of confidence in these areas — witness the $250 million donation to Pakistan by Wen Jiabao for that country’s disaster relief), but this is solid stuff over all.  We are, as Bork says in his article “Korea Crisis: The Role of Beijing and the Useful Dictator,” only “in the early stages of atomic poker.”

Into the Sandstorm, a New Season Indeed - photo by Jason Lee, via Reuters and Liberation.fr

Manchurian Base Camp, Part III: The DPRK’s Northeastern Strategy

Manchurian Base Camp, Part I: In the 1930s Kim Il Song regarded Manchuria, or Northeast China, as an immense area into which to project anti-Japanese struggle and wherein he could hammer out the personal foundations for what would become the North Korean state.  

Manchurian Base Camp, Part II: During the Korean War, North Korean elites moved back into Manchuria to escape from the horrific bombing of Pyongyang (and virtually every other major and minor city in the DPRK), populating special schools in cities like Tonghua, Jilin, and Changchun.  In his recent visit to Jilin, Kim Jong Il admitted that he had spent nearly three years in Jilin province as an elementary school student, safe from American air raids.  (While this put the lie to the many stories North Korean propagandists had already spun about the Young General accompanying his (rather young) father at the front, braving bombs and giving on-the-spot-guidance at the tender age of eight or nine, his comments were meant for a Chinese audience anyway, and have been widely reported in the PRC without a great deal of editorializing. 

Manchurian Base Camp, Part II.5 is the unacknowledged symmetry that began with what Andrew Nastios calls “The Great North Korean Famine” in the 1990s; the symmetry involves hungry North Koreans who saw the Chinese northeast as their lifeline much as Kim Il Song’s arduous marches in the 1930s acknowledged that the difficult survival in Manchuria was survival nevertheless.  

And finally to today:  

Manchurian Base Camp, Part III: Today the North Korean leadership is pushing again towards Northeast China, but in a different fashion, opening the gates in obvious fashion to reinterpret the meaning of Manchuria in the North Korean propaganda topos.  Take, for instance, the summary of a new North Korean editorial, published in the Rodong Sinmun (Workers’ Daily) in Pyongyang and relayed to us via the Chinese news bureau in that city (translation by Adam Cathcart):


文章介绍了东北三省在地理、经济、文化等各方面的发展情况,称赞在中国共产党的关怀和该地区人民具有献身精神的奋斗与努力下,东北三省在政治、经济、文化等许多领域的发展都取得了巨大成果。文章说,东北工业和农业得到壮大,科技飞速发展,人民福利大幅提高。东北人民为有中国特色的和谐社会主义建设作出了巨大贡献。 文章最后对东北的明天抱以美好的展望,称东北地区将在社会主义现代化建设的道路上不断向前发展。

An article published in the September 16 “Workers’ Daily’ in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea states that, under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, the Chinese Northeast has taken on a whole new appearance.  The article, entitled “Daily Renewal and Change in the Chinese Northeastern Region,” states that Northeast China was the area of former national Chairman Kim Il Song’s revolutionary activities, was where he lived and struggled, and is the important and significant site of historical Korean-Chinese friendship.  The DPRK’s highest leader Kim Jong Il went twice to the Northeast [this past year], in May and in August, pursuing (追寻) Kim Il Song’s footsteps and historical relics from his revolutionary activities.  [Translator's note: There were precious few of these relics available for DPRK scholars who went in pursuit of Marshal Kim's footsteps in 1953; some of my archival work on this issue will be coming out in the next year in Harvard's Journal of Cold War Studies.  But here the important point is the pursuing of the "footsteps," an important succession theme, and Kim Jong Il was never really all that interested in historical veracity in the first place.]    

The article introduces the geography, economy, culture and other aspects of Northeast China’s situation of development, stating that under the solicitous care of the Chinese Communist Party, the people of the region have taken a collective spirit of effort and struggle, making huge achievements in all spheres in the three Northeastern provinces, including politics, economics, and culture.  The article goes on to state that industry and agriculture in the Northeast are expanding and strengthening, that science is helping to speed development and substantially raise the welfare of the people.  The Northeastern people are producing huge contributions to the establishment of harmonious socialism with Chinese characteristics.   The article ends by stating that the Northeast holds great hopes for a beautiful tomorrow, moving continuously forward on the road of modern, socialist construction and development. 

 In another sense, the North Korean state is finally stating something which has become completely obvious to residents of the border areas, and no doubt by word of mouth to residents in the population centers closer to the southern border like Hamhung and Pyongyang: Northeast China is developing rapidly.  In and of itself, such a statement does not consist of “news” to a deadened North Korean population, but its bullish statement by KCNA, the North Korean propaganda agency, is of course “newsworthy.”

Kim Jong Il’s recent visits to North Korean border regions, replacing of top party officials in border provinces, and the primacy assigned to North Pyong’an and Ryanggang (northwestern border) provinces in the rhetoric and speculation about Kim Jong Un would all seem to further indicate the northward focus of the DPRK leadership at the moment.   

In English, the DPRK makes its Northeastern strategy further apparent in this KCNA piece describing Kim Il Song’s [mostly real] contributions to the Chinese revolution in the era of China’s “War of Liberation”/Civil War.  A second, much more extensive piece, moves the argument ahead even further, placing China in the position of being in a kind of moral debt to the Kim family due to aid rendered during the civil war.  One might want to note, however, that describing these so prominently in DPRK media isn’t so much as a new move as a return to the ethos of 1949, when the North Korean media was rather outspoken in its support for Mao and the Chinese communist war effort, something which can be further explored in an article I published a couple of years back with Chuck Kraus entitled “North Korean Internationalism, 1945-1950″ in the Review of Korean Studies. 

In another post, I’ll endeavor to describe how North Korea began telegraphing the “Northeastern strategy” with great clarity before Kim Jong Il went on his impulse-tour of the Northeast, via slogans long in preparation for an Arirang for Chinese tourists in August, 2010.  I got an eyeful of these, fresh from the cameras of Chinese tourists returning into Dandong when I was at the border there on August 21.  Lots and lots of references to Kim Il Song’s footsteps in Manchuria…

"Construct a Harmonious Socialist Society" -- Arirang caption for PRC Premier Wen Jiabao in Pyongyang, October 2009; click image for photo gallery

Sunday Links: Korea

1. Joshua Stanton’s analysis of Sino-North Korean relations on One Free Korea is stuffed with things worth thinking about.  Of course, when he equates the Global Times with the Nazi organ Voelkische Beobachter, I, speaking as someone who actually reads the Global Times (usually in its Chinese version, not through partial characterizations of articles by Reuters or AFP or South Korean papers) as well as a sometime reader of the old Voelkische Beobachter in the Nazi archives (where I’ve been getting my hands dirty all last week), find Joshua’s comparison to be gratuitous.

Do you find it at all strange or frustrating when people beat up on China for what it publishes in Global Times/Huanqiu Shibao when those same people are unable to provide so much as a link or an article title?  I think it stretches credibility as much as it undermines the old humanist ideal of ad fontes, taking the truth from the sources themselves.  Time for a Reformation of sorts, led by the mere 20,000 non-ethnically-Chinese Americans who speak Mandarin and read Chinese characters!  Or we could just continue to rely on Chris Buckley’s expertise for Reuters in Beijing.  After all, isn’t that what our foreign correspondents are for, anyway, to do our reading for us?

2. It appears that North Korean border guards have killed another two Chinese nationals, this time near Musan, a mining town directly on the Chinese border.  Here’s a photo of the city I took last year (click image for links to my other Musan posts):

The dark green side with the vegetation is China; the arid, clear cut side is Musan.

3. June was a pretty dead month on the website of the Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang, but on June 30, the Chinese Ambassador visited a Sino-Korean agricultural company, apparently outside of Pyongyang (link in Chinese, but interesting photos).  Oh yes, there was also singing and dancing, a must for any act of socialist friendship, even here in Germany, where some North Korean students from Kim Il Sung’s alma mater (1923-1925, see link), apparently came to win math competitions.

4.  Good Friends, the Buddhist organization in Seoul, has finally gotten out their reports for the month of June; one account however, is being disputed by the Daily NK’s inside sources.  An interesting test case for defector testimony veracity, something to think about as in this article in which the Daily NK, sourcing Radio Free North Korea, reports that “anti-Kim leaflets” have appeared in Hoeryong, another significant border city in North Hamgyong province. Again, it makes you wonder.

5. KCNA, the North Korean news agency, reports that Chinese media delegations were in Pyongyang, and that  “the performance goes on” in Sinuiju of a mobilizing play about the Chollima era (imagine that you’re nostalgic for how great things were in the 1960s in North Korea — it’s quite a commentary.   KCNA further reports that the border city of Hyesan has enjoyed some new construction recently, of an anti-Japanese martyr’s monument and cemetery, that is.  Hyesan is already studded with these kinds of things, but, as Kim Jong Il was recently there, it’s clear he continues to focus on monument building in equal or greater measure than economic development.  This piece lumps the DPRK in with China as targets of US nuclear threats in the 1950s.  And don’t miss this piece:

Anti-US Song Popular in Korea

Pyongyang, June 28 (KCNA) — The song “Death to the U.S. Imperialist Aggressors”, created in Juche 49 (1960), is still popular in Korea.

The song encourages the servicepersons and civilians to the struggle against the U.S. imperialists and the south Korean puppet regime.It was played by the band in various events, including a Pyongyang army-people rally and revenge-vowing meetings of working people’s organizations, held on June 25, the day of the struggle against the U.S. imperialists”.

Reflected in the song is a strong will of the Korean people to always keep themselves ready for action and decisively frustrate the reckless war provocation moves of the U.S. imperialists and the south Korean regime of traitors.  It also contains the idea that the Korean army and people, led by General Secretary Kim Jong Il, will surely emerge victorious in fight with the U.S. imperialists.

And here we have more proof that the Sinuiju Student Incident of 1945 is on the mind of the present regime in Pyongyang.  If you haven’t read my bio lately, I’ll immodestly remind you that co-author Chuck Kraus and I appear to be the world’s foremost experts on that crucial and unique moment of open rebellion in North Korea, at least until someone surpasses our account of the Incident published in 2008 in Journal of Korean Studies at Stanford.

6. This KCNA article is a subtle refutation of the story that China has turned its back on North Korea’s version of the history of the Korean War.  These meetings in Shenyang are rarely reported in the Chinese press, which makes you wonder if this is something that happens in the North Korean consulate in that city.   But this is a very curious and interesting piece.

7.  Finally, don’t miss this collection of stories from London Korea Links, a great site which not only cites Sinologistical Violoncellist but includes some beautiful photos and has this priceless comment:

As if everything to do with North Korea isn’t depressing enough, Mount Baekdu will erupt in the next few years. http://bit.ly/9WVVgO

Happy Independence Day, America!  Last year I celebrated by grilling some fish and swimming with some Chinese cops and their families and my crazy friend Bang Zi in Ji’an, a little city with ancient Koguryo tombs just on the North Korean border.  And North Korea was so kind to reciprocate by testing rockets then!  So today seems sanguine as I witness the long aftermath of Germany’s football victory yesterday (screaming the lungs out in nationalistic fury for an adopted motherland, once again experiencing that odd German duality of total joy in the present while standing on the site of commemorated and unthinkable atrocities)….So today it is on to tilling intellectual fields in Berlin and thinking about Korea.  I’m landing in Seoul — that other bifurcated land — in less than 48 hours, so may be silent on the blog front for a bit.