Blogging from San Francisco

For the next few days, I’m in San Francisco (旧金山) primarily taking care of some research at Stanford University. Specifically, I am digging into the Iris Chang papers at the Hoover Institution Archives, and revisiting bacteriological warfare expert Sheldon Harris’ papers in the same bunker of information.

I anticipate meeting up with some colleagues and junior scholars, including a “Reservoir Dogs” style posse from the south Puget Sound (南普吉湾) looking into Japanese war crimes.

I have to admit that it is going to be a little strange going through the Iris Chang papers while her bronze bust, donated along with the documents, looks over my shoulder. If only I could share the experience with right-wing manga stylist Kobayashi Yoshinori!

But in the meantime there is much to absorb by way of sensory data in this fabulous city.

Powell & Geary Streets, San Francisco -- photo by Adam Cathcart

Powell & Geary Streets, San Francisco -- photo by Adam Cathcart

PRC Visa Office in San Francisco, in the heart of Japantown -- photo by Adam Cathcart

PRC Visa Office in San Francisco, in the heart of Japantown -- photo by Adam Cathcart

China-DPRK Threads

Kim Jong Il announced two connections with China yesterday; the first was via PLA General Gao Wusheng, who was with a visiting delegation in Pyongyang.  The second was from Jiang Zeting, a vice-chairman of the Beijing section of the Chinese Communist Youth League, the national organization which is Hu Jintao’s old power base.  Kim Jong Il, you’re supposed to be worried about your own Democratic Youth League! North Korean youth are increasingly unfettered by the work regulations of the DYL, and Kim Jong Il has openly stated he fears a repeat of the Sinuiju Student Movement of 1946.

Not coincidentally, scarce resources are being concentrated in the northern tier of cities like Hoeryong and Sinuiju.  Life is still difficult there, but compared to the horror stories from meth-infested Hamhung or rural Kangwon, the north is an area the Korean Workers’ Party seems intent on holding down. Perhaps it explains this bizarre gem from KCNA yesterday about Kim Il Song patrolling the Tumen river and mumbling “the people are my God” in 1956.

Finally, NK Leadership Watch reports on Korean Workers’ Party brass in Beijing, and South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo remains focused on destroying China’s nefarious Northeast Project.

News from Yanji

Well, North Korea may be on fire, but the wise Chinese Communist Party has apparently decided that releasing the news in the PRC would disturb social harmony.  Or otherwise interfere with its evolving master narrative on North Korea.  As Professor Jonathan Pollack reminds us, the PRC narrative now includes sticks as well as carrots, and features some unprecedented public criticism of North Korea.

So instead of a story in regional news outlets in Yanbian on the North Korean fires which might stir sympathy (or open up a can of “indeed, why is the air so bad anyway, comrade?” whoopass), we get a story derived from the Huanqiu Shibao which is actually quite sympathetic to South Korea and the U.S. about the dangers of an “elite-level North Korean hacking unit.”  Or this China Daily story from October 21, 2009, focusing on DPRK diplomat Ri Gun’s forthcoming trip to the U.S., focusing again on the Six-Party Talks revival.  Increasingly rare are items like this one, a simple transmittal of a Rodong Sinmun story in the mainland Chinese press.

Giving some indication that people along the Sino-North Korean border may in fact be talking about fires, the local television station in Yanbian obliges with a report on a small fire in a local hotel.

On the previous point, I can be accused of overreading, but then again I’ve spent enough hours reading CCP news  to know that one of the important functions that Xinhua serves is to confuse the confusable people by putting out stories that resemble the more important story in terms of keywords.

Example: Q. Did you hear about the fire?  A. Yes, you mean at the hotel?  Q. No, in North Korea.  A. Oh, there was a fire at the hotel; did you hear about that? This technique was used expertly, and effectively, by the CCP when the character-assassination, Mao-as-Hitler biography by Jung Chang came out in 2005: China responded by re-releasing a deeply edited version of Russ Terrill’s decade-old Mao biography with great fanfare and calling it “the latest Mao biography from the West.”  In other words, when you can’t change the subject, pretend you are the subject.

But then again, how can you argue with another story about fires? 

Yanbian Koreans in the ROK

Three Yanbian Koreans, including Zhao Yingzi, a 53-year old community leader, were recently killed in an arson in South Korea.  I think that incidents like this, and their subsequent reporting in Chinese media, help to underscore why South Korea is not necessarily viewed as a promised land — and the North therefore axiomatically rejected — by Yanbian Koreans.  They know that Yanbian Koreans are often treated as second-class Koreans in the ROK, misused and exploited.  Although the wages are high and more than 200,000 Yanbian Koreans are living in the ROK as laborers, it can be a very difficult life.  Thus Xinhua’s language can be interpreted here as a genuinely remorseful expression of a compatriot who has fallen in her pursuit of something elusive, never now to be found, outside the “motherland” of China.  As the story says, 今年4月份,赵英子办理了出国手续,踏上了异国他乡淘金的路途,可谁承想踏上的竟是一条不归路, or, something like “this past April, Zhao Yingzi prepared the formalities to leave the country, trodding the golden road to a strange country, but was instead invited to trod the road of no return.”

A note on word choice: I don’t know about you, but even though I know the writer is trying to manipulate me here, I can’t help but get a little tingle.  Perhaps I am too easy a target, thinking here of the character  异, strange, other, as Camus’ “The Stranger,” another story which involves death in an adopted land.  I recall a discussion I once read by a Chinese student in France who was “reading The Stranger in a strange land,” relishing it, but understanding the sorrow of it.   And as tomorrow I trod a new road — to San Francisco — I am susceptible to such writing.

By the way, Zhao Yingzi lived on Xinhua Road in Yanji — “New China” indeed.

Tumen Tourism Agreement with North Hamgyong

This post from May, 2009, is a rather fascinating discussion of the opening of the Tumen-Nanyang bridge to increased pedestrian traffic and tourism exchanges.

Tumen-Nanyang crossing point -- for some reason the original photo caption also includes the words Qin Terracotta Soldiers -- is that some veiled stab where Qin Shihuangdi loots Tanduns tomb and smashes the Korean ur-monarchs giant pubic bone?

Tumen-Nanyang crossing point -- for some reason the original photo caption also includes the words "Qin Terracotta Soldiers" --perhaps a veiled stab? Some historical threat whereby Qin Shihuangdi swoops down past the Han commanderies of his successors, loots Tandun's tomb, and smashes the Korean ur-monarch's giant pubic bone?

It seems the Tumen City government has been actively soliciting the North Hamgyong Province Tourism Board [ 朝鲜咸镜北道{함경북도}旅游局 ] for years, and finally broke through in setting up the agreement which resulted in trains of PRC passengers bound for short-term visits to Chongjin.

Two things on the Tumen agreement: 1.  Chinese city governments are encouraged to increase their revenue-generating (legal) practices, which creates a local impetus for cross-border (legal) exchanges on the Sino-Korean frontier, and 2. Damn — North Hamgyong has a Tourism Board!   Of course, given that Chinese are supposed to go gambling at Rajin, it’s a no-brainer.  But those must be some very interesting meetings.  And they result in strangely estatic newspaper articles in Yanbian; apparently cheap dried seafood in the smoky North Korean port of Chongjin is worth the trip.

But apparently North Hamgyong province has done more than its share of outreach with Chinese neighbors, spreading the love here to Mudanjiang, that eastern outpost of Heilongjiang province, PRC, once part of that august mental construction of Pukkando.

Traffic Tales – Justice in Yanbian

Finally, a story on lawlessness and short-term fugitives in Yanbian.   Danwei.org regularly translates stories like this, which makes their site particularly valuable: what good is an understanding of China if it has no local flavor, if all that is discussed are missiles, GDP, and foreign policy?  Local news (like this jarring dispatch from the Sino-North Korean-Russian city of Hunchun about a mutton-kabobs roaster who was slashed fourteen times and survived]  is original stuff!

Anyhow, to the story:

A young woman drives at twilight on a Yanbian road.  She smashes into a slow-moving tractor and kills the driver.  She flees the scene.  Hours later, her boyfriend shows up at the police station to turn himself in, saying he was the driver.  But the police investigate further and uncover the ruse.  Now they both get jail time.  No escape from the web of justice in Yanji!

Her last name: Zhao.

If only Ms. Zhao had paid as much attention to this sign as Dr. Cathcart -- between Hunchun and Yanji, July 2009, photo by Adam Cathcart, Ph. D.

If only Ms. Zhao had paid as much attention to this sign -- between Hunchun and Yanji, July 2009, photo by Adam Cathcart.