Snakes and Brothers: New Publication on Chinese Views of North Korea

For readers in North America who have access to Korean Quarterly, an upcoming essay of mine will be appearing in that publication in a couple of weeks’ time.  KQ, based in Minneapolis, is one of my favorite venues for publication and I’m fortunate that its dynamic editors, Stephen Wenrow and Martha Vickery, now allow me to wax rhapsodic to a much broader audience than I am often able to find in the Korean Studies or Asian Studies journals where most of my scholarly work about North Korea goes.

Here is the introductory gambit; not a gem of prose construction, but hopefully functional at least in getting across the main ideas:

Respectworthy Friends or Duplicitous Snakes? : Chinese Views of North Korea

There are few things in life more instructive than talking to Chinese people, in China, about North Korea.  The Chinese people, as with most things, regard North Korea with the aid of abundant cultural and historical baggage and continually transforming knowledge.  The Chinese debate about North Korea rages on the internet, continues in the state-controlled print media, continues through the writings of scholars, and turns up again in conversations with Chinese citizens, including ethnic Koreans, along the border.  Chinese views of North Korea are not only staggeringly diverse, they ultimately are consequential.  North Korea could scarcely exist without Chinese aid, aid which, ironically, keeps the juche-declaring state upright.  China, thus, remains itself an excellent but often neglected window for information about North Korea.Since 2006, the DPRK has progressively angered the Chinese leadership through a series of ill-calculated missile and nuclear tests not far from China’s borders.  Chinese leaders have thus widened the public discourse on North Korea, allowing far more nationalistic “dissent” to be expressed towards China’s traditional policy of alliance with the North.  Such aspects are rarely acknowledged in analyzing North Korean foreign policy and China’s role in it, but they should be.  For the past three years, I have been spending time researching in Beijing and traveling along the length of the Chinese side of the North Korean border, talking with Chinese, meeting North Koreans, and gathering visual and other data for a study of the broader dynamics at work in this very important relationship.  This past year, things seemed to change more rapidly than at any time in the past.

When they are discussed in tandem, North Korea and China tend to be discussed in conjunction with the standard grab-bag of issues: China and the stalemated Six-Party talks, China’s foreign aid to the North Koreans, and problems with refugees across the border.  China’s role in enforcing UN sanctions may be the subject of debate on one day, while on another day, commentators are wondering what role the Chinese border police might have played in arresting people like Mitch Koss, Laura Ling’s cameraman, or not arresting people like the meta-missionary Robert Park, who crossed into the DPRK on Christmas.  What is often lost in the discussion of Beijing-Washington-Pyongyang policy debates is a sense of what Chinese people think of North Korea, or why that might matter.  After all, Chinese nationalism (and Chinese power generally) is on the rise.   If, as people like Robert Kaplan would argue, China is poised to take over North Korea, wouldn’t it be prudent for us to get a sense of general societal dynamics in the PRC toward this idea or similar propositions?   How did China talk about North Korea in 2009, and did this represent a serious change?

Citation: Adam Cathcart, “Respectworthy Friends or Duplicitous Snakes? Chinese Views of North Korea,” forthcoming in Korean Quarterly (Spring 2010).