American human rights rhetoric about North Korea tends to rest upon a self-sustaining paradox: in the view of vocal bloggers and conservative newspapers, the Chinese Communist Party is guilty of perpetuating North Korean human rights abuses, yet, the American advocates of regime change in Pyongyang make few visible efforts to detect what Chinese people are reading about North Korea, or to gauge to what extent China is actually exhibiting signs of flexibility on the refugee issue.
Admittedly, Beijing moves on this issue with a speed that rivals the Vatican in its glacial aspect. Yet, even glaciers can melt, and comments made recently by Xi Jinping in Seoul (as well as word on the street among scholars in Beijing) indicate that China is willing to reconsider its policy toward North Korean refugees. Much more to the present point, in the last several years, PRC media consumers have been able to consume an increasingly wide array of stories about North Korea and are slowly getting a sense of the magnitude of the problem surrounding North Korean human rights abuses. Certainly censorship still intrudes, and the discourse has limits, but the limits are slowly moving back.
This is one context into which I’d like to see the Robert Park story placed.
The Chinese press ultimately reported on Robert Park’s gambit and his original capture, but left unprinted the excerpts from Park’s 19th-century-style letter to Kim Jong Il demanding the latter’s repentance and the light of Christ to shine over liberated North Korea. Xinhua and its adjuncts didn’t report on unverified rumors of Park’s having been beaten. (Perhaps such reports, if they prove to be erroneous, indicate a certain propensity of the Chosun Ilbo to publish anything that makes North Korea look bad [not difficult], not to mention the fact that the U.S. government is helping to bankroll the [essential but sometimes wildly mistranslated] Daily NK.) State Department efforts to get Park back in the U.S., with reference to the preexisting need for bilateral normalization between US and DPRK, were reported in the Huanqiu Shibao.
Then, on January 12, 2010, Yanbian security organs enlisted the aid of local media to track down someone who quite probably was Robert Park’s collaborator in Yanji.
Robert Park's collaborator in Yanbian?
As it happens, I was the only person writing in English to catch this at the time. The arrest by Chinese authorities of Park’s partner, reported to be a former North Korean defector with South Korean citizenship in Yanji, was reported in English on January 18, 2010.
A short dispatch relaying KCNA’s announcement of another American intruder on January 25, 2010, was relayed a couple of days later by Xinhua, adorned by a few netizen comments which emphasized a typical pastiche of internet-induced thoughts, including that North Korea had the right to “kill these American devils.”
Now that he’s being released, we’re seeing a few short reports come through on Chinese websites, but no mention on the best Chinese DPRK blogs. The Park story made it onto CCTV, which carries a nine-second report on his release via 163.com along with a report that speculated that Park’s release was correlated with the American decision to keep the CPRK off of the State Department’s “state sponsors of terrorism” list.
On one of the more patriotic websites cited in the New York Times as being a venue for populist Chinese nationalism, editors put up a small photo gallery of Robert Park entitled “朝鲜扣押一名美国人 (North Korea Detains an American Person)” including this image which notes without anger that Park is seen “praying for North Korea” in Seoul:
Robert Park in Seoul, Dec. 12, 2009年12月9日，韩国，首尔：Robert Park为朝鲜祈祷。-- via Huanqiu
The gallery also contains the original Xinhua dispatch on Park’s arrival in the DPRK, which is rendered as follows, combining North and South Korean media reports on the incident. Following procedure, local media in Jilin followed Xinhua’s lead:
Via Xinhuanet: On December 29, 2009, KCNA reported that North Korea apprehended an illegal American trespasser. The report said that this American passed illegally over the Sino-Korean borderline to enter North Korean territory, and was thereafter apprehended. Currently, relevant organs are investigating. According to South Korean media reports, this person is an American of Korean descent named Robert Park (Pak Dongyun / 朴东勋 is his Korean name), and was a responsible member of the human rights organization “Freedom and Life 2009.”
But China can relay South Korean reports all it wants to, including quotes from Radio Free North Korea, Daily NK, and Good Friends (in short, the whole gamut of North Korean defector-sources): on sites like One Free Korea, China’s attitude toward the North Korean regime is locked in time. And after all, castigating the “ChiComs” or evoke “Red China’s” reliably evil nature feels good, sort of like bathing in a big tub of Reagan-era engine oil which is miraculously still warm from the frictions of the Cold War. Not only do the criticisms exert a certain mental comfort, persistent critiques of the PRC’s policy toward North Korea remain so much easier if the critics don’t bother to learn Chinese, much less read essays available in English which endeavor to illuminate the dynamic nature of what Chinese people are actually reading and saying about North Korea.
Mike Kim’s book Escaping North Korea is a perfect case in point: although the MBA-turned-missionary speaks fluent Korean, supposedly learned conversational Chinese, and lived for several years in the Sino-Korean border region (presumably Yanbian) there is virtually zero discussion in his book of Chinese points of view of the North Korean refugee issue. Believe me, there are more Chinese perspectives on North Korea than those of bachelor farmers looking to buy North Korean fugitive wives! Does it not matter what everyday Chinese (along the border, in Beijing, or elsewhere) think about North Korea policy, or what pressures the CCP is under to modify their policy, or that understanding regional dynamics of cooperation with, and apprehensions toward, North Korea among Chinese might be of some use toward common action on the refugee front?
Or would learning about these things impede us from using our highly developed and particularly Euro-American skills of shaking the rhetorical stick at China?
If you can’t perceive incremental (much less rapid) changes which China itself is initiating, and then act to amplify those changes in concert with the Chinese, good luck in getting what you want, missionaries!
But I suppose this would mean we would have to view Yanbian as something other than a cloak-and-dagger launching pad for the Great North Korean Revolt/Awakening and settle for a somewhat slower yet inexorable pace of change. Moreover, I’d be shocked if writers like Joshua Stanton were to spend any time at all on this blog (a website which is, we can only assume, authored by some apologist-Owen-Lattimore-wannabe) where Stanton might actually have access to some fragments of information about Chinese coverage of the North Korea issue that might lend some nuance, if not wholesale reconsideration, to his hopelessly Anglophone (but otherwise well-documented) reports.
In such a mode of silence, Robert Park walks out of the Beijing airport, shuffling where the rest of us run: