Poking the Wasp Nest: Shen Zhihua’s Controversial Speech on North Korea

Why should we care about scholars in China, or the complaints they have toward North Korea? Usually, readers take interest in Chinese scholarly debates because something specific and enticing has been translated into English implying that a Beijing policy shift toward North Korea may be in the offing.   

Shen Zhihua’s March 2017 speech in Dalian became the latest in this periodic series of subterranean rumblings. Thanks to Chris Buckley, part of Shen’s speech made it into English and the New York Times, thus providing new fodder for the (now Trump-Twitterworthy) debate over Sino-North Korean relations. Buckley said that Shen “urged Beijing to rethink its longstanding support for North Korea,” and had levelled “a strikingly bold public challenge to Chinese policy.” Bonnie Glaser noted the significance of Shen’s statement, while Carla Freeman cited its longevity in 38 North.

Shen himself likened Chinese-North Korean relations to a “wasp’s nest” of a topic that more cautious scholars would probably simply leave alone, but that had to be handled whenever something dramatic happened in the news.

But Shen is a  preeminent Cold War historian in China, and his voice ought to resonate in ways that go beyond the headlines, much less the leaden missives of Party hacks, reflexive nationalists, careerist bureaucrats, and scholars whose ties to the national policy apparatus in Beijing have rendered them into pure conveyors of the Party line rather than challengers of it.

Was Shen’s speech in fact a fundamental challenge to Beijing’s current policy, a blueprint for walking away from the DPRK? What exactly did Shen say? A look at the whole speech — rather than Chris Buckley’s able translation of a small portion of it — gives us a number themes to ponder that should help us to better understand the role of scholars on the PRC’s debate over the past, present, and future of Sino-North Korean relations.

*The full essay of 2500 words is available (subscription required) at NK News.

Image: Shen Zhihua in Leipzig, July/August 2015, via Deutschegesellschaft fuer Osteuropakunde (DGO). 


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