North Korea Notes

The Hu-Obama Summit has already been subjected to some of the most intense lobbying pressures known to man.  From big business to human rights groups to the defense hawks in both countries, both executives have probably had it up to their ears (or, in Hu’s case, his lengthening and positively Cheneyewque jowls) with being pushed to push his counterpart on a given issue.  This being the case, it’s unlikely that a few truly remarkably-timed stories from the Chinese-North Korean border region are going to propel the “Obama needs to go to the mat with Hu on the North Korea issue” trope any further than it has already gone.  But then again, one never knows.  In China, state control of the media insulates the Party from such problems.

Or, in the logic of the Huanqiu Shibao: Chinese troops in North Korea?  What? Hey! Check out this wild boar on the loose in the northern city of Taiyuan!

I really need to get out of here...courtesy Huanqiu Shibao

Just to recap, as U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was evacuating the PRC and Hu was preparing to head to Washington, word dropped that Chinese companies were practically gobbling up Rason in the Korean northeast and, what’s more, rumors spread from unnamed officials in Seoul’s Blue House that thousands of People’s Liberation Army soldiers were entering the North Korean frontier.  Does anyone else find the timing of the release of these stories, covering events which allegedly happened in mid-December, to be just a little bit troubling?  Not that they registered too deeply given the kerfuffle over the stealth jet and all that, but it is something to note and store away: propaganda campaigns surrounding the Sino-North Korean border are alive and well.

Now, to the NK tropes:

I positively loved the comments on this Washington Post entry by Jennifer Rubin which concludes we should be tough on North Korea “because the Iranians are taking note.”  The original essay lauds John Bolton’s courage in being tough on North Korea, but an anonymous commenter takes everyone to task with refreshing clarity:

[Bolton wrongly] argues that we should be “dramatically increasing defector-led radio broadcasting from outside North Korea. The truth is Kim Jong Il’s greatest foe, and dissent movements thrive on factual information that undermine the dictators’ propaganda.”

Ah the “experts” weighing in again. The above quote reminds me of the possibly apocryphal story about Johnny Cash being requested not to play Folsom Prison Blues in one of his performances at a prison, so as not to reimnd the prisoners of being in prison. To which he replied “You think they’ve forgotten?”

I am sure the North Koreans won’t know they’re starving until we broadcast the fact.

[Bolton continues]: “It is a truism that, as we pump more information in, thereby bolstering oppostion forces, our ability to extract intelligence from a despotic regime increases.”

Like any true Stalinist regime, there are NO living opposition forces. If you want governmental change then you need to make a secret deal with a NK general or generals in the unlikely event that is possible. [H/t Joshua Stanton for the link]

Why do I get the feeling that we in the West are engaged in the same old “to the Yalu River!” debate from fall 1950?  Haven’t conditions changed?  Should we fear a country where, in the seventeenth year of his unchallenged reign and accompanied by his son-successor and sister, the dictator still needs to make very special arrangements for bottled-water factories to get (not nukes but) empty bottles?  Or fear a state whose new slogan for the day dates from 1961 and is, basically, “You think this is bad?  Try life in Changsong County, Ryanggang Province, buddy!

Go ahead, farmer, “make good use of mountain”!  If this slogan chaps your hide, imagine how it feels to read it in the Worker’s (cigarette paper, if you’ve got something to smoke) Daily in Ryanggang…

Sentences like this {“The U.S. imperialists’ pursuance of their policy of strength did not lead to the outbreak of the second Korean war because the DPRK has steadily implemented the Songun line”} make me wish Obama would continue his technique of using communist slogans in lectures to communist leaders.  I thought it was a brilliant stroke to speak to Hu Jintao in his own lingo {“…societies are more harmonious when…”}, so why not go “Songun line” on Kim Jong Il?  Or let Gates do it…God knows the Department of Defense has enough propaganda personnel to whip up a KCNA-style summary praising US policy in East Asia.  But how can you beat such bon mots as quite a different editorial urging (what else?) vigiliance against foreigners distributing gift baskets and flowers from their nuclear aircraft carriers? That is to say:

If there be imperialism not seeking aggression and plunder, it is no longer imperialism.

The imperialists pretend to be “peace champions.” But this is just a crafty and cunning art of disguise to benumb the world people’s awareness and achieve their aggressive and predatory purposes. It is their general strategic goal to destroy the world independent forces with their policy of strength, war strategy, turn the international community into a “unipolar world” dominated by them and exercise an unlimited right to domination.

The aggressive nature of the imperialists remains unchanged and it is getting more pronounced as the days go by. This is clearly proved by the disastrous wars that have taken place in the international arena since the demise of the Cold War.

The whole editorial is available here.  It makes you realize that the North Koreans are probably fuming and frustrated when Hu Jintao goes to Washington and oh-so-glad that the US is continuing intense military action in Afghanistan.

Turning to life inside North Korea, this KCNA dispatch in so many words basically says: “Co-ops are busy trying to produce shit for the fields, but only officials eat enough to produce enough shit to make it worthwhile.”  Yes, the dispatch concludes:

Co-op farms are provided with huge quantities of compost and farm implements by employees of the Cabinet, ministries and national institutions and those in various provinces, cities and counties.

In another unfortunately-titled editorial by KCNA {“Shining Path Covered by Korean Youth Movement“}, we are reminded that the Korean Youth League was formed in January 17, 1946.  As Kim Jong Il himself knows very well and discussed in inner-Party speeches, the Youth League was itself formed in response to violent anti-Party youth protests in Sinuiju in November 1945.  The amount of column inches spent in new histories such as Kim Jong Suk’s biography in describing the importance of consolidating youth, and the major commemorations this past week of the Democratic Youth League formation, indicates that the regime is still working as hard as it can to keep the youth under its protective wing, while offering them less and less material incentive.

Which generation of North Koreans will finally render the Democratic Youth League into a counter-revolutionary organization?

As I learned in the East German archives, Ri Yong Chol, the present executive of the Youth League is the same dude who was leading it in 1989!  In other words, the bureaucracy of the Youth League is getting quite gray.  Here, however, North Korea gets consistent props from the Chinese (particularly former Communist Youth League Secretary Hu Jintao) for keeping the spiritual pollution down and militarist/patriotic education high among North Korean youth.  Oh, musn’t forget!  Great job with the corveé labor, kids!  Certainly you were led to become expressive, more fulfilled human beings on account of the new — dare I say avant-garde? — poetry being produced at such a clip in the newly digital (IC all the way!) North Korea, such instant classics as “Coalfield Alive with High-pitched Drive.”

But enough with the cynicism, my dear professor.  Isn’t it time that we found a path forward, a new concept?  Perhaps an idea could be expressed constructively, given that there is no Great Firewall acting as a mental prophylactic?  Well, the Daily NK is in fact available behind the Great Firewall (much to the chagrin of the North Korean government, no doubt), and it carries this very interesting story about the possible official production of a film in North Korea in which the hero is a Christian.  Reframing, twisting, newly interpreting Kim Il Song’s past: this is the key to an approach in and towards North Korea which can yield good results, absent a regime collapse. One need only gain sanction from the Great Leader’s past attitudes and papers, and the action can become defensible.  I don’t know how many of my readers have had the pleasure of reading the 48 talismanic volumes of Kim’s Works, let alone the 1200+ page memoir With the Century (OK I still working on that one), but let me assure you that there is plenty of fodder in these sources for a more liberal approach to governance in North Korea.  Not wholesale, of course, but when the man says he likes some landlords (which is to say, he didn’t kill them when he could have, and brought them over into the sympathetic middle forces!), that’s potential ideological cover for that elusive North Korean Deng Xiaoping figure for whom the world is waiting.

Former hostage in North Korea/missionary intentional border-crosser Robert Park is speaking out.  There is a major  difference between how he was treated and the Ling/Lee duo and how he has acted after getting out of North Korea.  Perhaps this is because not only did he lack the protection of minor fame in the US, he was hardcore opposed to Kim Jong Il when he got in (unlike the women whose memoirs I am reading sedulously in Seattle), he insulted the leader, etc.  Not for the light of heart.

Finally, this is already my favorite photo of the year, and it isn’t just the flaming poop:

"Suited Businessman Turns to Rap" -- courtesy DailyNK, click image for article link

Presently burrowing into the critical aftermath of a recent performance of the Schumann Cello Concerto in Seattle, it was heartening to read the DailyNK’s concert review of the event in Seoul:

The president of the Center for Free Enterprise, a liberal think tank, Kim Chung Ho transformed himself into a rapper for the day on Saturday to criticize Kim Jong Il and his sympathizers in South Korea.

Kim delivered his message through song on an outdoor stage in front of the headquarters of Korean Exchange Bank in Myeongdong, coming together with hip hop group The Street Poets to form “Dr. Kim and the Poets” and criticize the North Korean regime in a concert entitled “The Gnome Kim Jong Il’s Birthday Parteee.”

He performed stirring renditions of “Sons Just Like their Fathers” and “More Grasshoppers than Ants”, despite occasionally stumbling over lyrics and losing track of the beat.

Lose track of the beat and stumble over the lyrics all you want, Dr. Kim.  As we say on these rainy streets, “Respect!”  And mad, mad props.  Those prepping for the main event of the epoch sling citations and drop beats, not bombs!

Beijing No Longer Releasing Figures on North Korean Trade

Well, this Reuters report gives some empirical depth to recent media analysis that China is clearly eager to repair its ties with the DPRK.:

China has stopped publicly issuing trade data about North Korea, veiling the potentially sensitive numbers about its wary neighbour under another category while the two countries seek improved ties.

Destination and origin statistics on China’s imports and exports for September issued on Monday gave no separate numbers for second straight month for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the formal name of the North, as they have long appeared in the tables.

The trade tables for coal, crude oil, oil products and cereals issued by China’s General Administration of Customs instead used another category, “other Asia not elsewhere specified”, which for those commodities at least appeared to cover exclusively trade flows between China and the North.

Analysts and officials have used Chinese statistics to gauge otherwise opaque ties between the two communist neighbours. But North Korea has stopped appearing in the Chinese data since last month, when statistics for August also avoided mention of it.

The change may help Beijing to obscure shifts in economic flows with the North, which relies on China for most of its trade and aid.

An official in charge of data services at the Customs Administration told Reuters that the change would last, but would not say why. Reuters and other companies buy the data.

“We’re no longer issuing trade data about North Korea,” said the official, who declined to give her name. “We’re not allowed to issue the data anymore.”

She declined to answer further questions, referring them to another data services official.

That official, Xu Xianghui, said the data could not be released because of a “technical fault”. But Xu said it was unclear if that fault would ever be fixed.

Last year, trade between China and North Korea reached $2.79 billion, up 41.3 percent on 2007. But in the first nine months of this year bilateral trade slipped to $1.85 billion, a fall of 2.9 percent compared with the same months last year.

The data provided suggested Chinese exports of crude oil to the North have fallen slightly this year, while Chinese exports of rice to the North reached 48,240 tonnes in the first nine months of the year, a jump of 140 percent from the same period of 2008.  (Editing by Ken Wills and Ron Popeski)

If you’re the type to keep track of such things, this story has yet to be picked up by One Free Korea or the Daily NK.  [Note: It did, however, show up on NK Economy Watch subsequent to a tip by yours truly.] The story was reprinted yesterday in the Hong Kong standout paper, the South China Morning Post on page A4  (you know, pages?  as in, leaves in the paper edition that some of us still read?) under the headline “Beijing hides North Korea trade statistics,” and next to a picture of a huge field of drying persimmons in Guangdong.  Incidentally, South China Morning Post is one of those sources that you can only access via subscription to its site, paper copies, or to PressDisplay.

Just for the record, I have had some issues before with translations and word choice of Chinese sources by the Reuters staff in Beijing, including Ken Wills, who edited the above piece (which nevertheless includes the massacred header “BID TO IMRPOVE TIES”), but I don’t see any reason to question the basic legitimacy of this particular report.   In fact, we’re fortunate to have the information, particularly the figures on oil and food aid.

And, although rice imports from China were way up, by no means is everyone being fed in North Korea.  Quite the contrary.  The Good Friends’ latest report gives some in-depth analysis of Chinese grain dispersal to the DPRK in 2008, showing China’s strategy of delivering only a third of the requested amount in the spring quarter, but then amping up deliveries later in the year.  While John Feffer argues convincingly that food is a basic human right, unfortunately, it has become a political weapon for all sides in the North Korean imbroligio.

Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang, KCNA via Mike Madden's insouciant post "Kim Jong Il's Love in an Elevator" -- click image for link to the incomparable NK Leadership Watch blog