Lux Sinica: China’s Civilizing Influence in North Korea

It takes more than a few days, or perhaps a few weeks, to sift through all the reports, speculation, and rumors surrounding Kim Jong Il’s “new deal” with China.  At the end of the day, though, it seems that a single question aids in interpreting the phenomenon: To what extent has Kim Jong Il’s visit to China spurred the North Korean regime to embrace even the appearance of a reformist direction? 

In other words, is there any indication, however small, that Kim Jong Il or his Korean Workers’ Party is internalizing themselves or mobilizing society toward a policy approximating that of Deng Xiaoping in the early 1980s?  Given how much the North Korean leadership is said to despise Deng Xiaoping, perhaps the “Dengist direction” is not the ideal way to phrase a move toward North Korean reform, but certainly the CCP leadership does not shirk from the label or the idea.  But let us review the recent evidence:

New Slogans in Pyongyang

A couple of weeks ago, the Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang was the only place this new North Korean slogan (something like “Based on the Local, Step Into the World”) was being discussed.  (For an English rendering of the story via Google, click here.)

New Slogans in Pyongyang -- image courtesy PRC Embassy in Pyongyang

Now the slogan is getting aired in a more prestigious publication, the “International Herald Leader,” one of the more rational and widely-read foreign affairs weekly tabloids published in Beijing.  In his full-page spread on the DPRK entitled “North Korea Wants to Rush Toward ‘A Powerful Nation’ [朝鲜要向‘强盛大国’冲刺], the paper’s man in Pyongyang, Zhang Li [张利] writes extensively of the new slogans.

There is of course the idea, too, that the North Korean regime could just be doing this to string along people like you and me, offering up the appearance of, or the possibility of, reforms, and then taking no actual further steps in that direction.  Certainly it would not be the first time such a thing happened. And we should be mindful that North Korea does quite a lot (the 2009 nuclear tests being a signal example) without necessarily considering what the impact is on their Chinese patrons.  But even when we are striding through a Potempkinian landscape, we need to take note of the details!  There is some evidence that Pyongyang’s more persistent propaganda emphasis on living standards and economic growth is at the very least reaping some benefits in giving Chinese elites (e.g., 知识分子 or literate people who consume news) some idea that their support of North Korea is resulting in tangible and positive changes in the DPRK.

Confucius in Pyongyang

In other good news for Beijing, Chinese language education appears to be making solid inroads in Pyongyang.  Estimates such as those in Bruce Bechtol’s 2010 book Defiant Failed State, and articles by people like Robert Kaplan, tend to toss off statements about the Chinese taking over North Korea with ease.  Why else would the PRC be rebuilding roads along the border and fixing up bridges?  This group of analysts frequently make hay from the notion that China has huge competitive advantages in its business and other interactions with North Korea.  In fact, if language is the barometer the Chinese are at a disadvantage; Kim II Song cut off Chinese language education in North Korea at the knees in the late 1950s.  This makes the PRC even more reliant on Yanbian Koreans for commercial interaction with the North, using Yanbian as a channel.  Reliable statistics about numbers of Chinese speakers in the North are hard to come by, but we do know that the small Chinese minority (North Korea’s only bona fide ethnic minority) has been among the most closely watched sectors of the society and, unlike in places like Malaysia or Philippines, has been unable to spread its mercantile spirit into the greater society.  It has also been in a kind of linguistic quarantine.

We do know that North Korean teachers of Chinese were studying at Beijing University, laying the foundation for the big event in Pyongyang.  See my 18 February 2010 essay, “Confucius Institute Outreach to DPRK.”

Thus it is a turn of events to find that the Confucius Institute in Pyongyang appears to be thriving.  And lest you think this is not a particularly big deal in the orbit of North Korea’s foreign relations, consider how obstinate the DPRK has been about language and cultural education toward European states with whom it is also distinctly in a warming phase:  The German Goethe Institute was forced out of Pyongyang because of restrictions and the French Alliance Francais (disclaimer; I am a card-carrying member) cannot get into Pyongyang no matter how many delegations of French socialists make their obeisance to Mangyongdae.  So the Workers’ Party is embracing finally the building of the linguistic infrastructure necessary to do business with China, in in China.

(Click here for photos of the Confucius Institute party in Pyongyang, via the Chinese Embassy in the DPRK.)

One of the more palatable aspects of my fieldwork along the North Korean border are the conversations I am able to have with probably a couple dozen North Korean waitresses in China.  Setting aside the somewhat asinine claim that these girls are all spy-seductresses whose command of taekwando is worthy of a James Bond plot, one of the main reasons they come to the mainland to work is to acquire Chinese language.  One said to me not long ago “it will be very useful for doing business when I go back to Korea,” nodding earnestly.  I very much doubt that this person is some completely brainwashed cog whose study of Chinese is part of some grand plan of North Korea to deceive China into thinking relations are friendly.  She and others are well aware that Chinese is the business language of the region and are acting accordingly.  It seems that, rather belatedly, the North Korean state is having the same revelation.

Return to Chinese Cultural Superiority?

One possible problem that the North Koreans are already facing, and have been facing since the Koguryo locked swords with the Sui, is that of Chinese cultural superiority.

China’s recent action with Vietnam indicates how strong this kind of cultural chauvinism can be, seeing China inherently as the older brother.  How deep this notion is ingrained in China’s diplomacy can be seen in a recent standoff with Vietnam in the South China Sea.  As Wang Hanling, director of Chinese Academy of Social Scienes’ Centre for Oceans Affairs and the Law of the Sea, said to the South China Morning Post on 13 June 2011 (p. A4) stated of the Vietnamese:

If the big brother bullies the younger brother, that is not good and is something that should not happen.  If the little brother challenges or bullies the older brother, it’s just ridiculous.

At a time when China is under attack from Western European states for not following European models of Enlightenment – seen expressly in the case of Germany and Ai Weiwei and art exhibits in Beijing – it is all the more important for Beijing to be able to pose itself as a benevolent tutor for the region, to behave, in other words, as a Confucian hegemon.  In a recent podcast with some big names in China analysis, Jeremy Goldkorn paraphrases Martin Jacques in terming this “Tributary System 2.0.”  In the context of bilateral relations with the DPRK, the label can be considered rather true.

Wen Jiabao stated it most clearly on his overseas junket, but the trope of China’s civilizing influence in the DPRK comes through in smaller channels as well.  A semi-official blog carried by Huanqiu Shibao states Kim Jong Il came to China for “enlightenment” as well as aid:

金正日本次访华,朝鲜从中国得到了什么?用一句话来概括,可能即是:朝鲜收获了未来..

or

Kim Jong Il came to China this time, and what did North Korea get from China?  To use just one sentence to describe it, one could say that ‘North Korea has gained a future….’

This kind of Chinese salvationist rhetoric for North Korea sounds almost white and missionary.

An early analysis of Kim Jong Il’s presence in Nanjing by the Huanqiu Shibao offers up further, somewhat simplistic, reflections on Chinese success in helping the North Koreans stagger forward into modernity.  But in so doing, the story necessarily becomes a frank admission of Kim’s need for aid and “education,” even if the slogans are optimistic: “金正日版南巡讲话,” etc.

The same ambivalence, the balancing of Chinese auto-glorification with acknowledgement of Kim’s recalcitrance, appears on a different Huanqiu BBS.  Covering a story on North Korea’s high tech industry, the report is said to emerge out of the quarter of Zhongguancun [中关村], a high-tech district near Beijing University positively bursting with circuitry, programmers, and ambitious hawkers of soft- and hard-ware.   (Anyone who has purchased a laptop in Zhongguancun, receiving deep assurances of total loyalty from a serviceperson, and then returned to get a hand with something only to find that the young Turk with whom you had just last week been having lunch with to bond after a big purchase has already moved to Shanghai will know what I mean.)  The 


Huanqiu blog promotes North Korean computer production as yet another sign that China is helping the DPRK into the modern age, or, as the North puts it weirdly, “CNC Technology.”  But the netizens cannot resist: the first commenter on the blog, obviously aware of the North Korean propaganda line on Kim Jong Eun as the harbinger of all things digital and binary, asks: “Is the Little Dictator Going to Increase Production/小霸王升级版?”

Quite naturally, there are more than a few North Koreans who find this whole state of affairs galling, and one of them is, in all likelihood, Kim Jong Il.  He is nothing if not his father’s son.  Kim Jong Il can only continue with what DailyNK aptly calls his “China Angst,” gaining some small solace from his pet areas: cooperation and funding for broadcasting work and 2012 movie festivals.

Kim’s angst, his pushback against China, and his effort to carve out the latitude for freedom of action outside of Beijing’s orbit, is, however, the subject of a subsequent post which draws the very productive people at KCNA and my new Weibo feed of links on Sino-North Korean relations.

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!

Assassin Disinformation: Western and Chinese Media Parse the Defectors

In case you hadn’t heard, two North Korean assassins were recently apprehended in South Korea on a mission to kill Hwang Jang Yop, the grizzled 87-year-old architect of the juche philosophy who defected — via Beijing — to Seoul in 1997.

This assassination attempt is kind of a big deal because — apart from the cinematic revelations that the two were instructed to cut off Hwang’s head, then jump off of a skyscraper — it indicates that North Korea remains as militant and unpredictable as ever.  It also argues, implicitly, that domestic turmoil and succession maneuvering is likely to lead to more international provocations rather than a conciliatory attitude in Pyongyang.  If in fact Selig Harrison is right that there is some kind of “peace faction” within the Korean Workers’ Party, he (or you and I) would be hard pressed to identify in just what bunker, freezer, or gulag it is arguing in at present.

Now, fueled by a single unsourced, unsubstantiated, and now unavailable (except via this cache) sentence fragment in a JoongAng Ilbo report on the assassins, influential rollback bloggers are thus able to unleash the assertions about China having “provided training” to the assassins.  I am referring, of course, to the voluble Mr. Stanton:

The assassins were trained in the Peoples’ Republic of China, which has long tolerated the presence of North Korean spies on its soil. Frankly, that may be the most sensational part of this entire story; after all, North Korea has assassinated people on South Korean soil before. I can’t foresee much support in Washington for the idea of listing China as a state sponsor of terrorism, but I certainly hope — this being an election year and all — that some members of Congress will hold hearings and ask the Congressional Research Service to investigate the question of what the Chinese government knew about the training and the plot. At a minimum, China’s support for the North Korean intelligence services is a crime against humanity, and China ought to pay a much higher price for it.

What?

Why would China want to aid North Korea in killing Hwang Jang Yop, the guy who needed Chinese help to get out of the DPRK in the first place?  How could it possibly serve China’s interests to be complicit, or to be merely perceived as complicit, with an assassination mission by North Korean agents into South Korea?  If there is any argument to be made for how China would benefit from this scenario, I would love to hear it.  Particularly when the master narrative in the PRC is tending toward the need for ethnic unity and, most of all, the presumptive triumph of the Shanghai Expo, the CCP has no need and no desire to indulge in this kind of affair that smacks of 1968 radicalism.

North Korean and Chinese security agencies certainly cooperate in sporadic fashion in the northern border region; that’s obvious.  But the idea of two North Korean agents moving into the PRC with Chinese aid, and then “training” (presumably in the Northeast) for a couple of months under Chinese supervision is almost comical.  Do North Korean assassins really need coaching from Chinese counterparts?  Now that would be a horrible admission of sadaejuui, or flunkeyism, toward China on North Korea’s part.  In short, it’s a crock.

Juchechosunmanse may not be as prolific as Joshua Stanton, but at least he evidences an actual concern for the facts as far as the China link in this story is concerned:

That Joongang article simply mentions “trained in China” without providing any details. Chosun Ilbo had a better account of the alleged activities of the two:

“Kim and Tong arrived in Yanji in Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in the Chinese province of Jilin after crossing the North Korea-China border in November last year. They met up with other North Korean agents and received mobile phones and operational funds at a liaison office of the Reconnaissance Bureau there.”

Apparently there are known NK intelligence agencies located in China. I too, wonder how much the Chinese government knows about it. I don’t think they are very pleased.

And they are not interested in seeing the thread of this story continue to a point where China enters the crosshairs, as, absent proof of Chinese encouragement or complicity, it shouldn’t be.   Thus, they change the subject.  North Korea stories in the mainland press this week are focusing on cultural cooperation in the form of opera, talking about South Korean island claims against infernal Japan, pumping up tourism in Hunchun (“see three countries with one glance!”), and painting glowing portrayals of Yanji as the “foremost home of Koreans in China.”

At this point there isn’t much point in translating the Chinese versions of the Hwang Jang Yop-targeted-by-false-defectors story, but I will note that the related Xinhua-vetted stories, of course, omit the mention of China as a transit point for the North Korean assassins.  They do, however, use phrases like “North Korean agents” which are bound to raise hackles in Beijing and elsewhere, particularly the Northeast, where ethnic Koreans have enough problems in addition to being saddled with additional suspicions of North Korean agents moving among them.  In some ways, the “osmotic” penetration of Manchuria with poor migrants from the Korean peninsula is a type of continuity from the 1930s, but now the sponsoring government isn’t imperial Japanese, it’s imperial North Korean.  (Thanks for the framework, B.R. Myers, I’ll quibble with it later.)

But wait!  A genius op-ed contributor to the New York Times has a better idea!

Central Asia, Mongolia, the Russian Far East and Southeast Asia are natural zones of Chinese influence. But they are also zones whose political borders are not likely to change. The situation on the Korean Peninsula is different. No one really expects China to annex any part of the Korean Peninsula, of course, But although it supports Kim Jong-il’s Stalinist regime, it has plans for the peninsula beyond his reign. Beijing would like to eventually dispatch there the thousands of North Korean defectors who now are in China so that they could build a favorable political base for Beijing’s gradual economic takeover of the region.

Talk about a misguided paragraph.  Robert Kaplan is indeed a great world traveler and an intrepid Verbundler of knowledge, but his comparative instincts here are just dead wrong.  Just read a handful of testimonies from North Korean defectors, and you can see that they are neither interested in collaborating with DPRK state security nor furthering the aims of the Chinese state.  The idea that North Korean defectors are sitting around and openly taking classes with mentors at business schools all over Northeast China is as beautiful as it is false.  (Kaplan avoids being branded with my “horseshit essay of the week” award only because this Foreign Policy piece cloaks some academic bromides in useless anonymity and likens the North Korean leadership, yes, to a clique of American high school jocks.)

Everyone has an axe to grind with China, or a point they desperately need to make via enlisting China.  For Tom “I Just Had a Thought About Globalization at My Golf Lesson” Friedman, it’s about using China’s awesome example to kick American readers in the pants to get busy mobilizing to study foreign languages and produce green technologies.   (Fortunately for Friedman, he can foist the need to learn Chinese off on his kids, rather than study the language himself.  What self-respecting adult has time for that kind of crap anyway?)  For Joshua Stanton, it’s about reminding you – over and over and over again – that China is unquestionably  complicit with North Korean human rights abuses and, therefore, a rogue nation deserving of sanction.  Why try to understand the Chinese discourse on North Korea, sense the shifts in the PRC’s emphasis in how it talks about the DPRK, probe at the metaphorical gum tissue in the “lips and teeth alliance”, or highlight an emerging consensus?  And for Robert Kaplan, it’s about reminding you that he’s traveled pretty much everywhere and therefore has the right to make grand pronouncements — which are usually meant to be sniffed all the way up to some cash register — about the Chinese periphery.

Chinese-North Korean border post south of Hunchun, Jilin province -- photo by Adam Cathcart