Regular sources of information from the Chinese-North Korean border zone are difficult to come by. The Daily NK is one of the more abundant, and apparently reliable sources, that Western readers have at our disposal. Unfortunately, to my knowledge, few researchers have noted crucial discrepancies between reports filed in Chinese and the English language-version which most people read in the West.
Just for reminders: The Daily NK articles usually appear in three languages (Korean, Chinese, and English). My impression is that the Korean-Chinese translations are reasonably faithful, and the idioms often indicate that the original version of the article are written in Chinese. So in both cases, the English translations are done rather quickly and need double-checking.
The English-language translations of the articles tend to amplify sensational charges that North Korean troops move freely through the PRC. And then Western commentators pick up Daily NK as a primary source backing up their own confident and heavily-documented assertions that China and North Korea are in full cahoots in hunting down North Korean refugees in China.
Of course, heavily-documented does not necessarily mean that the documentation cited is itself accurate. One has to burrow down into the sources like one of J.R.R. Tolkein’s fabled and flinty dwarves.
Like the North Koreans in the 1950s, the dwarves are drillers; to absorb their downward impulse is to burrow down into opposing footnotes and hack with heavy blades into granite-layered documentation.
Let’s take two frequently-cited examples of Daily NK reportage from February 2007: Han Young Jin’s “1 Platoon of Border Guards Escape North Korea” and Kim Yong Hun’s “More North Korean Agents Dispatched to China.”
These two stories are frequently cited. The Daily NK itself, in an editorial based on the above two stories, reveals its belief that the incidents portrayed in the articles portend the coming collapse of North Korea. I’m not sure what your threshold for credibility is, but sentences like this make me nervous: “The reliability of the news seems very high since more than one inside-source provided the news.” This indicates that most of the stories are based on a single source. I also wonder what rewards sources in North Korea expect from the Daily NK. A cell phone call to Changchun and divulging such information to a foreign reporter would obviously place the source in danger; if compensation is provided to sources, this obviously compromises the quality of the information since sources could conjure up false visions merely as a means of gaining some precious foreign currency.
As in previous versions, I provide you with 1) the original Chinese; 2), my modified English version; 3) the Daily NK original version in grey and 4) my own analysis of the discrepancies and the content the reportage, in italics. Blue indicates data that does not show up at all in the Daily NK’s original English version, but that is unquestionably part of the Chinese version of the same article. Orange indicates a significant change in interpretation more faithful to the Daily NK’s original version. If as a consumer of this content, you have suggestions for ways I could make the work more clear, please, as always, feel free to leave a comment at the end of the post.
Article: Han Young Jin’s “1 Platoon of Border Guards Escape North Korea.“
According to recent news from within North Korea conveyed to the Daily NK on 4 February , a regiment of border guards linked to the central party fled an inspection that would have resulted in their being taken into custody [for corruption]. A number of border protection troops from Hoeryung equivalent to a regiment have fled towards China. In order to report on and seize this military group, North Korea is infiltrating China with an organized group.
[Recently, a platoon of border guards from the district of Hoiryeong escaped to China to avoid the arrest of inspection agency, an inside North Korean source informed the DailyNK on the 4th. North Korean authorities have responded by sending an inspection agency to China in search of these guards.]
Note: The most specific addition is the verb “infiltrate” on the part of the group sent by the North Korean government. This implies that if North Korean agents are being sent into China, it isn’t with the consent of the Chinese. My version also makes the first sentence more clear. It’s not that their arrest was absolutely a fait accompli, it’s that an inspection was coming up and they felt assured that they would be disciplined. Thus even regular checks on corruption creates flight from the DPRK.
On 4 [February 2007], a source intimately familiar with the security situation along the border, a resident of Hyeryong city whose pseudonym is Lee Jong Sam, said “Recently, about 20 guards from the border city of Hoiryeong escaped to China. So the Security Control Centre under the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces and National Safety Agency cooperated and urgently dispatched a team to China.”
A resident of Hoiryeong, Lee Jong Sam (pseudonym) who discovered this case informed on the 4th “Recently, about 20 guards from the border city of Hoiryeong escaped to China. So the Security Control Centre under the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces and National Safety Agency the collaborated and dispatched a team to China.”
Note: This source’s pseudonym is fantastic! It literally means “Li Truly of the Forest” or “Li In the Forest”. Beautiful — he has a sense of style. And generally speaking, “collaborated” is a verb we want to avoid when dealing with NK security organizations in favor of “cooperation,” because the latter is more accurate, and the latter is considered a smear in a country where “collaboration” usually translates into “pro-Japanese.”
This idea of interagency cooperation on the border issue is interesting — one wonders if some data exists about the relative degree of corruption or complicity with the border trade in each of the agencies listed here. I often get the feeling that North Hamgyong’s heads perpetually run the risk of having their own small kingdoms of revenue absorbed or wiped out by the center. It is such a gnarly province, hard for any regime to control whether the controlling agency is based in Pyongyang, Seoul, or, as back in the day, Tokyo. I’ll do my part to find some documents in the future from Beijing about specific difficulties with North Hamgyong separatism/regionalism during the Chinese occupation of North Korea from 1950-1958. And its unique ties with Yanbian; they are twins indeed. More in common with Yanbian culturally, linguistically, and topographically, certainly, than with South Pyong’an. There are a couple of talented graduate students at University of NK Studies in Seoul who I visited with there not long ago who are working on this transnational frontier between North Hamgyong and Yanbian. Fertile stuff!
Mr. Li revealed, “The guards who escaped knew they were being investigated by the central authority on the suspicion of assisting illegal river crossings. They were not guards belonging to the same regiment but sergeants in service at various platoons.”
Lee revealed “The guards who defected where being investigated by the central authority for the suspicion of assisting defectors. They were not guards from the same regiment but sergeants in service at various platoons.”
“They were all sentenced to capital punishment at the end of this month, along with others connected to the sergeant and vice-commander of a guard post” Lee said.
“These guards were affiliated with the sergeant and vice-commander of a guard post sentenced to capital punishment at the end of this month” Lee said.
Note: My translation makes clear that all of these men, not just the sergeant and vice commander, were sentenced to death. C’mon Daily NK! if your goal is to make the NK look bad, you missed a golden chance here! You reported two death sentences in English when in fact there were 20!
Perhaps more interesting, this method of control is completely reminiscent of Qin Legalism. This is a classic example of how to create rebels! When one faces a certain death sentence (either from hunger or disobedience), people tend to choose the route which at least offers a final act of defiant life.
Mr. Li said, “Most of the guards escaped to China without carrying weapons and so the Security Control Centre and National Safety Agency connected with the arresting organizations to seek cooperation from Chinese departments and to assist intelligence organizations, all initiated in order to arrest the guards.”
The guards escaped to China without carrying weapons and so the Security Control Centre and National Safety Agency collaborated to seek cooperation from Chinese authorities and information intelligence in order to arrest the guards promptly.
Note: This was a very vague job by the Daily NK translators. First, they missed the fact that some of the soldiers who went into China brought their weapons with them. Chinese news media has reported on similar instances in the past, and really disapproves of this publically when it happens, contrary to to what you might read on One Free Korea where China is just hand in hand with the North Koreans, practically saying “C’mon over, Sargeant Park, and bring your AK and that bayonet! We’ve got us some refugees to string up — do you have that baling wire?” This is not the case.
Next, the Daily NK goes on to describe the kind of cooperation that happens — the North Koreans contacting Chinese security organizations, giving them information, not seeking information from China but giving it to the Chinese instead, which is quite a difference.
The defected soldiers could possibly will flee to South Korea, and this is why in the command to the arresting organization [it was stated that] if the defectors act to resist, it is OK to shoot them.
Lee added “There is a possibility the defected soldiers will flee to South Korea. In the case the soldiers resist arrest it seems a command was made to shoot them at any cost.”
Note: This is a big-time overstatement by Daily NK of its own information. “Shoot them at any cost” isn’t what the source said: he relays the idea that if they get into some kind of gun or knifefight on Chinese soil that the arresting agency is permitted kill the AWOL troops, which is quite different than saying that a “shoot to kill” order is in effect for the manhunt in China. Given that the “shoot to kill” is part of the article headline, I think this counts as misrepresentation of the source.
The Security Control Centre and National Safety Agency inspection teams are hunting within an expanding area in China of Changbai in the area bordering Hyesan, Yangkang province, and Ji’an near the city of Manpo, Jagang province.
The Security Control Centre and National Safety Agency inspection teams are known to be conducting manhunts in the region of Changbai, bordering Yangkang, Haesan [sic] and Jian [sic] near Jagang, Manpo.
Note: Thus far I’ve been confining myself to comment on the word choice, but here we have reason to question the basic facts offered by the source. It just seems a bit strange for China to be sending North Korean agents all the way from Ongsan, near where Lisa Ling and Euna Lee were apprehended, all the way south down to Ji’an. This is a huge area to cover — all this for 20 men?
On the other hand, North Korean sources in China informed that some of the defected guards had been arrested by the Chinese National Protection Agency and though they had yet to be conveyed back to North Korea, they were currently assisting China with investigation.
On the other hand, North Korean sources in China informed that some of the defected guards had been arrested by the Chinese National Protection Agency and though they had yet to be convoyed back to North Korea, they were under Chinese investigation.
Note: Here we have a serious coup! China arrests North Korean border guards for themselves crossing illegally, and then keeps them in custody to help them track down other renegades. In other words, these people are basically under arrest by the Chinese, who use their services not as equal cooperators, but in the fashion that the NYPD uses drug informants in return for a reduced sentence. This must result in some very uncomfortable conversations between security organizations at the provincial level. After all, wouldn’t it be embarrassing for Kim Jong Il to have to ask his Chinese comrade, “Could you please send back those border guards you arrested? We’re really hoping to put them to death, actually.” Now who is using refugees for leverage?
The North Korean central inspection agency has been investigating rigorously the illegal act of the border guards helping citizens who try to across the border to China.
Until now, border guards have helped North Korean citizens escape after getting paid. In order to evade a destitute life after being discharged from the military, border guards have begun “Guards, accumulate 100,000won (approximately $1,000) campaign” and more recently, as the North Korean currency has again depreciated, another “300,000 won campaign” has been started.
 对朝消息灵通人士透漏，“边境保卫指导员或哨所长等军官手里有不少美元和中国人民币。” “他们中的有些人争了1万美元以上。”
A North Korean source said “The National Safety Agency, sergeants and military commanders in charge of border security copiously have in their hands dollars and Chinese Yuan” and remarked “Of these people, there are some who have earned more than $10,000.”
The majority of guards who assist in escaping are the national safety agents of troops and soldiers of guard posts. It is widely known in the border area of North Korea that it is safer to bribe commissioned officers who require a lot more money for help than do petty officers.
In future posts, I’ll aim to tackle the companion piece to this one. And of course, I would welcome the help of various readers of this site interested in North Korea who may wish to contribute their own corrected translations of similar Daily NK reports.
If at this point you are still wondering why any of this matters, read my exchange here with Joshua Stanton on One Free Korea. Daily NK reports are used as the basis for reports that assert a wholesale Chinese-North Korean military cooperation in the border zone when, in fact, the reality — and the language — is more complex than that.
Adam Cathcart by the Tumen River south of Hoeryong city (North Hamgyong province, DPRK), photo by Chuck Kraus