The Shenyang Trials of 1956: Presenting the Resurrection of Defeat in Heidelberg

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Chinese communist party / Japan / Sino-Japanese Relations
Shenyang 2

The University of Heidelberg will be hosting a conference later this month on post-1945 war crimes trials in East Asia, at which I will be presenting. An abstract and bio follow:

The Shenyang Trials of 1956: The Resurrection of Defeat 

Using now-closed files from the Chinese Foreign Ministry Archive and contemporary sources in Chinese, this paper, investigates the role of the Shenyang Trials of 1956 in configuring China’s postwar position and asserting a specifically Chinese communist response to Japanese war crimes. Within the matrix of East Asian war crimes trials of Japanese defendants, the Shenyang Trial was peculiar in that it served as the preeminent Chinese forum for prosecuting crimes committed under the auspices of the Japanese colonial experiment of Manchukuo. While the Khabarovsk Trials of December 1949 also exposed crimes committed in Manchuria with an emphasis on bacteriological weapons research, the Shenyang Trials held up Pu Yi, the puppet emperor, and various officials throughout the broader Manchukuo system to scrutiny. With the Shenyang Trials, the CCP sought to move China beyond gratefulness for the Soviet intervention which had, in fact, crushed the puppet state and on toward a more assertive portrayal of Chinese Communist Party justice. They also exemplified how the government used show trials in the 1950s to undergird public support, serve as instruments of propaganda internationally, and frame a model of Japanese postcolonial guilt in the face of rather contingent Chinese benevolence that persists to this day in the People’s Republic of China.

About the speaker:

Adam CATHCART is Lecturer in Chinese history at the University of Leeds (UK). Under the supervision of Donald Jordan, he wrote his dissertation on the subject of early postwar Chinese responses to Japan, and subsequently researched in the PRC Foreign Ministry Archive, publishing a handful of articles on investigations and politicized trials of Japanese war crimes in the early PRC. He also maintains an active research program in Sino-North Korean relations and transnational aspects of the Korean War, with a focus on eastern Manchuria.

Hong Kong, the UK, and Occupy Central

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Chinese communist party / EU-East Asia relations / 新闻自由
Matthew Bell, Hong Kong

I spoke this evening to Phil Williams of BBC 5 Live about the protests in Hong Kong. While my brain was more than a bit muddled after a very full day of university lecturing (the first proper day of the semester, in fact) and finishing a grant application to a major Anglo-Japanese foundation, I think I got a few main points across:

The movement is bigger than just students; the students themselves are a much broader group than just university students; intellectuals and academics are mobilized in Hong Kong; the leadership of Occupy Central (as distinct from and interacting often in tandem with the student movement) is a pretty canny and experienced bunch; the PRC has arrested a young man in Shenzhen for posting images of the protests on his Weibo feed and using a VPN, and there is a history of Hong Kongers standing up for their rights well before the changeover in 1997.

The interview is about 42 minutes into this clip, occurring at 11:11 p.m., and lasts a couple of minutes. More interestingly, I’m preceded by a student protester from Chinese University Hong Kong, where I spent about a week earlier this month. He sounded even more fried than me, which was a good reminder that academics trying to follow the movement are expending a lot less energy than the protesters themselves. As a fine columnist wrote in yesterday’s Independent, the ‘vicarious passion‘ that the movement has captured, for many observers, can also be ignored as soon as they turn off their computers.

What I really wish we had had more time to discuss on the BBC programme is what happened in and about Hong Kong in the early 1980s. For instance, we might ask why some of the relevant English-language archives on the subject reveal much more British interest in what Ronald Reagan called ‘the survival of the free enterprise system‘ in Hong Kong than in the smooth continuation (let alone consolidation or development) of democracy. A memo from Zhao Ziyang to Margaret Thatcher on the subject of Hong Kong, reminds us what is — and isn’t– happening today not on the edges of the Pearl River estuary, but in Beijing. A theme that has been totally lost in the noise is the notion of the current CCP subverting the more ‘liberal’ aspects of its own Party’s direction in the 1980s. Zhao Ziyang, a key interlocutor on the Hong Kong negotiations with Thatcher, was a famous pragmatist, and as he proved in 1989 in Tiananmen Square, he was sympathetic to student protesters.

A meeting between Nick Clegg (who seems to be an all-purpose East Asian voice of conscience for the Cameron cabinet, however contrary to the cultural grain that is) and PRC Ambassador Liu Xiaoming is not likely to change anything, but to raise Zhao Ziyang, and Deng’s somewhat less than reactionary intentions for Hong Kong now, at this point, would seem to be the wise and more subtle way to approach the problem for the UK government. Deng, after all, discussed eagerly the notion of Hong Kong as a kind of laboratory for Taiwan, and to the extent that the Chinese Communist Party is able to see Hong Kong as part of a struggle for its own soul — if the Party still, in fact, has a soul — then it can begin to be a catalyst for introspection, if not immediate change on the mainland.

Image credit: Matthew Bell, of PRI The World, is a journalist presently in Hong Kong. The caption for his image, published on 1 October 2014, reads ‘This 43 year-old dad said he came out to the protest tonight with his 3 daughters for their sake.’ 

Kulturarbeit in Nordkorea

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Cultural Politics / German / North Korea
Isang Yun

My new essay on matters of classical music in Pyongyang has been posted at Sino-NK:

To make a sweeping cultural generalization, German musicians tend to bring great seriousness and historical sensitivities (in the best sense) to their views of, and work with, North Korean musicians. Notions of music’s function toward binding the community/Gesellschaft together, as well as the idea of composers under tremendous political pressure, all resonate with the experiences and memories of the German Democratic Republic, whose state-funded classical music apparatus was formidable, but ultimately undermined by Western popular music and the collapse of the state itself. Tracing German contemporary history back even further, musicians trained in recent years are also mindful of the notion of music conservatories, musicology training academies, and concert halls themselves as having the terrible potential to musically segregate out the undesirables for a society that has a tendency to fill its prison camps, and where even the greatest musicians can disappear. This is all a heavy burden when one walks into a North Korean rehearsal hall…

Read the whole illustrated essay here.

On Heartbreak, and Bix on Hirohito

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Japan / US-Japan relations / War Crimes / World War II

In our culture of oversharing and social media, there is such an excess of verbiage that the words ‘must read’ or ‘essential’ have basically lost their meaning. The same is true for words like ‘heartbreaking’ — if it was really breaking your heart, you wouldn’t be on Twitter. What happens if you don’t read something ‘essential’? Usually, nothing, because the term has been turned into verbal click-bait.

Sometimes academics and journalists really ought to turn to real people, like taxi drivers, to reinvigorate their acquaintance with the English language. This morning I had a long chat with a taxi driver who described his former employees as ‘having about as much initiative and common sense as an armadillo.’ Now that is a chap who understands the power of words. And not once during our twenty-minute symposium did he use the term ‘heartbreaking’ (but, if it must be disclosed, he did recommend I meet him later at a local pub, a suggestion which I found anything but).

At any rate,  now that I have indulged my inner curmudgeon, if you’re interested in Japanese history, this still is ‘must-read’ piece in the New York Times. It also has a priceless (yes, another co-opted word that now means nothing, yet has to mean something) graphic. And the author of the piece, Herbert Bix, we describe neither as ‘essential’ nor as ‘heartbreaking'; he is, simply, an island of principled competence and solid research. Amid the 61 volumes and 12,000 pages of new official Hirohito biography assessed in Bix’s op-ed, there seems likely to be a handful of wasted words — Hirohito’s placenta gets more attention than his meetings with General MacArthur after September 1945 — but the task of reading (aye, must-reading!), at least, has been commenced.

Image design is by Rodrigo Corral and Tyler Comrie; photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress; via The New York Times.

Notes on the DPRK Association for Human Rights Studies (Part 3)

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North Korea
Mother of the Nation and Anti-Japanese Guerilla Fighter, Kim Jong Suk (collection of Adam Cathcart)
  1. How does the DPRK position itself with respect to international standards and the discourse on universal human rights?

The report does a fairly slipshod job of establishing that North Korea’s concept of human rights deserves its own standard of evaluation. A very weak attempt is made to assert that the concept of universal human rights was more or less summed up in statements made by the United States and France in 1776 and 1789, both of which merit discarding because they came from “the capitalist world [and] consolidated the political and economical hold of the bourgeoisie” (page 14). But there is no need to get overly complex; the report bluntly states that “there is no human rights standard which every country can except” (page 16) and goes on to argue essentially ), for obviating the very concept of universal human rights: “International human rights standard should be established to be fit for the demand and reality of the national state and each state can establishing standards of their own and apply them” (page 17).

Page 17 contains the strongest refutation of the very notion that any system involving the United States or former colonial powers to establish human rights norm has legitimacy. “Nobody in [the] international community empowered them to establish the international human rights standards” (page 17). While this shocking statement from a member of the United Nations and signatory to various international human rights regimes, perhaps it is best likened to the country’s UN delegate in Geneva, who said, famously, ‘Mind your own business’ to the Human Rights Council.

  1. Why does the report spend so much time laying out a narrative of the legal and institutional foundations of the DPR K in the mid to late 1940s?

Is all of this verbiage meant to speak to a domestic constituency? Probably not, but it certainly attests to the depiction of worldview that at least attempts to show that human rights (as interpreted as material social benefits) are important to the DPRK. They are also bound up with notions of postcolonial freedom first and foremost. And there can be no mistake there; describing the difficulty of uprooting the Japanese system in 1945, the report says “each and every law manufactured by Japan in Korea in the past was unprecedently evil, anti-human rights laws aimed at depriving Korean people of all freedoms and rights and forcing colonial slavery upon them” (p. 19).

There is a great deal of discussion in the report of the role of local People’s Committees in the mid-1940s, and in their role in administering justice to pro-Japanese collaborators. The DPRK wants more credit for cleaning the ‘pro-Japanese elements and national traitors’ out of the judicial system, which was a major undertaking obviously done with the help of the USSR. (p.22). Other public security laws and judicial norms had their roots in 1946 and 47, discussed in more than passing detail on pages 22 and 23 of the report. This is all, perhaps, relevant, although (to my understanding) many of these laws were subsequently subverted and changed, not just by the system set up in the 1960s, but even earlier in the establishment of the gulags in the late 1950s. Call this section of the report a simple space-filler if you wish, but here I believe the point was to depict North Korea not as some ahistorical and lawless Hobbesian space, but as a country whose foundational systems have worked in the past, and continue to serve as a legal foundation from which North Korea is working. It also bears recalling that while the state has failed miserably to demonstrate these principles in the two more recent show trials (Jang Song-taek and Matthew Miller, to name two), we are still lacking basic data about current legal procedures in the DPRK, shouldn’t exclude the possibility that North Korean judges and trial procedures are able to improve.

The report of the DPRK Association for Human Rights Studies is available in full here, and Part 2 of this series is available here

The featured image is a postage stamp of Kim Jong-suk, about ten years before the DPRK state narrative has her participating in early meetings of the Democratic Women’s League in 1945-46; private collection of the author. 

Notes on the DPRK Association for Human Rights Studies (Part 2)

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North Korea
Photo by Juha-Pekka Kervinen/Pictobank
  1. What is the DPRK Association for Human Rights Studies[조선인권연구협회]?

According to their extensive 13 September report, the association was founded in August 1992 and is said to include some 150 individuals involved in the areas of law and public security as well as “population study.” Interestingly, apart from the sort of activities that one would expect — that this association exists to monitor implementation of International human rights treaties in the DPRK, which it certainly purports to do  – the association also is also charged with “arousing public opinions to carry out investigations on criminal acts of foreign forces violating Korean people human rights and take measures against them” (p. 73).

This statement, along with the involvement of public security organs and interface with them in the process of building the report, makes quite clear that this report is to be primarily defensive, much in the way that the People’s Republic of China has constructed institutes for the study of soft power. To put it somewhat less kindly, from a North Korean state perspective: ‘Human rights standards remain a foreign framework which we cannot avoid interfacing with, but, to the extent that we can mimic their structures and use a limited version of their vocabulary, we can better subvert its purpose.”

  1. Which DPRK government agencies were responsible for producing the Association’s report?

The report refers to aid rendered by the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The association also drew from expertise of the law college of Kim Il-sung University and the Academy of Social Sciences. Given that much of the report overlaps with materials already presented to the UNHCR, it seems likely that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would have taken of the preeminent role in the construction of this document.

  1. What is the Association’s report based upon? Is any new data presented?

The report largely mirrors information presented to the UN human rights committee with respect to Universal Periodic Review, receded by quasi-philosophical positioning of what amounts to an argument for ‘Juche rights’ (i.e., to summarize, ‘Juche is infallible and a better guarantee of human rights as defined by us than any foreign system’). The report then moves into some standard but sustained attacks on the Commission of Inquiry report, then ventures into critiques of the United States security posture in East Asia.

  1. Is there anything noteworthy in the introductory section of the report describing North Korean geography and history?

I think the question of baselines are very important when you talk about North Korea’s perception of its own ability to defend and interpret the human rights of its own people. For better or worse, the two arguments that seem to be put forward in this text are: One, that life in North Korea is much better than it was under Japanese imperialism and that citizens have no desire to go back to foreign domination, because that represents the abnegation of all of the progress made since 1945. (Obviously, this is a false choice, since the collapse of the DPRK would surely not mean a return to Japanese colonial rule, but this is how it is presented.) Two, the text puts for the argument that North Korea should be given some credit for not collapsing in the late 1980s and early 1990s “when many countries were undergoing great political turmoil due to the collapse of the socialist system” (p. 7).  As stated on page 8 of the report, “the Korean people [therefore] enjoy a worthwhile and happy life without any social and political uncertainty.” In other words, by preventing its own undermining and collapse, North Korea keeps its people from falling back into going to colonial penury. Our view that post-DPRK North Koreans would become quasi-affluent South Koreans is never presented as the alternate reality in this text, which I think is worth remembering. North Korea still wants respect for being proudly post-colonial, when most of us in the West see this identity irrelevant, if not a patently deceptive means of avoiding contemporary responsibilities.

  1. What is the DPRK report knew it talks about ‘independence of people in all aspects of social life’? Isn’t that a paradox?

When the association’s report talks about ‘independence,’ what that means is that North Korea is not been invaded and colonized by a foreign power; it’s not about the independence or autonomy of the individual. When, on page 8, the report describes how the DPRK is ‘realizing the independence of the people in all aspects of social life,’ this is code for Party life; essentially the good socialist life which is wrapped up in a collective organizations.

Take page 10, for instance: “The rights that do not embody independent will and demand of man or feel to realize them are not human rights in the real sense of the word.” So much of this type of quasi-philosophical prose is really just of a rehash of Kim Jong-Il’s prolix and meandering writings about Juche from the 1970s and 1980s. ‘Independent’ is thus to be interpreted here as the ‘independent sovereignty of the state which that interprets what people need’, not the autnomoy of the individual with free will. As stated on page 11, “the independent demand of the social collectives for the existence and development of the collective is the comment demand of the social members and the independent demand of the individual is the demand which one deserves as the member of the society would guarantee from the collective.”

Or, further: “The demand of the popular masses [&] social collective represents the demand of the community and [happily and always!] coincides with the demands of each member of the social collective.” (p.11) Or, on page 12, “human rights is state sovereignty… People need their independent need to need to national state as a unit.” There it is: Human rights is state sovereignty, so to the extent that North Korea is not collapsing is the extent to which the world should leave it alone, completely, as the custodian of its citizens’ human rights.

  1. Why is there such emphasis early in the report on cultural activities and the ability of people to participate in those?

The DPR K is very proud of its arts education, and system of structured leisure activities for people who follow the rules and live in urban areas in particular. On page 8 of the report, the Korean Workers’ Party is aptly described as “the organizer of the people creative abilities activities”; the report talks about creating a “affluent and supplies living standard with the cultural system that enables people to create and fully enjoy socialist culture”. Perhaps the purpose here is to indicate to outside audiences that people in the DPRK are not living in hell, that there is not an absolute struggle for daily life in the country; it’s a very pure vision of itself that has nothing to do with the breakdown of the Public Distribution System, systemic bribery, drug use in daily life, etc. It’s quite remarkable the extent to which this report stays away from those kind of dangerous questions of foreign information coming into the into the DPRK — the polluting effect and so on – but the incessant need to discuss socialist culture seems to be an inoffensive way of inoculating the report and the body politic against such outside influences.

  1. Are the gulags mentioned in the Association’s report?

No, because the official stance is that they don’t exist. However, by discussing the need for “hypervigilance which is required not permit any active interference by some countries and international human rights organization under the name of human rights protection” (p.13), the implication is, essentially, that to remove the gulags is to destroy DPR K state sovereignty. This is something we do need to ask ourselves, and them: If the gulags are in fact so central to the existence and maintenance of the Workers’ Party state, then does this change the way we interact with the DPRK about the camps? In other words, is to discuss the camps tantamount to endorsing the violent collapse of the DPRK as an entity?

Also with respect to the camps, the closest the report gets is on page 53-54, where article 27, paragraph 28 of the criminal law is discussed, describing penalties including “reform through labor for an indefinite period, reform through labor for a definite period, and disciplining through labor.”

Part One of this series of posts, and the full text of the DPRK Association for Human Rights Studies report, is available here

The photo illustrating this post is copyright Lucas Shiefres, via Photobank.  

Why Kim Jong-un Might Turn Up in Mongolia

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North Korea / North Korea foreign relations
Mongolian President with Kang

When the North Korean state media stops reporting on the activities of its head of state, or says he’s experiencing ‘discomfort‘ during a long absence, tongues will wag and Anglophone keyboards will rattle. Is Kim Jong-un ill, experiencing immobility at such an early age? Rather than recapitulate a few hundred semi-respectful comments on Twitter (through which I’ve tried to contribute to our collective fund of specific documentation of the health and physical capabilities of the Respected Marshal), I’d like to present a slightly different idea, one which is equally speculative, and backed by an equal amount of evidence for assertions that he’s suffering from gout: Kim Jong-un is simply preparing for his first foreign trip.

What would lead one to believe that a Kim Jong-un visit to Mongolia was in the offing? While Asahi Shimbun missed a recent high-level DPRK delegation’s stop in Ulanbaator in its round-up of North Korea’s ‘diplomatic offensive,’ your intrepid author did not. The Rodong Sinmun reported on the meeting here, but it was the Mongolian President’s Office dispatch which contained the richest information:

Today, President of Mongolia Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj received Kang Sok Ju, Secretary and Director for International Affairs of the Worker’s Party and other officials from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Mr. Kang Sok Ju conveyed the supreme leader of the DPRK Kim Jong-un’s heartfelt greetings to President of Mongolia.

President Elbegdorj noted: “First, Mongolia and the DPRK enjoy certain principles of bilateral relations and we are committed to enhance mutual ties which established by our older generations. Second, relations between our two countries should ensure the mutual interest. Third, we should work to implement the documents and agreements which signed during the visit of the President of Mongolia to the DPRK in 2013”.
President Elbegdorj expressed his gratitude that the DPRK is supporting Mongolia’s initiative on the Dialogue on North East Asia Security and confirmed his invitation to the supreme leader of the DPRK Kim Jong-un and the Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly Kim Yong-nam to visit Mongolia [emphasis added].

Further DPRK-Mongolia ties continued after this trip, following on what is proving to be a rather durable relationship. The Mongolian President is presently in New York (saying things like ‘Strengthening peace and stability in Northeast Asia is one of our national security priorities’), so won’t be around for a few more days to receive a visitor, but in the end, one good guess deserves another.

Kim Jong-un may be flat on his back, or on a vacation in Thailand, or he might be getting ready to cap off North Korea’s biggest ‘diplomatic offensive‘ in years by finally showing he’s capable of strutting down a red carpet on a runway not on his country’s sovereign territory. As with the worry-inducing long sabbatical of the Moranbong Band, it may be a bit too soon to start speculating that Kim Jong-un isn’t coming back at all, or that the Korean Workers’ Party is anything but in control of the media narrative. As one particularly intelligent observer of the Pyongyang scene put it, ‘Beware the North Korean rumor mill.’