Contentious Politics on the Korean Peninsula: Workshop at the University of Toronto

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Cultural Politics / North Korea

In 2013-14, I was awarded a research grant by the Academy of Korean Studies for which I was the principle investigator, and was joined by two colleagues from the Sino-NK research cluster. Having traveled twice to Korea and northeast China thanks to the grant, and having gone through the various layers of grant reporting, the fun part is now happening: The publication of research results and the production of more research articles based on the grant.

One such article was published in the December 2014 issue of Review of Korean Studies, entitled How Authoritarian Regimes Maintain Domain Consensus: North Korea’s Information Strategies in the Kim Jong-un Era.”  As a co-authored piece with my co-investigators on the grant — Christopher Green and Steven Denney — the article delved in to several issues which we are still tearing into, foremost the idea that the North Korean state does more than simply repress its people; it engages in a complex array of strategies seeking to co-opt and convince its citizens that the DPRK is, in fact, an advantageous place to live. My contribution to the research group has in part been based upon my research into North Korean musical cultures and cultural diplomacy.

The following event at the University of Toronto will reunite the research team and hopefully lead to another round of grant-writing and publication. At the workshop, I will be presenting one of two manuscripts on the subject of a North Korean music ensemble which I drafted over the winter break with a colleague in Kyoto/Beijing, the professor of Japanese political science, Pekka Korhonen.

A description of the event, to be held at the University of Toronto on 8 March, follows:

The developmental trajectories of North and South Korea have shaped the contours of each country’s contentious political environment. This workshop, sponsored in part by the Centre for the Study of Korea (at the University of Toronto), consists of two groups and four panelists exploring contentious politics in both Koreas.

Dr. Adam Cathcart (University of Leeds) and Christopher Green (Leiden University) will present work on contentious politics in North Korea during the Kim Jong-un era, focusing on the government’s use of information strategies, namely “re-defector” press conferences and the Moranbong Band, to maintain a “domain consensus” (i.e., its legitimacy). Data from structured interviews conducted with North Korean defectors will show the full loop: how information channel from the top-down is consumed and reproduced from the bottom-up.

Two professors from the University of Toronto, Drs. Jennifer Chun and Judy Han, will jointly present their latest collaborative work on cultures of protest in the South Korean labor movement. The presentation will examine a new pattern of popular contention in Korean workers’ already radical repertoire of collective action: the prolonged embodiment of emotional, physical, and financial hardship by precariously-employed workers. In particular, we analyze forms of protest with strong expressive elements: religious and spiritual rituals such as head shaving ceremonies, fasting, and the Buddhist atonement ritual samboilbae (translated as three steps and a bow) as well as long-term occupations of symbolic sites such as construction cranes, church bell towers and building rooftops. By examining how workers dramatize precarity, we seek to develop a more systematic analysis of the relationship between the cultural politics of injustice and the changing world of work and employment under neoliberal developmental regimes.

The panel will be moderated by Steven Denney. More information about the event, including bios of the presenters, can be found here.

Browbeatings: A Readout on the Recent Politburo Meeting in Pyongyang

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North Korea

A recent meeting in Pyongyang got a great deal of attention, for mostly the wrong reasons. New media upstart Vox led its North Korea coverage for the week with what could be charitably described as a juvenile taunt. 

 But of course Vox was hardly alone. The Guardian strained Kim Jong-un’s image through a battery of references to Kid ’n Play/Christopher Raeburn/MAN/ Marc Jacobs’s SS15 and ‘the current alt-fashion vogue in womenswear for bleached eyebrows’ (bonus points if you know what any of that means or its value for understanding North Korea), then pulled itself out of the ditch (but only barely) by contacting Hurwundeki, a Korean hair salon/cafe in London, for comment on the degree of difficulty for Kim Jong-un’s stylist.

Andy Sharp, the Japan/Korea politics editor for Bloomberg in Tokyo, had a much more serious and somewhat ominous take on the meeting:

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has signaled he may further purge top cadres, ordering senior Workers’ Party members to carry out a “campaign against abuse of power, bureaucratism, irregularities and corruption.”

And that was just the lede. Clearly there was more to meets the eye at this meeting and a more detailed review was called for. Sharp contacted me for comment (which he wasn’t able to use) on the Politburo statement and meeting, so a modified version of my e-mail to Bloomberg follows. A link to the full North Korean document (in English, Korean, and Chinese) is at the bottom of the post.

The meeting itself — While many events in North Korea can truly be said to serve only the most symbolic of functions, this is a significant gathering from the standpoint of policy review (however stilted and stage-managed the process appears) and implementation.

The venue/attendees and non-attendees — The venue was the same room in which Jang Song-taek was purged, and the configuration on stage is a reasonable indicator of ‘who is who’ in the power structure of the Party (as opposed to the National Defence Commission, several of whose members, like O Kuk Ryol, do not serve on the Politburo).

Kim Jong-un’s sister has yet to ascend to these bureaucratic heights — although she has picked up a formal title of a ministerial Vice-Director and propaganda ostensibly about her grandmother Kim Jong-suk is clearly referring to the need for North Koreans to pay heed to her power, there is still not much evidence that the regime wants to put her front and center yet in such high quarters as the Politburo or National Defence Commission. If Kim Jong-un’s power consolidation can be said to be not fully complete, this would be one piece of evidence — or perhaps that even Kim Jong-un has to hedge his bets and not allow his sister to accrue too much public prestige so as to imply the possibility of a rival.

As far as I can tell, the ostensible number 2, Hwang Pyong-so, did not speak at the meeting, but he was there at Kim’s immediate left hand.  Choe Ryong-hae, who has been rumored to be a purge victim at various times, was very much there, talking up Kim Jong-il’s legacy and the need for fealty to it.  On Kim Jong-il’s birthday, Choe was more or less rewarded for his work by chairing an ice skating competition — since sport is a major emphasis of the regime and most of his peers were in freezing concert halls around the country listening to amateurs sing revolutionary songs, this appearance and his leading speech at the meeting would appear to indicate that  he is still very much in Kim Jong-un’s good graces.

The ‘organizational matter’ — The meeting appeared to have two functions; a review of achievements and shortcomings of the past three years in somewhat unspecified areas, and ‘an organizational matter.’

Since the (very old) Kim Yong-nam was not at the meeting, and hasn’t been seen since January, and has been taking foreign trips as a top representative of the country, should we perhaps be wondering if he’s on the way out? However, the meeting did not mark his formal retirement; he was allegedly writing notes of encouragement to Venezuelan leaders about standing up against American interference. 

This little catch phrase doesn’t mark a purge by any means, but it’s another small sign of Kim Jong-un’s administrative restlessness. Jobs are turning over within the Party at a good clip, and he’s keeping people on their toes.

But Kim Jong-un’s discussion of corruption certainly needs to be made note of. Although I have no direct evidence to support this conclusion, I believe that Kim (or the people who write his speeches) are paying very careful attention to Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign. Indeed, they would be blind to ignore it; North Korean discussion of corruption is far less prevalent, but very much along the same lines. Although no one has mentioned the parallel, I strongly believe that the Chinese experience — right across the border — has had an impact on Workers’ Party of Korea cadre, who can see first hand when they travel abroad how the proverbial central leash on extravagant consumption by Chinese provincial officials has tightened.

One final note on purges and personnel changes: The Politburo lineup is still very much weighted with old men — Choe Tae-bok, Pak Bong-ju, Yang Hyong-sop (who is almost 90!) and Kim Ki-nam (also in his late 80s) remain active.  So if Kim Yong Nam’s recession from view, or possible retirement/demotion, is to be interpreted as a sign that the Party is going with some kind of a ‘youth movement,’ I would argue that these proverbial graybeards also need to be kept in mind, since they aren’t going away. The younger generation like Jon Yong-nam, the head of the Kim Il-song Socialist Youth League, is coming up, but they might also have been among the main apologists for shortcomings at the meeting; without access to the specific speech texts, it is almost impossible to know.

Frequency of meetings — Michael Madden, his analysis not venturing into speculation about interpersonal relations among the Pyongyang elites, makes the good point in this instance that the Politburo hasn’t met this quickly in a series since 2010, when it was getting its ducks in a row for the Kim Jong-un succession.

Kim Jong-un’s appearance — Yes, he continues to pluck his eyebrows, and his hair is getting bigger. Clearly the fascination with Kim’s strange appearance, rather than the mechanics of the personality cult, fuels part of the interest in him as a global media phenomenon. Consider the fact that The Interview actor Randall Park could do absolutely no justice to Kim’s own larger-than-life acting or his Rabelasian girth. But our interest in his appearance also matters in the sense that he’s quite young, has documented health problems already, and is very obviously gaining a great deal of weight  and smoking heavily. As in, chain smoking. (Unless we can attribute his weight gain to the fact that he is wearing three bulletproof vests under his trench coat when on his on-site military inspections, which is certainly possible.) No one appears to be in control of this particular problem at the moment; Kim Jong-un is large and in charge. And if he goes, we are left with his sister (who has, at best, half a decade of administrative experience) who is surrounded by what amounts to the old guard, current ‘organizational issues’ notwithstanding.

Source: ‘Enlarged Meeting of Political Bureau of C.C., WPK Held under Guidance of Kim Jong Un [조선로동당 제1비서이신 경애하는 김정은동지의 지도밑에; 조선로동당 중앙위원회 정치국 확대회의가 진행되였다/朝鲜劳动党中央政治局举行扩大会议; 金正恩出席指导]’ Rodong Sinmun, 19 February 2015. 

Strung Out: Fencing and Security on the Chinese-Korean Frontier

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Borderlands / North Korean border region / Sino-North Korean relations
Adam Cathcart on the Chinese side of the Tumen River south of Hoeryong (North Hamgyong province, DPRK), photo by Chuck Kraus

Q.: Have you heard anything about how extensive the fencing is along the North Korea-China border?

A.: Ishimaru Jiro of AsiaPress travels the Tumen Valley extensively. This past summer in a trip there with a Deutsche Welle camera crew, he noted that some additional fencing had gone up along one relatively active crossing point. 

However, this is not to be taken as gospel that it’s being done along the length of the Tumen River frontier. The vast, vast majority of that frontier is still unfenced. And keep in mind that apart from Hwanggumpyeong Island and just outside Dandong, along the Yalu River (roughly 2/3 of the length of the border) there is virtually no barbed wire or fencing because the river is sufficiently wide.

With respect to the Hyesan-Changbai juncture, the last time I was there there was very little barbed wire, but a high concentration of North Korean border guards whose clear task it was to keep people in. Just outside of Tumen City, PRC, the barbed wire is very light and the river is easily accessible, but again there are visible North Korean border guards/KPA on the other side, so barbed wire or fencing in and of itself is not necessarily the best measure if security is ratcheting up.

The December 27 incident in Nanping, on the Tumen river in Helong County, PRC, is another good case in point. We seem to be drawn to reports that things have become rather militarized and tense, when in fact they’ve been at similar levels of tension since essentially the Cultural Revolution or the North Korean famine. Jane Perlez of the New York Times went to Nanping and other reports noted that ‘citizen militia’ would soon be patrolling the area, but semi-independent Chinese reporters (Phoenix Magazine in Hong Kong, very PRC friendly but not always strictly on the Party line, and with marginally more latitude) went to nearby Sanhe and found that residents had seen nothing of this ‘militia,’ and that the military presence in the town was already rather heavy. Local restaurants and hospitals in small border communities are dependent upon the business of Chinese border guards (who are from a range of ministries; the Forestry Ministry even has its own armed force patrolling the border) to stay alive, since lots of Chinese-Koreans (Chosonjok), with no barbed wire in their way to the airport, are moving to South Korea.

Additional Reading: Adam Cathcart, Christopher Green, and Steven Denney, ‘The Tumen Triangle Documentation Project: Sourcing the Chinese-North Korean Border,’ introduction by James Hoare, Sino-NK, January 2015.

It Takes a Nation of Slogans

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North Korea / Propaganda
NK slogans 5 Feb 2015

North Korea may be economically poor but it is surely rich with slogans. Some three hundred were recently published in the country. 

Private advertising is still very much circumscribed, and further given the fact that rolling power blackouts that occur in virtually every area outside of the capital, slogans, songs, and posters remain key means of delivering ideological content in North Korea.

Kim Jong-il spent much of his life trying to perfect unreformable genres which were reliant on electricity (imagine a love story about a married couple and a dam construction project), but he was also highly attentive to slogan content. North Koreans today need to be attentive to the linguistic cues there, in part because they give any given person a repertory of politically safe language to which they can retreat during group study sessions, possible interviews with state journalists, etc.

A good example I recently saw was the return of North Korean athletes from the Asian Games. Getting off the plane from Incheon, the team was expected to deplane in front of a swarm of cameras and several of the country’s top leaders. The slogans shouted by the atheletes, seemingly spontaneously, were in fact word-for-word the slogans which were posted on the airport tarmac just behind the assembled throng. (In this case it was ‘long live the ryongdoja [General/supreme leader] Kim Jong-un’, taking the honorifics to a new height). When one is returning to the North from the presumably capitalism-tainted South, these things are to be taken extremely seriously.

This isn’t to say that it’s all for external show or internal control. Reminding people that the country is marching forward with new verve toward mushroom production is a means of reinforcing that the edible fungus research sector is going to continue to get its funding, just as Kim Jong-un’s on-site inspections to fishing facilities assures people in the cities that someone is working on their protein supply.

There are also slogans about inter-Korean relations, as this is the time of year that North Korea tends to make overtures to the South — whether this is a cynical means of trying to split the US-ROK military alliance while extracting financial concessions or a genuine attempt to keep the flame alive that split families may someday reunify is in the eye of the beholder.

Reference reading (in which I am quoted, along the lines above): Richard Lloyd Parry, ‘Food and the US: New Slogans Show North Korea’s Obsessions,’ The Times, 13 February 2015. 

Footsteps: Kim Jong-un and the Possibility of Indonesia in April 2015

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Is Kim Jong-un going to Indonesia / Is Kim Jong-un's sister in power / Kim Jong-il in Indonesia / Kim Jong-un in Bandung / Kim Jong-un in Jakarta / Kim Jong-un indonesia / North Korea and the Third World / North Korea-Indonesia relations
Rodong Flight 1-01[1]

Picking up on South Korean government sources, the Huanqiu Shibao (Global Times) in Beijing reports that Kim Jong-un may be taking his first foreign trip as head of state this coming April.  More information about the conference, which in part appears to be anniversary celebration of the famous Bandung Conference of 1955, is here (in English), and a reasonably decent breakdown of the story (also in English) was published a few hours ago by a Russian state-owned outlet. Jakarta and Bandung are the cities which he is alleged to be considering visiting.

Last year I predicted that Kim Jong-un’s first such trip might be to Mongolia. More recently, the rumor mill is running overtime with rumors of a Moscow visit in May 2015. It certainly seems clear that China is not going to be his first port of call, marking another small but significant break with DPRK diplomatic tradition.

Happily, Foreign Policy reporter Isaac Stone Fish has been in Davos this week talking to elites about a possible Kim Jong-un visit to any given World Economic Forum event. Stone Fish gets into the scanty history of North Korean participation in such events, focusing on the visit of Kim Jong-u (not a misprint) to Davos in 1997.

Why bring up the Foreign Policy piece in the context of the new report, exactly? Because the World Economic Forum is in fact holding a regional meeting in Bali, Indonesia, at precisely the same time that Kim Jong-un is allegedly due to be in Bandung. Indonesia being an absolutely massive country, the conferences are 1,000 kilometers apart, but as we all now know, Kim Jong-un is something of an aerophile and he very evidently has jet fuel to burn.  

In the meantime, one can re-read the wide-angle work of Charles Armstrong about North Korea’s relations with what used to be called ‘the Third World‘ and recall that Kim Il-sung took a trip to Indonesia in 1965. Fortunately for North Korean propagandists and hagiographers, the old guerrilla fighter and North Korean state founder brought his young son Kim Jong-il (who had just graduated from the university that bears his father’s name) along with him.

As we well know, nothing can be publicly justified in North Korea without solemn reference to the ‘footsteps’ or desires of the great departed leaders, including the presence of Kim Jong-un’s younger sister among the pantheon of new elites. I wonder if the young leader trusts her grip on power, and her own loyalties and tendencies, sufficiently to leave her back in Pyongyang while he trods again in the footsteps, troughs, trenches and ruts created by his forefathers.

Hong Kong in Anglo-Chinese Relations, 1945-, Recommended Reading

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Chinese foreign policy / Chinese nationalism / U.S.-China Relations
photo by Adam Cathcart

James T. H. Tang, “From Empire Defence to Imperial Retreat: Britain’s Postwar China Policy and the Decolonization of Hong Kong,” Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 28, No. 2 (May, 1994), pp. 317-337.

Chi-kwan Mark, The ‘Problem of People': British Colonials, Cold War Powers, and the Chinese Refugees in Hong Kong, 1949-62, Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 41, No. 6, 2007, p. 1145-81.

Ming K. Chan and John D. Young, Precarious Balance: Hong Kong Between China and Britain, 1842-1992 (Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1994). [Chapter 8].

James T.H. Tang, Britain’s Encounter with Revolutionary China, 1949-54 (Basingstoke : Macmillan, 1992).

Chi-Kwan Mark, China and the World since 1945: An International History (London : Routledge, 2012).

Ming K. Chan, The Challenge of Hong Kong’s Reintegration with China (Hong Kong : Hong Kong University Press, 1997).

Ray Yep, ‘Cultural Revolution in Hong Kong': Emergency Powers, Administration of Justice and the Turbulent Year of 1967, Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 46, No. 4 (July 2012), pp. 1007-1032

Deng, Xiaoping, On the Question of Hong Kong, translated by the Bureau for the Compilation and Translation of Works of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin under the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (Beijing : Foreign Languages Press, 1993).

China, Sino-British Joint Declaration on the Question of Hong Kong, 1984 Sept. 26, Hong Kong: Xinhua News Agency (Hongkong Branch), 1984.

Robert Cottrell, The End of Hong Kong : the Secret Diplomacy of Imperial Retreat (London : John Murray, 1993).

Ming K. Chan, David J. Clark, editors, The Hong Kong Basic Law : Blueprint for “Stability and Prosperity” under Chinese Sovereignty? (Armonk, N.Y. ; London : Sharpe, c1991),

Chin-Chuan Lee, et. al., Global Media Spectacle : News War over Hong Kong (Albany, NY : State University of New York Press, 2002).

Alan Knight and Yoshiko Nakano, eds. Reporting Hong Kong : Foreign media and the Handover (Richmond, Surrey : Curzon, 1999).

Feng Zhong-ping, The British government’s China policy, 1945-1950 (Edinburgh : Edinburgh University Press, 2013).

Steve Yui-Sang Tsang, Democracy shelved : Great Britain, China, and attempts at constitutional reform in Hong Kong, 1945-1952 (Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1988).

Edwin W. Martin, Divided Counsel : The Anglo-American Response to Communist victory in China (Lexington, Ky : University Press of Kentucky, c1986).

Zhai, Qiang. The Dragon, the Lion, & the Eagle : Chinese/British/American Relations, 1949-1958 (Kent, Ohio ; London : Kent State University Press, 1994).

Robert A., Bickers, Britain in China : Community Culture and Colonialism, 1900-1949 (Manchester : Manchester University Press, 1999).

Nathan A. Pelcovits, Old China Hands and the Foreign Office (New York: King’s Crown Press for American Institute of Pacific Relations, 1948).

Wang Gungwu, Anglo-Chinese encounters since 1800 : war, trade, science, and governance (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2003).