From Hyesan to London: Hyeonseo Lee and the New North Korea Defector Memoir

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EU-East Asia relations / human rights / North Korea / North Korean border region / Yanbian
June 23 Abulouwang Hyeonseo Lee

Hyeonseo Lee has produced an excellent memoir, a text which, along with John Sweeney and Emma Graham-Harrison, I will be discussing with her at an event organized by The Guardian in London tomorrow night.

Having worked my way through a review copy of the text this past week, I am happy to convey that the book goes beyond some of the now-stereotypical gestures of the suddenly expanding ‘North Korean defector genre’. Through the book, readers are given a strong sense of the pull of the North even for those who have escaped it — for instance, well after establishing themselves in South Korea as new settlers, both Hyeonseo and her brother end up in Changbai, gazing back in to their hometown of Hyesan. The pervasiveness of bribery in North Korea is made absolutely clear through Hyeonseo’s discussion of her mother’s work as a cross-border trader for whom methamphetamines are as innocuous as T-shirts; in other words, there is money to be made in their transshipment over the waters of the upper Yalu River, so no shame in their handling.

Most of all, Hyeonseo’s long years in China and the people she meets there give a very good sense of both the perils and the half-comforts of edging toward a Korean-Chinese identity outside of Yanbian. The existence of the ‘Korean minority’ in China gives Hyeonseo no absolute safety, but a kind of cultural shield or identity into which (or under which) she can occasionally retreat.

The narrative style is tasteful and effective — throughout, one gets the sense of a seasoned older woman looking back at her own mistakes and bravery. Most of all, the text does not make the common error of trying to bludgeon the reader into submission with pedantic observations about the horrors of life in the DPRK. Instead, North Korea’s flaws — as a society first, and as a state secondarily — come through organically, and are thus more complex and powerful. This is not a story of the gulags, nor is it a dubiously alluring ‘insider account’ of the Kim family court. In criss-crossing the Yalu River and living in Changbai, Shenyang, and Shanghai, the book reveals the web of communications and emotional connectivities between North Koreans living illegally on the Chinese side of the border, as well as the agonies experienced when that communication is broken. I would encourage readers of this blog to pick up the book and read it for themselves.

Image: Via Abuluowang, ‘The North Korean defector who saw an execution at age 7,‘ 23 June 2015. 

Opera North and ‘The Flying Dutchman': A Review

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Art / Cultural Politics / German / Opera
Middle Wagner

While having ostensibly little to do with the East Asian themes that normally permeate this website, the following post is connected to my interest in German classical music and specifically opera. Regular readers more interested in Northeast Asia can trace Wagner’s relevance for studies of state-driven culture in the region more fully via my article ‘North Korean Hip-hop? Reflections on Musical Diplomacy and the DPRK‘ (Acta Koreana, 2009).  — Adam Cathcart, University of Leeds 

Opera North and ‘The Flying Dutchman': A Review

For listeners seeking a vein into the psychological, witnessing a performance of Richard Wagner’s early work can be a mystifying experience.  The Italianate melodic gestures, uncomfortable resemblance to ‘number opera,’ maudlin approach to drama, and logical chasms in plot construction seem inevitably primed to disappoint.  It is Wagner’s creative rebellion against these conventions which we today find worthwhile. Perhaps it is for reasons of properly anchoring Wagner as a man of his time — and to indulge a certain personal penchant for darkness — that we attend productions of his early work.

Opera North’s new production of The Flying Dutchman (Der Fliegender Hollander) presented the composer as a creative artist in flux. The program notes, presented in an attractive bundle, laid out the matter exquisitely — and economically. At £5, it was money well-spent, marred only by General Director Richard Mantle’s use of the adjective ‘taut’ to describe the drama rather than his ideal audience’s perception to it.

In this a beautifully coordinated and semi-staged affair at Leeds Town Hall, the symphonic powers of the Opera North Orchestra were on full display. Attacks and releases were precise; the dynamic range and intonation (on a rather hot stage, no less) were impressive. The wind playing was very fine, with the exception of a couple of predictable gulps from the French horns lost in the excitement of a fortissimo. The strings scrubbed away admirably, seemingly never fatigued by the staggering amount of chromatic passagework present in the score. (The bulky singers often blocking my own view of the principle string players, I resorted to watching the back desks of the violoncello and bass sections, all of whom showed extreme left-hand nimbleness in the task.) A cameo appearance by off-stage piccolos during a third act storm was appropriately alarming.

Writing a fair review of singers of Wagnerian opera is practically impossible: The roles are massive, the vocal demands great, and the tradition equally daunting.  Those engaged by Opera North acquitted themselves well. The Swedish bass Mats Almgren proved a tremendous Daland, whose gaunt and steely persona gave the drama an immediate injection of verve and longing for land. Along with his jocular male chorus, he surely would not have appeared out of place drinking a pint a century ago in some Hull pub for sailors. Marc Le Brocq was an adequate Steersman, appropriately deferential, but often sinning against the guild by failing to end his phrases with the necessary consonants.

Occasionally events beyond the hall will colour how one listens and perceives the drama. Fortunately the audience last night was completely rapt; there was minimal coughing, and no cell phones (or moaning, as listeners to a January Halle orchestra performance of Brahms 4th Symphony in the Town Hall will recollect) from the gallery. The peal of ambulance sirens, however, did cut through the civic musical space at at least three times during this performance, reminding the listeners of that cruel world lurking beyond the stage curtains. Thus Senta, the female heroine being married off by her father, took on attributes of an ISIS bride in Bradford. She has become enchanted by the picture of an ideal man, a warrior-type, whom she has never met. Even before her father barters her off for a bit of jewelry, she is fantasizing about being swept away into the totality of death which this man, her ideal husband, represents.

Erik, her current love interest, is a structural afterthought, only existing to create a bare minimum of dramatic tension in Acts II and III.  Yet, as performed by Mati Turi, an outstanding tenor from Estonia, the role takes on real heft, and Erik becomes a pre-Siegfried in gestation. Turi’s descending arpeggios elicited audible gasps from the women sitting behind me in the left balcony, who had been otherwise silent throughout the performance. The duets between Senta (performed by Alwyn Mellor, born to do Tosca) and Erik brought out the best of the Italian side of the opera. To cue the euphemism generator used by the Opera North General Director, it is indeed here that ‘Wagner’s cosmopolitan influences are more clearly discernible than perhaps they are in his later works.’

One would have wished that the massive glowing screen behind the players might not have been lit during the overture, whose glorious apex was inexplicably  overshadowed by the image of a dry (dry!) human skull amid the waves. Death and deathlessness are at whatever philosophical core this opera possesses, however, and Bela Perencz’s fulfillment of the role was dark, boomy, and emotionally cavernous. His Dutchman was the picture of anguished male solitude, all-too-easy joy at the acquisition of an unknown woman, and passing shades of guilt at the deaths he had caused along the way. With his restless ambition, brooding over ‘Zahllose Opfer / countless victims’ and oddly shabby jeweled coat, The Dutchman’s attraction to certain young viewers of opera in early 20th century Vienna would have been strong.

Finally, a word is in order about the opera’s female chorus, whose productive traditionalism forms the centerpiece of Act II. With impeccable German diction and tasteful deployment on either side of the stage, the women’s chorus of Opera North filled the emotional void opened up by Act I and brought an end, at least temporarily, to the suicidal laments of The Dutchman. It occurred to me that the motif used during their ‘spinning song’ was later borrowed and transformed by Gustav Mahler in his 4th Symphony, set to a text ‘Wir genießen dem himmlischen Freuden.’ Fitting stuff: There is indeed pleasure in production, and among society. The Opera North has brought to bear yet another unforgettable Wagner production.

Regional Government and Political Integration in Southwest China, 1949-1954: A Review

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Borderlands / China / Chinese communist party / Tibet

Dorothy J. Solinger: Regional Government and Political Integration in Southwest China, 1949-1954: A Case Study. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.

Review by Li Wankun, University of Leeds

In traditional Chinese histories, the Southwest has often been considered as the most independent area in China, labeled as “the land of barbarians”(manhuang zhidi / 蛮荒之地). Accordingly, the concept and boundaries of “the Southwest” (xinan/ 西南) has fluctuated greatly over time. Anchoring the region is the province known today as Yunnan, which shares a long border with Burma (Myanmar). Histories of the Ming dynasty tend to connote rather mysterious elements to Yunnan, describing it as the area with a vile miasma of forest and minority tribes that ride on the elephants later made famous by Marc Elvin’s book.

Following the military occupation of the region by the Ming dynasty, the central government implemented the Bureaucratization of Native Chieftain system (gaitu guiliu / 改土归流). As the title of the policy implied, the gaitu guiliu aimed to strengthen the control over the region by replacing local hereditary headmen (tusi /土司) with officers from the court. The policy also mandated the opening of the Imperial Examination (keju zhidu/ 科举制度) to the empire’s new subjects, stretching from Qinghai to Guizhou, etc.

In today’s mainland academic discourse, such benefits are very explicitly tied to “shaoshuminzu zhengce” or “minority policies” in which the nation-state has existed in its present benevolent form, essentially back to the 16th century. From then on, the Southwest began a long process of contested integration with the mainland, a process recently written productively about by such scholars as Thomas Mullaney (Stanford University) and Gray Tuttle (Columbia). In many ways, Southwest China remains still the most independent area even today, whether or not one considers the Tibetan Autonomus Region part of the construction of the Southwest, the area is rich with diverse “national minorities,” which reward further study.

The Southwest, has been consolidated, fragmented away, and reconsolidated again with the Chinese polity multiple times over the centuries. Therefore, it would be expected that any study of the “return” of the Southwest to governance from the Chinese metropole (be it Nanjing or Beijing, dynastic, Republican, or communist) would bring controversy and represent serious institutional challenges. Dorothy Solinger approached this task in the late 1970s, and was the first person to use newspapers to research the integration of Southwest China, from the view of the Great Administrative Regions, which existed from 1949 to 1954.

Solinger explains the process in detail, using the label of integration, which happened, she argues, in two phases. Along with the transition from the Military Administrative Committee (junzheng weiyuanhui) to the Administrative Committee (Xing Zheng Wei Yuan Hui) and its abolition in 1954, Southwest China lost much of its special administrative character during its integration into the nation as a whole. To her credit, the author stays rather disciplined in the writing, not getting lost in the intricacies of Guangxi’s labyrinthine factional politics just prior to the CCP victory. Instead, she looks at how inner localities, connected to each other through toward trade, national minorities and roving counter-revolutionaries, were eventually pulled together and disciplined into the nation.

Solinger conceives the book into two parts, elaborating regionalism and integration in the Southwest after 1949 phases, which she labels Integration I and Integration II. While readers more accustomed to archivally-based treatments of the Chinese civil war by authors like Odd Arne Westad may find such a technique to be bordering on simplistic, we should recall that as a preliminary framework written in 1977, this conceptualization was surely innovative for its time. Solinger tracks back to pre-1949 China, finding that in every field, from geography or commercial to political affairs, there was no region, which existed at the supraprovincial level of “Southwest.” At the same time, the respective roles of political middlemen and new administrative structures were designed to bind the Southwest region with the national CCP and PLA. With solving different problems in the three interlinked areas of trade, minority nationalities and counter-revolutionaries, the internal subsystem integration was established by localities.

In my study, I found that the grain trade growth between Southwest and other areas was growing after 1952. According to the State-planned Purchase and Marketing (tonggou tongxiao/ 统购统销), Sichuan took charge of supplying grains to the major cities of southern China. During the First Five Year Plan, Sichuan procured 10 billion kilograms of grains, and 8.1 billion kilograms were transported to other regions,[1] like Hubei and Shanghai.

The main materials used in writing this book were Southwest China newspapers and journal, such as New China Daily (XinHua RiBao) and New China Monthly (Xin Hua Yue Bao). Given that most archives for the period after 1949 dealing with sensitive minority and national boundary issues are yet unopened for public even today, the author’s choice to use newspapers to study regionalism remains sound. As propagandists, newspaper editors, as Solinger said, would have seen no purpose in falsifying their publications, although the information was certainly published after filtering. Lacking access to local archives, Solinger is thus screened from the most part of regional resentments or failing cases during the integration process.

In one of my research that used the local archives from Chongqing, which city in the east of Sichuan Province, I found that the integration in the counties’ level was quite weak even in the process of collecting agriculture text which was the most important part of fiscal revenue before 1952. This also proved the argument of Solinger’s that the integration of Southwest was be strengthen after 1952 for the more functional type of integration under the Administrative Committee.

However, when Solinger analyzed the abolishment of the Administrative Committee, she ignored the funding of the State Planning Commission (Guo Jia Ji Hua Wei Yuan Hui) of the Central People’s Government, which was responsible for the strategy formulation and concurrently established with the Administrative Committee in 1952. Since 1953 was the first year of the First-Five Year Plan, the Planning Commission was established as a parallel organ with the Government Administration Council (Zhengwuyuan) for economic policy-making. Actually, the Planning Commission occupied a part power of the Administrative Committee, which steered the ship of government to plan and supervise the economic development before 1952. It made the Administrative Committee was much more like an executive branch not supervision. Therefore, the Administrative Committee was more functional after 1952.

About the process of integration, Solinger mentioned the military conflicts in the Southwest, particularly the wiping out of bandits and KMT remnant armies, but she focused on at the beginning of liberation when the CCP took over the Southwest. Actually, the process of integration was not smoothly since the Land Reform Movement to the Collectivization Movement in late 1950s. Especially during the collectivization movement, the cases about revolting to join cooperatives were increasing no matter from Chinese or minorities, and even violent conflicts happened in Qinghai and Tibet. As the remarkable work of Modern Tibet history, in the A History of Modern Tibet, Vol.2, The Calm Before the Storm, 1951-1955, Melvyn Goldstein unveils the conflict between the Southwestern Bureau and the Northwestern Bureau, which shows the arguments and different attitude about the Southwest China from inside. In the Vol.3, Goldstein shows us a much more bumpy road of integration after 1954, which was defined by Solinger as the year of achieving the integration in Southwest.

Solinger’s research into regional integration from the view of the Great Administrative Regions is exceptionally helpful. She examined the transition of the Military Administrative Committee to the Administrative Committee finding the year of 1952 to have been landmark for CCP government organization. In this point, she develops Franz Schurmann’s research about the study of the government organization of PRC, the latter concludes the organization model of Communist China with ideology predictively. Solinger not only introduces the changes of organizations, but also use from the view of the development of the government function to see the integration of Southwest China.

[1] The Annals of Sichuan Province compiled by Sichuan Local Chronicles Compilation Committee, published by Sichuan Science & Technology Press, Chengdu, 1996, Page 4.


Songs, Film, and Ideological Shifts in the DPRK

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Art / North Korea / Propaganda
Rice Plant Flower

Unlike songs which can put forth a new policy line in the space of a day or two, films take longer to congeal and embody ideological shifts. Chinese media covered this film “Rice Plant Flower” 《稻花》with a slight implication that there might be something about wealth accumulation in it, but it looks to be quite orthodox and in no way indicative of the Party’s reported relinquishing of limited control to selected farmers, let alone a fuller return to the NEP line of the Soviet Union in the early 1920s (which would be improvement in the North Korean context, yes?).

Meth, Road-Tripping, Drought, Aid, and Forbidden Love: Five North Korea Stories from China

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Sino-North Korean relations

Microblogging in English or Chinese continues to present limits on and challenges for academics who ‘watch’ Northeast Asia. Certainly, in the process of gathering information about the region, it has gotten rather easy to share pithy viewpoints, but the problem of why one is sharing a given piece of information is not always self-evident.

Take these two tweets as a study in contrasts: 


Personal blogs seem to be a good medium through which a slightly more considered and extended discussion can unfold. In the following post, I take a look at five stories from the Chinese news media which all deal with North Korea in some way, at a level of depth that hopefully resides in the space between ‘off the cuff’ (which is a fancy way of saying ‘spastic’) tweeting and the more austere, rigorous, and lugubriously-edited mode of writing that necessarily prevails for more heavy-duty academic writing.

丹东一民警制毒获死刑 家藏冰毒40斤In Dandong, a former policeman has been handed death sentence for meth manufacturing with two accomplices, on Chinese territory. No North Korean link is mentioned in this story (does there need to be one?), but the story does suggest that pathways for drugs into the Chinese interior from Dandong are well-honed and the profits high. As with so many law-and-order stories from the border region in the past couple of years, the outlet able to cover the story at length is Xinjinbao (新京报), which is strangely rendered as ‘Beijing Daily’ in English. A severely abbreviated version of the story was carried on 18 June in English by the erstwhile Global Timeswhose editor was, at the time of publication, waxing metaphorical on a stage in Beijing with a handful of former and current diplomats about the PRC’s new Silk Road into Central Asia.

A former policeman in Dandong city in northeast China’s Liaoning Province was sentenced to death for producing drugs with a habitual criminal, a court announced on Thursday.According to the Intermediate People’s Court of Dandong city, Wang Changping, a former policeman, began producing methamphetamine at the end of 2012 together with Han Xuedong, a drug producer who was released from prison in June 2011. The group built three meth labs in rural areas of Dandong city and Tongliao city in the north Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, and produced more than one hundred kilograms of methamphetamine in one and half years. They were busted in May 2014, with 20 kilograms of drugs seized at Wang’s office and apartment. The court sentenced Wang and Han to death. Another two suspects in the case were sentenced to death with two year reprieve and imprisonment for life respectively.

Meanwhile in non-capital punishment-related news in Dandong, cadre in that border city are not at all as bullish about economic growth as we might expect. There is surely more than a small amount of verbal and non-verbalized frustration with the DPRK included in this report. 

山东青岛-辽宁丹东开通跨海汽车:行程很奇特 | A new means of traveling for cheap between two of China’s most interesting northern port cities — Qingdao and Dandong — has now opened up. A bus line links the two cities by means of ferry travel through the Bohai Gulf, via Dalian saving the need to drive through the giant Beijing-Tianjin choke point. (Like a prospective conquerer of China in the seventeenth century, the shrewd traveller should to pay heed to the difficulties of traversing the Shanhaiguan.) There was once discussion of a sea tunnel being built between Shandong and Liaodong peninsulas, but in the meantime, this will do nicely, thank you.

via Huanqiu Shibao

via Huanqiu Shibao

李敦球:帮朝鲜一起应对特大旱灾 | Back in late May, Chinese commentator Li Dunqiu (who to my knowledge fits the frame exceptionally well for Huanqiu Shibao) published a piece on North Korean market reforms that was comparatively bullish. On 19 June, Li returned to the pages of the same foreign affairs tabloid with a piece about the need for China to aid North Korea during the present drought. The piece stands as a kind of embroidery on the 18 June statement by the PRC Foreign Ministry that aid would be granted to the DPRK. Li noted that corn yields in particular were expected to be lower in North Korea, but also loosed a standard criticism that information coming out of North Korea was notoriously unreliable, in part because it was often from South Korean and Western media. (This statement is both a fig leaf for Huanqiu Shibao when its editors get hate mail from the North Korean Embassy in Beijing — a rather frequent occurrence, if the word on the street is correct — and also a means of reminding slightly numb Chinese readers that only the Ministry of Propaganda and its various spin-offs are the arbiters of objective media reporting, except when they’re gagged.)

A rather middle-ground approach is outlined whereby the World Food Program projected shortages in the country are discussed, and the need to de-politicize food aid to North Korea. There is also some effort put into stating that North Korean ‘transparency’ is better than it used to be — while at the same time saying absolutely nothing about how much food aid China should give, what type of grain, or how much has been given in previous lean years. But then again, it’s just an op-ed indicated to gently assure that the Chinese public is on-side with any aid renderd, and Li Dunqiu does not appear to have a Nolandesque apparatus when it comes to discussing aid statistics.

Finally with this piece, Li does what he does best — take something that the North Koreans have been doing since their founding as a Republic in 1948, and spinning it as ‘reform’ or progress. 

In the present case, it is mass mobilization. Clearly, he writes, the North Korean state is taking the problem seriously by mobilizing free labor around the country to dig wells, etc., in a great ‘anti-drought struggle.’


朝鲜遭百年不遇大旱金正恩该怎么办 & 百年一遇旱灾对朝鲜有何影响 |  The first of these two stories presents extensive data on North Korean famine in 2012 and aid from China, and is written by Chinese bloggers who don’t cite their sources yet whose work turns up rather prominently on, and which handles an issue which is rather sensitive to the government in Beijing.  Among other data points, the first piece argues that 20,000 North Korean people starved to death in the 2012 drought, and that in part this can be attributed to the refusal of ‘the US, South Korea and other countries’ to send food aid. The piece then goes on to describe the large value and type of aid which China gave to North Korea in that year. Again, no sources are cited apart from the occasional sprinkling of clauses like “foreign research indicated” or “according to statistics,” but this is very much worth a closer look. This excerpt concludes by comparing China’s estimated aid to North Korea between 1990-2005 as being roughly equivalent to “half a year’s GDP from the Tibetan Autonomous Region”:

但就在此时 [i.e. in the period of great difficulty for North Korea],中国伸出了援助之手。中国政府于2012年2月下旬开始对朝鲜进行大规模无偿援助,援助物资包括粮食、建材等,价值高达6亿元人民币,堪称“史上最大规模”。中国此次援助,完全是无偿援助,因此外界称之为“中国援朝史上最大规模的单笔无偿经济援助”。据有关报道称,朝鲜希望中国提供至少20万吨粮食援助。根据当时中华粮网和大连商品交易所的东北大米和玉米的批发价,6亿元人民币相当于15万吨大米或者26.5万吨玉米。不过由于丹东等边境城市的粮食采购质量、价格都远远低于中国人自己食用的粮食,因此实际上6亿元可兑换的可能会更多。以当时丹东到达新义州的大米批发价格计算,6亿元即可购得大米17.14万吨。在之前的1月份,应朝鲜红十字会要求,中国红十字会从辽宁省丹东市向朝鲜新义州提供了6000箱方便面、约相当于30万元的物资。中国的这些雪中送炭的援助并没有使朝鲜有感激之情,因为他们几十年来,吃惯了、用惯了中国援助,已习以为常。对中国朝鲜半岛无核化的立场相对立,将中国的劝告形同耳旁风,欢度中国产生抵触情绪而不满。由于中国对朝鲜的援助从来就不对外公布,国际社会古巴不知道中国究竟给了朝鲜多少援助。对于几十年来的总数,国外研究结论是:从1990年到2005年的15年间,中国对朝鲜援助就可能高达15亿-37.5亿美元之间。这约合当前西藏半年的GDP。

The piece concludes with its title: Worst drought in one hundred years, so what is Kim Jong-un going to do about it? Well, he is obviously going to look for aid from wherever he can get it, send his Premier out to the countryside, and keep pounding the drums of mass mobilization. But there is also a very common observation from Chinese political experience: The ruler needs to prevent famine in order to prevent domestic instability. As they authors write, ‘再就是加强对国内的控制,保持稳定,以免国内出事,’ and then conclude with their criticism of the so-called ‘Byungjin Line.’

The second link consists of yet more pics of PRC Ambassador Li’s May trip to the North Korean countryside and discussion of possible food aid. Most interestingly, it notes how busy Pyongyang was on 5 June, with large numbers of people getting geared up for work in the countryside. 

朝鲜女子因何不敢嫁中国男人 | With a title like this — ‘Why North Korean women do not dare to marry Chinese men’ — this piece is possibly a bit explosive. It follows on other stories in Chinese news media that start to foreground and problematize the North Korean worker in China. As we saw with the incident in Tumen on 31 May, when North Korean women physically attacked a journalist on assignment for Le Monde, various arms of the PRC bureaucracy have differing views about how these workers should be handled, and to what extent they should deserve special leeway or treatment due to their national origin. In addition to asking the rather uncomfortable (and somewhat taboo) public question about the utter lack of personal freedom enjoyed by North Korean female workers in China, the article gives a bit of data about average wages. 

Naturally there have been other stories in Chinese rumbling around in the past several weeks that merit some analysis — such as China’s fighter-jet drills over Dandong and possibly Sinuiju, the connection of the Zhou Yongkang purge and trial to North Korea, the implication put out in Chinese media that Kim Jong-un has probably been invited to Beijing for the September 3 anti-fascist parade, or fantastic gumshoeing (within acceptable comradely limits, of course!) by the Xinhua bureau in Pyongyang with respect to shiny new apartment blocs which are rumoured to be without functioning lifts — but then again, perhaps that is what Twitter is for.


On Kim Jong-un’s ‘Achievements’ and the North Korean-Chinese Relationship

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Kim Jong-un / North Korea / Sino-North Korean relations
Liu Hongcai, Chinese Ambassador in Pyongyang, extreme left, looks on while PRC Public Security Minister Meng Jianzhu presents a gift to a nonplussed Kim Jong Il two days before his 69th birthday -- courtesy Huanqiu Shibao

This past December, many observers of the scene in northeast Asia had questions about the ‘three-year mourning period’ which was coming to an end, ostensibly, in North Korea. Since Kim Jong-il had been continuously eulogized and memorialized since his death, questions were being raised about Kim Jong-un possibly being seen as lacking in respect for his father. There were also questions about a possible change in course to the relationship with China — namely, could the two old socialist allies put the Jang Song-taek execution behind them?  Along with two colleagues at Leiden and Yonsei Universities, respectively (Remco Breuker and John Delury), I spoke with the South China Morning Post about these and other issues.

What do you think are Kim Jong Un’s biggest achievements in the past three years? How would you characterize his ruling style?

His main achievement is staying alive. This is the North Korean way of leadership dating back to the Manchurian guerilla experience and that of the Korean War — if you haven’t been destroyed, you win. So he’s managed to stay standing, and, to the state’s own narrative, managed to fend off a possible coup by Jang Song-taek, and further consolidate his control over the military and security apparatuses.

The country has pushed the narrative that he has raised living standards in the country, but I think this is arguable. He came in on the wave of a very small lift in North Korea’s economic fortunes and has been buoyed by more electric current flowing to Pyongyang. There has been relatively much more construction in Pyongyang and Wonsan than in previous years, but this is also very expensive to undertake, and it is unlikely that the regime’s pockets are limitlessly deep.

State propaganda has used things like the Moranbong Band — which is allegedly personally supervised by Kim Jong-un — to symbolize the combination of more affluent and worldly North Korean elites with the standard depictions of military might.

But apart from that, his ruling style is very much in the mould of his predecessors, to an almost clinical degree. If you read his speeches and watch his appearances closely, every opportunity is taken to fit himself into the mould of his father and grandfather — there is very little innovation happening here at the surface. Even his personal rock band is essentially there to glorify the previous Kims in ways which are highly predictable and reinforcing of the status quo.

There have been speculations that DPRK might launch a fourth nuclear test soon. If it did, what would be China’s reactions? And how would that affect the already cooling down bilateral relations?

I would be highly surprised if they did another nuclear test soon. The political calendar does not always dictate the scientific calendar or material limitations. In other words, the North Korean state does not possess enriched uranium in limitless quantities, nor can the process of miniaturization of nuclear warheads be rushed.

On the political side, they are already facing serious human rights pressure at the UN — unless we take their statements at face value in which censure on the human rights issues somehow in and of itself drives them to test, something I see as quite unlikely and unfeasible for them. There is more to be gained in threatening a test than actually doing one at the moment.

Kim Jong-un is also in need of demonstrating to the people that he’s focusing on economic improvement and living standards. While state propaganda very much squares the circle here by evoking to the ‘byungjin line’ and asserting that nuclear weapons are the guarantee for economic prosperity (presumably by preventing the state from being destroyed, not in stimulating GDP), a nuclear blast in the next couple of months would raise temperatures on the peninsula in a way that would not be helpful to the North Korean people, or the state that controls them.

The DPRK has been pushing diplomatic buttons as well, and a nuclear test now would likely scupper what limited recent progress they have made with Russia, and aggravate China pretty badly. It isn’t that the math is so simple that a North Korean nuclear test leads to China and Russia abrogating the veto at the UN Security Council over sending Kim Jong-un to the ICC, since neither Beijing nor Moscow wants to see that happen in any event, but this counterpressure is something to consider.

There seems to be a more public debate about whether China should change its policy towards DPRK (the Global Times have run a couple of commentaries arguing both for and against abandoning DPRK as a partner over the past few weeks), do you think this would in any case reflect policymakers’ thinking? Do the policymakers view it necessary to adjust its DPRK policy?

I think the policymakers in Beijing are happy to have the debate running in public because it gives them marginally more leverage over the North Koreans. Essentially, the leadership in Beijing can point to scholarly and press debates as evidence that a shift in policy could be forthcoming, without actually making that shift. To put it another way, the writing on the wall is not particularly good, but the wall (the Chinese-North Korean relationship) is still there. The PRC and DPRK governments still share many, many common interests. While the economic relationship is tilting so heavily toward South Korea, China will remain a status quo power with respect to North Korea.

Citation: Kristine Kwok, ‘Three Years after Becoming Leader, All Eyes on Kim Jong-un,’ South China Morning Post, 19 December 2014.

Image: Chinese delegation gives Kim Jong-il a birthday gift in early 2011, via the PRC Embassy in Pyongyang. 

The Perils of Reporting on North Korean Workers in China

comment 1
China / Manchuria / North Korea / North Korean border region / Sino-North Korean relations / Yanbian
Sim Chi Yin, Le Monde

On the last day of the wondrous month of May, Brice Pedroletti, the Le Monde correspondent in China, was in the city of Tumen, along the northernmost point of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.  With him was travelling a photographer from Singapore; their task was to travel down the isolated stretch of the Tumen River (which is the border between China and the DPRK) in search of details about the recent rash of border incidents — incursions by North Korean soldier-defectors that have been happening with some regularity of late, and generally ending violently.

Pedroletti and his team did some of the standard stuff in Tumen, noting some of the standard tropes. These generally include the observations that Namyang looks totally abandoned; there are few trains coming over the border; North Korean border guards look menacing; the land looks dessicated and spent on the North Korean side; Tumen is lively and bustling even for a small city, etc.

For a different perspective on the same site, our Sino-NK team took a trip last year around the same time to the same places, and came up with something we hope could be described as substantial.

At any rate, the French reporter and Singaporean photographer then drove out to the industrial quarter and ran across a couple dozen North Korean women, at work cleaning up some piles of organic debris outside of a small factory. The photographer quickly lifted her camera and shot a couple of pics of them working. According to Pedroletti, the women then moved in ‘en bloc’, swarming the car, trying to tear the camera out of photographer’s hands. She resisted, shouting (in Mandarin, which the North Koreans clearly did not understand) that she could delete the images. During this struggle the North Korean women managed to rip a tendon in the photographer’s thumb. 

At this point, the story gets yet more interesting, because the journalists speak to Chinese police about the case. The police ultimately decide that they can’t do anything about it owing to the ‘sensitivity’ of having North Korean workers in the country. As one policeman tells the foreign journalists, ‘these are North Koreans — they have a totally different system.’  There are about another eight paragraphs of discussion of the Chinese response to the incident in the Le Monde post, which individuals with more fluency and time than myself could lavish more analysis which could be shared in the comment section of this blog. 

I suppose the caution is one that everyone is familiar with already: shoot pictures at your own peril, regardless of which side of the Tumen you are on, and these are some of the problems that emerge for the Chinese PSBs/border security types when they decide to allow insular North Korean workers and curious foreign journalists simultaneous access to the sacred terrain of Jilin province.

Image by Sim Chi Yin, for Le Monde, 31 may 2015.

Correction: The original version of this post misidentified the photographer Sim Chi Yin as male. (As her biography indicates, Sim Chi Yin is a woman, as well as a graduate of the London School of Economics with specialization in history and international relations.)