‘Day of Songun’ and the Ongoing Succession Process in North Korea

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Kim Jong-un / North Korea / Propaganda
Undated photo of Kim Jong Il, courtesy Northkorealeak.com

It is a coincidence, but an interesting one, that North Korean representatives concluded their negotiations with South Korea just in time for August 25, the ‘Day of Songun’ in the DPRK. 

As faithful readers of the Sino-NK website will be aware, the ‘Day of Songun’ was devised in 2012 and promulgated in 2013; its overt intention was to commemorate the deceased Kim Jong-il’s early dedication to the cause of Songun, or ‘military-first politics’ dating back to a visit he supposedly made with his father to the 105th Tank Corps just before he started university in 1960, at age 18. As I’ve argued elsewhere, most substantially in a working paper published by the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, the function of this commemoration is actually to reinforce Kim Jong-un’s legitimacy to rule, confirm the principle of very early succession and young leadership, and emphasize the preternatural military abilities of the sons in the Kim family.

A major new DPRK documentary film which appears to have been released on 15 August further emphasized the continuation principle, by showing Kim Jong-un at the end of a long line of military successes. I found it absolutely fascinating that part of the feature included his time in the control room at the spring 2009 launching of the Kwangmyongsong-2 missile with Kim Jong-il — this episode of his scantly known pre-history with the levers of power had previously been shown, comprising the backdrop of a music video at his first huge event after his father entombment, a February 2012 concert by the now-defunct Unhasu Orchestra. But in the new documentary, his aunt, Kim Kyong-hui, is pared out of the narrative — sound familiar? — and the young Kim Jong-un gets his first apparent taste of praise from a small crowd. What is the point of reminding viewers that Kim Jong-un looked so young, and so unsure, and went through a period not so long ago during which he was no God-king, but rather a rather passive observer of events? The point is to say: He was there, he learned from greatness (Kim Jong-il), and it is in his genes. Kim Jong-un with Missile Scientists, spring 2009

Yet, correlation (or coincidence) is not causation. In other words, it would be foolish to say ‘North Korea prompted the recent crisis in order to provide more material for Kim Jong-un’s succession propaganda themes.’ By the same token, when North Korea ends a crisis just in time for one of its major new commemoration days focused on the brilliance of Kim family military tactics, and a man like Hwang Pyong-so declares victory of a sort, perhaps we should not be so surprised.

Herewith, a few more resources on the theme. Steven Borowiec, of the Los Angeles Times, is thanked for the recent phone conversation that really helped me to crystallize the possible interplay between the ongoing events on the peninsula and the succession process. 

Deng Xiaoping as Cultural Conservative

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deng-cowboy-hat_via Georgetown University

Today is Deng Xiaoping’s birthday. He was born in 1904 in Guang’an, Sichuan, a city now receiving various and not entirely uncontroversial forms of capital as a result. Consequently, I am reminded of my desire at some point in 2015–16 to reread big chunks of of the Deng Xiaoping biography which Harvard University Press wisely agreed to publish in 2013, written by Ezra Vogel.

Amid the chorus of praise and critique for Ezra Vogel’s epic, there has been some renewed debate about the meaning of Deng – stifled reactionary or true reformer? (The answer with respect to Hu Jintao seemed to veer toward the former.) Suffice it to say that there are multiple sources upon which one might rely to test this assertion, but of late, I have seen this one as being particularly useful, as it describes his fears of liberalization.

Source: Deng Xiaoping, “Excerpts from Talks Given in Wuchang, Shenzhen, Zhuhai and Shanghai” (Jan. 18-Feb. 21, 1992) in Selected Works (online in English)

Image: Deng Xiaoping at a Houston rodeo, 2 February 1979, courtesy Georgetown University.

On the ‘Cairo Declaration’ Fiasco

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China / Chinese communist party / Chinese nationalism / Cultural Politics / Sino-Japanese Relations / World War II

While the tendency of the CCP to insert itself at the main junctures of Chinese history in the 20th century is anything but new, there has been an increasing alignment with the earlier Republic of China that has been quite pronounced, I would argue, since at least 2005. For the past ten years, scholars have interpreted this (and the inclusion of ROC troops in various war museums) mainly as a means of increasing cross-Straits rapprochement and downplaying the ferocity of the internecine violence that followed the Japanese surrender.

World War II, the Great Leap Forward and its famine, and the Cultural Revolution are frequently seen as the great traumas of China’s 20th century, but the Chinese civil war (1945-1950) is right up there in terms of how much physical and emotional agony it caused.

What is different now, in 2015, is that Xi Jinping and his mighty bureaucracy seem absolutely determined to depict the PRC as ‘present at the creation’ of the postwar global order, a global order which they interpret as being constructed around the constraining of Japanese power, cognizance of Japanese brutality, and punitive toward Japan — in the sense of keeping Japan very much in the metaphorical defendant’s docket and recalling also the Tokyo War Crimes Trials.

The move to align contemporary Japan with its destabilizing and guilty past as clear implications and utility for China in East Asia today, as the Beijing government and the PLA is increasingly seen as the foremost challenge to the strategic architecture of the region.

According to the trailer of the film, I don’t believe the producers have gone so far as to send Mao to Cairo in the film, but placing him at the vanguard of establishing the global order in 1943 seems to be stretching things.

At this point, when he was in his cave in Yanan, Mao had yet to meet a single representative of the American government, and the Dalai Lama, who was not even 10 years old, got more correspondence from the US President. While Mao had written some important anti-Japanese treatises in 1937 and 1938, by the time the Cairo Declaration came around, he was primarily concerned with expand his inland base area against Nationalist government resistance and calculating his best chances to overtake Chiang Kai-shek after the Japanese surrendered. The United Front was essentially a shell after 1940.  Mao was extremely well-informed about how the wider war in Europe, in China, and the Pacific was going, but to depict him as the mental crucible of China’s World War II international policy is overreaching.

This short essay was originally submitted to The Guardian in response to a request for a comment; Tom Phillips is thanked for soliciting my views. See: Tom Phillips, ‘Bloggers ridicule Chinese film placing Mao Zedong at wartime conference,’ The Guardian, 17 August 2015.

Image: US envoy Patrick Hurley speaks with Mao Zedong & comrades in Yan’an in August, 1945, prior to flying with Mao to Chongqing on 27 August for the purpose of negotiating an agreement with Chiang Kai-shek (via US National Archives and Records Administration). 

North Korean Forestry Purge Rumors, and the China Angle

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Kim Jong-un / North Korean border region / Sino-North Korean relations

John Power, writing at The Diplomat, asks how credible the latest rumour is from South Korea. Was Choe Yong-gun killed for disagreeing with the Supreme Leader on forestry policy? He (the journalist, not the apparatchik) appears to be on to something: The absolutely explosive rumour about a North Korean scientist who defected with a USB chock full of biological weapons research secrets from Pyongyang has not been confirmed by, well, anyone apparently. Here are my views about the forestry thing, expanded with a tweet or two.

In an overall environment of poor inter-Korean relations, it may be that South Korea has little to lose from openly speculating about another relatively high-level purge. It’s not as if there is an upcoming summit or set of talks that needs to be delicately offset by toning down criticism of the North, and the recent mine incident on the DMZ, and the return of the loudspeakers on the southern side very much emphasize that. 

We can certainly see a kind of developmental churn in the forestry sector, which is one of several areas where the young Supreme Leader is trying to leave his mark, but has also openly expressed exasperation at the pliancy and responsiveness of the bureaucracy.

One thing about forestry that hasn’t been adequately pointed out is the fact that it is very much associated with revenue streams from exports to China. If you go to the upper Yalu River in particular you can see the timber from Ryanggang province which is floated over in somewhat age-old fashion over to the Chinese side; this is hard currency, and any official who resisted its reallocation from Pyongyang would of course be engaging in risky behaviour. But I haven’t seen anything at all that would conclusively prove a purge at the vice-ministerial level of this ministry.  



I suppose we will have to wait for the purgee to show up, or wait for the next round of yet more improbable rumors of how he has ostensibly been executed. Part of the problem with the rumor mill is how high the bar has been set with the Jang Song-taek execution: The state only very rarely provides its foreign news/propaganda operations with something tangible (let alone thundering) about purges, and we are unlikely to see any repeat of the rather elaborate events that accompanied Jang’s execution — a sprawling bombshell of an indictment, loyalty meetings at every work unit (some of which were covered by state media), and even new loyalty songs praising the steadfastness of the fatherly leader, etc. The problem with the lack of transparency in the DPRK state is that personnel reshuffling can be depicted as a brutal purge — this happens in part because our imaginations are active and receptive to news and rumors of purges which may echo the Jang Song-taek events, but rarely do.

This note, originally an e-mail communication, is quoted in: John Power, ‘Did Kim Jong-un Execute another Minister?‘, The Diplomat, 17 August 2015.

Preparing for Doomsday, or October 10, in North Korea

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American Foreign Policy / Kim Jong-un / North Korea / US-North Korea relations
KJU 2015-07-28-01-01

North Korean state media has begun to really ramp up the name-calling at South Korea again. In response to South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s complaint that the ROK was not consulted about the recent North Korean time zone change, and, more significantly, for bringing back the loudspeakers in retaliation for the North Korean landmines, the DPRK has started using President Park’s photograph for Army machine gun target practice and calling her some rather nasty names (‘pro-Japanese traitor,’ among others). If anyone in Beijing or Seoul had hopes that Kim Jong-un might turn up at Xi Jinping’s huge 3 September parade, one of various invitations he’s turned down, they seem primed to be disappointed.

Some of the more overtly aggressive rhetoric we’ve seen of late is plainly aimed at keeping North Korean military preparedness taut in the seven weeks leading up to the 10 October Party anniversary: There was a recent visit of KPA to Panmunjom, the DMZ mine incident is clearly being played up domestically as further ‘proof’ of South Korean perfidy and hostility (along the lines of the ‘Cheonan’ sinking response in 2010 and beyond), and the balloons full of anti-Kim propaganda going over the DMZ again will add fuel to this particular flame.

General threats against the US have been around since the Korean War, but with the growth of the county’s ballistic missile program there has been a bump, certainly, in rhetoric about taking the fight to the US homeland. I don’t think that Kim Jong-un is too concerned at this point about which Republican gets the nomination for the Presidential run, but if the men who manage North Korea’s foreign affairs manage to vault themselves up near the top of a rather full US foreign policy agenda as a perceived problem, there may be still some minor benefits to be accrued from negotiating with Obama administration even as it moves into late second term mode, which is historically when US-DPRK relations have made strides.

This analysis was originally sent as an e-mail communication to the Washington Post, and was quoted in: Adam Taylor, ‘North Korea has threatened a U.S. attack for years,’ Washington Post, Worldviews blog17 August 2015.

Image credit: Rodong Sinmun, ‘Kim Jong Un visits Fatherland Liberation War Memorial Cemetery,’ 28 July 2015. 


The Bombs Kept Falling in the Wake of Hiroshima

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Korean War / North Korea / War Crimes / World War II
USAF Japan, 1952 on mission to North Korea

In a Saturday essay for the Yorkshire Post, a very fine newspaper based in Leeds, I argue that there is more continuity than rupture in the historical legacy of the US atomic bombing of Hiroshima:

On the 70th anniversary of the US bombing of Hiroshima, it bears recalling that it was the atomic method of devastation, and not the devastation itself, that shocked observers in 1945. The United States and the Allies had threatened Japan with “prompt and utter destruction” at the Potsdam Conference, but by then the inferno in Japan was already well under way via regular conventional bombing runs across the archipelago.

Most of Japan’s cities had been pulverised or torched with similar result since the island battles of 1944 allowed it; millions of wooden homes were wiped out and the statistics for civilian deaths in any given city could reach into the tens of thousands, in spite of intense air raid drills and firefighting efforts.

Having reminded readers of the firebombing of Tokyo, the essay moves into observations on triumphalism in China’s state-managed war memory. While the viewpoint expressed here is perhaps cynical and unjustly compresses a very complicated set of arguments, I do think it is important to note how entwined and essentially competitive the national discourses of victimization and postwar liberation are in the region:

 If the international Press strikes a remorseful note today about the bombings, around East Asia, Japan’s unique traumas emerging out of the Second World War elicits relatively little sympathy. The Chinese state media are decidedly triumphalist. In the heavy-handed and ponderously-choreographed attitude put forth through the millions of organs of Chinese Communist Party information channels, the emphasis will be on China’s great victory in the “Anti-Fascist Global War”, a new locution that is meant to legitimise the country’s [sic, should read “Chinese Communist Party’s”] relatively minor role in the war, appeal to compatriots across the Taiwan Strait, and use foreign opinion to bludgeon Japan as often as possible.

Readers inclined to see the above paragraph as gratuitous “China bashing” are encouraged to read the whole piece, and to take some small solace in the fact that a section of text dealing with Abe Shinzo’s equally evident revisionism was cut for reasons of length and clarity.

The essay then makes good on its title by concluding with a look at the intense bombing of North Korea, as seen through documents in the National Archives in London:

When Emperor Hirohito surrendered unconditionally to the Allies in September 1945 it did not end his country’s implication in further violence. In the National Archives in Kew Gardens, one can find dozens of memoranda with respect to the use of airpower in the Korean War from Cecil Bouchier, who went to Japan in 1950 as the principal British adviser to General Douglas MacArthur.

Confronted with a Chinese invasion of the peninsula which neither he nor his superiors predicted, MacArthur’s staff began bombing “anything that moved” in North Korea. Every weapon short of the atomic one was used, but both the President and MacArthur were vocal and atomic in their threats.

Most of the bombing missions over North Korea took off from bases in Japan, and would never have been possible without Japanese labour. Bouchier wrote in his reports of various cities “being wiped off the map”, but larger goals, we have to assume, were being served. The men who went through the Second World War turned out to have yet more fighting to do.

The full essay is available via the Yorkshire Post (with no paywalls, surveys, or pop-ups, mercifully).  Readers are also encouraged to check out a meditation on a similar theme by Max Fisher over at Vox.

Image: ‘Lt. Col. Marle M. Jones, of Riverside, Calif., new commanding officer of the 91st Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron, gets a final O.K. from the crew chief of his B-29 “Superfort” photo plane before leaving on a mission into Communist Korea, ca. 9/1952.’ Image via US National Archives, College Park, Maryland.

Occupying North Korea, Witnessing Massacre? Military Sources and the Question of US/UK Forces in Sinchon

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Korean War / North Korean border region / US-North Korea relations / War Crimes
Operational Maps Cover Page WO308, 57

The North Korean state claims that US troops arrived in Sinchon, Hwanghae province, on 17 October 1950 and promptly began butchering civilians, culminating in over 35,000 dead by the time of their retreat on 7 December. To my knowledge, no serious writing outside of North Korea has been made to determine if the body count is accurate. However, writers and scholars like Hwang Sok-yong and Kim Dong-choon, respectively, have engaged in efforts to describe the violence as more communal in nature. In other words, this was a case of Koreans killing Koreans in the fog of war, not an American attempt to wipe out an entire county of communists through medieval methods.

North Korea has pumped significant resources into a refurbished museum in Sinchon and has increased its output of international propaganda about the massacre in recent years, but the narrative remains the same, and the state is extremely unlikely to open up its historical archives for external researchers.

Why, then, should we still try to verify any aspects whatsoever of the North Korean account? Because the North Koreans continue to believe their version of events, and “our” version of events is hardly clear.  By using sources available to researchers in South Korea, London, and Washington, D.C., I propose to get closer to understanding what happened — and what could not have happened — in and around Sinchon in the fall of 1950.

First, the North Korean narrative claims that the Americans arrived in Sinchon on 17 October 1950. I have yet to find any evidence of an American unit entering Sinchon county, but, if the troops arriving were in fact British, the day of the arrival appears to be plausible.

Roy E. Appleman’s standard official history of the US Army in the Korean War describes in some detail the US/UN advance north. (Appleman’s book is available in full as a free pdf.; the following page numbers refer to the 1961 print edition.) After the Inchon Landing of 15 September 1950 and some notable internal US/UN debate about the course and purpose of the war, it took a couple of weeks to fight north of the 38th parallel.

A map of some of the major cities / battlefields discussed in this post, via Google.

A map of some of the major cities / battlefields discussed in this post, via Google.

Appleman describes how the battle for Kumchon ended with a North Korean defeat about 20 kilometers north of Kaesong on 14 October. This was the opening of a floodgate north for the US/UN forces. The full invasion of Hwanghae province promptly commenced. Forces raced for Haeju/Ongjin in the south of the province, and Sariwon further north. Sariwon was a crossroads and seen as the gateway to Pyongyang.

Sinchon had been noted by MacArthur’s staff as being of minor importance (more on that in another post), and was off of the main invasion route from the south toward Pyongyang. However, it was only about 35 km south of Sariwon, the main goal of US and UN fighting units, and 15 km from Chaeryong, which was the main route of the invasion of Sariwon. In sum, it was off of the main route of invasion, but close enough to be of interest to US military commanders.

It is difficult to adequately convey just how quickly North Korean state structures evaporated in Hwanghae province in mid-October 1950. Haeju [海州/해주], a major administrative center along the coast and a key of strong DPRK military build-up in 1948-1950, fell to US/UN forces in a single afternoon (October 17), having been defended by only 300 North Korean troops (Appleman p. 642).

Likewise, Sariwon fell easily on the same day, with a raid on a handful of troops in an orchard by the UK’s Argyll 1st Division, who then endured a very strange night involving North Koreans arriving into the city from the south, unaware that it had already fallen, and the British soldiers being taken as the personification of hope: Arrival of Soviet troops to help, at last!  Those North Koreans, having for a moment lived the dream of reciprocal socialist obligation, were quickly taken prisoner. Appleman describes the “weird night” that transpired in Sariwon on pp. 644-645 of his book. Meanwhile, Kim Il-sung had fled to Kanggye and was issuing orders for commanders to shoot any troops who tried to desert. (His role in Sinchon as event and myth will be taken up later; Appleman quotes the order, which was picked up by ATIS as a broadcast on 14 Oct., on p. 631.)

British veteran and military historian Antony Farrar-Hockley goes into greater depth about Sariwon on pages 241-45 of his book The British part in the Korean War. Vol.1, A distant obligation [1990]. The British historian describes the level of resistance en route to the city as being extremely thin, consisting of a handful of snipers who were all rooted out in short order, and a skirmish in an orchard. The US/UN forces were picking up large numbers of surrendering Korean People’s Army soldiers. Appleman (p. 646) describes how the fall of Sariwon promptly put 1700 KPA soldiers and thirteen female nurses into the hands of the US/UN forces.

All of this surrounding action, and in particular the role of captured North Korean soldiers, seems to play little if any role in contemporary DPRK narratives of the Sinchon massacre. These elements are deemphasized in favor of discussing a handful of resistive guerrilla elements in the countryside around Sinchon (UK intelligence appears to have estimated that there were about 2600 North Korean troops scattered around Hwanghae in late November 1950). However, at this point of the war, if there were indeed Americans or British troops in Sinchon, they certainly would have had captives from the KPA 19th or 27th armies, and would have needed to manage that population as well.

Situation Map No. 11, 20 October 1950, in 'Situation Maps, Historical Section of the Cabinet [Top Secret],' War Office file WO308/57, United Kingdom National Archives, London.

Situation Map No. 11, 20 October 1950, in ‘Situation Maps, Historical Section of the Cabinet [Top Secret],’ War Office file WO308/57, United Kingdom National Archives, London.

But we have not yet answered the key question: Were there American or British troops in Sinchon on 17 October, or shortly thereafter?  (Keep in mind that the massacre in Sinchon is said to have been spread over a period of six full weeks; we are only now concerned with the initiation of contact between foreign armies and the people of Sinchon.)

It appears that the closest troops to Sinchon were the US 19th Regiment of the 24th Division, who had been ordered by General Frank Milburn to take up a position on the left of the 1st Cavalry and advance on Sariwon from the south. I have yet to dig into the relevant documents in the US National Archives for this regiment; Bruce Cumings has previously said he has found nothing in the archives about a US occupation of Sinchon, but that doesn’t mean the papers don’t exist.

In the National Archives of the UK in London, I have gone through several ‘War Diaries’ describing postings and positions of British forces during this phase of the war.  These sources have not provided me with anything like full clarity on the question, but they certainly indicate the speed and temporary nature of the occupation of the North.

Far more useful have been the operational maps, which, for the study of Sinchon and Hwanghae province more generally, go well beyond the level of detail described by Appleman and Farrar-Hockley, both of whom, like the troops they studied, seemed breathless to get to Pyongyang. And that is the precipice upon which I shall conclude this post.