Assassin Disinformation: Western and Chinese Media Parse the Defectors

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North Korean border region / Sino-North Korean relations

In case you hadn’t heard, two North Korean assassins were recently apprehended in South Korea on a mission to kill Hwang Jang Yop, the grizzled 87-year-old architect of the juche philosophy who defected — via Beijing — to Seoul in 1997.

This assassination attempt is kind of a big deal because — apart from the cinematic revelations that the two were instructed to cut off Hwang’s head, then jump off of a skyscraper — it indicates that North Korea remains as militant and unpredictable as ever.  It also argues, implicitly, that domestic turmoil and succession maneuvering is likely to lead to more international provocations rather than a conciliatory attitude in Pyongyang.  If in fact Selig Harrison is right that there is some kind of “peace faction” within the Korean Workers’ Party, he (or you and I) would be hard pressed to identify in just what bunker, freezer, or gulag it is arguing in at present.

Now, fueled by a single unsourced, unsubstantiated, and now unavailable (except via this cache) sentence fragment in a JoongAng Ilbo report on the assassins, influential rollback bloggers are thus able to unleash the assertions about China having “provided training” to the assassins.  I am referring, of course, to the voluble Mr. Stanton:

The assassins were trained in the Peoples’ Republic of China, which has long tolerated the presence of North Korean spies on its soil. Frankly, that may be the most sensational part of this entire story; after all, North Korea has assassinated people on South Korean soil before. I can’t foresee much support in Washington for the idea of listing China as a state sponsor of terrorism, but I certainly hope — this being an election year and all — that some members of Congress will hold hearings and ask the Congressional Research Service to investigate the question of what the Chinese government knew about the training and the plot. At a minimum, China’s support for the North Korean intelligence services is a crime against humanity, and China ought to pay a much higher price for it.

What?

Why would China want to aid North Korea in killing Hwang Jang Yop, the guy who needed Chinese help to get out of the DPRK in the first place?  How could it possibly serve China’s interests to be complicit, or to be merely perceived as complicit, with an assassination mission by North Korean agents into South Korea?  If there is any argument to be made for how China would benefit from this scenario, I would love to hear it.  Particularly when the master narrative in the PRC is tending toward the need for ethnic unity and, most of all, the presumptive triumph of the Shanghai Expo, the CCP has no need and no desire to indulge in this kind of affair that smacks of 1968 radicalism.

North Korean and Chinese security agencies certainly cooperate in sporadic fashion in the northern border region; that’s obvious.  But the idea of two North Korean agents moving into the PRC with Chinese aid, and then “training” (presumably in the Northeast) for a couple of months under Chinese supervision is almost comical.  Do North Korean assassins really need coaching from Chinese counterparts?  Now that would be a horrible admission of sadaejuui, or flunkeyism, toward China on North Korea’s part.  In short, it’s a crock.

Juchechosunmanse may not be as prolific as Joshua Stanton, but at least he evidences an actual concern for the facts as far as the China link in this story is concerned:

That Joongang article simply mentions “trained in China” without providing any details. Chosun Ilbo had a better account of the alleged activities of the two:

“Kim and Tong arrived in Yanji in Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in the Chinese province of Jilin after crossing the North Korea-China border in November last year. They met up with other North Korean agents and received mobile phones and operational funds at a liaison office of the Reconnaissance Bureau there.”

Apparently there are known NK intelligence agencies located in China. I too, wonder how much the Chinese government knows about it. I don’t think they are very pleased.

And they are not interested in seeing the thread of this story continue to a point where China enters the crosshairs, as, absent proof of Chinese encouragement or complicity, it shouldn’t be.   Thus, they change the subject.  North Korea stories in the mainland press this week are focusing on cultural cooperation in the form of opera, talking about South Korean island claims against infernal Japan, pumping up tourism in Hunchun (“see three countries with one glance!”), and painting glowing portrayals of Yanji as the “foremost home of Koreans in China.”

At this point there isn’t much point in translating the Chinese versions of the Hwang Jang Yop-targeted-by-false-defectors story, but I will note that the related Xinhua-vetted stories, of course, omit the mention of China as a transit point for the North Korean assassins.  They do, however, use phrases like “North Korean agents” which are bound to raise hackles in Beijing and elsewhere, particularly the Northeast, where ethnic Koreans have enough problems in addition to being saddled with additional suspicions of North Korean agents moving among them.  In some ways, the “osmotic” penetration of Manchuria with poor migrants from the Korean peninsula is a type of continuity from the 1930s, but now the sponsoring government isn’t imperial Japanese, it’s imperial North Korean.  (Thanks for the framework, B.R. Myers, I’ll quibble with it later.)

But wait!  A genius op-ed contributor to the New York Times has a better idea!

Central Asia, Mongolia, the Russian Far East and Southeast Asia are natural zones of Chinese influence. But they are also zones whose political borders are not likely to change. The situation on the Korean Peninsula is different. No one really expects China to annex any part of the Korean Peninsula, of course, But although it supports Kim Jong-il’s Stalinist regime, it has plans for the peninsula beyond his reign. Beijing would like to eventually dispatch there the thousands of North Korean defectors who now are in China so that they could build a favorable political base for Beijing’s gradual economic takeover of the region.

Talk about a misguided paragraph.  Robert Kaplan is indeed a great world traveler and an intrepid Verbundler of knowledge, but his comparative instincts here are just dead wrong.  Just read a handful of testimonies from North Korean defectors, and you can see that they are neither interested in collaborating with DPRK state security nor furthering the aims of the Chinese state.  The idea that North Korean defectors are sitting around and openly taking classes with mentors at business schools all over Northeast China is as beautiful as it is false.  (Kaplan avoids being branded with my “horseshit essay of the week” award only because this Foreign Policy piece cloaks some academic bromides in useless anonymity and likens the North Korean leadership, yes, to a clique of American high school jocks.)

Everyone has an axe to grind with China, or a point they desperately need to make via enlisting China.  For Tom “I Just Had a Thought About Globalization at My Golf Lesson” Friedman, it’s about using China’s awesome example to kick American readers in the pants to get busy mobilizing to study foreign languages and produce green technologies.   (Fortunately for Friedman, he can foist the need to learn Chinese off on his kids, rather than study the language himself.  What self-respecting adult has time for that kind of crap anyway?)  For Joshua Stanton, it’s about reminding you – over and over and over again – that China is unquestionably  complicit with North Korean human rights abuses and, therefore, a rogue nation deserving of sanction.  Why try to understand the Chinese discourse on North Korea, sense the shifts in the PRC’s emphasis in how it talks about the DPRK, probe at the metaphorical gum tissue in the “lips and teeth alliance”, or highlight an emerging consensus?  And for Robert Kaplan, it’s about reminding you that he’s traveled pretty much everywhere and therefore has the right to make grand pronouncements — which are usually meant to be sniffed all the way up to some cash register — about the Chinese periphery.

Chinese-North Korean border post south of Hunchun, Jilin province -- photo by Adam Cathcart

The Author

Lecturer of Chinese history at University of Leeds, and Editor-in-Chief of SinoNK.com.

2 Comments

  1. Very interesting posting.

    I to seriously doubt the Chinese government would condone DPRK operatives conducting such an assassination mission but I wonder if they knew whether or not these guys were DPRK operatives passing through their country; just not their mission?

    After this recent news plus the sinking of the Cheonan I would think it would be in the Chinese government’s interest to crack down on DPRK operatives in their country and try to ratchet down the tension on the NLL.

  2. Gag Halfrunt says

    I read somewhere that North Korea used to send its spies to Macau to learn how to live in a modern capitalist society (buying food in supermarkets, using cash machines, etc.). Perhaps the assassins were just doing the same while they were “training” in China.

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