North Korea Notes

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American Foreign Policy / Cultural Politics / East Asian modernity / Hip-hop / history and memory / Huanqiu Shibao / North Korea / North Korean border region / Sino-North Korean relations / US-North Korea relations

The Hu-Obama Summit has already been subjected to some of the most intense lobbying pressures known to man.  From big business to human rights groups to the defense hawks in both countries, both executives have probably had it up to their ears (or, in Hu’s case, his lengthening and positively Cheneyewque jowls) with being pushed to push his counterpart on a given issue.  This being the case, it’s unlikely that a few truly remarkably-timed stories from the Chinese-North Korean border region are going to propel the “Obama needs to go to the mat with Hu on the North Korea issue” trope any further than it has already gone.  But then again, one never knows.  In China, state control of the media insulates the Party from such problems.

Or, in the logic of the Huanqiu Shibao: Chinese troops in North Korea?  What? Hey! Check out this wild boar on the loose in the northern city of Taiyuan!

I really need to get out of here...courtesy Huanqiu Shibao

Just to recap, as U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was evacuating the PRC and Hu was preparing to head to Washington, word dropped that Chinese companies were practically gobbling up Rason in the Korean northeast and, what’s more, rumors spread from unnamed officials in Seoul’s Blue House that thousands of People’s Liberation Army soldiers were entering the North Korean frontier.  Does anyone else find the timing of the release of these stories, covering events which allegedly happened in mid-December, to be just a little bit troubling?  Not that they registered too deeply given the kerfuffle over the stealth jet and all that, but it is something to note and store away: propaganda campaigns surrounding the Sino-North Korean border are alive and well.

Now, to the NK tropes:

I positively loved the comments on this Washington Post entry by Jennifer Rubin which concludes we should be tough on North Korea “because the Iranians are taking note.”  The original essay lauds John Bolton’s courage in being tough on North Korea, but an anonymous commenter takes everyone to task with refreshing clarity:

[Bolton wrongly] argues that we should be “dramatically increasing defector-led radio broadcasting from outside North Korea. The truth is Kim Jong Il’s greatest foe, and dissent movements thrive on factual information that undermine the dictators’ propaganda.”

Ah the “experts” weighing in again. The above quote reminds me of the possibly apocryphal story about Johnny Cash being requested not to play Folsom Prison Blues in one of his performances at a prison, so as not to reimnd the prisoners of being in prison. To which he replied “You think they’ve forgotten?”

I am sure the North Koreans won’t know they’re starving until we broadcast the fact.

[Bolton continues]: “It is a truism that, as we pump more information in, thereby bolstering oppostion forces, our ability to extract intelligence from a despotic regime increases.”

Like any true Stalinist regime, there are NO living opposition forces. If you want governmental change then you need to make a secret deal with a NK general or generals in the unlikely event that is possible. [H/t Joshua Stanton for the link]

Why do I get the feeling that we in the West are engaged in the same old “to the Yalu River!” debate from fall 1950?  Haven’t conditions changed?  Should we fear a country where, in the seventeenth year of his unchallenged reign and accompanied by his son-successor and sister, the dictator still needs to make very special arrangements for bottled-water factories to get (not nukes but) empty bottles?  Or fear a state whose new slogan for the day dates from 1961 and is, basically, “You think this is bad?  Try life in Changsong County, Ryanggang Province, buddy!

Go ahead, farmer, “make good use of mountain”!  If this slogan chaps your hide, imagine how it feels to read it in the Worker’s (cigarette paper, if you’ve got something to smoke) Daily in Ryanggang…

Sentences like this {“The U.S. imperialists’ pursuance of their policy of strength did not lead to the outbreak of the second Korean war because the DPRK has steadily implemented the Songun line”} make me wish Obama would continue his technique of using communist slogans in lectures to communist leaders.  I thought it was a brilliant stroke to speak to Hu Jintao in his own lingo {“…societies are more harmonious when…”}, so why not go “Songun line” on Kim Jong Il?  Or let Gates do it…God knows the Department of Defense has enough propaganda personnel to whip up a KCNA-style summary praising US policy in East Asia.  But how can you beat such bon mots as quite a different editorial urging (what else?) vigiliance against foreigners distributing gift baskets and flowers from their nuclear aircraft carriers? That is to say:

If there be imperialism not seeking aggression and plunder, it is no longer imperialism.

The imperialists pretend to be “peace champions.” But this is just a crafty and cunning art of disguise to benumb the world people’s awareness and achieve their aggressive and predatory purposes. It is their general strategic goal to destroy the world independent forces with their policy of strength, war strategy, turn the international community into a “unipolar world” dominated by them and exercise an unlimited right to domination.

The aggressive nature of the imperialists remains unchanged and it is getting more pronounced as the days go by. This is clearly proved by the disastrous wars that have taken place in the international arena since the demise of the Cold War.

The whole editorial is available here.  It makes you realize that the North Koreans are probably fuming and frustrated when Hu Jintao goes to Washington and oh-so-glad that the US is continuing intense military action in Afghanistan.

Turning to life inside North Korea, this KCNA dispatch in so many words basically says: “Co-ops are busy trying to produce shit for the fields, but only officials eat enough to produce enough shit to make it worthwhile.”  Yes, the dispatch concludes:

Co-op farms are provided with huge quantities of compost and farm implements by employees of the Cabinet, ministries and national institutions and those in various provinces, cities and counties.

In another unfortunately-titled editorial by KCNA {“Shining Path Covered by Korean Youth Movement“}, we are reminded that the Korean Youth League was formed in January 17, 1946.  As Kim Jong Il himself knows very well and discussed in inner-Party speeches, the Youth League was itself formed in response to violent anti-Party youth protests in Sinuiju in November 1945.  The amount of column inches spent in new histories such as Kim Jong Suk’s biography in describing the importance of consolidating youth, and the major commemorations this past week of the Democratic Youth League formation, indicates that the regime is still working as hard as it can to keep the youth under its protective wing, while offering them less and less material incentive.

Which generation of North Koreans will finally render the Democratic Youth League into a counter-revolutionary organization?

As I learned in the East German archives, Ri Yong Chol, the present executive of the Youth League is the same dude who was leading it in 1989!  In other words, the bureaucracy of the Youth League is getting quite gray.  Here, however, North Korea gets consistent props from the Chinese (particularly former Communist Youth League Secretary Hu Jintao) for keeping the spiritual pollution down and militarist/patriotic education high among North Korean youth.  Oh, musn’t forget!  Great job with the corveé labor, kids!  Certainly you were led to become expressive, more fulfilled human beings on account of the new — dare I say avant-garde? — poetry being produced at such a clip in the newly digital (IC all the way!) North Korea, such instant classics as “Coalfield Alive with High-pitched Drive.”

But enough with the cynicism, my dear professor.  Isn’t it time that we found a path forward, a new concept?  Perhaps an idea could be expressed constructively, given that there is no Great Firewall acting as a mental prophylactic?  Well, the Daily NK is in fact available behind the Great Firewall (much to the chagrin of the North Korean government, no doubt), and it carries this very interesting story about the possible official production of a film in North Korea in which the hero is a Christian.  Reframing, twisting, newly interpreting Kim Il Song’s past: this is the key to an approach in and towards North Korea which can yield good results, absent a regime collapse. One need only gain sanction from the Great Leader’s past attitudes and papers, and the action can become defensible.  I don’t know how many of my readers have had the pleasure of reading the 48 talismanic volumes of Kim’s Works, let alone the 1200+ page memoir With the Century (OK I still working on that one), but let me assure you that there is plenty of fodder in these sources for a more liberal approach to governance in North Korea.  Not wholesale, of course, but when the man says he likes some landlords (which is to say, he didn’t kill them when he could have, and brought them over into the sympathetic middle forces!), that’s potential ideological cover for that elusive North Korean Deng Xiaoping figure for whom the world is waiting.

Former hostage in North Korea/missionary intentional border-crosser Robert Park is speaking out.  There is a major  difference between how he was treated and the Ling/Lee duo and how he has acted after getting out of North Korea.  Perhaps this is because not only did he lack the protection of minor fame in the US, he was hardcore opposed to Kim Jong Il when he got in (unlike the women whose memoirs I am reading sedulously in Seattle), he insulted the leader, etc.  Not for the light of heart.

Finally, this is already my favorite photo of the year, and it isn’t just the flaming poop:

"Suited Businessman Turns to Rap" -- courtesy DailyNK, click image for article link

Presently burrowing into the critical aftermath of a recent performance of the Schumann Cello Concerto in Seattle, it was heartening to read the DailyNK’s concert review of the event in Seoul:

The president of the Center for Free Enterprise, a liberal think tank, Kim Chung Ho transformed himself into a rapper for the day on Saturday to criticize Kim Jong Il and his sympathizers in South Korea.

Kim delivered his message through song on an outdoor stage in front of the headquarters of Korean Exchange Bank in Myeongdong, coming together with hip hop group The Street Poets to form “Dr. Kim and the Poets” and criticize the North Korean regime in a concert entitled “The Gnome Kim Jong Il’s Birthday Parteee.”

He performed stirring renditions of “Sons Just Like their Fathers” and “More Grasshoppers than Ants”, despite occasionally stumbling over lyrics and losing track of the beat.

Lose track of the beat and stumble over the lyrics all you want, Dr. Kim.  As we say on these rainy streets, “Respect!”  And mad, mad props.  Those prepping for the main event of the epoch sling citations and drop beats, not bombs!

The Author

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

6 Comments

  1. King Tubby says

    Adam. The only thing you didn’t throw into this gumbo was the spate of recent cadre executions in NK. Loved the feral razorback though. Can’t recall which, but a province in the PRC has recently been experiencing an infestation of porkers, snuffling down crops, while avoiding farmers with crossbows.

    • adamcathcart says

      Thanks King, glad to receive your comment! And it indeed is a real gumbo of a post, I must agree there, so it’s fitting to toss in a bit of the pork fat along the way.

      As to the meat of the remark: I wonder, fifty or sixty years from now, assuming somebody has access to the North Korean archives and we aren’t incinerated or underwater as a species, how many of the recent rumors about activities in NK and along the border are legit.

      Since you mentioned executions, I found it really fairly startling: the Chosun Ilbo noted that there was a threefold uptick in public executions, but it is up from 20 recorded public executions to 60 public executions. Well how many of these are public officials being executed for presumptive “crimes against the people”? We know of one, at the very least, do we not? The January 2010 execution of the long-time cadre responsible for the currency revaluation, the fall guy for that fiasco? Was that completely unjustified, or is this how North Korea blows off a little public steam? We just have such a poor understanding of the means used by the Workers’ Party to maintain control…As B.R. Myers points out, such a system really needs a degree of public buy-in or support, and somehow the regime gets just enough to continue on. I have no data to indicate to me that the executions are in any way connected to a strange type of regime accountability, but if bad officials (well, they’re all bad…so let’s say “egregiously bad even in a North Korean context”) are being put to death publicly, we can’t leave out the possibility that there is something going on here that goes beyond “refoulement of refugee leads to public shaming and execution” that we have all seen on YouTube already.

      Fifty-nine executions in 2009, but of who? and for what? Perhaps the Chosun Ilbo or other well-informed readers such as yourself could elaborate.

  2. I am sure the North Koreans won’t know they’re starving until we broadcast the fact.

    Objection, Sir! It’s a tasty gumbo indeed, but… sure the North Koreans know that they or some neighbors are starving (if it’s the season again), but many North Korean might actually find that rather normal, or may not be really that aware that there are people who find it outrageous.
    Even propaganda might shed a bit of light into misery, occasionally. It can help an uncertain number of people to feel less forgotten.
    If that justifies the expense of public money for propaganda radio stations is, of course, another issue. But remember: most people in Folsom prison had known times of freedom, before they were jailed. Most North Korean have always been looked after by great and dear leaders.

  3. Gag Halfrunt says

    Dear comrades! The observation by the Rodong Sinmun that “They are making their ways deep to other countries under the pretext of “joint development” and “assistance” in a bid to loot more natural resources” is of course referring to the American imperialists and not to our Chinese brothers. We must be careful to prevent the spread of such a baseless and inexplicable misunderstanding.

  4. Haley Moe says

    Your line, “drop beats not bombs” reminds me of the Art of War when Master Sun says, “Draw them in by the prospect of gain, take them by confusion.” The suit and rap music would cause definite confusion.

    • Adam Cathcart says

      I LOVE IT, yours is the best new analysis of the entire DECADE so far. (Please forgive my caps!)

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