Kim Jong Il in China: 28 Things You May Have Missed

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American Foreign Policy / China / Chinese communist party / East Asian modernity / Manchuria / North Korea / North Korean border region / Sino-North Korean relations / US-North Korea relations / Yanbian / 新闻自由

Cross-Border Economic Development

1. Indeed, the Rodong Sinmun [劳动新闻/Worker’s Daily], North Korea’s key ideological mouthpiece, has said nothing of Kim Jong Il’s since his junket to a Hamgyong fruityard. But what has flowered in place of news of Kim?  The halls of Pyongyang, at least the ones with lighting, are suddenly again flush with economic optimism.

The phrases present in this Rodong Sinmun, May 20, editorial had gone into deep remission.  The North Korean leadership, we can only assume, feels confident that Chinese aid can pitch them forward headlong into the future (notwithstanding the fact that 6 million of the DPRK’s 24 million people are starving).

2. Analysis of all of this is needed, and one of China’s top North Korea bloggers rises to the task:


Roughly, while Kim Jong Il is trying to “transmit craziness” to the world community and heighten concern about his food difficulties and military potency, he is also – and this is interesting – trying to restore Sino-North Korean relations to a state resembling that of the 1980s.  Economic junkets and implicit promises of reform were a core piece of those relations.  However, the economic linkages of the 1980s never really took off, whereas today, North Korea is ever-deeper in the economic embrace of China along the frontier and otherwise.  In the 1990s, during the height of the famine, Kim Jong Il not once travelled to China.  This was clearly a mistake.  North Korea appears to have learned something from its recent past [前车之鉴].   Perhaps, finally, there is no going back.

3. Another very astute point made by the Chinese blogger is the unifying imperative of both the internal situation in North Korea (and, implicitly, China) with the complex international situation.  This includes the democratic wave in the Middle East and the need to improve domestic stability in both countries.  Thus the answer is to present not only a united Sino-North Korean front to the world, but to render that front even more united than before:


The mechanics of Kim Jong Il’s visit are less important than its effects and what it accompanies: another wave of economic cooperation with China.  Economic ties with North Korea are far, far more important to the Chinese leadership than blustering about North Korea’s nuclear program.

4. Criticism of the DPRK will remain a salient part of the PRC’s media arsenal, but this is done in more subtle ways that do not damage fundamentally the international united front with North Korea.  Where, after all – other than on Sinologistical Violoncellist – do you read stories in English about North Korea-bashing in the Chinese media?

Thus, to economic cooperation, which continues apace:

5. China and North Korea will launch a new borderlands developments initiative next week, and these developments near Sinuiju and on islands in the Yalu River are making the rounds on various government-approved  internet bulletin boards.  In particular, this Chosun Ilbo story is getting a great deal of attention from netizens:

6. North Korea is doing a great deal more than it has in the past to promote Chinese investment.  Witness this – the most detailed KCNA story on the subject I have seen to date — about Chinese investment in Rason, the port in the northeastern corner of Korea.  Of special interest is the frank admission that China is footing the bill for the port’s renovation:

7. Just as the North Korean regime essentially said “hell with it” to the public distribution system in the late 1990s and allowed small market activities so that people knew they should fend for themselves, the DPRK is today more or less admitting that China is going to be increasingly important certain segments of economic life.  Again, the survival imperative is at the core of this: North Koreans know the economy needs an infusion from somewhere, and internal complaints about the Chinese ascension – and they certainly exist – are easy enough to stifle.

8. North Korea has emphasized how much they value Chinese investment in Rason – or done a damn good job in covering up an accidental death – by commemorating the drowning of a Chinese businessman who is said to have saved the lives of two North Korean girls who were somehow just floating in distress of the Rason coast.  A ceremony was held in early April in Pyongyang and Zhang’s stone-faced widow and son were there to accept awards on behalf of a grateful nation.  (Link with photos.)

9. Unfortunately, according to internal sources, North Korea still can’t find enough Chinese investors who are willing to trust their North Korean counterparts.  The limits of rhetoric thus become evident.

10. Not that North Korea isn’t trying hard, and also drumming up interest from European firms as well.  At the International Trade Exhibition in Pyongyang on May 17, a whole host of DPRK international trade officials showed up to meet the Chinese ambassador, as well as a host of businesspeople, including Germans, French, and Italians.

11. But at the same time, the moribund nature of everything economic in North Korea seems clear.  No one has mentioned this, but in last site visit prior to moving east through some devastated provinces which he completely ignored on his way to China, Kim Jong Il managed to stare forlornly at some fruit, coughing up some of the same old boilerplate:

And speaking of Kim….

Personal Politics

12. Kim Jong Il has regained weight, his swagger, and high heels

13. While he was crossing over the Tumen River, North Korean media released this unusual and soaring endorsement by a “Chinese VIP”  (Chen Zongxing, discussed later in this post) who endorsed Kim Jong Il’s rule and anticipates it will alst at least through 2012 :

14. Kim Jong Il proceeded to meet with Dai Bingguo in little Mudanjiang city. (with photos) in a trip that might have been prophesized had anyone been paying attention:

On May 10, the Chinese Embassy had been summoned to Mangyongdae Hall in Pyongyang for a good long meeting with the DPRK’s head of Public Security [李明洙/Li Myong Jo] at which the two countries’ Public Security Bureaus agreed on “the strictest” precautions (obviously in reference to the Dear Leader’s visit, as can be seen in retrospect).  Link with photos:

Stories like the above, which go totally unreported in even the Wall Street Journal or the Guardian, along with stories like this in the Chinese media (“Kim Jong Eun Visit Speculated for Early May”) make you wonder: even given latitude for the differences in political culture, is it really fair to say that China is “habitually secretive about such trips” by Kim Jong Il?  As with everything else, it depends what you are paying attention to prior to the “disclosure” of Kim’s appearance in China, and what your definition of “secretive” is.    Perhaps more people need to read “North Korea Leadership Watch.”

15. As for possible meetings with Xi Jinping, so far the Chinese media is mum, as per protocol, but one “inside source” (maybe a friend in the Foreign Ministry in Chaoyang) states that Xi Jinping doesn’t want to be photographed with Kim Jong Eun, in any event:

16. Kim Jong Eun, perhaps, is busy holding down the fort in Pyongyang, making sure that the press duly commemorates a speech his absent father made twenty years ago (when the heir apparent, it bears noting, was all of six years old) about architecture theory:

17. In a story about the paradox of youthful leadership transition in North Korea, the Chosun Ilbo speculates that the DPRK’s new cadres are actually likely to be more aggressive than their predecessors:

Meanwhile, the “American imperialists” were also rather busy…

The U.S. Angle

18. The new US diplomatic team on North Korea is rather remarkable, and rather expert.  I strongly recommend you get to know Sydney Seiler, a Koreanist who has studied Kim Il Sung’s rise to power, via this Chosun Ilbo rundown:

19. The core outline of what the US wants – nuclear de-escalation before resumption of normal trade – is made clear in this extensive interview about North Korea with Kathleen Stephens, the excellent US Ambassador to South Korea:

20. KCNA has yet to jab at Seiler – surely they will start name-calling eventually – but the North Korean media put out again a  warning about the deployment of US unmanned drones in Asia-Pacific:   As I mentioned a few days ago, the use of unmanned aerial drones by the US in East Asia, if in fact this becomes policy, has already become, paradoxically, a major plus for the North Korean regime.  Can you imagine a more perfect method of pumping up a mobilization-weary populace to be vigilant of foreign threats than that?  It also has already brought the Sino-North Korean security and military apparatuses closer, closing ranks against the common threat.  Drones over Hyesan?  As much as Douglas MacArthur would love the idea, couldn’t we leave MacArthur in the grave and the North Korean textbooks and just stick with satellites?

General Sino-North Korea Relations

21. Returning to the endorsement of Kim Jong Il given in Pyongyang on May 19-20 by the Chinese official: it was Chen Zongxing, in Pyongyang along with Ma Zhongping (马中平), chair of political conference in Shaanxi Province, there with a led a group of Chinese officials from May 16-20.

In a meeting with Kim Yong Nam, Chen uttered what is likely to be the most high-level characterization of the Sino-North Korean relationship that we get, absent a Wen Jiabao eruption on his junket in Seoul.  Via the Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang, which, like me, translates very little of value into English,



22. After praising Chinese “multilateralism and supporting the unique development of China’s “green economy” in KCNA, it was time for the annual spring rice-planting by Chinese embassy in Pyongyang, for pictures, see also

23. In a May 4 speech celebrating “Youth Day,” PRC Ambassador in Pyongyang assures his North Korean colleagues of the ideological reliability of young Chinese people working for the Embassy.  Is this a response to North Korean nervousness about liberal Chinese youth?  Or is it just another statement of filler orthodoxy that kills another thirty seconds before the Ambassador can enjoy those blessed three seconds of solitude with the obligatory glass of alcohol that makes such events tolerable to officials who would rather be stationed in London?

If Chinese youth are becoming more liberal, they are going in a very different direction than the core North Korean leadership, or so it appears.  And the Global Times, by the way, seems to agree: Chinese under age 35 have little attachment to the type of “Red culture” so praised by the North Koreans.

24. For the May 1 holiday, Chinese embassy staff took a misty holiday to the DPRK mountains.  In a virtually abandoned park, they enjoy some beverages – both their water and their orange drink, unsurprisingly enough, are brought from China.

25. On April 28, the Chinese Ambassador met with the North Korean cultural official Park.  The main business at hand was to announce the North’s intention to organize the  “13th International Film Festival” in Pyongyang to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth.

Judging from the Embassy’s summary of this meeting, it seems that Park did most of the talking.  His remarks begin by stating how well North Korean revolutionary films have already succeeded in giving the North Korean people a positive picture of the Chinese people.  (A whole list of films is then reeled off, probably while Ambassador Liu nods with false curiosity and a student at UC Santa Barbara finds new fodder for summer research.)

Perhaps most interesting are this section of Park’s remarks:


“[I] hope that the Chinese government and the Chinese Embassy can continue to give great support [大力支持] to the Pyongyang International Film Festival, which will allow the North Korean people to encounter films which [give them] even more understanding of the revolutionary spirit [革命精神] of the Chinese people, traditional [Chinese] culture and the colorful realism of life in China.  At the same time, we hope that both sides can quickly [尽快/jinkuai] move forward with friendly cooperation in the area of film-making, so that our two countries’ film industries can reach a new and higher level of exchange.”

And, as a coda, a few more links and fragmentary notes from the Chinese-North Korean border…

Borderland News

26. Contrary to the Chosun Ilbo report, the Chinese Ambassador to US was NOT at the launch of recent abductions report; China is not sending any signals of anger at the DPRK for snatching people over the Tumen river:

However, more news has emerged about a 1999 Tumen river body snatching of a South Korean agent by North Koreans:

27. In a story that, for me, does not pass the sight test –since I’ve met several dozen of these young ladies – the Daily NK asserts that North Korean waitresses in China supposedly need surgery on their eyelids before they go abroad:

But fashion matters: After noting a struggle between young women and state minders over extravagant earrings (just check my Twitter feed for that), Daily NK reports on a recent public trial in Sinuiju for those caught watching South Korean movies:

28. Finally, there are parallels between tracking a wild predator and the type of journalism and analysis that we need to do to understand the Kim trip.  This one is propitious: A trail of torn throats and paw prints in the mud: photo evidence of the rare Northeastern tiger roaming the Sino-North Korean frontier.  Photos:

The Author

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


  1. Pingback: North Korea: Kim Jong Il in China · Global Voices

  2. kent says

    could be my favorite post

    what are the chances of you slapping together a list of your favorite chinese blogs on NK?

    • Adam Cathcart says

      Hi Kent, great to find a fellow Chengdu afficionado interested in the Hermit Kingdom! (Or is that a retro term? Perhaps the Kingdom of Great Epaulets and Voluminous, Hermit-like KPA Hats?)

      Anyway, there aren’t so many that I follow, there is one dude who takes the cake every time, I’ll endeavor to get to this ASAP, currently knocking out a new blog post in Hong Kong!

      • kent says

        haha, i’m actually currently anchored in yanbian, waiting out the heat.

        thanks for the efforts.. enjoy hk

        • Adam Cathcart says

          Thanks Kent. Any sightings of North Korean officials recently?

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