Inter-Korean Sports Diplomacy: Comment in the Washington Post

A North Korean tug-o-war in Pyongyang for May Day, 2014. Image via Chosun Central TV.

A North Korean tug-o-war in Pyongyang for May Day, 2014. Image via Chosun Central TV.

Adam Taylor runs a key foreign affairs blog for the Washington Post. Today he was kind enough to ask for my views on this story of his about North Korea offering to send cheerleaders to Incheon for the Asian Games.

Here is the full text of my response:

I do think that [the offer to send a cheerleading squad to the South]  is important and noteworthy; I do not see this as just some throwaway proposition that North Korea only plans to use as leverage (and ultimately cancel, though that is always possible) in the short-term.

If you are an optimist, it indicates that the softer line taken towards South Korea by the North Korean regime early in 2014 still has a chance and that there is still room in North Korean ruling circles for an opening of peaceful gestures toward the South. In spite of calling the South Korean president some really awful names and complaining rather loudly about South Korean-US military drills earlier this year, North Korea still has the capacity to reach out to Seoul. Anytime you have North Koreans agreeing to send an official delegation of their own people to South Korea for any reason, it is a big deal, I think you take it, and I think you say yes.

At the same time we cannot lose sight of the fact that North Korea has periodically and since its very beginnings, gone on these kind of charm offensives with South Korea, as part of a larger strategy of manipulation of South Korean public opinion — and in the past, attempts at the full subversion of the South Korean state. Not that these are a bunch of “pom-pom commandos”; I’m sure they will follow every rule set out for them.

[...] Consider Kim Jong-un’s emphasis on sports and on sports diplomacy. To the extent that he has put his mark on the North Korean leadership system and on ruling think, I that he does next to throw his weight around when it comes to matters of sport and sport diplomacy. The Dennis Rodman visit being one very important example.

Like musical ensembles, sports are one of the few ways in which North Koreans can leave the country officially and take trips; I think that’s a really important conduit. It does not mean that they’re all going to discoverJohn Locke and Adam Smith, but I think that it does open their eyes a bit and make for some fascinating interactions.

Maybe the big game here is that North Korea is looking towards 2018 when the ROK will host the Winter Olympics; I think that Kim very much wants to keep the door open for possibly cohosting events. (Chris Green has a great essay on this here: That be good for his prestige and would feed into this notion he’s promoting internally of North Korea’s international importance.

Finally because his wife, Ri Sol-ju, was part of this cheerleading delegation at 2005 to Seoul, we cannot discount the fact that she might have personally lobbied for this; she might have had great experience then and want others to experience it today. It could be a nice reward for some über-loyal members of the elite to take such a trip; it’s obviously once-in-a-lifetime event.

New German Ambassador in Pyongyang

On August 14 in Pyongyang, the 85-year-old leader Kim Yong-nam, himself only two weeks removed from a recent trip to Tehran, welcomed Thomas Schäfer as the new Ambassador from Berlin.  As reported on Nordkorea-info, the essential German-language website for North Korean studies,  Schäfer is back in Pyongyang after a short stint in Guatemala.

Schäfer had previously been Germany’s ambassador to the DPRK from 2007-2010, ending his tenure during a year of much turmoil that included the North Korean sinking of the Cheonan, an act which the German press quickly termed “an act of war.”  Schäfer’s East Asian credentials stretch back into the era of German division; he was stationed in Beijing for the Auswaertiges Amt (Germany’s Foreign Ministry) in 1987 and surely has a strong grasp of what a civil society, and a student movement, gaining a sense of its own potency truly looks like.

As one Wikileaks cable described  (found again by Nordkorea-info), Schäfer took monthly trips to Sinuiju from Pyongyang and maintained an active interest in Chinese-North Korean trade during his first tenure in Pyongyang. In the same cable, the German ambassador also conveyed some rather intriguing information about the succession process of Kim Jong-un, including the young man’s “election” from a certain ward in Pyongyang under the name “Kim Jong.”

Germany’s role in the political and social life of Pyongyang remains marginal and hardly destined to return to the relatively halcyon and high-water days of 1956, when East Germany sent hundreds of technicians to rebuild the large North Korean port city of Hamhung. But Germany continues to serve as a very active touchstone for South Korean politicians looking for answers as to unification procedures; this naturally puts more than a bit of fear into Pyongyang, and thus “the Irish model” outshines “the German model” in North Korean eyes. (There are of course other models as well which the North Koreans investigate in their own ways, not being partial to China’s “Taiwan parallel” for inter-Korean relations.) More concretely, Germany and German legislators are a voice on European Union debates over North Korean food aid — and human rights abuses. North Korean interlocutors will even sometimes say surprising things to their colleagues from Berlin, and not just because they like having the Hanns Siedel Stiftung around to aid with the advancement of North Korean agriculture.

The previous holder of the post, Gerhard Thiedemann, left Pyongyang in early July and has been transferred to Ulan Bator, Mongolia. Having held the post in North Korea since 2010, Thiedemann oversaw some promising cultural diplomacy between his country and North Korea, the crown jewel of which was a visit by the Munich Chamber Orchestra to Pyongyang, where the musicians played Mozart, some atonal Polish music, and did masterclasses with North Korean conservatory students.

Germany has an ambitious program of cultural influence, or, in the contemporary argot, the country’s foreign affairs lean heavily on elements of “soft power.” This is nowhere more true than in the one-Party dictatorships in East Asia, where change is often best approached indirectly. (This approach, and ample bundles of cash that come along with it, has not prevented German-sponsored artists from being whisked away into detention on their way to Berlin, but perhaps that is another story.) In the meantime, may the “Kulturarbeit” in North Korea continue.

Moranbong: Following French Intellectuals to North Korea in 1958

Frame from the French-North Korean film production of “Moranbong,” c. 1958. Image courtesy National Museum of Singapore

As I’ve completed a long article on the subject of Sino-French relations in the mid-1950s with a focus on the 1955 journey of Simone de Beauvoir to the People’s Republic of China, the following press release, sent by Benjamin Joinau, interests me quite a bit: 

Re: Antoine Coppola’s “Cine-voyage en Coree du Nord”
L’Atelier des Cahiers [link] introduces its latest publication about the fascinating trip of French intellectuals to North Korea in 1958: Chris Marker, Claude Lanzmann, Armand Gatti, Jean-Claude Bonnardot, Francis Lemarque – all of them were to become famous later. Marker brought back his unique photo book “Les Coreennes”, Lanzmann a broken heart after a short love affair with a North Korean nurse, Gatti and Bonnardot the first and only North Korean-French co-produced movie: “Moranbong”…
This book follows their journey in North Korea while assessing the historical context, then proposes a detailed analysis of the movie.

Résumé/présentation — Nous sommes en mai 1958, un groupe d’intellectuels français s’embarque à bord d’un avion en direction de Pyongyang via Moscou. À son bord, des hommes en quête d’horizons nouveaux : Armand Gatti, journaliste, futur cinéaste et dramaturge ; Chris Marker, écrivain-cinéaste; Jean-Claude Bonnardot, acteur-cinéaste ; Francis Lemarque, chansonnier, et Claude Lanzmann, rédacteur-philosophe aux Temps Modernes de Sartre et Beauvoir, et futur maître du documentaire moderne. Gatti et Bonnardot ramèneront de cette expédition un film unique en son genre Moranbong, un film à part, insoluble dans le réalisme socialiste stalinien, trou noir dans l’histoire du cinéma français, une comète chargée de toutes les interrogations et contradictions d’une époque, en Corée du Nord comme en France. Chris Marker ramènera un album de photographies commentées qui fera date (Coréennes), Lemarque, des vues éparses filmées au cours du séjour, et Lanzmann, une histoire belle et triste d’amour impossible qu’il relatera dans ses mémoires (Le Lièvre de Patagonie). Le nord de la Corée est alors sous le contrôle de Kim Il-sung, fondateur d’une république dite populaire alliée de l’URSS et de la Chine.

The book runs about 18€, according to a press release which includes a short interview with the author.  Chris Marker’s work in North Korea is described further here.

For more on the “Moranbong” film mentioned, an article by the French-North Korean Friendship Association gives essential background; the film was most recently screened at the National Museum of Singapore in an exhibition entitled “Visions of East: Asia through French Eyes.”

I’ll be in Paris in a couple weeks to pick up a copy and will endeavour to write at least a short summary/review in this space or on that other space for DPRK analysis,

JR’s China Soft Power Summary, July 2012

This guest post comes to SinoMondiale via JustRecently

It’s frequently hard to believe for a nationalist that his or her country may not project as much “soft power” abroad as it would deserve, in the nationalist’s view. Besides, the idea that the inconceivable should be seen as a fact may amount to an insult. But that doesn’t help the task of making China “going towards the world”. Two goals – a certain degree of knowledge about the outside world, and a “mainstream opinion” that tolerates, but dislikes the status quo -, may currently define the propaganda mission.

Huanqiu Shibao, a paper that delicately doubles as a government mouthpiece and as an online gathering point for nationalist readers and commenters, is apparently trying to broaden its domestic readership’s horizon about international affairs, and to educate them into a direction of more tolerance for the world as it is. After all, Huanqiu Shibao is Chinese for, basically, Global Times.

Pretty much the Reader’s Digest way of the 1960s in its discourse with the domestic American public, Huanqiu Shibao tries to bring it home to its readers that not the entire globe would worship their country’s societal model – or its ideas on international relations – quite yet.China’s former ambassador to Vietnam, and Asia-Pacific Research Center director, Qi Jianguo, explained late in July why, against the apparent odds, there would be potential in Vietnamese-U.S. relations.

That’s not to suggest that Beijing wants to put up with the status quo. People’s Daily had harsh words of advice for the American hegemon of global opinion in July: play a more constructive role in the Asia-Pacific region (i. e. shut up about human rights), or get used to being marginalized.
This is, of course, advice to a domestic, rather than American audience. In its editorial on July 12, and reacting to U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton‘s speech on the human-rights issue in Ulan-Batar, People’s Daily continued a CCP propaganda leitmotif that suggests that human rights, especially American definitions of it, would be a dirty word, and an embarrassment to the global public.

Soft power may be dear to many Chinese bureaucrats, but it probably matters more to diplomats, than to military or economic planners. Some of the enthusiasm in the debate about it appears to have abated more than a year ago – and when  by official media a compilation of platitudes on how to disseminate soft power gets hailed as a “masterpiece” by official media (that happened in June), there may be reason to believe that originality is the last thing that matters for an intellectual’s advancement.

At the top of the political hierarchy, things are no different. Jiang Zemin became a must-read for Angela Merkel when Xi Jinping visited Berlin in October 2009. (At any rate, she had to feign interest while Xi made her familiar with the wisdom of what were Jiang’s latest two books at the time.) If you want to become party and state chairman in China, don’t speak your own views. Praise those of your patron instead. No audacity of hope, and hence no soft power either, in Xi Jinping’s case.

And don’t be surprised if any of Xi next international interlocutors get to read a Concise Chinese History Reader – if it happens, it will be because Jiang did it again (he wrote that concise history, or had it written). It would also suggest that Xi still needs Jiang’s patronage.

The Chinese concept of soft power emphasizes not only its role abroad, but its function at home, too. That said, it doesn’t even seem to work in places as close to – or at – home, as Hong Kong. Beijing’s patriotic concepts certainly have their “fans” there, but tens of thousands of Hong Kongers took to the streets on July 29th to protest against a planned “patriotic-education” curriculum. Opinion polls of recent months, concerning the central government’s (or CCP’s) image in Hong Kong, hadn’t been encouraging either.

Chinese intellectual debates meant for domestic use are frequently more interesting than those about image-building abroad. That a bit of it emerged in an internationally-read paper, the New York Times, doesn’t necessarily mean that foreigners were the actual target readership. Jiang Qing, a hardcore Confucian (by his own standards, and depending on what you think Confucianism is about), and Daniel A. Bell published an op-ed on the NYT’s online edition on July 10: “A Confucian Constitution for China”. Bizarre (and possibly funny) stuff from a foreign perspective. Bizarre, too, but also worrying stuff from a secular Chinese perspective. Worrying, because in the last resort, the only readership that really matters is Zhongnanhai.

But the apparent ideological competition for the CCP court’s attention may be worrying for Confucians, too: at least some of them appear to think of Confucianism as a participant in a global civilizational dialog, rather than as a state doctrine.

North Korean Opera in Chengdu

Conservatory students perform Tchaikovsky in Pyongyang, June 2012

Last night I attended the performance of “The Flower Girl” staged by the Pibada Ensemble from North Korea.  (They are better known as the Sea of Blood Opera Troupe.) I met the music director after the show, had some contact with KCNA staff, and am hoping to post a full review of the performance soon either here or at

Some information about Flower Girl is here (including information of Kim Jong-il’s personal role in its creation, of course); more information about the ensemble and its previous immense tour of China is available here.

Cultural Power Battle Threads

From the May Fourth Generation to Today

- The Telegraph reports in alarmist fashion about Hu Jintao warning, as the newspaper headline puts it, of “cultural warfare from the West”

- A closer examination of the story indicates that Hu Jintao’s “battle cry,” above, was a speech given on October 18, 2011, that was republished yesterday in the preemminent journal for CCP theory, Qiushi (Seeking Truth / 求是).

In fact most of the speech is not at all about the West, but the need for more powerful socialist culture.  However, the key detonating sentences in this long and rather boring speech are, after a discourse on China’s rising soft power, as follows:

同时,我们必须清醒地看到,国际敌对势力正在加紧对我国实施西化、分化战略图谋,思想文化领域是他们进行长期渗透的重点领域。我们要深刻认识意识形态领域斗争的严重性和复杂性,警钟长鸣、警惕长存,采取有力措施加以防范和应对. At the same time [that we develop our cultural industries and gain international advantage thereby], we must see with utmost clarity that hostile international forces are currently stepping up the implementation of Westernization in China, attempting to do so via in a variety of strategies; their long-term focus is on infiltration [渗透/shentou] in the ideological and cultural fields. We should thoroughly understand the seriousness and complexity of this ideological struggle, remaining vigilant (lit. “always keep the bell ringing“), ever alert, and taking effective measures to prevent and respond to [the challenge of cultural infiltration].

The full text of the article is available in rough English via Google Translate here.

- My own evidentiary contribution to the discourse on Hu Jintao’s retrograde and conservative tendencies with regard his extensive work in “socialist culture” are described in this essay about some materials I found about Hu Jintao in East German archives in 2009.

- As usual, with reference to cultural diplomacy and the soft power discourse, JustRecently is already well ahead of the curve.  His website has the most extensive open-source translation available of the Party’s “cultural document”, a document which stemmed out of the same meetings at which Hu Jintao weighed in above.

- In reading headlines about Hu Jintao’s fear of Western “infiltration,” I think it’s important to note that there are far more nuanced Chinese examinations of soft power out there.  PRC scholar He Zengke published a rather wide-ranging article this past December 23 in a reformist journal surveying French and German modes of exerting soft power, noting:

France was one of the first countries to understand the role of cultural soft power. Napoleon once said that a pen was equal to 1,000 Mauser rifles*), and a former French minister of culture said that culture and the economy are one and the same battleground. French people believe that a cultural mission can take the place of a country’s military power.[9] In 1883, France established the Alliance Française to promote French culture. Starting in 1959, France began to define the “First Five-Year Plan for the Expansion of French Cultural Activities”, and afterwards, 25- and 35-year plans etc. were gradually developed. From the total amounts spent and per capita, France belongs to the first-ranking countries worldwide.[10] From that, it can be seen that France attaches great importance to the development and use of soft power.

法国是最早懂得文化软实力的地位和作用的国家之一。拿破仑曾经说过,一支笔等于1000支毛瑟枪。法国前文化部长曾经说过:文化和经济是同一场战斗。 法国人认为,文化使命可以代替国家武力。[9]1883年法国就建立了法语联盟,在世界各地讲授法语,推广法国文化。从1959年起,法国开始制定“关于 在国外扩张和恢复法国文化活动的第一个五年计划”(1959-1963),后来又陆续制定了“二五”、“三五”计划等。法国的国际文化交流支出从总数和人 均来看都居于世界第一的位置。[10]由此可见法国对发展和运用文化软实力的高度重视。[Translation here by JustRecently]

He’s essay reminds us again:

-For all the huffing and puffing about Confucius Institutes, the “hanban” is still behind such institutions as the Alliance Française when it comes to enrollments and influence globally, a fact which I reported in July 2010 (from a cafe in Seoul, awash in K-pop, WiFi signals, kimchee and bubble tea) via a translation of a Huanqiu Shibao interview with the Hanban head.

- Finally, the magazine Monocle (which I fittingly tend to read in international airports; this one was in Tokyo) recently did some comprehensive “soft power ratings” in which the US was #1 but France not far behind.  China, by the way, was #17.