Chronicling the History of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in the PRC: 1990 Edition

Ambassador Jim Hoare has written a delightful and very informative essay for, the website for which I serve as chief editor. When based in Beijing in 1990, Ambassador Hoare took a trip up to Yanji with Warwick Morris (who, unbeknownst to him at the time, was another future UK Ambassador to North Korea). Their photographs and recollections are included in a newly released (and free) e-journal, entitled The Tumen Triangle Documentation Project, Vol. 2, which all are invited to peruse and enjoy, via

There are also essays in this issue of TTDP about traveling from China to Rason, the China-DPRK drug problem, interviews with refugees from the border city of Hyesan, and even a look at Kim Il-song and the history of North Korean potato cultivation in the northern provinces. Chris Green, the international managing editor of DailyNK in Seoul, has written an excellent piece on the topic of the “yuanization” of North Korea, surely something scholars at Yanbian University have shown great interest in.

I was unable to shoehorn my own new writing about the Hyesan-Changbai juncture into the text, but the pdf. only shines all the better for the self-initiated exclusion. Do have a read; you won’t regret spending the time.


Sinews of Revolution on the Edge of Chinese and North Korean History

Peripheries are everything in the study of China, because they are so dangerous. Whether social peripheries or geographical, those who dwell on the margins — so tangibly aware of the possibilities of flight or of wresting away control from the guardians of order — pose a challenge to hegemonic structures.  When the social and geographical elements combine,  creating revolutionaries, powers residing in urban metropoles such as Beijing or Nanjing intensify that process of control governed by fear that is by now so familiar.

What prompts these thoughts? For the past week or so, I’ve been piecing through a text which I had picked up a few years back from a little used book shop in Yanji, near the North Korean border, on the subject of revolution in Yanbian, the extreme eastern edge of Manchuria, the ethnic-Korean region of China on the border with what is today the DPRK, or North Korea:

中共延边州委党史工作委员会,中共延边州委党史研究所 编,延边历史事件党史人物录 (新民主主义革命时期),[吉林省内部资料] (延吉:中共延边州委机关,1988), otherwise known as Catalog of Personalities and Events in the Party History of Yanbian, published in Yanji [I think] in 1988 by the local CCP Committee on Historical Research for “internal circulation only”.

We have spent virtually all of our lives in the backwash of the two great revolutions that sprang out of this region — the North Korean and the Chinese.  It now seems to be taken for granted by Sinologists and Koreanists trained in the West that the weight of the propaganda that has emerged since 1945 obscures rather than highlights the sacrifices made at the time, the genuine acts of nationalistic heroism undertaken by Koreans and Chinese and Chinese-Koreans to overthrow both Guomindang-linked warlordism and Japanese imperalism.  Call it the Sea of Blood effect.  We know how heavily North Korea in particular leans on these stories.  And why not resist the state-sponsored narratives, representing as they do the acrid stench of steel being welded into unnatural shapes, the rise of the monuments across Northeast Asia like cankers, the repetitious lifting of volumes hewn out of totalitarian imagination by committee in rooms choking with carbon wherein the leaders exercise not so much influence as levitate like executioners outside? Banquo has a mighty arm.  The amount of analysis levied at Kim Jong Il’s attempts to recapture the heroism of the anti-Japanese fighters overmultiplies attempts to capture the original acts of violence and intellectual bravery or audacity which brought Kim Jong Il (and his first post-colonial generation) into being in the first place.

But the narratives of resistance in the Sino-Korean borderlands in that earlier era are still worth delving into, and they demand our attention. This work is to be done by scholars who, like artists who hop around in dead factories, dwell at the junctures of creative destructions. Both the historian and the urban spelunker from their gargoyle perches on the peripheries, above the pedestrian status quo of master narratives or factual inevitability, suggest a new future.

Allow me then, to suggest this: North Korean history is about more than Kim Il Song and his offspring.  Kim’s acceptance and his life was made possible by an entire matrix of interactions and global occurences, which included revolutionary movements in what is today Yanbian, what then was known as Jiandao (间道).  The victory of the Chinese Communist Party in the final massive phase of the Chinese Civil War (1945-1949) in Manchuria was made possible not simply by superior strategy by Lin Biao and Mao Zedong, and that victory was far from inevitable.

To arrive, then, at the individual narratives that sparked this short moment of reflection: Two biographies.

Han Leran [韩乐然], 1898-1947

Han was born in 1898 (the same year as Zhou Enlai) in Longjing, a small city near the Korean-Russian frontier in the extreme eastern edge of Manchuria.  In 1919, Longjing underwent the so-called “March 13 incident,” the violent suppression of an anti-Japanese demonstration by Japanese police.  As a young man, Han Leran experienced the incident as a kind of crisis, witnessing how in the aftermath of the March 1 1919 demonstrations in nearby Korea — a rather exciting statement of peaceful and democratic rebellion against the Japanese occupiers — ended in bloodshed, with demonstrations being broken up by Japanese police with guns, killing 14 people in Longjing.

Han quickly left for the maritime provinces of the Soviet Union, which were far closer than the vermillion roofs of Beijing, but by no means solidly Bolshevik in 1920. After less than a year in Russia, Han hopped a steamer in Vladivostok and went to Shanghai in that fertile year of 1920. It took him three years to become accustomed to the giant city (outstripping pre-Manchukuo Changchun, the nearest big city to his hometown, exponentially) before he joined the young Chinese Communist Party.  His Manchurian roots and artistic interests made him useful to the Party, and he was sent to Shenyang, Liaoning, in 1924, and after a year, on north to Harbin, where he continued to study art  [pp. 43-45].

In 1929, he went with Party support to Europe.  For two years he knocked around in southern France (mainly Lyon and Nice) before getting accepted in 1931 to an art institute in Paris (巴黎艺术学院).  For the next six years, he worked and exhibited in Paris and traveled around Europe, reading the French press about the “Manchurian Incident” and the futile attempts at the League of Nations in Geneva to extract Japanese troops from northeast China via diplomacy.

In 1937, with the outbreak of all-out war in China, Han returned to China, but not before doing some work for Paris Soir to propagandize the Chinese war effort.  (It is rather interesting to consider how those inveterate readers of the Parisian press, Jean-Paul Sartre [obviously not the only reader of said press, but an important one, with an editor's impulse] and Simone de Beauvoir regarded Han’s work, if they saw it at all.  Nevertheless the very notion of a coincidence of a meeting of minds like this can come full circle with Sartre and de Beauvoir’s trip to Manchuria in 1955, when Sidney Rittenberg said they were “taken with how China had made {them} think more about life and less about death.”)  Finished forever with France, Han sped back to the Chinese front.

He arrived in the wartime center of Wuhan, where he plunged into work with a group of artists with roots in the northeast of China, focusing their artistic fury on the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, and attempting to inspire Chinese audiences with tales of the resistance movement there.  In this period, particularly following the fall of Nanking, Wuhan was a temporary capital, and was crawling with foreign reporters, many of whom Han met, certainly charming them with the type of linguistic pastiche he had surely developed after his time in eastern Russia and more than half-decade in Europe.  Among his acquaintances was Edgar Snow.

In 1938, Han came to the attention of Zhou Enlai, who recommended that he move to Yanan.  As Wuhan was in danger of falling to the Japanese, Han followed through, spending the summer of 1938 in the remote Communist HQ.  However, within a few months, he was back in the intellectual and international hothouse of Chongqing, in spite of the fact that Yanan was rather safe from Japanese air raids and Chongqing was being bombed with rather savage regularity.

In 1940, for reasons that are not entirely clear — perhaps a response to the New Fourth Army Incident? — Han was arrested by Guomindang police and jailed for two years.  In 1943, he moved through Xi’an and Lanzhou, farther from the front.  After the war, he moved even further west, to the remote province of Xinjiang, where, physcially unphased by the outbreak of the Chinese civil war,  he went on a spurt of creative productivity (the subject of cultural production in its relation to the war being a rather unresearched terrain).  In April 1946, he went to Turpan [吐鲁番市] in Xinjiang, where in the space of a few short months he did more than 50 oil paintings and took more than 500 photographs to exhibit.  In October of that year, he turned up in Lanzhou to exhibit his new works and connect with the left-wing Guomindang general Zhang Zhizhong [张治中, who had led the defense of Shanghai and later went over to the CCP] to to “united front work,” a unified Nationalist-Communist government still being a nominal, if doomed, dream in that year of Chinese intellectuals.  Han set up the Northwest Arts Museum [西北艺术馆,今天大西北艺术馆 ], and was on his way to becoming a key part of postwar national cultural revival in Xinjiang.  His background of foreign study, early ties to the Chinese Communist Party, and active postwar activities bode well for a place in the burgeoning cultural hierarchy of the world after 1949, but Han never made it back to Beijing, much less Paris: less than thirty years after leaving his hometown, the ethnic Korean artist died in a plane crash in Xinjiang in April 1947.

Codetta: This past August 2011, local governments broke through and found Han’s example worthy of patriotic education, setting aside a hefty sum (2680万, seemingly a standard sum from the central government for civic projects) for a park in his name.  A small (65 sq. meters) museum space is underway to honor him in Longjing, for which local historians went to 20 archives around China.

Zhou Dengzheng [周东郊], 1907-1978 — fuller bio TBA, but this involves the set up of the first CCP Eastern Manchuria committee, work under cover of teaching Chinese to Koreans on the border, an arrest in Dalian that leads to eight years in a Xinjiang prison, propaganda work for the Nationalists in Xinjiang for four years after 1945, a peaceable transfer by the CCP to the Bank of Beijing in 1949, a 1956 revelation of his “history problem,” and an old man teaching middle school during the Cultural Revolution.

Related Reading

Adam Cathcart, “Reading Kim Il Song’s Memoirs,” Parts One and Two, Sinologistical Violoncellist, August 6 and 20, 2010.

Adam Cathcart, “Nationalism and Ethnic Identity in the Sino-Korean Border Region of Yanbian, 1945-1950,”  Korean Studies, vol. 34 (2010): 25-53.

Crystalized Data: Additional Notes on the Meth Trade in Yanji

The story of illegal drug distribution across the North Korean border and into China is now being told with a bit of flair in the pages of Newsweek.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I find fieldwork in the Chinese borderlands with North Korea always to be an exciting process.  Exciting though it may be, it is a process that — speaking for myself — has not been made more exciting by exposure to crystal meth.  In fact I don’t think I would recognize crystal meth if it was put on my breakfast cereal.  Moreover, it was only yesterday that I finally learned how to say “crystal meth” in Chinese — 甲基安非他命.

(To my former students who may be reading — why did you never ask me how to say “crystal meth” in Chinese?  Do you not read the daily complilation of North Hamgyong and Ryanggang cell phone informant conversation write ups which constitute the bulk of Daily NK sources about the meth trade?  Did you think that such a linguistically and culturally fraught question would instead represent merely a bit of trivia, a cerebral divet, a trivet of myopia of no consequence to our respective intellectual lives? You never asked me.  Damn you all!)

The foregone and falsely cynical de rigeur professorial abdication of intellectual responsibility notwithstanding, I did manage to track down some data which has not been pulled into the Anglophone public eye as regards the meth problem along the Sino-North Korean border.     And thus:

1. This 2009 piece from no less than Renmin Ribao (People’s Daily) about the sentencing of 9 drug dealers in Jilin province to death, one of whom is a North Korean surnamed Kim who was planning to bring meth into South Korea via China;

2. This interesting bit of comparison to much more heavily-populated Zhejiang province, which as of 2010 statistics had more than 103,000 registered drug addicts (“drug smokers”).

3. The Yanbian Public Security Bureau’s work priorities for 2011, in particular point 5:


Not incidentally, the Bureau leaves its press liasion number at the end of the release; they also have a nice Weibo feed, which is akin to Twitter but without all the dissident celebrity Chinese bloggers and Tibetan and Uighur activists.

The slogan 打击“黄赌毒” also seems to be a signpost for some of the anti-drug efforts.

4. Much discussion of all of this on Tianya, a Chinese BBS, including debate over the less-than-constructive role that North Korea is playing.

Finally, because I became more aware of things by spending several key years of my life on the east side of Cleveland Ohio, and because crackheads in Seattle’s Chinatown have since reminded me of the importance of asking for a very specific amount of money for anything,  dear readers, for the four rocks of crystalized information which I have cooked up for you, I should like a sum of seven U.S. dollars.  This money, just as it would if I were bartering a broken electronic razor to a perfect stranger through the scratched plexiglass window of a barricaded gas station in the middle of the night under flourescent light in North America, will allow me to get through the next several hours before my next exhalation in the form of a post.

(Now, on to some Heinrich von Kleist, thank you very much.)

Dandong, PRC customs house, photo by Adam Cathcart this past Sunday

North Korea: Examination Materials

I recently completed a month-long lecture series on North Korean-Chinese relations at Pacific Lutheran University.  Because these lectures were occasioned by a course I teach at PLU (hell yes I teach courses, credits and grades dropping from my very fingertips!), I had the pleasure of writing an exam on the topic.

Here, in no particular order, are a few of themes or questions which were covered in the lectures and which my students consequently suggested that I should have put on the exam.  But who cares that they were on an exam?  What matters is that they have content and merit, and deserve further discussion.  (Thus their appearance in this forum.)

Is this really necessary?  Do we really need to be asking yet more questions about North Korea and Sino-North Korean relations?  Shouldn’t we first try to get answers about some questions of agreed-upon significance, like how many nukes North Korea has?  Or if Jimmy Carter’s visits to Pyongyang accomplish anything at all?  Or if Kim Jong Eun wears a foreign wristwatch?

Well, quibble though you might with certain of them, very few of these questions resemble the rather elementary questions to which North Korea and its relationship with China are treated in our present environment of English-language media analysis, a few really good blogs notwithstanding.

So, to the questions:

- What long-term opportunities (financial and political) would be presented to China by a peaceful collapse of North Korean political power?

- In what ways does the North Korean obsession with Mount Paektu strain relations with China?

- Does the history of the 7th century (e.g., the destruction of the northern power of Koguryo by the southern power of Silla, in alliance with the Chinese Tang dynasty), constitute a template for unification of which the DPRK leaders should be fearful today?

- What role does the small North Korea-Russia border in the extreme northeast of the peninsula play in balancing (or unbalancing) the Sino-North Korean dynamic?  Is North Korea able to balance China off of Russia now, or are those days of navigating between Beijing and Moscow truly in the past?

- What role did the U.S. occupation of Japan play in the formation of the North Korean state system?

- How did Mao Zedong’s rationale for intervention in the Korean War in 1950 differ significantly from that of the Ming dynasty during the Imjin War in 1592?  Is it possible that Mao in some sense retained a desire to secure North Korea in a neo-tributary system?

- What similarities exist between the present-day North Korean system (and its “court politics”) and that of the Qin dynasty as depicted in the works of Sima Qian?

- How and why are the concepts of sadae/sadaejuui and juche embedded in (North) Korean culture?

- List the current statistics for the relative military strength, in terms of troop estimates, for the ROK Army, the PLA, the Japanese SDF, and USMC/USAF/USN in East Asia.  With which one (or ones) of these military forces does the Korean People’s Army have anything approaching parity?

- To what extent was the Korean War a proxy war, and to what extent was it a civil war?

- The story of North Korean refugees seems fantastic, politicized, and laden with imaginative tropes. Is it really as bad for North Korean refugees as it seems on YouTube?

- What is the proper label for Sino-North Korean relations?  Is this a “brotherhood forged in blood”, a “pragmatic partnership”, a “friendship betrayed”?  Suggest a few taglines for the relationship and justify your new label.  Could we call both China and North Korea “unruly allies”?

- Why does North Korea go to such great lengths to propagate myths of Kim Jong Il’s “birth” at Mt. Paektu?  Does it matter that, as “the Text” asserts, his birth was foretold by a sparrow, illicited a double rainbow, and that a new star appeared in the sky?

- In what ways is the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Region a crucible for new North Korean culture?  Can it be considered “a Third Korea”?  In what ways does it run countercultural to the ways of Sinicization?

- Compare the Chinese de facto absorption of North Korea during the Korean War to  German reunification of 1990.

- Can the Tumen Tiger avoid extinction? What barriers exist to the survival and flourishing of this species?

- Are the golden cows along the Chinese side of the border really happier than their North Korean counterparts across the Tumen?

- How have Chinese goals for Korean unification changed since 1950?

- Describe the impacts of, and the Chinese reponses to, the North Korean nuclear tests of October 2006 and May 2009.

- Kim Jong Eun was recently pictured in North Korean state media holding a pair of binoculars upside down at a military exhibition.  In what ways does this image, and the way it was covered in Chinese state mdia, represent larger problems and anxieties about Jong Eun’s possible succession?

- Although North Korea militantly emphasizes its cultural independence from China, in what ways does North Korean language — both colloquial and bureaucratic — exemplify Chinese influence?

- How did Chinese and Soviet communism, Asian philosophies such as Daoism and Confucianism, Chinese Legalism and Korean fortitude combine to create or otherwise influence North Korean policies and politics?  Is it fair or accurate to summarize North Korea’s political system merely as “Stalinist”?

- Do technology and cultural transfers into North Korea along the Chinese border like USB drives full of songs or DVDs of South Korean movies constitute a “new culture wave” in North Korean society?  Is it fair to write about a “Chinese wave” in North Korea akin to the “Hallyu/Korea Wave” that has been so objectified in East Asia?  What elements in North Korea’s traditional culture (and official state culture) would resist Chinese influence?

-  Briefly describe problems associated with both the garrisoning of the Ming Army in Korea and the stationing of Chinese troops in North Korea from 1950-1958. Is it fair to say that China and North Korea have both internalized the lessons of these events?

- North Korea is indeed a “shrimp between whales,” but it is also a skilled practitioner of “judo diplomacy” whereby the “whales” are adeptly tossed around.  After describing a couple of salient examples of the above point, argue that either China or Japan (pick one and explain your choice) is most often on the receiving end of North Korea’s manipulations.

- Are the North Korean notion of juche and the Chinese notion of tributary relations inherently at odds?  In what ways does each nation temper its ideologies in the practice of foreign policy in order to keep Sino-North Korean relations relatively smooth?

- Describe the unique role that Sinuiju plays in North Korean history and in contemporary interchange with the PRC.

- Describe how and why Hyesan has become a “model city” for Kim Jong Il since the 1960s.  Why do South Koreans and occasional foreign observers travel to the city today?

- In the context of analyzing U.S. involvement in the Korean War, critique or support the statement “The first mistake was putting MacArthur in charge.”

- In what ways does heavy North Korean patrolling of the northern frontier give lie to the statement that the DPRK enjoys “brotherly relations” with the PRC?

- For people just beginning to pay attention to North Korea and its relations with China, why is a brief description of the Korean War so important?  Is it possible to understand North Korea, or Chinese policy toward North Korea, without reference to the Korean War?

- At the end of the day, when it runs out of calories, energy, and alternatives, is North Korea truly locked into a sadae/submissive relationship to China?

Cogitating Korea and Strategically Flexible Syllabi, Wiedervereinigung in the Shadow of the Reichstag, Berlin -- photo by Kuroda Chiaki

A Few Brilliant Observations

Asked to evaluate Douglas MacArthur’s tactical decisions in November-December 1950, student Adam Hoagland, while ignoring the General’s significant decision to firebomb Sinuiju and drop the Tarzan bomb on Kanggye, put forth a methodically brilliant Sun Tzu-based critique of old man SCAP:

MacArthur made the fatal mistake of underestimating his enemies and their drive to resist.  He did not concentrate his military power but spread it too thin to push forward or hold a position.  He did not study the terrain to find the best advantage or weaknesses.  He was not formless in his tactics but used a very recognizable and predicatable advancement of troops.

Had only Hoagland been a Sinologist in SCAP’s employ, a man of ambition who had MacArthur’s ear in 1950, then an understanding of Chinese military strategy might well have prevailed.  But he was not, and it did not.  MacArthur also failed to respect his senior commander (e.g., Harry Truman) and, to my knowledge, never stood up for the returned POWs from Korea when implications of communist “brainwashing” were leveled at them.

Since my students have all read Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian, the history of the Qin dyansty, I tossed out a hypothetical question: What would happen if we had a modern day re-appearance of the assassin Jing Ke, who was sent from Yan to kill Qin Shihuangdi around 210 B.C., in Pyongyang acting on behalf of the CCP?  In other words, I asked the students to consider the historical template of Jing Ke in the contemporary Sino-North Korean context.  What would happen if China sent an assassin — a modern-day Jing Ke — to kill Kim Jong Il or his son?

Amanda Fitzhenry, a student who plans to study in South Korea, answers, and does so in detail which is far, far better than I could have mustered myself:

If Jing Ke were to infiltrate the North Korean capital, it would need to be shown in a way of supporting or worshipping Kim Jong Il.  The fact that Jing Ke was in the rural area would not be able to work in the DPRK situation because of the limited ability to travel.  To be able to be in Pyongyang, Jing Ke would need to be a trusted man to the North Korean Workers’ Party and willing to risk the gulag for his family and himself.  His mission would provide China with the chance to obtain North Korea (and Mount Paektu) for China.  But, with the downfall of the DPRK would come instability for the region with 24 million people fleeing, as well as the economic duty to rebuild the country.

One final observation: In the space of little less than a decade, my North American university students have become progressively more convinced of China’s capability to handle anything.  That is to say, presenting the students with a scenario whereby China would totally absorb North Korea is never really scoffed at: China, we now presume, has all the resources in the world to rebuild North Korea and could, somehow, convince the South Koreans to stay in Seoul in the event of a Chinese takeover north of the DMZ.  A tall order indeed, and hardly likely to occur, but old Robert Kaplan’s essay in Atlantic Monthly in 2006 about just such a scenario has many more adherents in American universities that one might expect.

Obedient, Intransigent North Korea in the Chinese Media

Thanks to the ever-productive Joshua Stanton at the very useful but hopelessly Anglophone (and somewhat impervious) command post for North Korean counter-revolution known as One Free Korea, I got motivated to do some more analysis of Chinese sources touching upon the recent flare-up in the sea to the west (and north!) of the DMZ in Korea.

As I see it, Chinese media strategy as regards the Korean crisis for the past month has centered upon the following themes:

- Downplay the KPA’s having initiated Yeonpyeong incident, but allow some sympathetic reporting and photos regarding civilians on the island so as to reinforce the general harm that war poses;

- Yoke responsibility for tensions on both Koreas, keeping in mind the need to reconsolidate relations with Pyongyang in the wake of certain discomfiting (Wikileaks) disclosures of discussions that reveal at least the possibility of serious internal fissures in the alliance with the DPRK;

- Call repeatedly for Six Party Talks, preserving the central PRC role in mediating, and also precluding some North Korean lone deal with Washington via Bill Richardson or whomever comes calling;

- And imply in the sizable yet nevertheless endemically vague wave of anti-Liu Xiaobo articles that China, yes, China was deserving of the Nobel Prize for Peace due to its even-handed handling of the Korean peninsula situation.  (This last theme was hardly prevalent, but I picked up between the lines in more than a couple of places.

Today, the Xinhua news tack is to freak out over the ROK artillery drills, leaving South Korea standing as the final provocateur, making their firing live artillery into an empty slate of sea in the direction of Shandong province front-page news pretty much everywhere.

This means that the DRPK can get some positive reinforcement for its restraint in not retaliating.  The Global Times today spells it out in an op-ed which by North Korean standards is either fairly clever, or indicates how desperate China has become to quiet this whole thing down.  (Applause for North Korean Restraint,” which wins the prize for most unlikely headline of the year…)

Criticizing North Korea in the Chinese Press

However, it might be worth noting that while South Korea seems to get little more than verbal rifle butts from Beijing’s English-language media of late (anger over military drills, unusually straight statements that Seoul can never unilaterally unify Korean peninsula, etc.), the Chinese-language press in the PRC always makes a few things clear:

- North Korea is overly arrogant (see May 2010 writings after “nuclear fission” announcement)

- North Korea is poor, and its leadership (as opposed to its socialist system) is weird

- South Korea has vastly superior armaments (a fact which is persistently and specifically reported on in China)

- South Korea has public opinion and civil society (the absence of which in DPRK is obvious)

- Responsibility for peace on peninsula is in large measure up to South Korea, because North Korea basically refuses to change.

The tendency to go easy on North Korea in English publications, while critiquing them in Chinese, has been more evident lately. Yesterday’s Global Times (basically the English-language foreign-affairs offshoot of People’s Daily) op-ed “US destructive role in Northeast Asia” can be contrasted with today’s Chinese-language op-ed, “但愿朝韩的心理昨天扯平了(“If Only Yesterday['s Drills] Psychologically Equalized North and South Korea).”

A few highlights from the latter piece include: “The power and pressure of the ROK-US military alliance on North Korea doesn’t need to be demonstrated.  Even if North Korea has already taken up nuclear weapons, American nuclear power could wipe North Korea from the map. This, and the fact that South Korean population outnumbers North Korean by a factor of two or three, and has economic power even more times larger than North Korea, is also clear.”

I don’t know about you, but apart from the first sentence, that sounds like something Mike Mullen might say openly, that is, if he felt like making North Korea really very mad.  But this appears in a nationalistic/pugilistic standard Chinese publication on foreign affairs, and no one notices, and KCNA keeps its mouth shut about it.

Is it the case that the North Korean Embassy in Beijing simply does not read the Huanqiu Shibao?  Is it possible that couched in its criticisms of South Korea, the Chinese media is in no way rather forcefully reminding the DPRK that it would get very badly beaten in a conventional (or even a nuclear) war?

In other words, it is a mistake to judge China’s actual thinking (or its actual _stance_) on the North Korean issue by what they tell you they think in English.  The domestic discussion in China of the Korea problem is still barnacled with all manner of inconsistencies and barriers to information, but it deserves a little better treatment than the assumption that Shen Dingli in Shanghai and Lu Chao in Liaoning represent the uncritical consensus on the DPRK.

Shen, by the way, has a nice op-ed in today’s National Defense Journal (国防时报)entitled 忠告朝韩兄弟,战争不是游戏 (Even If Koreans are Loyal Brothers, War is Not a Game).  This outlet is rapidly becoming one of my “favorite” papers in China, and it has a kind of symbiotic relationship with Huanqiu Shibao. In any case, the editorial reminds us of something which you simply will not hear in the Western echo chamber, which is that China fought a war from 1950-53, one of the ultimate aims of which was to expand the range of North Korean territory for the purpose of securing a durable and dignified peace for the North, but that the cease-fire agreement could not settle upon who owned the islands upon which the artillery controversy is now playing. Complain about Shen Dingli’s dogmatism if you must, Mr. Stanton, but applaud how his dogma appears to be attached to facts which might sometimes bear repeating.

Reassessing Wars and Occupations in North Korea

If Chinese criticism of North Korea counts as progress toward a more “globalized outlook on the DPRK” inside of China, we see the same in the realm of historical analysis.  Popular magazines in China are now recounting the Korean War as having been started by a North Korean “advance” into the South.  (Sure, you might add, it is in fact 60 years late, but it is after all the anniversary season in China, and therefore time to consolidate and capitalize upon master narratives).  So Kim Il Sung is looking a bit worse for wear these days, even while core publications like the National Defense Journal hold up the justice of the intervention.  Granite Studio has a good post on evolving Korean War narratives, and some speculation on Xi Jinping’s Korea policy.

Myself, I’m waiting for the big retrospective on the Chinese occupation of North Korea from 1953-1958.  Or is the only place to learn about that in the Foreign Ministry Archive in Beijing or the Hoover Institution Archive in Palo Alto, California?

Isn’t it completely ridiculous that the very people who are constantly barking about the coming Chinese “occupation” of a post-collapse North Korea (see: Kaplan, Robert, Atlantic Monthly) know next to nothing about how the PRC and the Chinese “volunteers” operated in those five lean years?

Fortunately there are many more documents and information available about Sino-North Korean relations in the 1960s, in the form of an extensive new North Korea International Documentation Project working paper which spends over a hundred beautifully footnoted pages recalling a time (1968) when the DPRK was agitating for war and chafing about China’s new path.

There are a few possible untruths in there (such as that ethnic Chinese loaded the frozen bodies of dead ethnic Koreans on to some random “freight train” going into the DPRK in 1967-68 and wrote anti-revisionist slogans on the bodies, which is unlikely on multiple levels), but on the whole, it reveals the tensions between North Korea and China at a very different (yet somehow similar) time.

Yanbian and the Border Region

On Yanbian, don’t miss this post (from the Korean) by Lee Yoo Eun about possible volcanic explosion of Mount Paektu/Changbaishan.

And the Global Times, citing uncited reports in the Singapore Lianhe Zaobao, has a good human-interest-meets-geostrategy post on war fears ratcheting up in the Sino-North Korean border region, and indicates that Chinese troops may be filing into Ji’an on the Yalu River.

Heinrik Bork On China’s Role in the Crisis

Occasionally someone who has not enlisted in the ROK military or (Dear God!) memorized “The Pledge of Allegiance” will tender analysis of the Korean Peninsula, and will do so in a way that renders the North Korean strategy clear.  Don’t miss the linked essay below by Heinrik Bork.  Any man who can fence at length with Japanese revanchist manga man Kobayashi Yoshinori and do justice to the German view of the Rape of Nanking, and spend a couple of decades capably in Asia, has my vote of confidence.

I actually don’t agree with Bork’s assertion that China is walking on pins and needles with the DPRK simply because it fears a refugee influx (after all, China’s capacity to handle natural disasters and flood/earthquake relief in recent years has given the regime a great deal of confidence in these areas — witness the $250 million donation to Pakistan by Wen Jiabao for that country’s disaster relief), but this is solid stuff over all.  We are, as Bork says in his article “Korea Crisis: The Role of Beijing and the Useful Dictator,” only “in the early stages of atomic poker.”

Into the Sandstorm, a New Season Indeed - photo by Jason Lee, via Reuters and

Contested Era, Blossoming Memory: Reconsidering the Early 1950s in the Present PRC

In walking around Chinese book markets, perusing Chinese newspapers, talking to Chinese scholars and intellectuals, and just plain thinking here in the PRC, the remarkable fact emerges of the enormous gap between what is printed and discussed here and how we talk about it back in the West.

In other words, there are some thorny themes being worked out here in the PRC that seem to have totally escaped commentary by Western scholars and pundits.  Perhaps readers will indulge me as I describe a tiny salient of what is going on, and what is perpetually going on, on the immense canvas of historical debate in the PRC.

A recent blossoming of popular writing about Lin Biao on the mainland seems geared to reevaluating this central (but rarely publicly reappraised) figure. Lin Biao takes part in the revolutionary narrative at various crucial points: he commanded the massive northeastern front in the Chinese Civil War (1945-1949), was the shadow ideological helmsman of the People’s Liberation Army of the early and radical Cultural Revolution (1966-1969), and ended up as the would-be coup leader whose body, along with that of his wife and son, was discovered in the wreckage of a “crashed” Chinese airplane on its way to Mongolia/the USSR in 1971.

The irrepressible translators at have in the past undertaken some excellent discussion of Cultural Revolution-themed (and Anti-Rightist Campaign!) publications in the PRC, but as I remain behind the Great Firewall, these are not at my fingertips at present.

For their part, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal seem hardly overly concerned with Chinese history, skewing news coverage as news organizations do, toward the modern.  By contrast, the German press seems slightly better attuned to — or at least can still sell papers writing about — what is called “Erinnerrungspolitik,” or the politics of memory.  Although the best paper in Germany, Munich’s Suddeutscher Zeitung has its gaps, at least the SdZ yesterday carried this appraisal of the Korean War, describing the changes triggered by the Chinese entry into the conflict now just over 60 years ago.

Perhaps for Germans living in a country where 84- and 85- year olds are still occasionally newly wounded by unexploded American ordinance from the Second World War, as occurred yesterday, or where the Japanese government is investing dollars into new Hiroshima monuments has had some impact, or perhaps the living memory of national division and the relative freshness of the Cold War as lived experience in Germany brings one back more easily to the ways that China controls and represses its various past achievements of violence and failings of the Confucian humanitarian impulse.

Though it hardly resembles the through-going German “Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung (Struggle over the past)” another theme that is emerging with renewed vigor from Chinese presses in the last two or three years is the struggle for law and order (and the repression of “reactionaries,” small capitalists, supposed Guomindang agents, and other enemies of the Republic) in the earliest years of the PRC.

Multiple examples are described in the Party sources as valorous, including a battle in Chongqing on February 13, 1950, the day before the Sino-Soviet Alliance was signed in Moscow.  This county-level conflict alone took the lives of 100 communist soldiers.  This and other efforts all over western China were not merely tiny “mopping-up” operations but often fully pitched battles on territory which Mao’s October 1 1949 declaration from Tiananmen four months and a week earlier had done little to functionally “liberate.”

It seems likely that I am going to continue to publish on this theme as it played out and inflected the earliest years of CCP administration in northeast China, especially among ethnic Koreans.  (In fact, a final “clean up operation” of my own against some proofs of my forthcoming Korean Studies article sparked the present essay, even though blogging has no measurable impact on my scholarly statistics.)  But back to Western China…

Given that Chiang Kai-shek only left Chengdu on December 8, 1949, and that the process of what one scholar calls “saturating, controlling and institutionalizing frontier space” was particularly difficult and violent for the PLA in Sichuan in early 1950, it might bear asking how the process of frontier consolidation played out in eastern Tibet later that year.

Although it’s hardly a fair parallel to make (and I would argue myself against reading genocidal imperatives to either the PLA in Tibet or the Japanese Imperial Army south of the Great Wall), if the Japanese army’s horrific approach to Nanking in late 1937 had negative implications for the occupied population of Nanking, might not a greater appreciation for the violent repression of “bandits” in the Chinese southwest and in Sichuan in late 1950 specifically give us something of a new vantage point through which to view the PLA’s broaching of force as it moved several months later from Sichuan towards Chamdo in the eastern Tibetan plateau?

In other words, bandits are bandits, no matter their ethnicity, and it seems hardly likely that the PLA took the lesson of hundreds of casualties in Sichuan lightly, or the need to resort to force in the process of consolidation in 1950.  More studies of combat trauma and its effects, in any case, seem really quite necessary for we scholars to undertake when it comes to the Chinese Civil War and its multiple appendages in Korea, Tibet, and Taiwan.

Of course, official efforts to valorize the “repression of counter-revolutionaries” in the early 1950s as a movement congruent with contemporary China’s obsession with law and order have not come without counter-commemoration, such as this online effort (以镇反名义杀害的部分抗日国军将领名单) which describes a large number of anti-Japanese officers and generals formerly of the Chinese National Army who were purged and murdered during the same movements in the early 1950s.  This is something akin to the Stalinist purges and murders of General Staff members in the late 1930s, but is rarely if ever broached in the fervent commemorations of either the War of Resistance (into whose belly I will be myself be residing in Chongqing next weekend) or the early years of the PRC.  Sacrifices multiple.

Finally, we see that commemorations of the Korean War are also coming under fire (and are allowed to be vented) in the PRC.  Clearly a directive went out from the Propaganda Ministry to even the most “liberal” organs of the mainland press to feature statist Korean War commemorations on their covers last month.  Thus Southern Weekend / 南方周末(often described as “reformist”) gets front page bromides about old-timers making corrections to Korean War casualty lists in Sichuan and cadre traveling around the country from the Museum to Resist America and Aid Korea in Dandong.

We also get big commemorative series of more than 60 pages in Sanlian Shenghuo / 三连生活 (hardly a “reformist” magazine, but as a product of one of the better intellectual presses in Shanghai/Beijing, as decent an organ as any for globally-minded Chinese who do not wish to leap upon the dirty truck bed of Huanqiu Shibao nationalism) which feature long extracts from CCP-issued official biographies of Army general and Korea field commander Peng Dehuai.   But at the same time, a detailed and critical Phoenix News story on China’s ambivalent relationship with North Korea — including disclosures of much wider violence and criminal activity stemming from the DPRK side of the border than is normally reported —  got wide play on the Chinese internet, and stayed up on the Tiexue BBS with a new title “China’s ‘Blood Alliance’ with North Korea is a Huge Joke on the Chinese People.”

Revolution, counter-revolution, kill the counter-revolutionaries.

Commemorate, and counter-commemorate, but do not silence the counter-commemorators.  If a hundred flowers can bloom from a hundred hundred thousand tombs of the epoch (and when one adds Mao’s own admission of 700,000 executions of “enemies of the people” to the now-official 158,010 Chinese deaths from the Korean War, that is about what we get), then perhaps the violent extremes and the political-military-social whiplash of the early 1950s may be said to have some positive legacy for the present age.

Selected Related Essays:

Adam Cathcart, “On Potsdam’s ‘Hiroshima Plaza,’” Sinologistical Violoncellist, August 7, 2010.

Adam Cathcart, “Creating the Glass Man: Hiroshima Anniversary,” Sinologistical Violoncellist, August 6, 2010.

Adam Cathcart, “December 7 in Chongqing,” Sinologistical Violoncellist, December 7, 2009.

Yanbian News

I’ve just shot off a voluminous bolt of Tweets on the subject, but thought I might wax on the plus-140-characters side of things here on S.V. regards recent activity in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in northeast China, snug up against the North Korean border.

Do you suppose we will learn anything new with the publication — tomorrow! — of the Ling sister memoir of Laura Ling’s captivity in the DPRK, her sadly monolingual cloak-and-dagger activities seeking out prostitutes and sold brides in Manchuria?  I should certainly hope so.  As a down payment on that new knowledge, here is a bit of context which may not be included by the Lings in their Oprah-endorsed exposé.

Coursing through the various online channels into Yanbian, one finds themes of construction/destruction, law and order, and, of course, a drive toward more foreign investment.

A new (temporary) footbridge is going in at the same spot where people used to shoot across tied to a wire, into a shoreside theme park/outdoor bierstube:

And new roads are being blasted.  To me, this photo represents much of what China is about today — it might even make Stalin, were he alive, choke with envy:

News has now hit Yanbian as regards to South Korean assignation of guilt to the DPRK for the Cheonan sinking.  No comment yet from northeastern netizens, and perhaps none to be found on the regional websites.

Somehow I missed the news, but back in December (not long before yet another American  walked across the Tumen demanding Christian salvation via Kim Jong Il) Yanbian officials had a big conference on environmental protection:

Normally the above kind of photos (via Yanbian’s government site) induce sleep or sarcasm, but I’ll tell you, standing on the Chinese side of the border and staring at clear-cut (and often smoggy) North Korea makes one really grateful that the PRC is making big strides in terms of environmental consciousness.  I can say that without being accused of self-censorship by the New York Times, can’t I?

Law and order is similarly prevalent in Yanbian these days.  A trio of “April 16″ murderers were recently tried in court, and, I believe, themselves received death sentences.  True to its Legalist tradition, the PRC publishes photos of the parents of the convicted killers, upping the shame factor exponentially.  I thought this photograph, set in front of some huge slogans promoting military readiness, was most powerful from a series:

Student activities are also included here.  The Public Security Bureau in January kicked off a serious drive to “purify the cultural environment” around Yanbian University and high school campuses, cracking down on “black” (e.g., illegal/unregistered) internet cafes.

But probably the most important law-and-order story concerns the promulgation, on March 15, of a new law aiming to reduce the trafficking of women and children nationally [ 《关于依法惩治拐卖妇女儿童犯罪的意见》的通知 ].  The press release was put out on April 7, so we aren’t running too far behind on this one.  At some point I might aim to get a more full translation out, particularly given the public attention that is going to be paid to the women-trafficking issue thanks to the Ling sisters (Laura and CurrentTV were working on a documentary on this issue when she foolishly crossed into the DPRK and was arrested).  The press release also carries some precious statistics, while never explicitly mentioning that the problem, at least in the autonomous prefecture, primarily concerns foreign nationals (e.g., North Korean women).

Related Post: Crimes and Misdemeanors in Yanji,” February 8, 2010.