Understanding the CurrentTV / North Korea Fiasco

[Note: In light of the speed of the news and the interest shown in this issue by Danwei readers,  I have followed this post with another, more considered, analysis of the Tumen river fiasco as it continues to impact evolving Sino-North Korean relations.  — Adam Cathcart]

Amid the struggle to understand activity on the remote North Korean-Chinese border, few sources are more constant and seemingly complete than The Daily NK.  For English-speaking North Korea watchers like the widely-read, hard-boiled, and usually-credible Joshua Stanton at One Free Korea, the Daily NK has become indispensable and is a constantly-referred to resource upon which rest multiple specific claims of China’s inhumane attitude toward North Korean refugees.  However, few readers realize that the reports are predominantly written first in Chinese, and then translated into English.

And once again we in the West are therefore at the mercy of a translator somewhere in Changchun, Seoul, or Fairfax Virginia.

Prompted by recent dialogue with Mr. Stanton, who is an attorney and human rights advocate in Washington, D.C., I have been doing more investigation recently into the Daily NK’s massive digital archive of stories.  They are fantastically detailed, abundant reports from Northeast China, often based on cell phone interviews with North Koreans along the border or recent defectors.  These dispatches make for gripping reading, providing great detail about life in the northern border regions of the DPRK.  If you want to know the price of grain in Sinuiju or learn about North Korean women joining the army, or hear about the views of ordinary North Koreans toward the United States, check the Daily NK, says the conventional wisdom. But again, the articles are originally written in Korean or Chinese, and then translated into English.

Unfortunately many of the website’s translations are misleading and unreliable.

This matters a great deal, because the site is so frequently leaned upon in making assertions about the border region and China’s role in policing North Korean refugees in particular.

North Korean Soldiers in China

Take for instance the significant claim that North Korean soldiers operate with impunity in China or that China allows small units of the Korean People’s Army and/or North Korean border guards to patrol into China.

This idea is about to get seriously tested, as the CurrentTV reporters indicated they were chased and followed into Chinese territory by North Korean border guards.

And knowledgeable people like Stanton perpetuate the idea that North Korean troops are let into China at various times to catch defectors.  In response to a challenge to his assertion about North Korean troops running wire through refugees’ wrists in China and then dragging them back to the DPRK, Stanton explains:

As to the issue of North Koreans operating in China, multiple reports confirm that China allows it. Please begin with this report from the Congressional-Executive Committee on China, and then read this from the Daily NK.

Well, the linked Congressional report is from 2005 and extensively footnoted, but contains just one sentence about North Korean agents in China, a sentence itself which is qualified with “South Korean newspapers report.”  What is that source?  An editorial from the conservative Chosun Ilbo about the earlier case of Reverend Shik!  In other words, citing the Congressional Report which itself cites something of dubious credibility (and correctly qualifies that citation by changing voice) doesn’t in itself prove anything.  More to the point, the Daily NK translation on the linked article relies on a single telephone interview with someone who allegedly saw some North Korean troops “who looked like they were getting ready to cross into China” [adapted from the Chinese], not running around in the PRC with their (maybe-loaded) weapons.

So we have an assertion parading as fact: North Korean troops move freely within China!  Yes, according to a die-hard editorial writer with a regime-change hard on in Seoul, and a misunderstood translation from one cell-phone wielding source (maybe Ling’s guide! he has a black phone, you know…oooh) who is probably getting paid handsomely for his information.

To prove my point on the translation front, the English version of the Daily NK article states that North Korean security forces are moving into the areas around Changbai and Ji’an, when the original report in Chinese states (and this is certainly the original version, as the reporter is a Korean or ethnic Korean living in Changchun) that the North Korean security forces were moving in the areas across the river from Chinese Changbai and Ji’an.

And having just been there, I can say that my colleagues (and, yes, even a few friends with whom I have and would gladly again share a beer) in the Chinese border patrols would be quite ready to move against any group of North Korean border guards moving around in China.  Oh, and the linked article is actually about a group of North Korean border guards who fled into China in the first place.

So we have the concoction of “North Korean troops in China”:  yes!  The ones who take off their uniforms and run away!

Nevertheless, in a couple of dispatches from Daily NK, amplified and augmented by propaganda from missionary groups, a vision is offered of North Korean agents moving through Chinese territory along the border.  Sometimes, Stanton and the Voices of the Martyrs argue, North Korean troops come back from China with a bunch of captured hogs/human beings strung along in train.  The martyrs group in particular seems to get excited about North Korean refugees suffering wounds akin to stigmata: wires through the hands, they assert.

Thus, if we take this tainted evidence as fact, China is even more complicit with the regime of torture and beatings and killings and mistreatment of these people than heretofore known.  We can then remain smug in our understanding of China and North Korea as two very immoral governments engaging in mutual immorality.  In this scenario, there is no need to question how Chinese attitudes toward North Korea may have changed as a result of recent events: they’re still bad guys and enable North Korean bad behavior.

CurrentTV and the Chinese Response

And as we read the recently-issued mea culpa by the CurrentTV reporters, it all just fits in so perfectly: displayed here is the Chinese indifference to the suffering of the abducted, the stateless, those in need.  And more importantly, China is depicted as complicit in North Korean infiltration into Manchuria for the purpose of abduction.

According to my recent observations in the border region, talking to Chinese experts, and reading of the Chinese press, the PRC leadership and certainly the PLA is not at all eager to see North Korean troops on their soil.  Does anyone report on this?   In the past year, China has even issued somewhat demeaning press reports in mainline nationalist journals like the Global Times/Huanqiu Ribao [环球时报] about individual North Korean border guards gone rogue, and by extension, the force and effectiveness of the Chinese border guards in tossing such intruders into the relevant mobile prison/big fat paddy wagon near Kaishantun.

What a pleasant place to spend a year -- North Korean border surveillance outpost about 40 km north of Changbai/Hyesan (photo by Adam Cathcart, July 2009)
What a pleasant place to spend a year -- North Korean border surveillance outpost about 40 km north of Changbai/Hyesan (photo by Adam Cathcart, July 2009)

In response to reports that China is amping up its military presence across the Northeastern frontier, I can only state that everything in July appeared quit routine: the densest concentration of Chinese troops I saw consisted of the five or so AK-47 wielding PLA/bianfang/边防/border patrol in camouflage valiantly defending a karaoke island from intrepid North Koreans in little Linjiang, Jilin province — but there are others, of course.

But near the above photograph — a building full of peach-fuzz mustache PLA kids in t-shirts lying around on cots, eating, playing cards.  Of course they became serious at their roadblock when it was apparent foreigners were around, checking identification and such while one dug for some egg whites stuck between his teeth.  They are so much better fed than their Korean counterparts that any contest of strength would surely favor the Chinese.

Although, along the lines of true military mobilization, we did have the Chinese air force doing exercises directly over the city of Yanji.

Chinese Fighter Jet over Yanji (banner reads "Establish a Civilized Yanji City," July 2009 -- photo by Adam Cathcart)
Chinese Fighter Jet over Yanji (banner reads "Create a Civilized City," July 2009 -- photo by Adam Cathcart)

( The above image, along with an encounter with a Korean-Chinese scholar in a local bath, reminded me of 1951 when the entire Yanbian University library was relocated to the confiscated home of a local collaborationists landlord for safekeeping, only to return in 1954, the heyday of Sino-Korean cooperation in the new Yanbian Korean Ethnicity Automous Region.)  But I suppose that is all just for show, certainly China would never want to intimidate brotherly North Korea, especially not in an area where the May 25 nuclear test created a minor earthquake.   I’m sure that all the local school kids have forgotten the Chengdu quake and are all just ready to go back to singing songs of Sino-Korean friendship, that is, if they know any besides “March of the People’s Volunteers,” which itself, if one analyzes the lyrics along side the melodic and harmonic content, actually shunts the North Koreans off to the side.)

As regards North Korean security forces in China and the Ling/Lee/Koss debacle: Throughout the spring, the specter of North Korean troops/agents crossing the border was implied in Western media but never substantiated.   It was certainly not asserted in the Chinese media, who were presumably getting their facts straight with the help of testimony from Mitch Koss, his remarkable camera, and local Chinese-Koreans.

Does no one care, or find consequential, what China’s attitude would be in such a highly-publicized incident in the event that it were true that KPA troops hunting for foreigners walked into Jilin? In analyzing things should we not be aware of Chinese sensitivities about “territorial integrity” in a chunk of territory (one no less where Koreans in the early 1930s were overwhelmingly seen by Chinese as the spearhead of Japanese imperialism, not guerrilla fighters) which go way deeper than Tibet ever could? What is the functional linkage between KPA border guards and those on the Chinese side? Neglect of the basic issue — China’s response to the idea of KPA on Chinese soil — has, regrettably, been a completely unexamined facet of the whole CurrentTV affair.

Unfortunately the timing of the CurrentTV editorial, published yesterday at 6:30 p.m. PST, came in the aftermath of the PRC Foreign Ministry’s press briefing in Beijing, so no Chinese officials have had to comment thus far.

In fact, Chinese media, which would be on this story like, well, flies on s*** if they thought it would serve their purpose, is studiously ignoring the Ling/Lee divulgence.  Instead, China is mending its fences with the DPRK, since North Korea’s foreign minister is landing in Beijing (funny how the timing worked out here) and the two countries need to figure out how, among other things, to play the Japan card.   A cute story about North Korean liberalization of the advertising/food service sector is included in the latest Huanqiu, and overall things are pretty sweet right now.

The linked story to Huanqiu Shibao is interesting, however, because North Korea does get slammed for other reasons in the comment section and North Korean foreign minister described as a “white-eyed wolf” and a cunning “dog” who “relies on the United States”.  Say what you will about the rhetoric, but by God! this is shocking stuff — reader comments online, directly on the official newspaper website, appended to the article.  Fortunately in the egalitarian and democratic paradise of ambition that is the USA, we all believe the same thing, so we don’t need the chance to comment directly on sobbing and self-serving editorials in the LA Times or the occasional NY Times story that is unrelated to the Middle East or the stock market.  So suck on it, ChiCom dictators!

The CurrentTV reporters were arrested, according to the North Korean reports, in Onsung-ri, which means Onsung district, in North Hamgyong province.  Although no one in the media has bothered to do so (probably because they don’t read KCNA or understand basic Korean), one can quickly run the place name through the search function on the Daily NK website.

One finds a great deal of information about Onsung city, usually that executions have been taking place there.

The bottom line is that we should be careful with our evidence, there is more to know, and we also have to take care not to miss the much larger aspects of the Chinese-North Korean relations at work here.

Note: One particularly active blog commenter, using the pseudonym “Spelunker,” has not been to the place in question but has provided a wealth of data about the site of the arrest.  His entries on the One Free Korea and Liberate Laura blogs could be followed by any media person or student if they were so inclined.

Upper Reaches of the Yalu near Changbaishan, a North Korean, perhaps a border guard, has chopped down a tree to facilitate crossing.  Photo by Adam Cathcart, July 2009.
Upper Reaches of the Yalu near Changbaishan, a North Korean, perhaps a border guard, has chopped down a tree to facilitate crossing. Photo by Adam Cathcart, July 2009.


  1. The propagation of this notion of North Korean secret agents running rampant in northeastern China is perhaps another example of the “Internetization” of today’s media process. Specifically, the tendency to link-and-run to pieces without really doing any further analysis or research into their assertions.

    Still, a recent PRI radio report mentioned that as many as one-in-five North Korean defectors being held in Chinese detention centers were actually North Korea planted spies. And if the Ling-Lee-Koss guide is still in Chinese custody, why? Do the Chinese fear how he might expose to an attentive American audience the covert ways China enables the persecution and repatriation aid of North Korean defectors?

  2. A few reports have come out recently about North Korean spies posing as defectors, but the one case I am aware of had as her target South Korean military capabilities. And this was one case out of tens of thousands.

    The North Koreans probably wanted her to be exposed, ultimately. Better to scare a few tens of thousands of defectors with one failed example, thereby putting the idea of among defectors of imagining every ethnic Korean they see (or North Korean compatriot) is a spy.

    Why so few? North Korea simply cannot afford to create or bribe enough spies. Read the Good Friends’ Report and Marcus Nolland, etc. This infrastructure is completely broken, the coercive power of the state corroding.

    And again, any numbers beyond a handful this kind of incident (North Korean refugees exposed as spies) would have China in a tizzy, that is, I really don’t believe they would approve. Reverend Shik has garnered the PRC way more bad publicity than it was worth for them. And they have much bigger (and narcissistic) goals right now — like the exciting 60th anniversary of the PRC! to celebrate. (Keep in mind that in terms of nationhood, the DPRK is actually the older brother. Too bad on the 60th anniversary on Sept. 9, 2009, Kim Jong Il’s health was poor and the coffers were empty — almost as humiliating as the 1989 World Youth Festival but at least no one was building hotels.)

    I’ll try to get to the question of the guide subsequently. Need to read a little more first. But your comment is very perceptive and I think you’re right. Also, if you had the link to the PRI report, I would appreciate it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s