Fistfuls of Chinese Earth, Breaths of Conspiracy, Fusillades of Propaganda

The Laura Ling/Euna Lee editorial has been partially translated and passed along, virtually without commentary or analysis, on the Daily NK’s Chinese website, which is accessible in China.

And the headline is, of course, “we were grabbed from Chinese territory.”   (This has an especially potent ring in Chinese, I might add: “从中国领土抓走,” evoking something sacred about the territory in a nationalist discourse which is the CCP’s stock-in-trade, something they learned darned well from the Nationalists.)  Why not?  The editorial by the CurrentTV reporters highlights the Chinese earth:

We tried with all our might to cling to bushes, ground, anything that would keep us on Chinese soil, but we were no match for the determined soldiers. They violently dragged us back across the ice to North Korea and marched us to a nearby army base, where we were detained [uh, no, ladies, you were already detained].

China has soil.  We know that now.  It’s a powerful image, one by which the authors link themselves to the very refugees dragged back into North Korea.   But it is also a very political act to highlight in this way.  And thus the Chinese headline on ling tu, or earth, territory.

While Daily NK is not widely read in China (as indicated by the lack of discussion about it on BBS / internet discussion boards and within the site’s own comments section), occasionally, when it suits the purposes of the mainland Chinese to do so, Xinhua or the Global Times will quote from Daily NK reports.  This is usually done in subtle ways when China wants to embarass North Korea.  The same tactic is used when Chinese reporters write “South Korean media reports [something denigrating about North Korea]” and don’t add caveats.   However, as I indicated, I don’t believe this story will take off immediately in China.  There are other reasons for this which I’ll explain subsequently.

North Korean Soldiers in China, encore

As for the topic of North Korean soldiers in China, the timing of this story about a witnessing of one who doffed his clothes to grab some goods across the river could not be better.  Here we have several photos taken of the stretch of river which (although the site does not mention, I can tell you based on having just been there) were taken perhaps 1.5 kilometers west of the main bridge connecting the two cities of Hyesan (DPRK) and Changbai (PRC) where legitimate trade occurs.

Sept 1 2009 NK returns to Hyesan across chest high Yalu, via Daily NK
Sept 1 2009 illicit trade across the upper reaches of the Yalu, Changbai/Hyesan

It brings to mind that when trade figures state that China supplies 80% of all goods in North Korea, if one were to estimate smuggled goods as well, that number might well reach even higher.

It also calls to mind a great deal of recent evidence mined in Good Friends’ Reports from defectors and cell phone conversations, dispatches which are somewhat less sensationalistic (perhaps due to more scrupulous translators!) than those of Daily NK.  These reports stress that corruption among border police has been a problem.

Coincidences, or, Fodder for Conspiracy Theorists

And corruption among border police has reached such levels that it was listed among Chang Song-Taek’s portfolio not long ago.  But most significatly, Kim Jong Il himself spoke to this issue of border security in a February 2009 inspection at Hoeryung city. And this wasn’t about Kangwon or the 38th parallel; he was there to tighten things up in North Hamgyong specifically.

My goodness.  Now there is a tidbit for the conspiracy minded!  Dear Leader travels to a North Hamgyong city on the Tumen River and calls for particular vigilance just a month before our intrepid trio of Ling/Lee/Koss and guide show up across that very river, mere tens of kilometers away, in nearby Onsong.  I have always been told that Kim Jong Il was prenatural, but that is really uncanny.  He really must be a brilliant man.

Almost as magnificently coincidental is the timing of the release of the LA Times editorial by Ling/Lee, which interests me primarily for the diplomatic and p.r. implications, not for the girls (dear God, I think we have had enough of them for quite a while, although they will be deigned experts for life on North Korea by the Oprah set) but for the Chinese government.

Isn’t it just a bit funny that the one shot the girls had left in their arsenal to cause international/diplomatic chaos was just played, e.g., to state that they were abducted from Chinese soil?  And that the revelation was timed just as the North Korean foreign minister was arriving in Beijing for four days of slated talks?

These girls are pawns, but their editorial was expertly timed to throw a nice little wedge in for the Chinese.  I wonder if someone over at State, or in the White House, or in John Bolton’s mustache, was really urging them to just revise it one more time, or to run it past a few more colleagues or vice presidents of marketing or government lawyers.

Let me be really clear here: It’s a loss of face and a p.r. problem for China to have this idea out that North Korean soldiers are arresting people on Chinese territory.

Pro-North Korean Propaganda in China

No wonder China is playing this down in its news media — there is really nothing to be gained.  So in its place — as something always has to fill the void — we get stories about initial market liberalization of the restaurant advertising business in North Korea (how bizarre, yet endearing, Xinhua leads us to think!), and two or three verbatim stories from Pyongyang’s KCNA about “over 170recent violations of North Korean airspace by American spy planes.

One function of these stories is to absorb the vocabulary which the Ling/Lee divulgence creates (“border” “territorial integrity” “spying Americans”) but to direct the discussion in a direction that highlights Sino-Korean solidarity and confuses the issue.

This tactic was seen when Jung Chang’s total character assassination book came out in 2005, the biography of Chairman Mao, published in Taiwan and the U.S., but completely banned in China.  (Having reviewed it for a journal and tought the book three times in university classrooms, I can see why.)  How did the CCP respond to Chang’s book?  I don’t have the notes from the Propaganda Bureau meeting, but in Zhao Ziyang-on-the-I’m-taping-over-my-grandkids’-pop-songs-on-the-mike-style, I think it went something like this: “Dear God, Jung Chang is one hot piece of spiritual pollution.  And her book, even though its just a Lutheran-ladies-in-the-church-basement-hotdish-reheat of Li Zhisui’s Private Life of Chairman Mao, is dangerous.  People are going to start wandering the countryside looking for Mao’s villas to rehabilitate and sell for huge profits, or, worse yet, they will recall that at one time our country’s foreign policy rested upon the principle of unity with Albania.  We know people are going to hear about this book and talk about it, so let’s just confuse people.  Do you remember that guy, what was his name?  Ross Terrill?  Yeah, the one who is now writing really mean books about us, calling us The New Chinese Empire and talking about how closed we are? Let’s get his old Mao biography translated, take out the acidic stuff, and market that mother in Xidan and in all the Xinhua bookstores — and call it ‘the newest Mao biography from the West!’  Get a few graduate students to work and let’s get it done tomorrow!”

And that is precisely what happened.  People, friends, real Beijing University scholars I knew, would, when posed with a question about Chang’s book, refer instead to Terrill’s book in conversations in summer 2006.  So this misdirection tactic has legs even among Chinese intellectuals, and you can’t Twitter them into submission to your facts.

Thus, returning to the day’s North Korea story, if we think of borders in North Korea, Xinhua leads us to imagine, it should be to condemnthose American spy planes.  The North Koreans are just concerned about their airspace, and what Chinese patriot couldn’t empathize.  I’m sure we all remember the rocky flaming shitstorm that descended on the U.S. embassy in Beijing in 1999 after the Belgrade bombing of their embassy and of course the April 2001 EP=3 incident, both of which netted China nice apologies kind of like the one Clinton reprised in Pyongyang. (“You can tell your people I kowtowed and I’ll go home and everyone will be impressed with my dignified non-apology apology.”)

But the Chinese netizens aren’t taking the bait.  No one really remembers the giant propaganda attacks on American aircraft over Korea and China during the Korean War, even though people like me spend days poring over Zhou Enlai’s thick handwriting in the Beijing archives about just that topic.  So it serves a purpose in the Sino-North Korean dynamic of returning, at least temporarily for a day and in the language of propaganda, to that fertile basis of their alliance: shared defense against the American imperialists, staunch defenders of their revolutionary sovereignty.

The netizens don’t really care much about the airplane story.  Two comments on a Huanqiu Shibao article?  No netizens have passion for it…

But in terms of how China is playing the media game of late with North Korea, we see some socialist solidarity at work, trying to calm things down with the DPRK and reward them for recent moderation.  Of course, the Ling/Lee thing threatens that facade.  Even if the two countries’ leaders have talked about the incident and had full transparency (which is absolutely unlikely, not to discount possiblity of communication on the matter; after all, the two countries have a new military hotline opened up), the fact that our favorite ex-hostages have come out with this news about Chinese territory, the socialist bloc here has a bit of something to deal with.

The last thing the Chinese government wants this month, as it leads up to the giant quivering and missle-revealing orgasm of October 1, is to have netizens and super-patriots get on some unstoppable wagon of debate about China’s “territorial integrity,” much less as the target of that ire would be a somewhat dangerous and unstable socialist neighbor state.  Can’t we keep people focused on Taiwan in this month that we reflect back on 1949 anyway?  And how happy everyone is?

There are master narratives to be upheld here, people!

Or, it’s just China watching its back for hatchets from Los Angeles.  Meanwhile, the Chinese Foreign Ministry (known by the bad-ass ackronym MFA, impossibly evoking the phrase “all up up in this muh” even as the building resembles the Death Star) happily hosts the North Korean envoys, who scatter plutonium-laced jars of precious mountain ginseng as little gifts around Beijing’s Chaoyang district and wonder why the hell it has suddenly become so hard to smoke a cigarette with impunity in the halls of the MFA, and then return to their embassy in Japanese cars that, like most of the commerce that goes on in the neighborhood, will breeze along irrespective of any dictate from Pyongyang.  Let’s hope the Foreign Minister can at least do some shopping while he’s in town; that is, unless he’s abducted by missionaries and spirited away to a third country.

Nitpicking Translations

And “third country”, I might add, is the right translation for Daily NK breathless reports about North Korean soldiers who run away to China.  Pyongyang, the website alleges, fears that the soldiers will run away “to a Third World country,” which is a very bad translation of the phrase 第三国。 Having lost their rights under U.S. occupation in Japan (along with the Taiwanese, something I discuss in depth in this scholarly paper based on documents in the U.S. National Archives and Chinese press reports from the 1940s) the Koreans of all people should be aware of this tricky term.  “Third Country National” (第三国人) was the epithet of the day.

You would think that a website that has as its mission, ultimately, to crack open the DPRK and transfer its population to places like Los Angeles via Mongolia (where Lee Myung Bak went this past spring to prep the conspiracy, to China’s consternation) would have a better handle on this concept as it is rendered in English.


  1. Thanks to for the link to my earlier post, “Understanding the North Korea/CurrentTV Fiasco.”

  2. There has been much focus on NK units such as “Office 39” (counterfeiting) and one allegedly dedicated to western computer hacking, but I want to meet the heads of the respective media disinformation units for North Korea and China. They deserve a slot speaking at Columbia Journalism School ahead of TMZ, as they do their job brilliantly.

    Whether it’s the tactic you point out re: Jung Chang’s book or all that stuff about how Kim Jong-il was dying, North Korea and China play the Internet like a prize violin snatched from a musician on his way to labor camp.

    1. Love the metaphor! Just finished a conversation with Tomaz Jardim, a very talented historian of the Holocaust and post-war American trials of perpetrators at Malthausen deathcamp/Konzentrazionslager, and we agreed (as you suggest with the violin reference, and as Jonah Goldberg pointed out not long ago in LA Times) the rhetoric linking Nazi death camps to those in North Korea is only going to strengthen over time.

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