On December 8, the Huanqiu Shibao carried an item headlined “South Korean Media Reports that Two North Korean Citizens Illegally Trading Currency Were Executed [韩媒称两名朝鲜居民因非法兑换货币被枪决],” marking the first time in my memory that China has drawn such explicit attention to North Korea’s arbitrary system of justice.
Not only does the appearance of this news further reinforcing that China is displeased, it indicates that Xinhua isn’t above quoting from sources like Open Radio North Korea when the need arises. (Radio Free Asia has an excellent report on the currency issue here, but the Open Radio North Korea can be seen here in Korean and here in English.)
As to the story regarding executions for illegal currency trading, this is, again, a serious departure in Chinese coverage on North Korea. And as such, Chinese readers may be raising their eyebrows. So let’s move to the netizen comments on the piece:
“Good and ruthless, such backward economic practices are just waiting for everyone’s support / 好狠，搞得经济这么落后就等着大家支援。
“Right, if you don’t support them economically, they will scream that they have to develop nuclear weapons / 是的，你们不经济支援他就叫嚣要发展核武器。
“The North Korean government isn’t wrong here; they can still wipe out the wealth disparity! / 朝鲜政府不错这样还真能消除贫富差距!”
“This is South Korean media…how much can we trust it? / 韩国媒体的话。。有多少能信？”
“North Korea and South Korea are one thing: totally anomalous. / 朝鲜跟韩国一个样，都变态。”
“If China had this kind of legal power, there wouldn’t be any greedy officials or greedy merchants left! 如果中国有这执法力度,贪官贪商早就没有了!”
“Is this also news? Also hearsay? Also rumor, also truth? Is it or isn’t it? 新闻也？道听途说也？谣也事也？是也非也？
“I estimate that it is a rumor created by a South Korean. / 估计是韩国人造的谣。”
“After the revaluation, wealthy people will have no way to live, their bitterly gained wealth will wearily be given to the poor people, and those on top will become poor simultaneously; it’s lamentable in many ways. / 被平均后富人又得白手起家了，幸幸苦苦积累的财富要平均给穷人，一下子就和穷人同一档次，是多么可悲。”
“How can South Korean people’s media be trusted? / 韩国人的媒体怎么才能相信？”
[Several comments deleted by board administrator; calls for “civilized posting.”]
“This incident is truly frightening. / 这个事情真可怕”
“Kingly way, happy and safe land. [Irony alert!] / 王道乐土”
“Yes, we believe Chinese Central Television. / 我们还是相信cctv啊”
“How can this be? How can this be? How can this be? This is impossible! This is truly impossible! / 怎么可能？怎么可能呢？怎么可能哪！不可能！绝对不可能！”
There’s a lot to analyze amid these comments, but chief among them might be the inherent societal support for North Korean capitalists and capitalism. I don’t think this is some mirage, as the Chinese speak from experience. And I would interpret the final comment as an expression of outrage against North Korea rather than an expression of indignance against South Korean rumors, although it can be read both ways.
It is further interesting that China is less and less interested in protecting North Korea’s media flank. For instance, China kept its Chen Zhili [陈至立] coverage fairly low-key (visits to Chinese war memorials in Pyongyang, etc.), while allowing the currency story to instead dominate the North Korea news narrative in the week before Envoy Bosworth’s arrival in Pyongyang.
Chinese businessmen are having a very hard time working in North Korea presently and assert that moving between Sinuiju and Pyongyang is almost impossible. That’s a pity, because the Sinuiju-Pyongyang rail corridor has some of the best, most carefully-tended agriculture in the entire DPRK, as the Good Friends organization reports. At the same time, an under-reported story has been the increasing North Korean restrictions on Chinese cell phone usage by Chinese traders in the border areas.
Ironically, the currency reforms have increased the power of Chinese in the border areas of North Hamgyong province, according to Open Radio North Korea:
On December 2, a source in Musan reported that there are no limits on the amount of money Chinese can exchange for North Korean currency. Especially near the border area, there are more private travelers from China than in Pyongyang or other cities which are not near the border. These travelers possess a large amount of North Korean notes in order to purchase North Korean souvenirs and to travel within North Korea. North Korea authority allow them currency exchange without limit since they are foreigners.
Two issues arise from this:
First, there are increasing numbers of North Koreans who try to exchange their old bills for new ones through Chinese since Chinese can always exchange their old bills.
Second, the exchange rate near the border areas is better than that in Pyongyang. Since exchanging money is much easier for the Chinese, the value of old bills relative to US dollars decreases in border areas, by smaller increments than in Pyongyang. In fact, compared to the exchange rate of 1:6000 in Pyongyang on December 2nd, the exchange rates in Sinuiju and Musan were 1:5000 and 1:4500 respectively.
Via Professor Juan Cole’s groundbreaking Informed Comment website, an illustrated commentary on Sino-Iranian relations by Pepe Escobar in France (in English):
Then, via Al Jezeera’s English service, a short report on China’s Iran moves in October:
The best look at the deep structure of Sino-Iran relations today is probably my colleague John Garver’s work, Ancient Partners in a Post-Imperial World, published here in Seattle at the University of Washington Press in 2006.
Finally, the Politics by Other Means Eurasian blog has a thought-provoking post on “the personalization of power” in Russia and Iran:
[Putin’s method] is remarkably similar to the situation in Iran, where Mahmoud Ahmadinejad collects millions of hand-written letters throughout his trips around the country and promises to personally solve every problem. It is a type of paternalistic populism that is endemic in countries without functioning institutions. Unfortunately, it only perpetuates corruption and lack of faith in governance.
This prompts me to marvel at how bureaucratic and impersonal the Chinese leadership has become, and impressively so. Wen Jiabao may occasionally preen for the cameras, but no Chinese leader appears to want the appearance that they are able to fix everything — can you imagine the number of petitioners who would flock to the gates of Zhongnanhai then?
But then again, Wen Jiabao can’t do this:
In this light, Barack Obama seems strangely unable to marshal his own hip-hip potential internationally or find time for a pickup game of hoops in Beijing. Apparently he leaves his Jay-Z at the water’s edge. The President’s inability to tap into the best and the deepest currents of globalized American / African-American culture functions to the detriment of U.S. soft power! In other words, Mr. President, please don’t be afraid to seize the mic or shoot a layup next time you’re in Shanghai or talking tough to Tehran. Because America should always be young, and mp3s and images rock the chains better than bunker-busters ever could.