Several rather interesting Sino-North Korean stories have come across the transom recently. And isn’t that what life is all about: stories? Narratives have power, particularly when they change. Some arguments and stories which we may have believed to be immutable – such as Chinese support for North Korea on the refugee issue – may in fact be changing before our very eyes.
Indications of a potential shift (not an actual shift, but an opening towards a different future) in China’s attitude toward North Korean refugees was signalled recently by comments made in South Korea by Chinese VP Xi Jinping.
Xi really said very little, but this short sentence represents a qualitative improvement in public discussion by Chinaese leaders regarding the refugee issue. The Daily NK, in its English version, reported it this way:
In meetings in Seoul on Thursday, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping spoke candidly about taking a humanitarian approach to Korean War POW and abduction issues.
Vice President Xi explained in his meeting with South Korean Prime Minister Chung Un Chan, “China is solving these problems from a humanitarian perspective according to domestic and international laws.”
An account on the Daily NK’s China page gives the exact quote of the key sentence: “将根据国际法、国内法及人道主义原则处理.”
Of course there is a contradiction at work here between China’s internal laws, the application of those laws, and international law. But for Xi merely to address the refugee openly, and in concert with the South Koreans, no less, seems to be an important indication of where this is all leading. Xi might also consider his remarks as a kind of sop to South Korean public opinion, or segments thereof, to assuage anger over Chinese deportation of South Korean missionaries from along the border. The refugee issue is hardly at the top of national consciousness in South Korea, but given the actively mobilizing civil-society groups written about by Joshua Stanton and DanB on One Free Korea, China is wise to at least acknowledge that it can be moved to modify its policies on refugees.
Huanqiu Shibao carries a big news page on PRC-ROK relations. As usual, perhaps what’s most interesting is what isn’t there. Xinhua has apparently yet to walk back its recent relaying of a Yonhap story about imminent North Korean miniaturization of nuclear weapons, even though South Korean intelligence agencies are stating now that the reports were overblown. All of this serves to pressure North Korea, so why back off now?
Meanwhile, Kim Jong Il appears to be focused on the border region again, with Hoeryong getting special allocations of supplies from Pyongyang expressly on his orders. As the birthplace of the Dear Leader’s mother, Kim Jong Suk, Hoeryong has been receiving similar attention this past February, probably along with attention to its role in the emerging succession narrative.
According to statistics, Kim took 156 on-site inspections this past year, and according to New Year’s editorials published in Pyongyang, the “150-day battle” campaign exceeded production targets by 11%. Right. An English translation of the editorial continues:
Continuing unabated, the KCNA described Kim’s on-site visit schedule this past year as a “forced march similar to that of a historically unparalleled guerilla unit,” noting, “The leadership of the General (Kim Jong Il), who traveled to the north, south, east and west of the Fatherland without limit to lead the march against the enemy, caused the mental power of ten million residents to erupt like a volcano.”
Speaking of Kim Jong Il and arteries bursting, “the leading brains of North Korean security organizations,” who have been steadily travelling to China with, quite probably, the mission of preparing for a visit by Kim Jong Il himself. The Daily NK’s Chinese site speculates in a fascinating article on the debate surrounding the proposed trip. KCNA seems to have reported in Chinese that, in a meeting of Hu Jintao with a North Korean cabinet member (朝鲜劳动党中央委员会秘书崔泰福) in Beijing on October 29 of this year, Hu invited Kim Jong Il to come to Beijing. Smart move. Speculators either indicate that Kim Jong Il is eager to get China’s help with economic projects (such as Sinuiju and Rajin, but not excluded to these) or assert that he will be travelling to China (and perhaps Russia) in a quest to see doctors and improve his health. According to Daily NK, Yomiuri Shimbun on December 20 speculated that Kim Jong Il was dissatisfied with the form and emphasis of aid offered by Wen Jiabao in Pyongyang. On the flip side, if the trip is indeed intended to mend the Dear Leader’s health reasons, why doesn’t he just go to France? Hopefully someone is keeping track of Kim’s former surgeon (Ayatollah Khomeni-style) in the banlieu Parisienne.
Incidentally, the Daily NK article upon which the previous paragraph is based is one of the better analyses I have read on Sino-North Korean relations in the last couple of months. It also has some nifty comments left behind by Chinese readers, including someone with a bit of word play on the typical smash-down on South Koreans as “idiots” (bangzi) which renders them as “the best” (tai bangzi le). More interestingly, a comment asks why Kim would be in better hands with a foreign doctor. After all, the comment states, “Doctors can also harm those who harm humanity.” The ethics of health care and Kim Jong Il! Perhaps a topic for another time.
Hwang Jang-yop sends some advice to the Chinese people (in Chinese) about promoting democracy in North Korea, China’s role in controlling North Korean nuclear development, and the possibility that Kim Jong-il could “take an anti-Chinese stance.”
But that’s all theoretical for the moment. Peasant children are dying of hunger in Kapsan (an old Workers’ Party stronghold, for God’s sake!) in Ryanggang province. Here we see the connection between the mercantile chaos unleashed by the currency revaluation and the impact of the state undercutting of the private markets, or jangmadang. With people being arrested for selling grains in the market and undercutting (the still-deficient) state markets, food is less available than before. People are being executed for burning their old currency or not turning it over to the state in an act of disrespect to the long-dead Kim Il Song, whose face adorns the big bills.
One story from Kapsan (in Chinese, as it gives far greater detail than the English version of the same sad tale) describes how Mrs. Shin, a mother with two children, ages 11 and 9, was selling potato noodles in a street market until the currency revaluation cut off her business. She begged for help from the local authorities, who finally sent representatives to her home, where they found her 11-year-old dead from starvation, the 9-year-old barely breathing, and 9,000 useless won of the old currency. In response, the provincial Party secretary visited Shin’s house and thereafter opened up a public cafeteria for two days, fearing social instability among the poorest classes (who were certainly feeling combative before the worst hunger set in). The fact that the highest public official in Ryanggang province intervened in this case would appear to indicate that at the very least, death by starvation in that province is not widespread, but a distinct possibility nevertheless, and that Party members are on edge.
Finally, it’s worth noting that all of this misery is being compounded by severe cold weather. It is frigid in North Korea right now: On December 20, it was – 26 C. in Changbaishan/Paektu, Hyesan (惠山) – 24 C., Kanggye (江界) – 20 C., Sinuiju (新义州) – 13 C., Pyongyang (平壤) – 11 C. Yes, those are negative numbers. As the Daily NK’s Chinese report further describes, North Korea is heavily dependent on coal and wood for their heat, and this winter is clearly going to strain supplies of both.
We can bellyache all day about China’s heavy reliance upon coal and non-renewables, but for today, at least, it’s helpful to recall that Daqing crude and Fushun coal will be keeping real North Koreans alive this winter.
The refugee issue is a key factor. It is obvious that neither South Korea nor the States or others are pushing this issue. And the Chinese government can change it. I think about Eastern Europe 1989 here.
China can’t do much about the talkbukjas without further coordination from the South Korean government. Not sending them back to the DPRK doesn’t solve the issue. Do the Chinese just let them stay in China for as long as they want? Do the Chinese just let them hit foreign embassies and consulates at will? There must be a permanent solution to this. It is very disingenuous for the SK government, NGOs and human rights groups to just tell China “buksong joongji!” without putting anything else on the table.