Occasionally Xinhua relays a very halcyon story about North Korea in the Chinese press, hearkening back in tone to the 1950s, when all was well in the Sino-North Korean relationship. (The 1950s always looks more harmonious when we forget how Chinese People’s Volunteers caused controversy by eating all the grain and sleeping with North Korean widows, and further forgetting how Kim Il Song purged the “Yanan Faction” from the North Korean ruling circles, that is.) I’ve been keeping abreast of few “happy happy North Korea”- themed stories in Chinese and have two updates.
Do you recall the serious backlash of Chinese netizens against the story entitled “North Korea is a Country We Should Respect,” Xinhua’s tale of PRC students who returned from study in the DPRK with eyes widened by the seriousness and national pride of their excellent North Korean counterparts? The story was plainly an effort to consolidate the gains of Wen Jiaobao’s visit in early October, 2009, and to give at least the impression that segments of Chinese popular opinion still felt that North Korea had something positive to offer. The CCP hasn’t tried to follow up with this particular story, particularly given the subsequent ban on Chinese tourism implemented in December, 2009 as a result of the significant internal disarray in cities like Sinuiju in the aftermath of North Korea’s currency revaluation. It does, however, appear, that China was just paying the North Koreans back for having sent a large youth delegation to Beijing in late September, 2009.
Just as North Korea needs to be rewarded and encouraged in subtle ways when they take steps indicative of an interest in change (such as the recent news that Pyongyang sent some forty officials to study Chinese economic reforms in Dalian), the DPRK regime also needs its back scratched in the Chinese state media when they do allow their students outside of the country.
The other story previously relayed here regarded the North Korean staging of the Chinese-style opera, “Dream of the Red Chamber,” news of which was met with some pushback by Chinese netizens. Now, as an apparent reward to North Korea for its recent moves toward the negotiating table, Xinhua is pushing the story again, revealing that “Kim Jong Il inspected the opera tens of times” and that “China donated all the costumes to North Korea.” This is an extensive article and aspect of Sino-North Korean cultural relations that we ought to be regarding with some curiosity. After all, if Shakespeare in Tianjin is worth an article in the awesome tower of cultural analysis that is JingDaily, and CNN can do stories about art exports from the Hermit Kingdom, North Korea watchers ought to be able to muster a mention or two of this ongoing pas-de-deux between musicians and actors in Beijing and Pyongyang.
As I’ve argued in my most recent article in Acta Koreana (“North Korean Hip-Hop?”, to be blogged about later), what the U.S. needs is a kind of “hip-hop diplomacy” toward North Korea. This current back-and-forth with China over “Dream of the Red Chamber” indicates the parameters of North Korea’s current musical diplomacy in the absence of more work to send state orchestras abroad.
And relations with China are, at least, better than with those in Europe at the moment. North Korea Economy Watch and North Korea Leadership Watch both carry informative postings on recent restrictions levied by the European Union against the DPRK leadership. Even Switzerland (not an EU member) is joining the parade:
Switzerland is standing by a decision to stop development aid to North Korea, which has focused on improving food security in the internationally isolated country. The foreign ministry says it now has a strategy for the withdrawal of Swiss development workers from the communist country by the end of 2011. In 2008 the government approved a motion by parliamentarian Gerhard Pfister demanding a halt to development aid in response to North Korea’s continuing nuclear ambitions….Although Switzerland has no official representation in the communist country, diplomatic relations were established in 1974. [h/t Richard Horgan]
Switzerland’s move should be seen as particularly galling to the North Koreans; Switzerland had a strong track record in welcoming overseas money from Pyongyang and in having educated members of the Kim royal family. (My own translation of German-language interviews with Kim Jong Un’s Swiss schoolmates can be accessed here; more speculation on Kim Jong-un via translations from the French press is here.) Since the Swiss appear to be putting the screws on, it seems L’Hebdo, the Francophone magazine which helped to break the story of Kim Jong-eun in Bern, is going to have to hire some new editorial writers who aren’t so bullish on Swiss-North Korean business ties.