Manchurian Base Camp, Part III: The DPRK’s Northeastern Strategy

Manchurian Base Camp, Part I: In the 1930s Kim Il Song regarded Manchuria, or Northeast China, as an immense area into which to project anti-Japanese struggle and wherein he could hammer out the personal foundations for what would become the North Korean state.  

Manchurian Base Camp, Part II: During the Korean War, North Korean elites moved back into Manchuria to escape from the horrific bombing of Pyongyang (and virtually every other major and minor city in the DPRK), populating special schools in cities like Tonghua, Jilin, and Changchun.  In his recent visit to Jilin, Kim Jong Il admitted that he had spent nearly three years in Jilin province as an elementary school student, safe from American air raids.  (While this put the lie to the many stories North Korean propagandists had already spun about the Young General accompanying his (rather young) father at the front, braving bombs and giving on-the-spot-guidance at the tender age of eight or nine, his comments were meant for a Chinese audience anyway, and have been widely reported in the PRC without a great deal of editorializing. 

Manchurian Base Camp, Part II.5 is the unacknowledged symmetry that began with what Andrew Nastios calls “The Great North Korean Famine” in the 1990s; the symmetry involves hungry North Koreans who saw the Chinese northeast as their lifeline much as Kim Il Song’s arduous marches in the 1930s acknowledged that the difficult survival in Manchuria was survival nevertheless.  

And finally to today:  

Manchurian Base Camp, Part III: Today the North Korean leadership is pushing again towards Northeast China, but in a different fashion, opening the gates in obvious fashion to reinterpret the meaning of Manchuria in the North Korean propaganda topos.  Take, for instance, the summary of a new North Korean editorial, published in the Rodong Sinmun (Workers’ Daily) in Pyongyang and relayed to us via the Chinese news bureau in that city (translation by Adam Cathcart):


文章介绍了东北三省在地理、经济、文化等各方面的发展情况,称赞在中国共产党的关怀和该地区人民具有献身精神的奋斗与努力下,东北三省在政治、经济、文化等许多领域的发展都取得了巨大成果。文章说,东北工业和农业得到壮大,科技飞速发展,人民福利大幅提高。东北人民为有中国特色的和谐社会主义建设作出了巨大贡献。 文章最后对东北的明天抱以美好的展望,称东北地区将在社会主义现代化建设的道路上不断向前发展。

An article published in the September 16 “Workers’ Daily’ in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea states that, under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, the Chinese Northeast has taken on a whole new appearance.  The article, entitled “Daily Renewal and Change in the Chinese Northeastern Region,” states that Northeast China was the area of former national Chairman Kim Il Song’s revolutionary activities, was where he lived and struggled, and is the important and significant site of historical Korean-Chinese friendship.  The DPRK’s highest leader Kim Jong Il went twice to the Northeast [this past year], in May and in August, pursuing (追寻) Kim Il Song’s footsteps and historical relics from his revolutionary activities.  [Translator’s note: There were precious few of these relics available for DPRK scholars who went in pursuit of Marshal Kim’s footsteps in 1953; some of my archival work on this issue will be coming out in the next year in Harvard’s Journal of Cold War Studies.  But here the important point is the pursuing of the “footsteps,” an important succession theme, and Kim Jong Il was never really all that interested in historical veracity in the first place.]    

The article introduces the geography, economy, culture and other aspects of Northeast China’s situation of development, stating that under the solicitous care of the Chinese Communist Party, the people of the region have taken a collective spirit of effort and struggle, making huge achievements in all spheres in the three Northeastern provinces, including politics, economics, and culture.  The article goes on to state that industry and agriculture in the Northeast are expanding and strengthening, that science is helping to speed development and substantially raise the welfare of the people.  The Northeastern people are producing huge contributions to the establishment of harmonious socialism with Chinese characteristics.   The article ends by stating that the Northeast holds great hopes for a beautiful tomorrow, moving continuously forward on the road of modern, socialist construction and development. 

 In another sense, the North Korean state is finally stating something which has become completely obvious to residents of the border areas, and no doubt by word of mouth to residents in the population centers closer to the southern border like Hamhung and Pyongyang: Northeast China is developing rapidly.  In and of itself, such a statement does not consist of “news” to a deadened North Korean population, but its bullish statement by KCNA, the North Korean propaganda agency, is of course “newsworthy.”

Kim Jong Il’s recent visits to North Korean border regions, replacing of top party officials in border provinces, and the primacy assigned to North Pyong’an and Ryanggang (northwestern border) provinces in the rhetoric and speculation about Kim Jong Un would all seem to further indicate the northward focus of the DPRK leadership at the moment.   

In English, the DPRK makes its Northeastern strategy further apparent in this KCNA piece describing Kim Il Song’s [mostly real] contributions to the Chinese revolution in the era of China’s “War of Liberation”/Civil War.  A second, much more extensive piece, moves the argument ahead even further, placing China in the position of being in a kind of moral debt to the Kim family due to aid rendered during the civil war.  One might want to note, however, that describing these so prominently in DPRK media isn’t so much as a new move as a return to the ethos of 1949, when the North Korean media was rather outspoken in its support for Mao and the Chinese communist war effort, something which can be further explored in an article I published a couple of years back with Chuck Kraus entitled “North Korean Internationalism, 1945-1950” in the Review of Korean Studies. 

In another post, I’ll endeavor to describe how North Korea began telegraphing the “Northeastern strategy” with great clarity before Kim Jong Il went on his impulse-tour of the Northeast, via slogans long in preparation for an Arirang for Chinese tourists in August, 2010.  I got an eyeful of these, fresh from the cameras of Chinese tourists returning into Dandong when I was at the border there on August 21.  Lots and lots of references to Kim Il Song’s footsteps in Manchuria…

"Construct a Harmonious Socialist Society" -- Arirang caption for PRC Premier Wen Jiabao in Pyongyang, October 2009; click image for photo gallery


  1. By “bullish Goldman Sachs report” I assume you’re referring to the document I used in my paper on the economic viability of the Rajin-Sonbong special economic zone plans that have been stewing around since the early 90’s, am I correct? Haha

    1. Absolutely Michael, that is precisely the one! Glad to see you bulling around the blog, hope all is well in Parkland/Puyallup…

      As you point out, estimates of possible DPRK growth have been around for a while, everything is posited on “once the DPRK opens up” or “given more vigorous foreign investment,” etc., especially in the case of Rajin-Sonbong. I suppose we should believe it when we see it.

      Last month I had been anticipating some construction of a new Yalu River bridge near Dandong, in the eastern suburbs of that city, since they had been hailed with great fanfare in the Chinese press with typical computer drawings of spotlights, towering edifices, etc. But instead there was just a small pile of dirt and a large Chinese driving range for Dandong’s upscale golfers. And of course, that was the same area that was most badly flooded on the North Korean side. So huge plans give way to reality. Perhaps once North Korea gets its leadership system in order, they will be more disposed to clarity on the foreign investment front? We will see.

  2. “..we realize that a policy of soft continuity on the Japanese model, had it been possible, might have been easier..” unless one was a Shiite then you would probably be SOL while dude plays his cello….

    1. That’s the problem with counterfactual arguments, true, they usually discuss the benefits to a non-existent course of action rather than the drawbacks, and this one is no exception.

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