New Winter: Sino-North Korean Relations Today

Of China’s many bilateral relationships, few are as pregnant with doom as the relationship with the DPRK. That is to say, the relationship is significant to China not primarily for the good it can bring, but for the potential harm it represents. Thus the quest for China in dealing with the DPRK is how to play a bad hand: minimize the harm it can do, and possibly get something good out of it. In this essay, I’d like to run down a number of North Korea themes which I have been tracking since I got to China this past August:

1. The Wikileaks Impact

The Guardian carries a very helpful (and extended) analysis of the Wikileaks document drop as it impacts the Sino-North Korean relationship, asserting that China is no longer opposed to a South Korea-led reunification of the Korean peninsula. (Hat tip to Kuroda Chiaki.)

It is worth noting that the Wikileaks story has hit the headlines in the PRC, but that only, so far as I have seen, the Huanqiu Shibao, mentions the North Korea connection. In a back-cover article of December 1, 2010, the publication quotes the Wikileaks documents as having a Chinese diplomat stating that “the Pyongyang government acts like a spoiled child,” and that two unnamed Chinese diplomats said that China “agreed that South Korea can unify the peninsula.” There is certainly more in this article to be excavated, as the North Korean Embassy is one of its more significant intended recipients. However, I just dug it out of my treasure trove and have yet to do an in-depth translation.

For more general readers, it’s important to note that the Wikileaks story is available for Anglophone readers in China, as duplicates of the Wikileaks site, for instance at, are accessible from within the Great Firewall. For Chinese language readers, the Wikileaks story has mostly scrupulously separated from China’s foreign policy. In fact, the Huanqiu Shibao editorial of Dec. 1 compares American government reaction to the leak to bolster the PRC’s claim that Google needed to be better controlled for its loose attitude toward China’s “national secrets!” Julian Assange is indeed on the cover of this week’s Sanlian Shenghuo magazine, but the cover story only runs 22 pages long, which is about 25 to 50% shorter than most cover stories in this long magazine, and it does not touch upon China’s foreign policy impact.

Dai Bingguo, who is named in the documents, had the pleasure of going to Pyongyang recently to grab Kim Jong Il’s wrist and make it look like China is talking tough to the Kims. Maybe, just maybe, the Wikileaks story gets Chinese leaders to finally push through to North Korea to understand how tough it is in the international media environment, and why a communist state needs to put forth its own version of events.

Finally, an excerpt from Daniel Drezner in possibly the best essay I have read on the matter, courtesy Chronicle of Higher Education:

Scholars will need to exercise care in putting the WikiLeaks documents in proper perspective. Some researchers suffer from “document fetishism,” the belief that if something appears in an official, classified document, then it must be true. Sophisticated observers are well aware, however, that these cables offer only a partial picture of foreign-policy decision-making. Remember, with Cablegate, WikiLeaks has published cables and memos only from the State Department. Last I checked, other bureaucracies—the National Security Council, the Defense Department—also shape U.S. foreign policy. The WikiLeaks cables are a source—they should not be the sole source for anything.

For example, some cables from 2009 and 2010 suggest that Chinese officials were growing weary of their North Korean allies and even envisioned a reunified Korea run by Seoul and allied with the United States. The Guardian, in Britain, hyped those cables as a signal that China would rein in North Korea’s bellicose behavior. Those Chinese sentiments, however, usually came second or thirdhand, via South Korean diplomats. The Chinese officials, moreover, were talking primarily about the far future rather than the near term.

Most important, Chinese actions over the past six months do not match the views that appear in those cables. China’s muted responses to the sinking of a South Korean warship in March, to North Korea’s development of a light-water nuclear reactor, and to the latest exchange of artillery fire between North and South Korea hardly suggest that the leadership in Beijing will soon abandon its partners in Pyongyang.

2. Apprehension of American Naval Power

This is a long-standing theme in the PRC, but it is very interesting how in the past year, the Chinese public discourse on North Korea has become so tied to the need for China to become a more respected naval power, and rhetorical brush-backs against the U.S. Navy (and its associated allies, particularly the Japanese and ROK).

Why does this matter? Because no one in China, besides the rapidly depleting ranks of China’s Korean War veterans and possibly some old-timer higher-ups in the PLA, believes any of that nonsense about the “blood alliance” with North Korea. Today, as far as the literate public is concerned, the Korean peninsula is a dangerous place where outbreaks of violence can invite intervention by the United States (and Japan, whose participation in a post-collapse of North Korea occupation is taken for granted, and is not welcomed). China needs to take care of its own interests.

Last week’s Sanlian Shenghuo (Vol. 49, 2010), the closest Chinese equivalent to Time Magazine, carried a curious article by Song Xiaojun (宋晓军) on page 147: “Will the USS Jimmy Carter Submarine ‘Visit’ North Korea? [‘吉米卡特号’ ‘访问’ 朝鲜?]” The article concludes with a speculation that the US Navy is looking for a “second spring” in opposition to North Korea’s navy, and that, absent the DPRK, the US would begin to focus even more intently on matching and overcoming China’s naval capacities; there is also speculation on the moving of the Jimmy Carter into Asian waters as a signal of strength by whatever Republican might take the White House in 2012. Someone is planning ahead…

3. Chinese Depictions of Kim Jong Un

While KCNA has avoided hyping Kim Jong Un as more than a “comrade” with a suddenly great seat at the recent Party Congress as well as some important committees, the Chinese media hasn’t had too much of a problem identifying him as the “new emperor” in the wings.

None of this criticism shows up in China’s own English-language media, and it certainly isn’t expressed by the Chinese Foreign Ministry. The Chinese mode of analysis on Kim Jong Un is remarkably similar to, say, the Washington Post’s: speculation is the order of the day, with ample quotes provided from South Korean experts, the Chosun Ilbo and the Daily NK.

The difference is that the references to North Korean labor camps and totalitarian system are scrubbed clean. You also get professors in Jilin giving the man serious advice in op-ed format that he really needs to get busy with making some contributions to Marxist-Leninist-Kimist/Juche Theory. (Citing from the October 16 version of the magazine “环球人物/Global People,” which contains a few articles by 周之然/Zhou Zhiran, the magazine’s correspondent in Pyongyang.)

Then again, they might know something we don’t about the connection between the Kim Jong Un succession (which after a shockingly long period of public ambivalence about, the Chinese press has finally endorsed) and the Cheonan Incident. In other words, if the speculation is correct that North Korea is using the military provocations as a means of battle-testing the new heir and solidifying his power base, China seems willing to tacitly let that go on, if only after the fact.

Almost all of the gloves/restrictions have come off when it comes to describing the Kim family in China, so long as the governing system of North Korea does not itself come under scrutiny. A great example of this theme comes in a back-page long article in Southern Weekend of October 14, 2010, but a couple of weeks after the Party Congress came to an end. Qin Xuan (秦轩)’s piece entitled “The Successor’s Older Brother: Kim Jong Il’s Oldest Son Kim Jong Nam is a Wierdo (接班人的哥哥:金正日长子金正男其人)” is a great case in point, going so far as to provide a copy of Kim Jong Nam’s fake Dominican passport for which he was detained in Tokyo back in 2001.

Image via Japan Focus

4. China and Cheonan/The Sounds of Cannon

When Dai Bingguo visited Pyongyang and met with Kim Jong Il, presumably, Kim was told that it might be a good time to start negotiating again with the West, and Dai was told that South Korea (and of course the American military) provoked the North Korean shelling of Yeonpyeong Island.

While some American critics say that China should have “stopped” the DPRK from taking this action, it’s worth noting that North Korean field commanders have a great deal more latitude than their South Korean counterparts – no phone calls need be made to PLA regional HQ in Shenyang before shelling a South Korean island, for instance.

Critics of the PRC note that North Korean, having escaped from the Cheonan episode absent any lashing critique from China, have taken the positive logic of the Cheonan incident forward: “We can, after all,” the DPRK cabal might say to itself, “brush back the ROK with torpedoes without suffering undue consequences.” It seems that Chinese were hardly forceful in their rebukes (if indeed they rebuked anyone privately) of the North Koreans at that time. Perhaps the Chinese leadership is now regretting not having been more vigorous in exposing North Korea to opprobrium of consequence after the Cheonan Incident.

Is it axiomatic that China was upset about the artillery campaign? Was it upset about the Cheonan Incident?

Shen Dingli expresses it rather obviously: the open willingness among Chinese hawks/nationalists/Central Committee/PLA to use North Korea as not just a passive “buffer” versus the American military presence in East Asia but as an active aggravator of the U.S., thus keeping the focus off of Taiwan and adding a pressure point to the American perimeter in the Pacific.

Additionally, from the CCP point of view, a militarily potent and peripherally aggressive DPRK keeps the (commerce-worthy but still basically hated) Japanese on edge.

In other words, North Korea is truly unwieldy, but not without its uses.

How did this strategy work for the CCP in the case of the Cheonan? Here the role of public opinion and interest groups seems salient. Thanks to the American/ROK response to the Cheonan incident (e.g., announcing US intent to send aircraft carriers to the Yellow Sea for military drills) allowed the CCP to rally the public around the red flag and bluster about American naval overreach into the Yellow Sea.

The hawkish consensus in Washington, D.C., on the Cheonan Incident, as I recall, was focused on expressions of North Korean culpability (axiomatic, of course!), and the desire to see China turn the screws on North Korea. But in the Chinese media and in discussions among Chinese people, it is really important (I think) to note that the Cheonan Incident was but an entry point into what for the Chinese is the much bigger issue of American naval power in the Pacific.

This perception in China seems to be better understood by the politically literate public in Seoul than in D.C., if only because papers like the Dong-A Ilbo have steady and Chinese-fluent correspondents in Beijing. I recall sitting in Seoul this past July, slurping some cold barley noodles on a hot day, and spending a couple of hours marveling at the Dong-A Ilbo’s analysis of the past week’s Global Times/Huanqiu Shibao editorials. American writers (and bloggers/secondary layer analysis hacks) tend to assume that the Global Times English version represents the Chinese view and rarely if ever delve into the Chinese version itself.

This strategy worked in the spring and over the summer, but it isn’t likely to be the case with reference to the Island Artillery Incident.

Why would China be so ambivalent about the Cheonan Incident, about the artillery island incident? There is the structural matter of the 1961 treaty between the DPRK and the PRC. As I understand this document, it obligates the states to mutual defense in the event of a war. As others said rather clearly, the attack on the Cheonan amounted to an act of war. (None better or more directly than one German editorial writer whose work is read on my YouTube channel: ”ein Angriff an ein Kriegesschiff ist ein Kriegesakt!” China needed to shield itself from being pinned into a predictable pattern of response; to keep everyone guessing about its intentions is entirely the point, and there is still just enough residual Maoism in the PLA to have some respect for the North Korean brand of warfare.

There is also the matter of historical fact that China – in particular the PLA — has a very different view of Korean boundary issues, having spilled blood to push the “Main Line of Resistance” south in 1952. In other words, the MLR becomes the DMZ and the PRC tends toward sympathy of North Korean interpretations. The lack of recognition of the international boundaries in the West Sea is just yet another structural boundary issue with which East Asia is so tethered, and which keeps things so tense.

However, in spite of the alliance and the boundary sympathies, I think the notion that the PRC will support the North Koreans in any given situation, no matter the context, is simply incorrect, particularly if the North Koreans appear to be dancing on the edge of a broader conflict. In other words, it is fine to kill 46 South Korean sailors if it helps you stabilize your (distasteful but comprehensible) hereditary succession system, but it may not be fine to shell South Korean territory if it upsets the regional balance of power or invites a larger conflict. Of course, for all we know the North Korean leaders may be congratulating themselves for having had the self-discipline to respect the wishes of their Chinese brothers, waiting until the G-20 Summit was over first. Not all concessions are visible.

5. Assorted Themes

– Does China’s growing self-confidence impact the way it looks at North Korea? Absolutely. We have to recall that the new 5-Year Plan hooks Chinese prestige to a great leap in “Soft Power” funding, which is in a way, to say that China will be spending even more money in the near term on external propaganda than it currently is. This serves to extend Chinese prestige and viewpoints, but where is North Korea in this discourse? In the dark. In a long cover article in the relatively liberal/reformist magazine Phoenix Weekly by Duan Yurong entitled “Let the Whole World Hear Our Voice (段宇宏,让全世界都能听到我们的声音 March 5, 2009, pp. 26-31).” This kind of article tells us two salient things: 1. The P.R. China has worked steadily since the 1950s on the matter and is now used to having its media voice heard globally, and 2. China is increasingly sensitive to how it is depicted externally. North Korea gives China basically no face, no benefit, and no special access in these regards. South Korea, by contrast, for all the ink spilled in the PRC over South Korean naval maneuvers, was the first country to take on a Confucius Institute.

– Wen Jiabao has the front cover of November’s Kan Shijie (World Outlook) shaking hands with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Good luck getting a picture of any similar prominence between Dai Bingguo and Kim Jong Il. When Hu Jintao shook hands in an elegant photo with Kim Jong Il this past September, it was newspaper fare, but no magazine put it on the cover. These kind of small things add up over time: China’s membership in the world community trumps its need to hold up the North Koreans with any pride. (By the way, World Outlook is a tremendous publication, the same issue has a long look at China’s 65 year history with the UN, discussion of the Drug Wars in Mexico and Afghanistan, strikes in France, the obligatory articles on US air and navy capabilities from Japan, and a review of Walter Bowart’s “Operation Mind Control,” a 1970s classic on LSD, the CIA, and mind control/brainwashing. Unfortunately the last listed article has no reference to the American study of CCP “mind control” and torture tactics (and their subsequent verbatim incorporation into Guantanamo Bay interrogation instructions), but what the hell. Any Richard Condon “Manchurian Candidate” references I can get in the PRC, I’ll take. It is sometimes almost delightful to see stories like this in the PRC media, stories stemming from the 1960s and 1970s, as they consist of a kind of “catching up” symptom which at its heart is healthy.

– Differing views of the Korean War, part 215: Popular Digest (大众文摘, 2010, No. 11/119, pp. 53-55), carries a memoirs-based look at massacres carried out in July 1950 by ROK security forces (“Forgotten Massacre in the Korean War”), including analysis of data and photographs emerged from US archives on May 5, 2008. This kind of mass magazine is so pulpy and cheap, and tabloid-style, but the Korean War is consistently engaged in such outlets. Interestingly enough, the cover image of the magazine has the primary headline of “The First Chinese Air Force Member to Bomb Japan”, putting a picture of Mount Fuji just above the word for “Massacre” in the title of the Korea story.

– Artillery incidents lead nationalistic military periodicals to headlines like “After “The US-South Korea Plot to Contain China after the North-South Korea Artillery Incident,” or “Secret Alliance Between Japan and South Korea.”

– When it comes to the North Korea issue, there is very little light between Chinese “reformist-liberal” publications and the nationalistic tabloids. This very likely reflects the direction of the Propaganda Ministry, but it might also reflect that Chinese liberals aren’t particularly sympathetic to the American approach toward North Korea. It’s hard to say. In any event, I call your attention to Southern Weekend (南方周末)of December 2, 2010, where author Zhang Zhe writes a full page-story entitled “Revealing the US-ROK ‘Plan 5027’ to Make War on North Korea” (张哲,美韩对朝作战‘5027计划‘揭秘’, p. A7). The sidebar of this story notes “In 1973, the US and ROK agreed on a systemic plan to make war on North Korea, called ‘Plan 5027.’ Here, ‘50’ represented the American Pacific HQ, ‘2’ represented the Korean Peninsula, and ‘7’ was the number signifying the plan. But among the plans, there also numbers 5026, 5028, 5029, and 5030. Will the U.S. now implement these plans?”

– Before teenage Korean-American peace activist Jonathan Lee was arrested at Tiananmen Square for holding up a sign and trying to give a letter to Hu Jintao or Xi Jinping, he got some favorable press in China. The weekly magazine Southern People Weekly carried a nice picture of Jonathan with former South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung and described his NGO in very favorable terms. (Nanfang Renwu Zhoukan , Sept. 6, 2010, p. 85). Chinese media, it appears, should support any American seeking to make peace with North Korea, at least until that person acts to “disturb social order.” Given the number of firebrands who are actively working in Seoul and around the world to call attention to the absence of a peace treaty on the Korean peninsula or on the issue of human rights in North Korea (think of the self-uncensored and mega-motivated Norbert Vollertsen), it would appear that China will probably return to its highly-guarded stance on media coverage of such people. Hopefully the magazine editors at Southern People Weekly didn’t catch too much flak for promoting Jonathan Lee’s contacts with Pyongyang.

6. A Few Questions

Did anyone figure out if the Chosen One (Kim Jong Un) ever took a trip to Manchuria with his suddenly zippy father figure? And have any really French sources emerged besides that original L’Hebdo article describing his years in Berne? Why does Dai Bingguo grab Kim Jong Il’s wrist when they shake hands?

Why did my favorite North Korean restaurant in Beijing disappear under a wrecking ball? What happened to all the waitresses? Could I please find someone in the Starbucks down the street to set down their intricate plans to sell Chilean wines to wealthy mistresses of Seoul businessmen in China to stop for a second and explain to me that the Wangjing district in Beijing in fact has a history, and that there are in fact North Koreans here, somewhere? What do we know from a statistical standpoint about North Korean restaurant operations in the PRC?

Why do North Korean capitalists in Dandong ask me for my card and then tell me their name is “Mr. Kim” and that they will give me their card “next time” they act like dicks by the Yalu? How did those “anti-terrorist” drills go in Dandong anyway?

What is the unemployment rate in Tonghua? Given a totally open border and the prospect of dirt cheap North Korean labor in Manchuria, what forms of “acceptable” and “unharmonious” counteractions would be taken by Chinese workers against the result? Does China have such solid control over its own frontier industrial population that it can afford to absorb, say, 60-100,000 North Korean refugees in Tonghua? What is the fastest way to the loving arms of Lee Myung-Bak in Mongolia from Ji’an, anyway?

Why did the Chinese media stop citing “Good Friends” reports about how bad life is in North Korea? How bone-shatteringly cold is it in North Hamgyong right now, and how does the low temperature give China and would-be aid givers more leverage when it comes to talking to the North?

Did anyone ever publish a rebuttal to B.R. Myers’ for his The Cleanest Race, or does absolutely no one have the appropriate expertise? (It serves to reason that some Korean-language reviews have emerged in Seoul, but I have failed to find them. It’s a great book, but it really healthy for a scholar to have no counterspin whatsoever?)


  1. Gazetteers and Yearbooks (通化市年志 and 通化市年鉴, respectively) might reveal recent unemployment rates in Tonghua.

    Which reminds me…lately I have been using many of these provincial and county 志 for Guangxi and Yunnan. They often contain interesting, if albeit short, details about cross border cooperation with the DRV in the early ’50s. Why haven’t we looked at Gazetteers for 丹东市, 集安市, 通化市, 临江市, 白山市, 长白朝鲜族自治县, 延边朝鲜族自治州 (esp. 图们市)?

      1. 好主意,但是时间现在断了。。。我会西雅图的时候,可以查一下。又提出一个问题:我们西方人份哲北朝鲜的方式就是用猜测化,彩册的消息,旧发表的东西没有什么作用! 你,历史学家,可能有另外一个意见,就做做吧,那片文章肯定有介质。

  2. My own view is that B.R. Myers leading idea is quite a good one, and there is no reason that my modest analytical talents can come up with to outright disagree with him.

    But, BUT, I do think it too simple, and expressed with a degree of self-confidence that is bordering on being a violation of the Trades Descriptions Act. I, unlike Myers, suspect that Kim Jong Il’s rational and viciously cynical nature means that North Korea is not, as he says, “predestined to bring about its own ruin,” for example.

    Thus, I think if he were less black and white in his writing I might be more comfortable.

    Furthermore, I suspect, but don’t know, that he focuses on the North Korean “official” media. Maybe he doesn’t trust the independent South Korean NGO media, and that is not a stance altogether without merit, but I believe there is much to be learned from the words said at a People’s Unit meeting, too, so I think it somewhat unfortunate.

    Anyway, my views, which are by no means a critique of Myersism but allude to my misgivings about the blurry edges of his work, can also be seen here…

    1. Thanks Chris, I spent a few more hours with the book on a long flight recently and am hoping to have some digested thinking about it available on this site soon! And glad to be able to access your site again.

  3. Just a bit of 猜测 for my part, without any knowledge of mine about what drives North Korea’s leaders, but an interpretation of why Dai Bingguo grabbed Kim Jong Il’s wrist. I think they were at the stage of the 47th second of this video.

    And what KCNA published on Monday is probably pretty much a transcript of what Dai told Kim during their meeting – that North Korean retaliation for imperialist aggressions at an earlier date wouldn’t thwart, but rather help the aggressors in saving the U.S. Asia policy and strategy toward the DPRK from bankruptcy.

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