Among the activities which I undertake each year, there is one for which I reserve a special vim. There on the grand third floor, at the end of the classical reading room of the New York Public Library, I sit for a single day, perhaps two, burrowing down into a rather large collection of propaganda aimed at North Koreans dating from the 1950s. As I leafed through these materials last week, budging up against its antiquarian typed “finding guide”, smudging my fingertips with ink which had been intended to impress upon me the blessings of freedom in Korean, a contrary thought occurred. All things considered, the North Korean government has battled with relative success against the immense doses of propaganda (literally billions of leaflets) dumped into it since the birth of the proto-state in 1945.
Possibly no people on the post-World War II planet have been as propagandized, and as counter-propagandized, as the people of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The battlefield changes — the news cycle becomes more taut; the northern neighbor now partakes of South Korean and Japanese rumor — but the central fact is constant: the DPRK remains under siege from potentially corrosive, ever-voluminous, and essentially hostile outside information. The story of how and why North Korea manifestly fails to explain itself (or why its pretenses at explanation are so barbed and misshapen) falls into a knowledge gap peculiar to our early twenty-first century.
No less peculiar, however, is the propagandizing of Western (and South Korean and Japanese ) audiences as well about North Korea. In their immortal but tragically-unread-in-North-America-outside-of-Quebec reportage from the Chinese-North Korean border, French journalists Juliette Morillot and Dorian Malovic describe the tautology of lies and misinformation which suffuse our intermittent news reports about the borderlands. Everyone wants something different, after all: Christian missionaries need justification for their dramatic transgressions of Chinese laws, American hawks need proof of the PRC’s complicity with North Korea’s every evil act, and the South Koreans need motivation for their own companies to recover the minerals and the commercial rights of the north. Even the North Koreans need something, which is of course the diffusion of the idea that hundreds of thousands of hungry and poorly-adjusted refugees could pour over the border. (What good is leverage if you never prove that you have it?) For their part, scholars of the region need tension in order to justify their own existence and their hard-won expertise. North Korea is a Rorschach blot and the lines and smears lend themselves to embellishment on the part of the viewer.
Men sit in gilded reading rooms. Below, the mercenary commercial tumult of New York, dingy trains conveying goods and ideas from every possible corner of the earth, that is, apart from that swath of land once blackened and singed from Sinuiju to Chongjin. Scholars sit in meditation in the frozen American northeast, leaning forward, crackling down type, their studies arcing out on the buzzlines, the peroration of speculative futility twists around, rapidly gathering again into pixels brazenly assembled….
Brazen, indeed! The work of the Chinese in the Chinese northeast! That “sanctuary,” that “rear area,” that immense frontier somehow conquered not by the white man Sergei Witte and his Romanov tribe, that colossus dripping with railroad spikes and pregnant with revolution, conquered not by the Japanese nor by their conglomerates, controlled at no time by Syngman Rhee nor his metallic successors, no, and never was it American, and never shall it be so. It is of such incredible interest for an Anglophone to witness, no less than it was a century ago. A great power rises, marshalling Manchuria’s natural potential, understanding its axial qualities, seething with the total force of an entire nation leveraging it forward, seeking a seaport. A port! a port! My kingdom for a port! (Ice-free, if you please…)
JoongAng Ilbo reports on an investment deal in Rajin-Sonbong, the extreme northeast of Korea, where a Chinese company (Shangdi Guanqun / 商地冠群投资有限公司) is said to be ready to sink $2 billion. The company specializes in mineral extraction and chemistry; a short press release on the deal in Rajin describes (h/t Curtis Melvin), while other stories describe its interest in “ecological aquaculture” and low-carbon technologies. This company is also making deals to mine ore in Egypt and to assist with nuclear technology (?) in Israel.
As alarmist as the stories are in JoongAng and its English followers, it seems clear that none of the reporters read (or none of their editors care to advocate inclusion of) what is the standard Chinese reference publication/daily paper on foreign affairs, the Huanqiu Shibao. Readers of this blog will recall that the Huanqiu‘s December 21 2010 article, and a March 2010 article (translated here), telegraphed most everything that the Western press is today hyperventilating about. Really, people, is it that much to ask?
In other news, a new bridge has broken construction on the southern reaches of the Yalu (map and photo, story in Chinese). And so you get the point: this border today hosts a pastiche of themes. Do we in the West applaud China for attempting to integrate North Korea into the world economy (of which China is a huge part, of course), or fold North Korea into the same sort of sphere that we reserve for Africa when we think of Chinese investment and penetration? Is it possible to have it both ways?
As for new allegations of refugee massacres on the border — perfectly timed to coincide with the visit of Secretary Gates to China, conveniently enough — you can follow the action over at One Free Korea.