[Note: This essay is read aloud by the author here.]
China’s information environment with regard to North Korea has become increasingly free-wheeling since the stunning nuclear test of May 25, 2009, and this blog has consistently taken note of that singular fact. Beijing University scholars were told that summer that the gloves could now come off with reference to studies of the DPRK, and consequently, even the origins of the Korean War are now open to open scrutiny and challenge (no small thing in the context of the PRC). The popular media has been serving up stories about the Kim family that fit entirely with China’s globalization, yielding delicious congruities with Western, South Korean, and Japanese reporting about the North Korean ruling elite.
What seems to be out of bounds still is in-depth criticism (versus short comments in online chat forms) of the North Korean system, towards which the CCP remains rather sympathetic. And thus stories about Kim Jong-Il’s alleged seven year old son coexist with scholars in popular newsweeklies telling Kim Jong Eun, essentially: “It’s time to get serious about your career, son, get busy writing some Marxist-Leninist-Maoist-Kimist-Juche theory so that you can be taken seriously!” North Korean refugees get short shrift, but they and their advocates will still occasionally turn up in Chinese media, along with references to the Daily NK.
Overall, these need to be regarded as positive trends, even as China remains recalcitrant to toe the Western line in its totality on the North Korea issue.
So it’s rather disheartening to read in the Chosun Ilbo that Jin Xide, an ethnic Korean scholar who had reached about as high as one can get into the stratosphere of the Beijing think-tank culture, has been sentenced to 14 years in prison for “revealing state secrets” about Kim Jong Il to foreign sources.
Is this being done for national security, or is Jin’s arrest a sop to the North Koreans, a pledge to dial it back on the domestic criticism of the DPRK? As I describe in my recent article in Korean Studies, this kind of thing is never, ever good for ethnic Korean citizens of the PRC, who are already at pains to prove their loyalty to the Chinese motherland. Ethnic Koreans never get the press that Tibetans do, and, as Jin’s position indicates, they tend to rise to positions of greater authority in the PRC. But their position as a “model minority” is inevitably complicated by the rise of South Korea and the availability of patronage and sponsorship from the peninsula. Has anyone (OK, besides me) done any kind of study of how hard the Korean War was for this population? When there were regular accusations of South Korean agents being dropped into Yanbian? Why is it that when the statements are made (always blithely, by the way) about Yanbian as a “third Korea” that would demand fusion with a reunited Korea, everyone just seems to assume that it would be an easy and consequence-free choice for ethnic Koreans in Northeast China to back the new Korean state?
Thick black lines of borders (which are not lines at all, yet even to rebel against them confirms their heft) reflect deep welts of the cudgel: political violence, triumph of a band of oppressive wills. Peng Dehuai and Kim Il, please meet General Ridgeway. The historian thus disintegrates.
At this point, frustrated but fresh from a lecture on the historiography of the Qin dynasty, I would like to engage in a slovenly comparison. In his acceptance of Jin’s imprisonment, is that lover of Party history and coordinator of Korea policy, Xi Jinping, comparable to Emperor Qin Shihuandi, he who bound up scholarship before it was all burned by Xiang Yu? But such a comparison would also imply that Xi is a princeling who spent time as a hostage prince in a rival state when in fact he was merely a princeling who spent time in a commune during the Cultural Revolution.
Instead I will simply say that arresting scholars does very little to create a climate of healthy critical inquiry!
Under such circumstances, we all have to look for solace somewhere. Fortunately North Korea has a good friend in Mexico who uploads North Korean television reports to YouTube, giving us at least some distraction from what is certainly a point of muted but intense interest in the tea-dripped white tile hallways of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. And this particular video is a fascinating artifact indeed, recently uploaded: Kim Jong Il looks worse than ever, his left arm basically useless, his son looks nervous, yet, to my untrained eye, the Korean People’s Army looks about as sharp as ever. They won’t save North Korea’s shores from the next big Chinese oil spill, but perhaps that isn’t the point.
Adam Cathcart, “Nationalism and Ethnic Identity in the Sino-Korean Border Region of Yanbian, 1945-1950,” Korean Studies, vol. 34 (2010), 25-53.