Muzzle the Scholars Who Blight the Treaties, or, Why Korean-Chinese Scholars Shouldn’t Talk About Kim Jong-Il

[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?

On borders:

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.

Relevant Citation:

Adam Cathcart, “Nationalism and Ethnic Identity in the Sino-Korean Border Region of Yanbian, 1945-1950,” Korean Studies, vol. 34 (2010), 25-53.


  1. i want to grump about a couple of things.

    “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.”

    Your use of the terms China and West here seem a bit sloppy. you seem to be using them like a regular journalist, not a kick arse academic. Theyre not sports teams competing in some match; they represent real, high stakes, complex moral positions. Here’s a possible alternative rewrite:

    “Overall, the CCP is a lying, murderous regime, even though it lies and murders less today than before. ”

    (This puts the party-state in probably the most positive light as is morally possible)

    My second gripe:

    “it’s rather disheartening”

    a dude getting 14 years for saying what he did is not rather disheartening. It’s both childish, and also deeply evil. we are dealing with evil people and an evil system here. theyre evil people because they made such a fucked up decision. it’s an evil system because the decision got translated into an incarceration.

    I’d go on, but I think I’ve made enough of a point.

    1. Thanks for the critiques, and can’t say I particularly disagree with you. Adjectives like “disheartening” are indeed mealy and should probably be reserved for one’s sentiments after a loss by a sports team, not in assessing the Legalist (and censorship dependent) tendencies of one of the planet’s most robust regimes.

      One other problem that you’ve identified is one that I, obviously, continue to struggle with: relativism when looking at CCP/PRC. What is the proper standpoint from which to judge China. “Better than it used to be”? Of course it is, but it better be! Because the CCP, if you read the 1979 documents and news etc., had to change, it’s a very self-interested action…this is true also about reactivation of limited Buddhism and rebuilding of monasteries in Tibet.

      In the case of China’s North Korea policy and how that policy is discussed in the PRC (particularly among elites), is it wrong to say that I’m “heartened” by the slight yet evident relaxation of heavy (and yes, almost idiotically retro) press regulations on the topic? As a reader, I’m glad to get more hard information, more perspectives. I’m happy to read a first-hand report from Rajin/Sonbong by a Chinese reporter in the Huanqiu Shibao even if that news obviously has a purpose in being released. But there is some psychology in the release of information by the CCP; we in the uncritically used “West” are supposed to be grateful to get these crumbs when we should be boldly striding across the Sino-North Korean frontier with our laptops and digital cameras, right? Finally as a “blogger” I often respond more instinctively to stories as a “reader” rather than as an academic, which is to say my goal is not to festoon everything with footnotes and weave thickets of theory around things which are, in the end and as you note, sometimes rather simple.

      Thanks again for the critiques, that’s what it’s all about.

  2. hope i didnt sound immoderate. or like i was dissing you.

    why not be an absolutist instead of a relativist? why not be absolutely committed to freedom of thought, speech and inquiry? why not call it a universal good, instead of calling it a western value?

    i mean, is there any shame or problem in being a believer?

    ian buruma makes a great point in “bad elements” (stunner of a book) that if you conform your language to the system, then you actually by doing so become part of the system.

    the language of gradualism (China has problems but it is gradually improving) is promoted by state propagandists to mask a very nasty, ongoing reality – so i feel edgy whenever i hear it.

    lately i’ve been getting into stanley hauerwas’s discussion of the politics of dietrich bonhoeffer. bonhoeffer was a key leader of the german protestant church during the nazi era, and a thumbnail of hauerwas’s take on bonhoeffer’s politics is that truthful speech (as well as forgiveness) is the foundation of just politics.

    anyway, thats enough from me at the moment.

    1. That’s hot, potato, thanks for the thoughtful comments. I have not heard before of Hauerwas, not sure I’ll look him up soon, but next time I stroll past Bonhoeffer Haus in Berlin (April if I’m lucky) I will probably think of this comment and have a slight twinge. Academics in China have it bad enough, internalizing self-censorship, but there are plenty of us outside the ostensible reach of the CCP who are often engaged in the same behavior. So diss away, you can’t have a harmonious society if there isn’t a little dissonance from which to resolve the tones.

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