I recently completed a month-long lecture series on North Korean-Chinese relations at Pacific Lutheran University. Because these lectures were occasioned by a course I teach at PLU, I had the pleasure of writing an exam on the topic.
Here, in no particular order, are a few of themes or questions which were covered in the lectures and which my students consequently suggested that I should have put on the exam. But who cares that they were on an exam? What matters is that they have content and merit, and deserve further discussion. (Thus their appearance in this forum.)
Is this really necessary? Do we really need to be asking yet more questions about North Korea and Sino-North Korean relations? Shouldn’t we first try to get answers about some questions of agreed-upon significance, like how many nukes North Korea has? Or if Jimmy Carter’s visits to Pyongyang accomplish anything at all? Or if Kim Jong Eun wears a foreign wristwatch?
Well, quibble though you might with certain of them, very few of these questions resemble the rather elementary questions to which North Korea and its relationship with China are treated in our present environment of English-language media analysis, a few really good blogs notwithstanding.
So, to the questions:
– What long-term opportunities (financial and political) would be presented to China by a peaceful collapse of North Korean political power?
– In what ways does the North Korean obsession with Mount Paektu strain relations with China?
– Does the history of the 7th century (e.g., the destruction of the northern power of Koguryo by the southern power of Silla, in alliance with the Chinese Tang dynasty), constitute a template for unification of which the DPRK leaders should be fearful today?
– What role does the small North Korea-Russia border in the extreme northeast of the peninsula play in balancing (or unbalancing) the Sino-North Korean dynamic? Is North Korea able to balance China off of Russia now, or are those days of navigating between Beijing and Moscow truly in the past?
– What role did the U.S. occupation of Japan play in the formation of the North Korean state system?
– How did Mao Zedong’s rationale for intervention in the Korean War in 1950 differ significantly from that of the Ming dynasty during the Imjin War in 1592? Is it possible that Mao in some sense retained a desire to secure North Korea in a neo-tributary system?
– What similarities exist between the present-day North Korean system (and its “court politics”) and that of the Qin dynasty as depicted in the works of Sima Qian?
– How and why are the concepts of sadae/sadaejuui and juche embedded in (North) Korean culture?
– List the current statistics for the relative military strength, in terms of troop estimates, for the ROK Army, the PLA, the Japanese SDF, and USMC/USAF/USN in East Asia. With which one (or ones) of these military forces does the Korean People’s Army have anything approaching parity?
– To what extent was the Korean War a proxy war, and to what extent was it a civil war?
– The story of North Korean refugees seems fantastic, politicized, and laden with imaginative tropes. Is it really as bad for North Korean refugees as it seems on YouTube?
– What is the proper label for Sino-North Korean relations? Is this a “brotherhood forged in blood”, a “pragmatic partnership”, a “friendship betrayed”? Suggest a few taglines for the relationship and justify your new label. Could we call both China and North Korea “unruly allies”?
– Why does North Korea go to such great lengths to propagate myths of Kim Jong Il’s “birth” at Mt. Paektu? Does it matter that, as “the Text” asserts, his birth was foretold by a sparrow, illicited a double rainbow, and that a new star appeared in the sky?
– In what ways is the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Region a crucible for new North Korean culture? Can it be considered “a Third Korea”? In what ways does it run countercultural to the ways of Sinicization?
– Compare the Chinese de facto absorption of North Korea during the Korean War to German reunification of 1990.
– Can the Tumen Tiger avoid extinction? What barriers exist to the survival and flourishing of this species?
– Are the golden cows along the Chinese side of the border really happier than their North Korean counterparts across the Tumen?
– How have Chinese goals for Korean unification changed since 1950?
– Describe the impacts of, and the Chinese reponses to, the North Korean nuclear tests of October 2006 and May 2009.
– Kim Jong Eun was recently pictured in North Korean state media holding a pair of binoculars upside down at a military exhibition. In what ways does this image, and the way it was covered in Chinese state mdia, represent larger problems and anxieties about Jong Eun’s possible succession?
– Although North Korea militantly emphasizes its cultural independence from China, in what ways does North Korean language — both colloquial and bureaucratic — exemplify Chinese influence?
– How did Chinese and Soviet communism, Asian philosophies such as Daoism and Confucianism, Chinese Legalism and Korean fortitude combine to create or otherwise influence North Korean policies and politics? Is it fair or accurate to summarize North Korea’s political system merely as “Stalinist”?
– Do technology and cultural transfers into North Korea along the Chinese border like USB drives full of songs or DVDs of South Korean movies constitute a “new culture wave” in North Korean society? Is it fair to write about a “Chinese wave” in North Korea akin to the “Hallyu/Korea Wave” that has been so objectified in East Asia? What elements in North Korea’s traditional culture (and official state culture) would resist Chinese influence?
– Briefly describe problems associated with both the garrisoning of the Ming Army in Korea and the stationing of Chinese troops in North Korea from 1950-1958. Is it fair to say that China and North Korea have both internalized the lessons of these events?
– North Korea is indeed a “shrimp between whales,” but it is also a skilled practitioner of “judo diplomacy” whereby the “whales” are adeptly tossed around. After describing a couple of salient examples of the above point, argue that either China or Japan (pick one and explain your choice) is most often on the receiving end of North Korea’s manipulations.
– Are the North Korean notion of juche and the Chinese notion of tributary relations inherently at odds? In what ways does each nation temper its ideologies in the practice of foreign policy in order to keep Sino-North Korean relations relatively smooth?
– Describe the unique role that Sinuiju plays in North Korean history and in contemporary interchange with the PRC.
– Describe how and why Hyesan has become a “model city” for Kim Jong Il since the 1960s. Why do South Koreans and occasional foreign observers travel to the city today?
– In the context of analyzing U.S. involvement in the Korean War, critique or support the statement “The first mistake was putting MacArthur in charge.”
– In what ways does heavy North Korean patrolling of the northern frontier give lie to the statement that the DPRK enjoys “brotherly relations” with the PRC?
– For people just beginning to pay attention to North Korea and its relations with China, why is a brief description of the Korean War so important? Is it possible to understand North Korea, or Chinese policy toward North Korea, without reference to the Korean War?
– At the end of the day, when it runs out of calories, energy, and alternatives, is North Korea truly locked into a sadae/submissive relationship to China?
A Few Brilliant Observations
Asked to evaluate Douglas MacArthur’s tactical decisions in November-December 1950, student Adam Hoagland, while ignoring the General’s significant decision to firebomb Sinuiju and drop the Tarzan bomb on Kanggye, put forth a methodically brilliant Sun Tzu-based critique of old man SCAP:
MacArthur made the fatal mistake of underestimating his enemies and their drive to resist. He did not concentrate his military power but spread it too thin to push forward or hold a position. He did not study the terrain to find the best advantage or weaknesses. He was not formless in his tactics but used a very recognizable and predicatable advancement of troops.
Had only Hoagland been a Sinologist in SCAP’s employ, a man of ambition who had MacArthur’s ear in 1950, then an understanding of Chinese military strategy might well have prevailed. But he was not, and it did not. MacArthur also failed to respect his senior commander (e.g., Harry Truman) and, to my knowledge, never stood up for the returned POWs from Korea when implications of communist “brainwashing” were leveled at them.
Since my students have all read Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian, the history of the Qin dyansty, I tossed out a hypothetical question: What would happen if we had a modern day re-appearance of the assassin Jing Ke, who was sent from Yan to kill Qin Shihuangdi around 210 B.C., in Pyongyang acting on behalf of the CCP? In other words, I asked the students to consider the historical template of Jing Ke in the contemporary Sino-North Korean context. What would happen if China sent an assassin — a modern-day Jing Ke — to kill Kim Jong Il or his son?
Amanda Fitzhenry, a student who plans to study in South Korea, answers, and does so in detail which is far, far better than I could have mustered myself:
If Jing Ke were to infiltrate the North Korean capital, it would need to be shown in a way of supporting or worshipping Kim Jong Il. The fact that Jing Ke was in the rural area would not be able to work in the DPRK situation because of the limited ability to travel. To be able to be in Pyongyang, Jing Ke would need to be a trusted man to the North Korean Workers’ Party and willing to risk the gulag for his family and himself. His mission would provide China with the chance to obtain North Korea (and Mount Paektu) for China. But, with the downfall of the DPRK would come instability for the region with 24 million people fleeing, as well as the economic duty to rebuild the country.
One final observation: In the space of little less than a decade, my North American university students have become progressively more convinced of China’s capability to handle anything. That is to say, presenting the students with a scenario whereby China would totally absorb North Korea is never really scoffed at: China, we now presume, has all the resources in the world to rebuild North Korea and could, somehow, convince the South Koreans to stay in Seoul in the event of a Chinese takeover north of the DMZ. A tall order indeed, and hardly likely to occur, but old Robert D. Kaplan’s 2006 essay in The Atlantic Monthly about just such a scenario has many more adherents in American universities that one might expect.