If there’s one thing we know about North Korea, it is that the DPRK is intensely mindful of how it is portrayed in foreign media. Scrutinizing its own international image is something that the North Korean regime does not simply to hunt for materials with which to bludgeon the United States, Japan, and South Korea, but also to keep its nominal “friends” from becoming unrestrained in their complaints about North Korea.
In the recent past, the North Korean Embassy in Beijing has prompted the Chinese government to censor historical journals that asserted Kim Il Sung’s culpability for the Korean War, and earlier this year, China locked up an ethnic-Korean scholar for trafficking in rumors about Kim Jong Il.
At the same time, the Chinese media has become increasingly free to criticize the Kim family, even as references to Kim Jong Eun are now mostly preceded with his full military title and a nice “Vice Chairman.”
Why am I making these points and asking these questions today? Because the Associated Press reports that Kim Jong Il is on his third trip to China in just over a year’s time.
China is covering this visit in its now-standard way: by second-hand summaries of South Korean media passed along in selected foreign affairs periodicals, namely, the Huanqiu Shibao. No Chinese journalists have the right to tail Kim Jong Il, to interview anyone about the trip, publish a “scoop,” or get a quote from the North Korean Embassy in Beijing, or from sources in Pyongyang (where, by the way, Xinhua has a bureau). Thus Chinese readers are left with South Korean speculations about his itinerary.
According to Huanqiu Shibao (whose passing along of South Korea reporting, in this case, indicates an endorsement of accuracy), Kim entered China via the extreme Northeastern DPRK city of Hamyang and went into Tumen, the small city on the frontier of the PRC’s Yanbian Korean Autonomous Region. He is probably going further on, then, to Mudanjiang, where, as KCNA reported recently, North Korean tourism officials have been traveling.
As for Kim Jong Eun, Huanqiu Shibao indicates that he may be studying the old “reform and opening up” techniques in Shanghai. How detailed is this speculation? Well, Kim Jong Eun’s name is not on the guest list at a guarded hotel in Mudanjiang, site of some anti-Japanese, pro-Korean resistance monuments.
Does this trip and the way that China is covering it testify, then, to a blossoming Sino-North Korean relationship where China pledges to continue to the flow of aid and back up the DPRK with its full military support?
Not quite: Witness this very unusual report which was released yesterday (two days ago in Chinese time) on Huanqiu TV, asserting that North Korea has 30,000 hackers in a special school whose purpose is to combat the United States. What is this all about? Why does a Chinese Communist Party which is tightly controlling discourse about North Korea, and is certainly aware that the Kims are coming to town, release this report on the eve of that visit? Is it possible they want to yell at someone? Or is it fodder for China’s internet hawks, giving them another implement of proof that North Korea is a strategic asset for China because they can cause problems for the United States?
Perhaps the May 18 Global Times editorial, entitled “Dark Undertones of US Internet Diplomacy,” testifies that North Korea’s hacker army has its uses, so long as so long as it its ministrations are aimed Eastward and away from Beijing. Now that unmanned aerial drones are reported (by both Huanqiu Shibao and KCNA) in the Sino-North Korean border region, it seems that cyberwarfare is more important than ever.
Of course, being ever “a shrimp between whales,” Kim Jong Il is again outflanked by other, larger, events: the Chinese commentariat, as well as the netizens, seem far more transfixed today on President Obama’s new Middle East speech than on the obscure itinerary of North Korean “politicians,” men who, after all, probably have far more in common with Mubarak and Qaddafi and than with Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao. At the end of the day, even as Chinese leaders encourage or berate Kim to open up his economy, the preamble must surely be one wherein the lessons of past collapses are taken into account.