Lux Sinica: China’s Civilizing Influence in North Korea

It takes more than a few days, or perhaps a few weeks, to sift through all the reports, speculation, and rumors surrounding Kim Jong Il’s “new deal” with China.  At the end of the day, though, it seems that a single question aids in interpreting the phenomenon: To what extent has Kim Jong Il’s visit to China spurred the North Korean regime to embrace even the appearance of a reformist direction? 

In other words, is there any indication, however small, that Kim Jong Il or his Korean Workers’ Party is internalizing themselves or mobilizing society toward a policy approximating that of Deng Xiaoping in the early 1980s?  Given how much the North Korean leadership is said to despise Deng Xiaoping, perhaps the “Dengist direction” is not the ideal way to phrase a move toward North Korean reform, but certainly the CCP leadership does not shirk from the label or the idea.  But let us review the recent evidence:

New Slogans in Pyongyang

A couple of weeks ago, the Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang was the only place this new North Korean slogan (something like “Based on the Local, Step Into the World”) was being discussed.  (For an English rendering of the story via Google, click here.)

New Slogans in Pyongyang -- image courtesy PRC Embassy in Pyongyang

Now the slogan is getting aired in a more prestigious publication, the “International Herald Leader,” one of the more rational and widely-read foreign affairs weekly tabloids published in Beijing.  In his full-page spread on the DPRK entitled “North Korea Wants to Rush Toward ‘A Powerful Nation’ [朝鲜要向‘强盛大国’冲刺], the paper’s man in Pyongyang, Zhang Li [张利] writes extensively of the new slogans.

There is of course the idea, too, that the North Korean regime could just be doing this to string along people like you and me, offering up the appearance of, or the possibility of, reforms, and then taking no actual further steps in that direction.  Certainly it would not be the first time such a thing happened. And we should be mindful that North Korea does quite a lot (the 2009 nuclear tests being a signal example) without necessarily considering what the impact is on their Chinese patrons.  But even when we are striding through a Potempkinian landscape, we need to take note of the details!  There is some evidence that Pyongyang’s more persistent propaganda emphasis on living standards and economic growth is at the very least reaping some benefits in giving Chinese elites (e.g., 知识分子 or literate people who consume news) some idea that their support of North Korea is resulting in tangible and positive changes in the DPRK.

Confucius in Pyongyang

In other good news for Beijing, Chinese language education appears to be making solid inroads in Pyongyang.  Estimates such as those in Bruce Bechtol’s 2010 book Defiant Failed State, and articles by people like Robert Kaplan, tend to toss off statements about the Chinese taking over North Korea with ease.  Why else would the PRC be rebuilding roads along the border and fixing up bridges?  This group of analysts frequently make hay from the notion that China has huge competitive advantages in its business and other interactions with North Korea.  In fact, if language is the barometer the Chinese are at a disadvantage; Kim II Song cut off Chinese language education in North Korea at the knees in the late 1950s.  This makes the PRC even more reliant on Yanbian Koreans for commercial interaction with the North, using Yanbian as a channel.  Reliable statistics about numbers of Chinese speakers in the North are hard to come by, but we do know that the small Chinese minority (North Korea’s only bona fide ethnic minority) has been among the most closely watched sectors of the society and, unlike in places like Malaysia or Philippines, has been unable to spread its mercantile spirit into the greater society.  It has also been in a kind of linguistic quarantine.

We do know that North Korean teachers of Chinese were studying at Beijing University, laying the foundation for the big event in Pyongyang.  See my 18 February 2010 essay, “Confucius Institute Outreach to DPRK.”

Thus it is a turn of events to find that the Confucius Institute in Pyongyang appears to be thriving.  And lest you think this is not a particularly big deal in the orbit of North Korea’s foreign relations, consider how obstinate the DPRK has been about language and cultural education toward European states with whom it is also distinctly in a warming phase:  The German Goethe Institute was forced out of Pyongyang because of restrictions and the French Alliance Francais (disclaimer; I am a card-carrying member) cannot get into Pyongyang no matter how many delegations of French socialists make their obeisance to Mangyongdae.  So the Workers’ Party is embracing finally the building of the linguistic infrastructure necessary to do business with China, in in China.

(Click here for photos of the Confucius Institute party in Pyongyang, via the Chinese Embassy in the DPRK.)

One of the more palatable aspects of my fieldwork along the North Korean border are the conversations I am able to have with probably a couple dozen North Korean waitresses in China.  Setting aside the somewhat asinine claim that these girls are all spy-seductresses whose command of taekwando is worthy of a James Bond plot, one of the main reasons they come to the mainland to work is to acquire Chinese language.  One said to me not long ago “it will be very useful for doing business when I go back to Korea,” nodding earnestly.  I very much doubt that this person is some completely brainwashed cog whose study of Chinese is part of some grand plan of North Korea to deceive China into thinking relations are friendly.  She and others are well aware that Chinese is the business language of the region and are acting accordingly.  It seems that, rather belatedly, the North Korean state is having the same revelation.

Return to Chinese Cultural Superiority?

One possible problem that the North Koreans are already facing, and have been facing since the Koguryo locked swords with the Sui, is that of Chinese cultural superiority.

China’s recent action with Vietnam indicates how strong this kind of cultural chauvinism can be, seeing China inherently as the older brother.  How deep this notion is ingrained in China’s diplomacy can be seen in a recent standoff with Vietnam in the South China Sea.  As Wang Hanling, director of Chinese Academy of Social Scienes’ Centre for Oceans Affairs and the Law of the Sea, said to the South China Morning Post on 13 June 2011 (p. A4) stated of the Vietnamese:

If the big brother bullies the younger brother, that is not good and is something that should not happen.  If the little brother challenges or bullies the older brother, it’s just ridiculous.

At a time when China is under attack from Western European states for not following European models of Enlightenment – seen expressly in the case of Germany and Ai Weiwei and art exhibits in Beijing – it is all the more important for Beijing to be able to pose itself as a benevolent tutor for the region, to behave, in other words, as a Confucian hegemon.  In a recent podcast with some big names in China analysis, Jeremy Goldkorn paraphrases Martin Jacques in terming this “Tributary System 2.0.”  In the context of bilateral relations with the DPRK, the label can be considered rather true.

Wen Jiabao stated it most clearly on his overseas junket, but the trope of China’s civilizing influence in the DPRK comes through in smaller channels as well.  A semi-official blog carried by Huanqiu Shibao states Kim Jong Il came to China for “enlightenment” as well as aid:

金正日本次访华,朝鲜从中国得到了什么?用一句话来概括,可能即是:朝鲜收获了未来..

or

Kim Jong Il came to China this time, and what did North Korea get from China?  To use just one sentence to describe it, one could say that ‘North Korea has gained a future….’

This kind of Chinese salvationist rhetoric for North Korea sounds almost white and missionary.

An early analysis of Kim Jong Il’s presence in Nanjing by the Huanqiu Shibao offers up further, somewhat simplistic, reflections on Chinese success in helping the North Koreans stagger forward into modernity.  But in so doing, the story necessarily becomes a frank admission of Kim’s need for aid and “education,” even if the slogans are optimistic: “金正日版南巡讲话,” etc.

The same ambivalence, the balancing of Chinese auto-glorification with acknowledgement of Kim’s recalcitrance, appears on a different Huanqiu BBS.  Covering a story on North Korea’s high tech industry, the report is said to emerge out of the quarter of Zhongguancun [中关村], a high-tech district near Beijing University positively bursting with circuitry, programmers, and ambitious hawkers of soft- and hard-ware.   (Anyone who has purchased a laptop in Zhongguancun, receiving deep assurances of total loyalty from a serviceperson, and then returned to get a hand with something only to find that the young Turk with whom you had just last week been having lunch with to bond after a big purchase has already moved to Shanghai will know what I mean.)  The 


Huanqiu blog promotes North Korean computer production as yet another sign that China is helping the DPRK into the modern age, or, as the North puts it weirdly, “CNC Technology.”  But the netizens cannot resist: the first commenter on the blog, obviously aware of the North Korean propaganda line on Kim Jong Eun as the harbinger of all things digital and binary, asks: “Is the Little Dictator Going to Increase Production/小霸王升级版?”

Quite naturally, there are more than a few North Koreans who find this whole state of affairs galling, and one of them is, in all likelihood, Kim Jong Il.  He is nothing if not his father’s son.  Kim Jong Il can only continue with what DailyNK aptly calls his “China Angst,” gaining some small solace from his pet areas: cooperation and funding for broadcasting work and 2012 movie festivals.

Kim’s angst, his pushback against China, and his effort to carve out the latitude for freedom of action outside of Beijing’s orbit, is, however, the subject of a subsequent post which draws the very productive people at KCNA and my new Weibo feed of links on Sino-North Korean relations.

12 thoughts on “Lux Sinica: China’s Civilizing Influence in North Korea

    1. Thanks, KT. And thanks also for the traffic lately, your blog seems to be quite a hub for the discerning!

  1. Dengism should become a political-economy term, for “averting collapse last-minute, abandoning previous concepts of society, for the sake of maintaining the political powers of the ruling party”. This is a very raw definition, of course, and given the more than thirty years that passed since 1978, North Korea might add some new features.

    After all, where will North Korea be without CNC Technology?

  2. The slogan on the Pyongyang banner translates as “Look to the world with your eyes, and keep your feet planted on your land.” The connotation seems more like “look, but don’t touch!” and less like “let’s emulate the outside world.” I would not expect 朝鲜特色的改革开放, but rather a move away from the hardline Juche “self-reliance” doctrine and perhaps a greater willingness to accept foreign technology and certain foreign ideas.

    1. Thank you Milton, and sorry for taking two days to approve the comment (finally out of the land of the Great Firewall), I think if you use the same e-mail address next time it should go through automatically. I appreciate your Korean work as ever!

      1. Thank you, and thank you for sneaking me through that dastardly WordPress spam filter. For the record, I think this is my first time commenting, but I have been a loyal reader for a very long time.

    1. Kostas, absolutely wonderful work you have done here! I have only scratched the surface, only reading the first long main page, and the Greek makes it wonderfully quirky to weave through, but bravo bravo! I anticipate linking to this in the future. On the NY Philharmonic visit, I would really love to have my essay linked, or better yet for you to read it and analyze. I think it is a pretty good overview in some ways of the underlying issues at work. https://adamcathcart.files.wordpress.com/2009/09/cathcart-north-korean-hip-hop-acta-koreana-dec-2009-1-19.pdf

      Again, thanks for your wonderful work and I look forward to cooperating with you further in the future.

      Adam Cathcart, Ph.D.

    1. Come on, I can’t complain about having another language to look at! Especially one so heavenly; I can only dream of delving into Greek when I reach my golden years, unfortunately the next two decades are going to be mainly occupied with Chinese…

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