The story has made virtually no waves in English, Chinese, or Korean, but perhaps that is the point:
On November 26, apparently within minutes of one another, two separate buses full of “a Chinese business delegation” and “a Chinese tourist group” crashed on an icy road 60 km from Pyongyang, killing six Chinese and two North Koreans.
This according to the Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang, which rapidly reported the news on its website and said the North Korean authorities were doing everything they could to help the other victims of the crash, some of whom were moved to the Friendship Hospital in Pyongyang. Ambassador Liu Hongcai got very busy indeed, going to the scene of the accident and linking up with various North Korean bureaucrats.
The next day, the body count went up: one Chinese and another North Korean died in the hospital. At this point, Xinhua picked up on the story, and Liu Hongcai sent his councilor Jiang Yaxian to stand in front of the bomb-proof Chinese embassy in Pyongyang to make a short statement for CCTV).
On November 28, the tourists and “businessmen” who were not badly wounded returned to China, some by air and others by train to Sinuiju, where they then got on more buses to cross the Friendship Bridge into Dandong. What a nice surprise to find that there were three Dutch people on the tourist delegation; that had not been reported prior. No one knows in which direction from Pyongyang the bus was coming, nor what the two groups were doing precisely besides “being tourists.”
This incident interests me because it happened precisely when Xinhua and KCNA were inking their new mutual understanding and cooperation. KCNA clearly pledges to continue reporting daily news about China to the North Korean people (along the lines of supporting China’s modernization, party building and ethnic unity policies) while Xinhua clearly pledges to tone down negative reporting about North Korea within the PRC. KCNA also pledged to start a Chinese-language service, which they did on December 1. And since these meetings, we have seen almost a total absence of critical items in the Chinese press about North Korea. Certainly the CCP will turn up the heat again when they need to, but for the time being, the information environment is one where the CCP Propaganda Ministry (surely with the support of the Foreign Ministry) is trying to consolidate its gains with the DPRK and going easy on, for instance, North Korea’s new assertions that things are going great with their Light Water Reactors.
There was no original reporting allowed of the incident from Pyongyang; that is, a single short Xinhua dispatch went out and was not elaborated upon by anyone. The Chinese reporters in Pyongyang wrote nothing. The Chinese Embassy has been the sole source of information about this incident, the sum total of which is about ten sentences.
Why does this matter? Because such incidents have the power to rile up Chinese public opinion very quickly, mushrooming into a storm of criticism of both North Korea and the way in which China handles its alliance with that country. Netizen comments on the story on Sohu website focused in on the question of corruption, asserting that the “business delegation” was a bunch of lazy and corrupt cadre from the Chinese provinces off spending public funds in the DPRK. Other netizens were quick to critique the very notion of China promoting tourism in North Korea, calling Pyongyang “the equivalent of a second-rate Chinese city in the 1980s” and underscoring North Korean dictatorship.
Imagine the firestorm that would occur if seven Chinese tourists were killed in Japan, particularly if there were some implication of Japanese negligence or wrong doing.
How did this accident occur? Why would two buses, minutes apart, essentially crash in the same place? Who are the North Koreans who were killed? Why did the Chinese embassy release the basic information right away, and then have no further reporting on the issue?
The need to fill the empty space and questions with some kind of neutral if not helpful content for the Chinese was seen in the dispatch sent by the PRC Embassy in Pyongyang on Nov. 28, describing two tearful Chinese in the Pyongyang hospital who, when the Chinese ambassador came to visit them, demanded that Liu Hongcai convey a few packs of cigarettes and hard liquor to the tomb of the unknown Chinese solider in North Korea, recalling the deep bonds of mutual obligation and protection forged during the Korean War.
I am very curious to see where this story goes.
For the time being, all relevant links to the facts and interpretations above, including the Netizen responses, are on my Twitter feed (not that I have attention deficit disorder, quite the contrary: I’m off to San Diego where I may meet with a few experts whose views may or may not be shared later on the blog). Careful out there on those roads.