Beijing is a long way from North Korea. Border crossing points between China and the DPRK remain open, but the potentially fastest and ‘game-changing’ of these is blocked at present, clogged up with estuary mud and the slow hatreds of bureaucratic inaction. Chinese trains that blaze up and down the northeast have yet to reach the North Korean frontier. But when they do arrive, panting with the heat and speed of a new era, there will be yet another symbol of the huge experiential chasm between the two countries.
China continues to dwell in the crux of a dilemma about pressuring North Korea, because the DPRK continues to invite external pressure upon itself. The failure of the eternally-smiling Kim Jong-un (does his face ever hurt?) to meaningfully reshape the sclerotic and intolerant system he inherited in 2011 has meant that human rights advocacy groups were, if anything, energized by his arrival and subsequent actions. North Korean defectors have grown louder and more articulate, with a global audience for their depictions of life in the Kimist dystopia. North Korea’s barrage of missile and nuclear tests since 2011 also brought much international opprobrium, not only from China but from audiences prone to see the DPRK as China’s own scarred and misshapen creation.
Of all of the countries in the world lining up to assess North Korean human rights, China is the one that, in so many ways, knows the most and says the least. There is a lack of zeal among the various echelons of the Chinese Communist Party to point the finger at North Korea’s shortcomings. After all, the People’s Republic of China is unquestionably led by a unitary Leninist Party-state which would mirror China’s own almost precisely — but for the historical accident of hereditary succession and a distinctive lack of ‘nationalities theory’ and de-Stalinization. But the rhetoric is changing: More and more Chinese are reading of North Korean human rights abuses, and China’s own changing attitude toward the laogai, or labor camps, isolates Pyongyang all the more.
Among the dark channels and wide expanses of the Yalu River, there is a conceptual border that must be crossed. But in which direction? Chinese audiences and thinkers have become inured to their own nation’s pain; there is little desire to thrust toward Pyongyang with some great vision of transformation, opening the desiccated guts of labor camps, spilling decades of secrets and archived brutalities locked in filing cabinets up and down the frontier. After all, their Han rhetoric of liberation was spent in the 1950s and 60s along with traumatic mass violence at home and frozen wars in countries better forgotten. And looking toward China? We can only begin to guess what ordinary North Koreans expect from the PRC, much less Chinese diplomats on the other side of the globe. Yet North Korea’s emotionally distant and most proximate neighbor, the People’s Republic, simply remains an immensity glowing to the north. Over the trembling waters, it lies beyond.
Image from ‘Distant Proximity’ catalog, Centrale for Contemporary Art, Brussels, 2014: ‘The paradoxical heading (distant proximity) involves the creator when faced with their creation, just as much as the spectator who discovers the work.’