Toward understanding North Korean state fears of Dandong

On March 26, the Korean Central News Agency reported at length on a truly remarkable press conference. I say “remarkable” because it dealt with a topic that, if even half of the allegations stated were true, contained more than a few bombshells about a cluster of sensitive subjects. This characterization of sensitivity holds — not only because Dandong is the key conduit for Chinese-North Korean trade — ultimately because the narrative tacitly consists of a North Korean cry that China is not interested in protecting North Korean interests. More than that, the article builds upon a growing narrative within North Korean state media that China, if it is not collaborating actively with South Korean intelligence, is at least allowing Manchuria and Dandong to be used as a staging ground for figurative and actual attacks on the social system and regime of the DPRK.

None of this is stated overtly, but do not expect heavy coverage of this event in the Chinese state media, for it is not a welcome note, particularly at the present historical juncture. Consider the boldness (or, if you prefer, the rank obliviousness) of Pyongyang’s propaganda apparatus releasing this story precisely when a.) Beijing is waiting for Pyongyang’s approval of a new Ambassador, b.) when the city of Dandong is rapidly expanding cooperation with South Korea on the absence of connectivity to North Pyong’an province and c.) coming on the heels of another horrible incident where an armed North Korean soldier entered Chinese territory and took a hostage, doing so from a moribund Special Economic Zone that itself is another can of (easily-flooded) worms.

The main audience for the document, however, is not at all Chinese — which is predictable and understandable insofar as the DPRK state media rarely curtseys to Beijing. Instead, in describing plots being hatched on Chinese territory, the audience appears to be Korean (both South and North). South Korean, in the sense that the document appears to be aimed at ripping the lid off of ROK intelligence work in Dandong. And there is obviously a North Korean audience for the piece, which was also run on state television.

For North Koreans, the messages here are multiple: that Manchuria remains a very dangerous place, that Christianity is a tool of enemy agents and the imperialists, that economic and cultural chaos can be laid at the feet of foreign agents, and that the North Korean security services are doing their best to defuse plots to kill their leader. These are themes that were also present in summer 2012, when state media supposedly uncovered a plot to blow up Kim statues in places within sight of China, like the Pochonbo Monument in Hyesan.

What follows are annotations on the full attached document, which I have complied as a bilingual attachment. (The title is slightly unwieldy, but whatever: KCNA Kim Gukki Dandong Espionage Press Conference, 26 March 2015, AC annotations). Most of the comments that follow are about Kim Guk-ki, who was interviewed first at the press conference.

In the attached document, where there is no English text, no translation exists. In other words, just reading the English version of the transcript is an insufficient means of finding out what was actually said at the press conference. Numbers in brackets (like this: [1]) refer to sections of the press conference.

[1] The introduction to the press conference reminds us that we don’t know under what circumstances these men were arrested, or gave themselves over to North Korean security services.

[2] The statement by Ministry of State Security official is longer in the Korean version; naturally in the last paragraph he describes the importance of Sureyongism and wields the rhetorical power of Paektuism.

[3] The person of Hwang Jae Yong plays a key role in the text, mores in the Korean version. Kim is doing essentially everything at the behest of this ostensible wire-puller, behind whom is standing the US and its intelligence services.

[4] The first “crimes” discussed which Kim has undertaken involve things that tourists regularly do along the Sino-North Korean border: Taking pictures of bridges.

This is considered to be dangerous behavior because Kim is further interested (along with the rest of the international media at the time, including the Chinese whose government would not allow its publication) in the particulars of when Kim Jong-il crossed the border in his trips of 2009 and 2010. He was said to be well-paid for his legwork. (If only we modestly-paid academics could make such money when doing fieldwork, more of us might be tempted to start a sideline. But of ours that would ruin our ability to publish credible scholarship…)

[5] Left out of the English version of the press conference is a trip Kim took in 2007 to the Chinese peninsular hub of Dalian, which handles a huge amount of sea cargo which ends up in North Korea. The omission of Dalian is rather interesting, since similarly, the case of Kenneth Bae involved the city, and might cause us to question the relationship between, say, the Public Scruity Bureauy in Dalian and North Korean State Security. Given that Dalian is far more international and cosmopolitan than growing but still relatively small Dandong, this is not a particularly insignificant question.

[5a.] Noteworthy here is the collection by Kim not just of photos and basic information about North Koreans operating in Dandong, but his acquisition of “information about nuclear weapons [and] winning over members of the north side’s missions in China and those on business tour.” This is the first admission that I have ever seen by the North Koreans that they are openly concerned about military intelligence leaking out through Dandong.

Moreover, the acknowledgment that missions into China — which have slowed down significantly since Jang Song-taek’s purge in December 2013 — are targets for foreign intelligence is not at all illogical, but stating it publicly helps to justify for domestic cadre another reason why they may not be going abroad.

Finally, this can be connected to the Al Jazeera story recently about British intelligence going after a North Korean diplomatic target in South Africa, apparently with some — although hardly final — success.

[6] The document now veers into another significant realm — the information war along the Chinese-North Korean frontier. Reports and op-ed pieces about the need to flood North Korea with USBs and tablet computers loaded with possibly subversive information are now commonplace, but obviously the regime isn’t taking such things lying down. The potential for such media to directly target the “supreme dignity” of the top leadership is obviously a cause not just for concern, but for arrest.

[7] The North Korean state can and does frequently handle international pressure on its human rights record, and does so with relative success, if the goal is to keep the enemy off balance and unable to investigate conditions on the ground. (The Commission of Inquiry process has changed a few things, but not this, at least not yet.) However, what this document points out is how dangerous international human rights criticism becomes when it is fed back into the domestic rumor mill, and how quickly it needs to be confused and defused by the state. Note that Kim was not guilty of sneaking into North Korea to interview starving rural dwellers for use in human rights videos abroad, but instead sneaking human rights materials into North Korea itself.

[8] The mention of “a university in Hawaii” should make at least a few people sit up straight. The North Korean state has been rather open in its assertions that academics are very much part of the cabal to collapse the North Korean state and will enter their country on research pretexts, but with the true intent of subverting their system. There is more information here about this particular trip in the Korean version of the document which could be unpacked further.

[9] Does North Korea remember its powerful Protestant past? While clergy were ousted in the years 1945-1949 (most in the first six months of the Soviet occupation, in fact), this document reminds us that missionary activity in North Korea is not entering some tabula rasa. No, according to the document, there is an intentional campaign to revive and reconstitute a “religious state” within the North Korean state (《종교국가》).

[10] Kim concludes his long statement with a teaser about his economic crimes of counterfeiting currency from Dandong and infiltrating it into North Korea, all of which had the intention of “brining people’s mindsets into confusion.” This is also a wonderful inversion of the days of 1946, when Chinese Communist Party members used to print CCP propaganda materials in Sinuiju and smuggle them into KMT-ruled Dandong. When confusion is the goal, cross-border printing plays a big role.

[11] A KCTV reporter’s question gets a long response which is not translated into English.

[12] Rodong Sinmun’s question asking for more specificity in enemy operations in Dandong unleashes a torrent of titles and place names in the Chinese city. If half of these places are still in business, I would be very surprised. Although the document does not say as much, this needs to be thought about from the perspective of a message to a North Korean employer in Dandong, which we might paraphrase as follows:

The city in which you are working is crawling with South Korean agents. They will be coming into our business and filing reports both with Seoul and with their colonial masters in Washington about it, about you. Your movements are being watched by these agents, so it’s better not to move anywhere. Don’t go to these places; much of Dandong is a field of South Korean spies who would be all too happy to abduct you, infect you with Christianity, and give you illegal materials which can only bring trouble to us all. Moreover, their money is probably counterfeit, so be particularly careful when they settle the bill at the restaurant.

[14] This is a fabulous statement of a well-coached witness, delivered in the best tradition of Japanese and American POWs in Chinese Communist custody during the Korean War: “We have realized the gravity of our crimes against your just and human system and demand nothing less than the death penalty. But because the state and its leaders are endlessly benevolent, we will have to settle with going before the cameras and demanding that the imperialist media get the story right and deliver our message word-for-word, except the words which our media choses not to translate.”


  1. only sensible thing to do for dandong is to start a fast-rail connection to seul, to be financed by aiib and constructed by north kroeans.

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