This morning I turned on my computer and immediately became wrapped up in a somewhat quixotic quest to find the origins of a rumor. The rumor being that the Chinese Ambassador in Pyongyang ‘had yet to be recognized by the North Korean government.’ A question to that effect had been asked (or should we say planted?) at the 25 May Ministry of Foreign Affairs press conference in Beijing, which had then triggered a bunch of online discussions in Chinese, mainly focusing on North Korea’s disrespect for China.
For the record, the Ambassador had in fact been received on 30 March by Kim Yong-nam, who took the diplomat’s credentials and had had a sit-down talk with him. The fact that this was one of the more prominent Sino-DPRK meetings that has been held since the death of Jang Song-taek, but had gotten virtually no media coverage, was certainly of interest to me.
For its part, since the Kim Yong-nam meeting, the PRC Embassy has been doing what it always does in North Korea — tending to Chinese graves, trying to talk about business (in this case, via an updated case for the ‘Silk Road’ strategy and its benefits for DPRK), advising Chinese reporters, gathering intelligence, holding events for overseas Chinese, and looking out for Chinese tourists in post-Ebola lockdown North Korea. To me, the question about ‘non-recognition’ of the Ambassador and the official encouragement of online discussion of it in the PRC smelled like China not getting what it wants from the DPRK and trying to send a small smoke signal, rather than it being some harbinger of full-blown crisis in the relationship. The same could be said for Chinese media discussion of North Korea’s rebuff with respect to the AIIB application.
Wanting to double check that the North Korean media was still giving the PRC Embassy the cold shoulder, I decided to check the Chinese version of the Rodong Sinmun, which I do a couple of times a week. Lo and behold, rather than any confirmation whatsoever of the PRC Ambassador (indeed, any confirmation at all that China exists apart from small clusters of North Korean associations venting spleen at Japanese suppression of Chongryon, that is!) I was confronted with a report on the International Peace Symposium (Korean version here) that had occurred in Pyongyang on 21 May.
‘No!’ I thought to myself, reaching for a thermos of cold Starbucks coffee and looking at the clock. This was a morning, after all, during which I was supposed to be earnestly winding my way through the English countryside in order to pick up a stack of Korean War exams in the educated metropole some half-hour beyond. Work awaited, and I needed to read my students’ considered writing about such topics as nuclear threats during the armistice negotiations, Bruce Cumings vs. Alan Millett and skirmishes into South Hwanghae province from 1948-50. We don’t read B.R. Myers, but my students are clever and it’s good work.
‘Must I?’ I thought. Clearly to excavate this particular Rodong Sinmun article would be a black hole for time, since it had already been partially quoted by AP and stirred ‘controversy’ (i.e. disapproval among influential conservative bloggers, among others). But, as I had been reading about North Korean mineshafts the night before on the winding bus ride home, I found myself drawn into the article, thus risking perceived complicity with one or more of the rapidly-emerging camps into which other scholar-analysts of North Korea were so busily arraying themselves.
For whatever reason I had already spent a couple hours over the past couple of months dealing with media inquiries about the event and its aims and possible disadvantages. I was getting questions like this (and I’m paraphrasing, for the record): ‘Are you for or against the Women Cross DMZ march?’ or ‘I can’t find anyone to say anything positive about the march; you seem like your views are not entirely negative, would you be willing to say something?’
These weren’t the questions I needed.
I needed questions like these:
1. ‘Do you have any idea who Gloria Steinem is?’ or ‘Could you talk about the lasting influence of Simone de Beauvoir or Anna Louise Strong as a role model for contemporary feminist political travel in East Asia?’ or
2. ‘Do you believe that the presence of a prominent voice from Northern Ireland (Mairead Macguire) on the march will strike a chord with North Koreans, who are obviously both weary of and skeptical toward the German model for reunification, as seen in the vituperative yet somehow rational response to Park Geun-hye’s Dresden speech?’ or
3. ‘Could you recommend any female scholars or analysts — particularly those whose worldview (or, preferably, actual research) is oriented toward regime criminality, collapse, and infiltration of North Korean information systems — who might be able to offer a point of view that would allow me to lessen my dependence on white male voices in my report, the present conversation being evidence of just that?’ or
4. ‘To what extent is the Chinese media following this story, and has the overall narrative been supportive?’ or ‘Is North Korea’s arrangement of transportation for Xinhua reporters to the DMZ march is indicative in any way of greater regime transparency, or improved Chinese-North Korean relations?’ or
5. ‘Regardless of what you think about the march, aren’t you glad that someone is doing something which will offer a brief respite from the need to say anything meaningful about Kim Jong-chol’s Eric Clapton concert, or Kim Jong-un’s hat?’ or
6. ‘You’ve published several academic papers on ‘the history problem’ in Northeast Asia, with an emphasis on Japanese war crimes and war crimes trials: In that capacity, do you see anything valuable about the Women Cross DMZ march?’
Up until this morning, I hadn’t much hope that I would be able to answer hypothetical question number 6 with any accuracy. But then I read a bit more into the piece in question.
The Rodong Sinmun article did the unthinkable and misquoted a foreigner. (I myself have also been misquoted by an extremely polite Rodong Sinmun reporter, but keep in mind that such people *generally do not have e-mail addresses or telephone numbers at which they can be reached to request a correction* and that is a story for another day.)
The Rodong Sinmun indicates that a representative of the “‘Comfort Woman’ Issue Policy Committee” attended the 21 May meeting. Her name is Kim Chun-sil [김춘실/金春实]. Kim’s participation in the event is one of several interactions she has had with foreign activists; she was part of an inter-Korean joint declaration toward Japan in 2007 on the comfort issue, for instance.
In 2003, Kim travelled to the southwestern province of Yunnan, accompanying Ms. Park, who was a very elderly former ‘comfort woman,’ to the site of the former Japanese military brothel in which she worked during the Second World War. A photo from that visit can be seen above. I believe they also travelled to Nanjing. An extensive reportage from the journey was published by Phoenix (in Chinese, obviously). Suffice it to say that the Chinese media did not waste much time obsessing over Ms. Kim’s choice of pins, or what were probably some very favorable things she might have said about the North Korean leadership.
So that is my little data point, which I add to the raging pyre of ‘controversy’ over the Women Cross DMZ event, the elements of whose staging are not without consequence. In so doing, perhaps it can be seen if the question raised by one commentator (yet again a white male, obviously guilty in March 2015 of what Suzy Kim called ‘subconscious sexism in assuming women are naive’) can be answered: “Maybe these very clever activists will manage to not get arrested on either side of the divide and find out something about North Korea that we didn’t know already.”
Well, thank goodness, they have both managed to stay out of legal difficulties, and to tell us many things. The role of North Korean ‘comfort women’ activists (recognizing the difficulty of the ‘civil society’ category in the DPRK, there is no doubt the members of this organization are active whenever possible) in engaging with foreign activists. In fact, there are probably all kinds of things we might learn about the march, its background, and the activities around it in North Korea over the coming weeks and months. Hopefully issues of history will remain very much part of the bundle of things that non-North Koreans are discussing with their DPRK counterparts, both inside and outside the boundaries of North Korea.
Meanwhile, the Chinese diplomats will continue their work, which is far less flashy but potentially yet more transformative, on that other long conceptual boundary between North Korea and the world beyond. If Chinese-North Korean relations sufficiently level off and up, Ms. Kim Chun-sil might even have a chance to meet with old friends from Women Cross DMZ in Beijing, Shenyang, or Dandong. Some bus rides are dramatic things after all.