Meth, Road-Tripping, Drought, Aid, and Forbidden Love: Five North Korea Stories from China

Microblogging in English or Chinese continues to present limits on and challenges for academics who ‘watch’ Northeast Asia. Certainly, in the process of gathering information about the region, it has gotten rather easy to share pithy viewpoints, but the problem of why one is sharing a given piece of information is not always self-evident.

Take these two tweets as a study in contrasts: 


Personal blogs seem to be a good medium through which a slightly more considered and extended discussion can unfold. In the following post, I take a look at five stories from the Chinese news media which all deal with North Korea in some way, at a level of depth that hopefully resides in the space between ‘off the cuff’ (which is a fancy way of saying ‘spastic’) tweeting and the more austere, rigorous, and lugubriously-edited mode of writing that necessarily prevails for more heavy-duty academic writing.

丹东一民警制毒获死刑 家藏冰毒40斤In Dandong, a former policeman has been handed death sentence for meth manufacturing with two accomplices, on Chinese territory. No North Korean link is mentioned in this story (does there need to be one?), but the story does suggest that pathways for drugs into the Chinese interior from Dandong are well-honed and the profits high. As with so many law-and-order stories from the border region in the past couple of years, the outlet able to cover the story at length is Xinjinbao (新京报), which is strangely rendered as ‘Beijing Daily’ in English. A severely abbreviated version of the story was carried on 18 June in English by the erstwhile Global Timeswhose editor was, at the time of publication, waxing metaphorical on a stage in Beijing with a handful of former and current diplomats about the PRC’s new Silk Road into Central Asia.

A former policeman in Dandong city in northeast China’s Liaoning Province was sentenced to death for producing drugs with a habitual criminal, a court announced on Thursday.According to the Intermediate People’s Court of Dandong city, Wang Changping, a former policeman, began producing methamphetamine at the end of 2012 together with Han Xuedong, a drug producer who was released from prison in June 2011. The group built three meth labs in rural areas of Dandong city and Tongliao city in the north Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, and produced more than one hundred kilograms of methamphetamine in one and half years. They were busted in May 2014, with 20 kilograms of drugs seized at Wang’s office and apartment. The court sentenced Wang and Han to death. Another two suspects in the case were sentenced to death with two year reprieve and imprisonment for life respectively.

Meanwhile in non-capital punishment-related news in Dandong, cadre in that border city are not at all as bullish about economic growth as we might expect. There is surely more than a small amount of verbal and non-verbalized frustration with the DPRK included in this report. 

山东青岛-辽宁丹东开通跨海汽车:行程很奇特 | A new means of traveling for cheap between two of China’s most interesting northern port cities — Qingdao and Dandong — has now opened up. A bus line links the two cities by means of ferry travel through the Bohai Gulf, via Dalian saving the need to drive through the giant Beijing-Tianjin choke point. (Like a prospective conquerer of China in the seventeenth century, the shrewd traveller should to pay heed to the difficulties of traversing the Shanhaiguan.) There was once discussion of a sea tunnel being built between Shandong and Liaodong peninsulas, but in the meantime, this will do nicely, thank you.

via Huanqiu Shibao
via Huanqiu Shibao

李敦球:帮朝鲜一起应对特大旱灾 | Back in late May, Chinese commentator Li Dunqiu (who to my knowledge fits the frame exceptionally well for Huanqiu Shibao) published a piece on North Korean market reforms that was comparatively bullish. On 19 June, Li returned to the pages of the same foreign affairs tabloid with a piece about the need for China to aid North Korea during the present drought. The piece stands as a kind of embroidery on the 18 June statement by the PRC Foreign Ministry that aid would be granted to the DPRK. Li noted that corn yields in particular were expected to be lower in North Korea, but also loosed a standard criticism that information coming out of North Korea was notoriously unreliable, in part because it was often from South Korean and Western media. (This statement is both a fig leaf for Huanqiu Shibao when its editors get hate mail from the North Korean Embassy in Beijing — a rather frequent occurrence, if the word on the street is correct — and also a means of reminding slightly numb Chinese readers that only the Ministry of Propaganda and its various spin-offs are the arbiters of objective media reporting, except when they’re gagged.)

A rather middle-ground approach is outlined whereby the World Food Program projected shortages in the country are discussed, and the need to de-politicize food aid to North Korea. There is also some effort put into stating that North Korean ‘transparency’ is better than it used to be — while at the same time saying absolutely nothing about how much food aid China should give, what type of grain, or how much has been given in previous lean years. But then again, it’s just an op-ed indicated to gently assure that the Chinese public is on-side with any aid renderd, and Li Dunqiu does not appear to have a Nolandesque apparatus when it comes to discussing aid statistics.

Finally with this piece, Li does what he does best — take something that the North Koreans have been doing since their founding as a Republic in 1948, and spinning it as ‘reform’ or progress. 

In the present case, it is mass mobilization. Clearly, he writes, the North Korean state is taking the problem seriously by mobilizing free labor around the country to dig wells, etc., in a great ‘anti-drought struggle.’


朝鲜遭百年不遇大旱金正恩该怎么办 & 百年一遇旱灾对朝鲜有何影响 |  The first of these two stories presents extensive data on North Korean famine in 2012 and aid from China, and is written by Chinese bloggers who don’t cite their sources yet whose work turns up rather prominently on, and which handles an issue which is rather sensitive to the government in Beijing.  Among other data points, the first piece argues that 20,000 North Korean people starved to death in the 2012 drought, and that in part this can be attributed to the refusal of ‘the US, South Korea and other countries’ to send food aid. The piece then goes on to describe the large value and type of aid which China gave to North Korea in that year. Again, no sources are cited apart from the occasional sprinkling of clauses like “foreign research indicated” or “according to statistics,” but this is very much worth a closer look. This excerpt concludes by comparing China’s estimated aid to North Korea between 1990-2005 as being roughly equivalent to “half a year’s GDP from the Tibetan Autonomous Region”:

但就在此时 [i.e. in the period of great difficulty for North Korea],中国伸出了援助之手。中国政府于2012年2月下旬开始对朝鲜进行大规模无偿援助,援助物资包括粮食、建材等,价值高达6亿元人民币,堪称“史上最大规模”。中国此次援助,完全是无偿援助,因此外界称之为“中国援朝史上最大规模的单笔无偿经济援助”。据有关报道称,朝鲜希望中国提供至少20万吨粮食援助。根据当时中华粮网和大连商品交易所的东北大米和玉米的批发价,6亿元人民币相当于15万吨大米或者26.5万吨玉米。不过由于丹东等边境城市的粮食采购质量、价格都远远低于中国人自己食用的粮食,因此实际上6亿元可兑换的可能会更多。以当时丹东到达新义州的大米批发价格计算,6亿元即可购得大米17.14万吨。在之前的1月份,应朝鲜红十字会要求,中国红十字会从辽宁省丹东市向朝鲜新义州提供了6000箱方便面、约相当于30万元的物资。中国的这些雪中送炭的援助并没有使朝鲜有感激之情,因为他们几十年来,吃惯了、用惯了中国援助,已习以为常。对中国朝鲜半岛无核化的立场相对立,将中国的劝告形同耳旁风,欢度中国产生抵触情绪而不满。由于中国对朝鲜的援助从来就不对外公布,国际社会古巴不知道中国究竟给了朝鲜多少援助。对于几十年来的总数,国外研究结论是:从1990年到2005年的15年间,中国对朝鲜援助就可能高达15亿-37.5亿美元之间。这约合当前西藏半年的GDP。

The piece concludes with its title: Worst drought in one hundred years, so what is Kim Jong-un going to do about it? Well, he is obviously going to look for aid from wherever he can get it, send his Premier out to the countryside, and keep pounding the drums of mass mobilization. But there is also a very common observation from Chinese political experience: The ruler needs to prevent famine in order to prevent domestic instability. As they authors write, ‘再就是加强对国内的控制,保持稳定,以免国内出事,’ and then conclude with their criticism of the so-called ‘Byungjin Line.’

The second link consists of yet more pics of PRC Ambassador Li’s May trip to the North Korean countryside and discussion of possible food aid. Most interestingly, it notes how busy Pyongyang was on 5 June, with large numbers of people getting geared up for work in the countryside. 

朝鲜女子因何不敢嫁中国男人 | With a title like this — ‘Why North Korean women do not dare to marry Chinese men’ — this piece is possibly a bit explosive. It follows on other stories in Chinese news media that start to foreground and problematize the North Korean worker in China. As we saw with the incident in Tumen on 31 May, when North Korean women physically attacked a journalist on assignment for Le Monde, various arms of the PRC bureaucracy have differing views about how these workers should be handled, and to what extent they should deserve special leeway or treatment due to their national origin. In addition to asking the rather uncomfortable (and somewhat taboo) public question about the utter lack of personal freedom enjoyed by North Korean female workers in China, the article gives a bit of data about average wages. 

Naturally there have been other stories in Chinese rumbling around in the past several weeks that merit some analysis — such as China’s fighter-jet drills over Dandong and possibly Sinuiju, the connection of the Zhou Yongkang purge and trial to North Korea, the implication put out in Chinese media that Kim Jong-un has probably been invited to Beijing for the September 3 anti-fascist parade, or fantastic gumshoeing (within acceptable comradely limits, of course!) by the Xinhua bureau in Pyongyang with respect to shiny new apartment blocs which are rumoured to be without functioning lifts — but then again, perhaps that is what Twitter is for.


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