Recent Media Commentary on North Korea, and Chinese-North Korean Relations

With the apparent breakdown of Chinese-North Korean cultural diplomacy in December, North Korea’s testing of a purported hydrogen bomb in January, and a missile test and sanctions debate in February, the past three months have seen much media interest in Sino-North Korean relations, and of course North Korea generally.

The following citation information, and, in some cases, full quotes in context of my interviews with media outlets over the past few months. Apart from a single half-hour telephone conversation with a freelance reporter in Beijing who failed to tell me that his story was still at the “pitch” stage with his editor (and was ultimately rejected), these were all quite stimulating and certainly interesting for me. Nothing like the real world to keep an academic on his/her toes.

Emily Rauhala, “China, U.S. cite progress on N. Korea sanctions deal,” Washington Post24 February 2016.

Stephen Evans, “Carrots or Sticks to take on North Korea?,”BBC News, 23 February 2016.

Full comment:

Reading the Chinese response to the nuclear and missile tests, as well as the military reshuffle, I don’t get the sense so much that Kim Jong-un is any tougher than before, but rather that  the unrealistic expectations that China and some of the rest of us may have had about his role in possibly softening the regime’s harder edges are becoming clear.

In terms of nuclear and missile tests, Kim Jong-un is not only using the standard family playbook, but these acts are also interpreted within North Korean state media very much as acts of loyalty to Kim Jong-il and the capstone of that dead leader’s legacy. In other words, Kim Jong-un is the executor of the legacy; although there are attempts made (such as the iconography at Moranbong Band concerts) to emphasise his agency with respect to the missile and nuclear programmes, it is still very clear that these are institutional elements of North Korean life that not only predate Kim Jong-un’s reign but his adolescence.

With respect to the removal of Ri Myong-gil, it is obviously difficult to say if he’s dead or alive, but his ouster indicates again that acts of mass sycophancy or loyalty are not enough. A few months ago in Pyongyang, Ri had arranged a stadium full of KPA simply for the purpose of cheering wildly for Kim Jong-un, who glided in his limousine, but that was obviously not enough to retain the young leader’s trust or affection.

Lawrence Steele, “At hotspot for Chinese tourists, dark tales of N.Korean defection,” NK News, 23 February 2016.

Full comment:

Changbai always feels like the end of the line, but since about 2009 one can connect east from it to Paektusan/ Changbaishan.

Security is a particular concern on this salient of the border since Changbai is so exposed to Hyesan, and Hyesan is so well known for its various exports, a handul of which are licit. At the same time in areas more geared toward leisure (North Korean children playing in the Yalu, for instance) the North Korean border guards are more prevalent.

The PRC has stepped up efforts in tbe border area this past year to detect foreigners nosing around, and unfortunately for academics and journalists, the CCP has returned to its early 1950s roots and encoUrages locals to see any foreigner taking a photo as a potential spy. (As distinct from lucratIve South Korean tour groups, who tend to favour Yanbian for its superior transport links and bilingualism.) There have been instances of the Wall Street Journal publishing probably faked documents from the Changbai Public Security Bureau about North Korean refugees, so they are probably very wary of bad press.

Finally Changbai is unique due to its history, which includes much more reciprocal interaction with North Korea than is commonly assumed. The county was a refuge for exiled Kim loyalists and wounded KPA during the Korean War, and is a big part of North Korean revolutionary myths.

Amy Qin, “An Art Powerhouse from North Korea,” New York Times, 25 January 2016.

John Power, “North Korea is Opening a Pyongyang Bureau, but will it have freedom to report?” Mashable, 21 January 2016

Full comment:

I would see this as part of the broader drive in North Korea to open up limited contacts with France, and I think it has probably been on the agenda since Jack Lang’s trip to Pyongyang in 2009. (The former French Cultural Minister spent ten hours in talks with the North Koreans over a five-day span in Pyongyang of that year.)

There is still no Alliance Francaise in Pyongyang, nor does the DPRK have formal diplomatic recognition with France, but there is a skilled and experienced French diplomat resident in Pyongyang, Emmanuel Rousseau, who I assume was part of the process of getting AFP in the door. (His proper title is directeur du bureau français de coopération à Pyongyang).

AFP, as I understand it, is not affiliated with the French government, but neither is the AP affiliated with the government in Washington, D.C. However, as Steven Denney and I argued in an academic article published in North Korean Review, the North Koreans certainly saw the opening of the AP office in Pyongyang as a gesture to Washington, and as a pragmatic, limited, and imminently controllable means of expanding global contacts and influence.

Lawrence Steele, “Chinese border town residents distrust N. Koreans, outsiders,” NK News, 18 January 2016.

Full comment:

The PRC has stepped up efforts in the border area this past year to detect foreigners nosing around, and unfortunately for academics and journalists, the CCP has returned to its early 1950s roots and encourages locals to see any foreigner taking a photo as a potential spy. (As distinct from lucrative South Korean tour groups, who tend to favour Yanbian for its superior transport links and bilingualism.) There have been instances of the Wall Street Journal publishing probably faked documents from the Changbai Public Security Bureau about North Korean refugees, so they are probably very wary of bad press.

Inder Bugarin, “Kim Jong-un. Un dictator enigmatico,” El Universal, 10 January 2016.

Associated Press “Trade on China-N. Korea border continues, for now, as Beijing weighs response to nuclear test,” 7 January 2016.

Full quote:

Clearly there needs to be something stronger than the standard ritualistic Chinese lines of opprobrium, calls to reanimate the zombie Six-Party Talks, and wishes for stability on the Korean peninsula. Beijing is clearly not going to abandon its airtight defences at the UN Security Council on the issue of North Korean refugees and DPRK human rights abuses. But there is clearly more that China can do in terms of sanctions enforcement along the many customs houses on its shared border with North Korea, and at the port of Dalian in particular.

Although such steps would go against the grain of its long-term strategy in the northeast of China, the CCP might push for a limited freeze on North Korean joint-ventures in China (mainly restaurants, but also manufacturing), closer checks on North Korean workers in the PRC and legal border-crossers, and some more strategic “maintenance” of its oil flow into North Korea.

This test will also accelerate Xi Jinping’s impetus to coordinate with South Korea, doing so at a time when the ROK has already made significant inroads with Beijing and even Tokyo. Of course diplomatic encirclement is something the DPRK is accustomed to, so the idea that Kim Jong-un is somehow terrified that his South Korean counterpart has ready entrée to Xi Jinping is probably not quite accurate.

Finally, when it comes to the inevitable and easily available criticism online of North Korea, remember that Chinese public opinion can always be squashed or ignored when it doesn’t suit the Party’s purposes. But in this case a bit of strategic stirring by the CCP of limited public resentment at North Korea seems to make sense, particularly if the issue is possible radiation along the border or environmental contamination from the DPRK into China – call it the Fukushima effect.

Meanwhile China can be seen as having held out incentives for and overtures to the DPRK – the Liu Yunshan visit being just one of many – so one cannot accuse the Chinese Communist Party of absolutely neglecting its recalcitrant neighbour, but surely individuals within the Party and in China’s phalanx of think-tanks and universities are considering steps that could be taken to further alter its relationship with Pyongyang.

Teo Kermeliotis, “Analysis: Breaking down North Korea’s H-bomb test claim,Al Jazeera, 06 January 2016

  • How does today’s announcement change what we know about North Korea’s nuclear programme?

I don’t think it gives us much additional information at all, other than to note that the timing of North Korean nuclear test is not always pegged to the political calendar. I don’t think that China believes the DPRK’s claim that the test “had no adverse impact on the ecological environment,” since there are worries being discussed in Beijing state media about possible ecological dangers from such tests and the North Korean nuclear programme as a whole.

Does this mark an advance to North Korea’s nuclear capabilities and why? Does it increase chances of North Korea launching a nuclear missile?
The DPRK has in the past claimed to make huge scientific leaps which are not substantiated, such as the 2010 claim that it had achieved “nuclear fission.” It now frequently calls attention to its “light and diversified means” of delivering nuclear payloads, which I take to mean miniaturisation of warheads. The missile test of 2012 indicated that the state was capable of launching an ICBM into orbit, and North Korea has certainly claimed over and over its capability of striking the US, but I don’t see this as being evidence of its ability to strike a North American or Japanese city with any more accuracy than it had prior. In fact, according to a report from the Nautilus Institute, DPRK nuclear weapons doctrine could be geared more toward local use to stop a South Korean land invasion.

How certain can we be that this was actually a hydrogen bomb test, as NK says it is?
I have no idea; as I said they have claimed in the past to have made advances along these lines. However, Kim Jong-un’s statement back on December 10 (2015) about the state’s H-bomb abilities certainly telegraphed this test, and at least tells us that the supreme leader has staked his prestige on the claim.
Why did North Korea decide to do this now?
See above. I don’t think it’s purely about negotiating with the Obama administration, even though, in the past two decades or so, North Korea has done its most rapid negotiating with ‘lame duck’ US administrations in their second term.
What international consequences will this have for North Korea?
North Korea risks losing yet more goodwill from its main patron and nominal ally, China. I don’t think that Beijing is going to abandon North Korea at the UN when it comes to human rights issues, but there will be more pressure within Chinese society and the political/diplomatic field to turn the screws on North Korea, even as China tries to keep one hand open for North Korean economic reform and external investment, which it sees as the long-term solution to the problem.

Pamela Engel, “The world ‘doesn’t have much’ it can do to respond to North Korea’s claimed hydrogen-bomb test,” Business Insider, 7 January 2016.

Adam Cathcart, an expert on Chinese-North Korean relations and lecturer at the University of Leeds, also predicted that North Korea’s test would have limited geopolitical ramifications.

“One nuclear test isn’t going to throw away [China’s] long-term strategy, but it is going to give ammunition to people who say [China] needs to make a change to North Korean policy,” Cathcart said.

Some within China have long been concerned about the country’s relations with North Korea. And a nuclear test raises the possibility of an accident that could affect China. Many in China “don’t trust the North Koreans to keep it safe,” Cathcart said.

“You’ll frequently hear that China doesn’t want to have collapse in North Korea because they’ll be overwhelmed with North Korean refugees,” Cathcart said. “China knows how to shut the border down. But radiation, you can’t stop that.”

Still, despite these concerns, China’s relations with the US could affect how the country approaches North Korea.

“For China, I think North Korea is a chess piece rather often in terms of its relationship with the United States and even Japan,” Cathcart said. He explained that the US “is behind a lot of those pressures” to condemn North Korea, and China “doesn’t want to give the Americans that.”

China does want to see North Korea follow its own path by liberalizing its economy while maintaining single-party control.

One path China might take if it wants to push back on North Korea is tightening the border between the two countries and stop allowing North Koreans to travel to China to make money, Cathcart said. But even that would have a limited effect.

I was interviewed for the above story along with Ian Bremmer, who is ubiquitous, and also appeared the same day on BBC World Service (Television), 6 January, after John Swenson-Wright, of Cambridge University.

Torsten Krauel, “Warum Autofahren für Kims Kader so gefährlich ist” [Why Driving Cars is So Dangerous for Kim’s Cadre], Die Welt, 31 December 2015

This is not an interview with one of Germany’s top foreign-affairs newspapers, but one of their columnists took a tweet of mine about a North Korean official having “nine lives,” cited me in paragraph 1, and used it as a header in the conclusion. In other words, my tweet essentially framed the op-ed, this is a very good paper, and I’d like to do more in German.

Am Silvestertag des Jahres 2015 begrub Kim Jong-un einen seiner wichtigsten Getreuesten. Kim Yang-gon, der ZK-Sekretär für Südkorea-Fragen, war am Dienstagmorgen um 6.15 Uhr bei einem Autounfall gestorben – Kim Jong-uns “engster Waffenbruder”. Mit dieser Bezeichnung und Uhrzeit vermeldete es Nordkoreas Nachrichtenagentur. Und prompt taucht der Name Choe Ryong-hae wieder in Pjöngjang auf – Choe, der ehemalige Marschall und ZK-Sekretär, der doch gerade erst gestürzt und auf eine Farm verbannt worden war, dieser Mann “mit den neun Leben”, wie der Nordkorea-Experte Adam Cathcart sogleich ziemlich treffend anmerkte.


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