The PRC’s National Day (1 October) celebrations were muted in Pyongyang, but they did provide an opportunity for Li Jinjun, the Chinese Ambassador to North Korea, to make a few remarks. Reading the rhetoric for such occasions is often not terribly useful; North Korean speakers are not there to announce a change in bilateral policy, nor is their purpose to reveal much of anything by giving lip service to “the Chinese dream” or stating that “under the spirit of the Seventh Party Congress, the country is engaged in economic development via a ‘200-day struggle campaign,” as Li’s counterpart did at this event.
However, such events sometimes result in small statements from the Chinese side which give a better sense of the texture of bilateral relations, in whatever direction they may be trending, in ways that are more interesting than occurs under the dry klieg lights of the PRC Foreign Ministry press conferences.
Thus, in Pyongyang on 1 October, Li Jinjun’s comments were of interest. Primarily, his mention Chinese aid to North Korea in light of the ongoing humanitarian struggle in the DPRK’s northeastern border region with China:
Which translates roughly as:
Ambassador Li also expressed consolation for the floods in the northern areas of the DPRK, emphasizing that Chinese saw the floods in the DPRK and sympathetically felt as if it could have happened to them [感同身受]. Out of Sino-North Korean friendship and humanitarianism, China has provided assistance to the DPRK as far as its capabilities extend [力所能及], and wishes that the soldiers and civilians of the DPRK will conquer natural disasters as early as possible and help people in the disaster-hit areas to rebuild their homes in order lead happy and healthy lives.
Not to parse this to death, but in combination with my more detailed analysis of China’s flood response (published in The Diplomat on 27 September 2016), you can see the PRC hedging slightly, while also being overt about the fact that aid has been provided. The idioms used by the Ambassador are particularly piquant; the first almost encapsulates a kind of criticism. In other words, Li could certainly be implying, we inhabited the same Tumen River valley, but because of our superior preparation, we did not suffer the same levels of destruction as you did.
In following North Korea’s evening news reports since the disaster, I have found it interesting that the DPRK’s messaging to its own people about its flood response is entirely about work performed after the fact; there is no discussion of having prepared well for the floods, there is only meant to be joyous thanks to the Party for replacing homes that were destroyed by the waters.
As aid workers will tell you, there is so much more than mortar and bricks that need to be replaced; there are bridges to be rebuilt (another story line, one which both DPRK and China have made nods to of late) and sanitation systems to be restored.
Finally, Li’s somewhat apologetic note that the PRC aided North Korea only “as far as its capabilities extend” might be a reference to the fact that more massive aid was offered in the border region, and turned down by the North Koreans, but that is speculation for another day.
Image: Chinese Ambassador Li Jinjun pays his annual visit to a Sino-North Korean Friendship Cooperative outside of Pyongyang on 21 October 2016. Via PRC Embassy Pyongyang.