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Bubble at the Summit: Insecurities in Kim Jong-un Itineraries

Is Kim Jong-un staggeringly confident, or do his behaviours and travel itineraries betray personal neuroses and structural fears? The short answer is that it depends on the issue under discussion.

Let’s take the economy for starters. Like a shrimp rediscovering its appetite after an awful oil spill, the North Korean economy appears to be improving, or so argue a number of indicators. Several smaller dams around the Huichon behemoth are coming online, meaning there is more power in Pyongyang, where the construction boom does not appear to be slackening. Although little headway appears to have been made in terms of actual drill bits biting into rock, North Korea does not seem to have problems attracting mineral exploration from Mongolian firms, including for offshore oil. The country also sits upon a perception that it is a potential rare-earth superpower. (This perception, by the way, has yet to be fully explored as truthful or not, although my colleagues and I are working on some deep-structure documentation on the matter.) So in spite of sanctions, rocky public discourse with China, and the ever-present possibility of the US Department of Treasury tightening the clamps on the country’s international financial flows, Kim Jong-un may indeed have cause to smile when he looks at things in this sector.

However, when it comes to his recent trip to Mount Paektu, I think a more cautious assessment is in order. In a working paper I published last month with the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, I argued that Kim Jong-un and his handlers are actually rather nervous about his fragile domestic political legitimacy.

The execution of Jang Song-taek was never meant to, and could not, permanently anchor a culture of fearful obedience to the Kim family; ongoing coercive and persuasive pressure is needed. Moreover, the personality cult does not axiomatically replenish itself. There has been a huge effort made, therefore, to associate the young and inexperienced Kim with his father and grandfather in their respective periods of (allegedly politically experienced and militarily brilliant) youth. If Kim Jong-il was helping to run the Korean War at age 11 or unleashed the “Songun revolution” at age 18, the logic goes, then Kim Jong-un can run the Party, the National Defense Commission, the consumer economy, musical productions, the “outer space program,” the ever-important monument-and-memorial-paintings-and-statues sector, and foreign policy simultaneously at the ripe old age of 30. The same logic is being used for the rather delicate elevation of his younger sister into positions of high esteem and bureaucratic clout, though at less of a fever pitch.

So his trip to Mount Paektu makes imminent sense: He is simply trading on his only major asset, which is his bloodline, elevating it (and his physical resemblance to his grandfather, whose weight also yo-yoed over time) over all else. This is about as simple as it gets.

But I think we have to move beyond simply gasping, guffawing, or gnawing on the images produced at Paektu’s mighty and blustery summit. (Something, after all, needs to be left for political geographers who write about “landscapes of charisma” and North Korean volcanoes.) We need to think for a moment about Kim Jong-un’s itinerary in the context of recent news from North Korea’s northern frontier, and Kim’s pending (shall we say “probable”?) visit to Moscow.

Much as North Korean propagandists might like us to believe otherwise, Mount Paektu does not exist in some parallel universe; it spreads along the border with China and is in fact half-Chinese. More to the point, the mountain is also part of Ryanggang province and is relatively close to the resort town of Samjiyeon and the gritty border city of Hyesan.

If Kim Jong-un wanted to put on a show of real confidence which indicated he had matters under control — particularly in the realm of border security, where he is said by some sources to be extremely active — the place to do it would be Hyesan, and not Mount Paektu. But instead, Kim Jong-un left Paektu and turned up next (and in short order) at the east coast city of Wonsan, happily huffing down his self-prescribed nicotine and being photographed in front of an orphanage with the world’s most unsubtle inscription over the door: “Thank you, Respected General Kim Jong-un!”

In other words, Kim Jong-un, clearly enamored of flying around the DPRK, very likely flew from Pyongyang to Samjiyeon, was somehow conveyed to the top of Mt. Paektu, and then flew from Samjiyeon to Wonsan. In no case did he travel, nor has he ever apparently traveled to Hyesan. Perhaps the city is too loaded with smugglers and illegal activity for his retinue to encourage him to set foot there, or perhaps the North Korean security state really believes all the smoke it has been blowing for the past three years about assassins and vandals prowling around the Sino-Korean border.

In over three years of ostensibly governing North Korea, Kim Jong-un has yet to set foot in Sinuiju, Hyesan, Musan, Namyang, Onsung, Chongjin, or Rason. The farthest North he appears to have made it (with the exception of the Samjiyeon/Paektu bubble, into and out of which he can take his private jet) is Kanggye.

This is not the itinerary of a politician, and certainly not the behaviour of a confident dictator. The irony is that his grandfather used to turn up in these northern cities, spending hours in epic rants about corruption and inefficiency, going on long and windy tangents about the need for more rabbit breeding in elementary schools across the country. (Yes, this was the solution to the age-old “food problem” given by Kim Il-sung in a speech in Chongjin in 1980; for some reason it never seems to have worked.)

But Kim Jong-un, in spite of all the effort to resemble grandfather physically  — down to the large folds on the back of his neck and the reverse-engineering of statues of Kim Il-sung to look more like himself — nevertheless lacks the original dictator’s confidence and freedom of movement within the country over which he allegedly rules with an iron fist.

One clue can be found in the recent hour-long press conference that focused on North and South Korean intelligence operations in Dandong, which I covered here and which Stephan Haggard also analyzed. One of the core accusations made during that strange event was that South Korean spies were maneuvering in Manchuria to kill Kim Jong-il on one of his many train trips into the PRC in 2010-2011, doing so presumably absent any constraints from the Chinese comrades on whose territory they were operating. China hardly needs yet another signal to confirm that Kim Jong-un will not be taking his first foreign junket to Beijing, but I thought this was crystal clear: “We don’t trust you,” the North Korean state media was saying to Beijing in that press conference, “to keep our precious leader safe.”

A colleague of mine once told me that on Kim Jong-il’s train trips around the northeast of China in 2010-11, the Dear Leader’s feces were hoarded by the North Koreans as a kind of state secret, since they didn’t want Chinese intelligence to be able to do any type of test relating to the man’s failing health.

This is the kind of leadership, security system, and entourage we are dealing with. Wondering aloud about “opening up and reform” n North Korea seems particularly silly when it seems to have such a difficult time merely taking care of the basic things that heads of states are charged with, like allowing the leader to flush a toilet without a special investigation being called while on the occasional foreign trip. And yes, progress can certainly be made on Special Economic Zones and Economic Development Zones absent the Midas touch of a Kim Jong-un on-site inspection, but why should they be denied even the glancing fingertip of the alleged institutional creator, whose job it is not simply to show up and grin, but to assure that the model enterprise in question is well-supplied and politically safe?

The groundwork has clearly been laid for a Kim Jong-un trip to Moscow in early May. However, the aftermath of the Paektu visit and Kim Jong-un’s ongoing confinement to several plush pockets and well-bombarded testing sites do not inspire confidence that the young man will take the trip after all, assuming his health is up to it in the first instance.


Is China losing faith in North Korea? A Contribution to The Guardian

Having been asked to put something together for the Guardian‘s new North Korea network, I did, and had the following short essay included as part of a very fine panel:

One of the things you quickly realise from travelling along the full length of the Chinese border with North Korea is just how much of North Korea there is. China’s boundary stretches along four northern frontier provinces of the DPRK, stretching for hundreds of kilometres along the Yalu and Tumen rivers. Along those tributaries, there are at least five good-sized North Korean cities (Sinuiju, Manpo, Hyesan, Musan, and Hoeryong) which could easily absorb China’s attention during a crisis.

Whilst we tend to imagine a wholesale collapse scenario where chaos radiates outward from Pyongyang, we might better examine the possibility of chaos farther from the bright and labyrinthine capital city – and far closer to China. For instance, we might see a chemical accident in Sinuiju“terrorism” directed at Kimist monuments in Hyesan, theforcible expropriation of Chinese mining concerns within the DPRK, anuclear accident or even a volcanic eruption.

China is of course planning to handle such problems, but not for the first time. Documents in the Chinese Foreign Ministry Archive describe China’s intensive interactions with the DPRK during the last full-scale collapse scenario in 1950. China was able to absorb about 10,000 North Korean refugees on either end of the border, and the DPRK waspressing to set up consulates up and down the frontier so that they could themselves keep track of the outflow. At that time, North Korean military units moved into Chinese territory to escape bombing by US planes – such as happened in Hyesan.

The North Koreans have hardly forgotten the war or China’s massive aid and stationing of troops until 1958, but the recent warming between Seoul and Beijing is clearly troubling; Kim Jong-un’s level of trust in Chinese comrades is as limited as his contact with them. The international community needs to understand that North Korea doesn’t simply fear American nuclear missiles, nuclear submarines, and nuclear-capable bombers; the country’s leadership also is concerned about falling unwillingly into the embrace of its huge northern neighbour.

Travels to the frontier region, and conversations with China’s own North Korea experts, help to contextualise that the real struggle along that frontier is likely to be above all economic and cultural. But China does need to be ready for a catastrophe; appearing helpless before its own population in the face of the North Korean equivalent of Fukushima is not a scenario the Chinese Communist Party wants to face.

Citation: Adam Cathcart, et. al., “Is China Losing Faith in North Korea?,” The Guardian, 9 May 2014.

Kim Jong Il Dies in His Train: Updates

About an hour ago at noon Pyongyang time, Korean Central News Agency reported that Kim Jong Il had died yesterday morning in his train “from overwork.”

A Chinese reporter, Zhao Shuguang [赵曙光], who described in earlier reports the North Korea leader’s desire to make it to age 70 in the year 2012, and who has also been accused of fabricating reports to favor the North Korean leadership, is on the phone periodically from Pyongyang on a grainy connection.

KCNA’s website is stuck on December 14  17, and the Chinese Embassy website’s dispatch from this morning describes Ambassador Liu’s wife’s activities with women’s organizations in commemoration of the 94 anniversary of the birth of Kim Jong Il’s mother, Kim Jong Suk.

In the next couple of days I wouldn’t expect a great deal of elaboration from Pyongyang, but China’s “North Korea hands” like Lu Chao in Liaoning should be out in force explaining what bedrock — and relationships —  the Sino-North Korean relationship is presently resting on.

Readers of this blog can expect some more in-depth look at recent Sino-North Korean ties and where things stood prior to the announcement of Kim’s death.  Unfortunately, I am not in Dandong or Yanbian at present, but am at least in the PRC to navigate through the next few days and weeks of news.

The King is dead!  And now Hamlet is in Pyongyang.

Update 2:

Chinese markets are down significantly at the news of Kim’s death, along with something causing an equal number of tears on the mainland — lower real estate prices.

Newspaper Liaoshen Ribao in northeast China quotes KCNA as having Kim’s death stemming from MI, or myocardial infarction.

Ri Chun Hee [李春姬], usually identified in media reports as “an emotional North Korean television anchor” had in fact just gone into retirement recently, and came back for the announcement of Kim’s death.  Certainly there is something more to this story than meets the eye — perhaps another signal of a generational changing of the guard at KCNA, among other things.

Peter Simpson at The Telegraph writes:

North Korea’s main ally China, announced his death through its state media, Xinhua.

The report listed Kim’s various titles and mentioned his last visit to economic zones and for talks in North East China in August.

Beijing has been propping up the Pyongyang regime with financial aid, and had been to trying to persuade Kim to toe-dip into market economics – with some degree of success.

China has been facilitating the Six Party denuclearisation talks after Pyongyang successful detonated a nuclear device in 2006, sending shock waves around the world.

Yet Kim was often a thorn in Beijing’s side with his various threats of war and random and isolated military attacks on the South.

China has been fully briefed on North Korea’s planned handing of power over to Kim Jong-un, and is seen to prefer a stable if poor North Korea.

CNN reports, with some commenatary by the ever-solid Mike Chinoy:

His funeral will be held December 28 and the national mourning period extends until December 29, said the [North Korean] news agency.

North Korean and communist party officials “released a notice on Saturday informing” members of the Workers’ Party of Korea, military “and all other people” of Kim’s passing, according to KCNA.

The best reporting I’ve seen yet on the Chinese response to Kim’s death comes from the Sydney Morning Herald, which notes:

This morning the North Korean embassy in Beijing lowered the national flag to half-mast while the country’s customs authorities immediately shut the busiest border crossing, at Dandong.

A manager at Golden Bridge Travel Agency, on the Chinese side of the border at Dandong, said the border had been shut because of Mr Kim’s death but expected it to re-open by January 15.

The Sydney paper was the only one thus far to send a reporter to the North Korean Embassy in Beijing, where diplomatic staff or their families were bargaining for flowers with local merchants.

Bloomberg carries the full text of a North Korean announcement-obituary here, e-mailed to news agencies.

In a slightly strange move, Global Times is republishing articles from last year (but dating them 19 December 2011) reminding readers that the Workers’ Party of Korea conference of late September 2010 had cleared the way for Kim Jong Eun to assume power along with a cast of assembled generals and family members.

Huanqiu Shibao has a news page up on Kim Jong Il.

More updates to come from the Chinese media.

Update 3: CCTV reports from outside the North Korean Embassy in Beijing (video, mainly of Japanese and South Korean reporters).

At a Ministry of Foreign Affairs press conference, the following was the longest official statement made yet by China about Kim’s death:


答:惊悉朝鲜最高领导人金正日同志不幸逝世,我们对此表示深切哀悼,向朝鲜人民致以诚挚慰问。金正日同志是朝鲜人民的伟大领导者,是中国人民的亲密朋友,为发展朝鲜社会主义事业,推动中朝睦邻友好合作关系发展作出了重要贡献。我们相信,朝鲜人民一定能够化悲痛为力量,团结一心,将朝鲜社会主义事业继续推向前进。中朝双方将共同努力,继续为巩固和发展中朝两党、两国和两国人民之间的传统友谊、为维护朝鲜半岛和本地区的和平稳定作出积极贡献。[ Translation forthcoming ]

DailyNK reports that a single source inside Musan, a coal city in North Hamgyong Province snug  up against some remote cliffs of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Region of the PRC, states that the streets of Musan are loaded with police, and no one has been allowed to leave their homes.  This is the kind of assertion that could be confirmed or denied rather simply by sight by a two hour taxi ride by a Western reporter in Yanbian, if there were such a person.

Probably in express counterpoint to the above story, Li Liang, a Huanqiu Shibao reporter, writes tersely that in the aftermath of Kim’s death, matters on the Sino-North Korean border are “completely normal, with no sign of any changes or strange movements.”  [一位中朝边境的知情人士19日向环球网记者透露,目前,通过在中朝边境线上的观察,朝鲜边境情况一切正常,没有任何变化和异动。]

Chinese media reports that, having set Kim Jong Il’s funeral for December 29, the North Korean government will not allow foreign delegations to Pyongyang to attend the funeral.

Chinese netizen commentary on Huanqiu is wildly mixed, with “50 cent” or North Korean commentators paying homage to the eternal revolution and friendship, and others calling North Koreans “politically brainwashed,” stating that “Fatty Kim [金胖子/Kim Jong Eun]” would soon be “starving his people,” and applauding “the grand drama which has only just begun.”

It’s worth noting that the number one story on Huanqiu, the hawkish Chinese foreign policy newspaper/website, is not at Kim at all, but about the strict mobilization of the South Korean military.  Huanqiu readers and the passively hawkish strand in Chinese public opinion is presently primed towards anger at South Korea thanks to a recent fishing incident off of Incheon; Kim Jong Il could have picked a worse time to die.  Japan also has to tread extremely cautiously in this context.

CCTV reporters in Pyongyang interview some tearful passerby in the North Korean capital.

The Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang has a short official response which includes praise of Kim Jong Il’s “development of Korean-style socialism.”

A rather quickly-produced piece by Tan Liya [谭利娅], one of Huanqiu’s Korea hands, describes the emphasis in CIA reports on Kim Jong Il’s strangeness, and quotes International Crisis Group’s excellent Korea hand Daniel Pinkston on the subject of Kim Jong Eun’s inexperience.  This is the one public/legitimately doubtful reference to the subject of the successor’s youth that I have yet seen in Chinese media since the announcement of Kim Jong Il’s death.

In a semi-official interview with “a diplomatic officer formerly stationed in North Korea” (my money is on the current PRC ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoyuan), some frank discussion of Kim Jong Eun is forthcoming.  While Kim Jong Eun is young, the anonymous source states, “from the standpoint of the North Korean system, that is no problem at all.”  This interview makes 100% plain, without relying on a potentially later embarassing statement by the Foreign Affairs Ministry or Wen Jiabao, that China is going to prompt precisely zero questions in public about the legitimacy of Kim Jong Eun.

Update 4: Lu Chao, as predicted above, weighed in yesterday on Huanqiu Shibao. As with the preceding entry on the unnamed Chinese diplomat, Lu notes that the succession system in North Korea is not particularly problematic.  However, Lu is somewhat more transformationalist in his rhetoric:

新闻报出朝鲜领导人金正日去世的消息,令人很感意外。朝鲜是中国的友好国家,金正日在最近不到1年的时间连续3次访问中国,对中朝两国的友好是做出很大贡献的。金正日是朝鲜最高领导人,他的去世有可能引起国内权力的变化,或者说,是暂时真空下条件下的权力变化。很多人也在关注这个事情。[ Translation forthcoming ]




Hu Jintao went to the North Korean Embassy this morning to “offer condolences” upon the death of Kim Jong Il.  The Xinhua dispatch about this event was literally one sentence long, so no sign of who received Hu Jintao — making unclear if the North Korean Ambassador, much less the DPRK’s top “America hand” Li Gun, who was in Beijing on December 15 to negotiate food aid with the US, was in fact even in the building.

In a subtle reminder of China’s Dengist aspirations for North Korea today, Huanqiu TV relased a four-minute retrospective on Kim Jong Il’s sometimes racous first visit to China in 1983.  Presumably the footage of the then-putative successor with Deng Xiaoping in Beijing serves both as a reminder of China’s steady support for the idiosyncratic North Korean political system, but also as a means of envisioning that meeting that is sure to take place at some point in the not-too-distant future between Kim Jong Eun and Xi Jinping.

Yesterday (December 19), an envoy at the DPRK Embassy in Pyongyang surnamed Park [临时代办朴明浩] received a communication from Yang Jiechi, the head the three hundreed meters or so to the PRC Foreign Ministry for a meeting with the head of that gargantuan bureaucracy, Yang Jiechi.  The text of the message is summarized as:



The North Korean response to this communication is worth noting, as it includes express reference to “uniting around Kim Jong Eun”, which then becomes the headline for the story in China:


Taking a break from all the official-ese, Sinostand has a nice roundup of some Chinese netizen chatter on Weibo in response to Kim’s death (link via JustRecently)

Charles Armstrong’s obituary published on CNN is the first to raise, if only briefly, the Kim Il Song standard of success for Kim Jong Il.  If the testimonials in books like Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy or Dominic Morillot’s galvanizing Evades de Coree du Nord are any indication, there are some deep reserves of nostalgia in the DPRK for the Kim Il Song years, prior to the famine that erupted after his death and the rips that occurred in the social safety net.  To the extent that Kim Jong Eun can, with Chinese aid, begin a kind of “return to the past” to fulfill that old pledge of meat and kimchee in every pot, he might be more acceptable than his own father, all South Korean information to the contrary notwithstanding.

International Institute for Security Studies has a nice edge on the freak-out side of the ledger: war could break out at any time.  These views are summarized in a July 2011 podcast, and a very helpful free pdf. book chapter about domestic dynamics in North Korea.

Back to the PRC: This Huanqiu leading op-ed for the day on North Korean stability and change has already picked up 214 comments, with more to come.  And more translations and analysis to come in this space.

Update 5: A Huanqiu Shibao reporter (which could be Chen Gang or Zhou Yiran, two Pyongyang hands on the staff) spent some time driving around Pyongyang today, and filed an interesting report which makes the following clear: No Army soldiers are visible on the streets, and construction is continuing on the city’s ambitious apartment buildings for 2012.  Apart from that, descriptions of the large numbers of people flowing by foot to the Kim Il Song statue on Manggyongdae to pay wordless tribute; the old often cannot stand. No one talks to one another at these gatherings, others writhe around on the ice, and many do not want to leave.

Chinese media outlets are now relaying South Korean reports that the North Korean military fired off two long-range rockets over the East Sea/Sea of Japan on December 19, launched from South Hamgyong for a distance of about 120 km.  Obviously this complicates China’s efforts (as seen already in Lu Chao’s remarks, but are implicit and omnipresent) to depict American and South Korean provocations as the main obstacles to stability and peace on and around the Korean peninsula in this transitional moment.

In a Huanqiu BBS post by Luo Jianyi [罗竖一], a number of worrisome possibilities are raised. Luo is a kind of all-purpose Xinhua writer from Lanzhou, Gansu, hardly the voice of the Beijing consensus but a useful person to have around when you need an approved voice to deal in the open with some difficult possibilities; somewhere well below Lu Chao on the reliability scale but well above a normal netizen.








In a question only the French media would imply at such an early stage, Le Monde takes apart the North Korea propaganda apparatus, wondering how Mass Games and Arirang will continue to evolve under Kim Jong Eun.  (Recent events, by the way, put the dampers on what had been a warming bilateral informal relationship since 2009; France, along with Estonia, is the only European state not to have formal relations with the DPRK.)

Time to get started on the translations of the Chinese materials for readers who are interested in deciphering the specifics.

Update 6: Here is the full text of today’s (December 20) Huanqiu Shibao editorial about Kim Jong Il and his aftermath in North Korea:

朝鲜最高领导人金正日突然去世,中国迅速表示哀悼。这是东北亚的重要事件,无论朝鲜如何度过权力交替期,一些国家都会把这当成改变地区战略格局的契机,朝鲜的稳定和地区战略稳定都面临考验。中国此时的态度很重要。中国须坚决、明确地维护朝鲜的独立自主,保障朝鲜的权力过渡不受外部的干扰,保障朝鲜选择国家道路的自由。North Korea’s highest leader Kim Jong-il has suddenly died, and China quickly expressed its grief. This is a big event in Northeast Asia.  No matter what kind of changes in power North Korea goes through, some countries will all take this opportunity for change in their strategic posture in this region . North Korea’s stability and regional strategic stability is all being tested. China’s attitude is very important at this moment. China must clearly signal that it will protect North Korea’s independent self-rule, protect North Korea’s power from being disturbed from the outside, and protect North Korea’s freedom of choice for their national way. 

由于朝鲜新领导人金正恩比较年轻,一些国家对朝鲜剧变寄予期待,并有可能会为促成它的发生而采取各种行动。朝鲜是小国,放在普通的地缘政治条件下,不易承受压力。Because North Korea’s next leader Kim Jong Eun is relatively young, some countries expect huge changes in North Korea, and there is the possibility of stimulating the appearance of all kinds of actions and activities. North Korea is a small country, and to put North Korea into normal political conditions would make it very difficult for North Korea to accept the pressure. 

中国要坚决平衡外界对朝鲜施加的各种压力,做朝鲜权力平稳过渡的可靠后盾,在关键时刻为它遮风挡雨。中国态度明确所产生的力量,对朝鲜社会在过渡期保持战略信心绝非可有可无。China must establish an equal balance between the external countries’ pressure and North Korea, to be the power upon which North Korea’s stable power transition can rely at this key moment of strom and stress. China’s clear attitude and production of power, without any doubt, helps North Korean society keep strategically confident during the transition of power.  

朝鲜是中国的特殊战略伙伴,尽管其核问题等给中国带来不少麻烦,但中朝保持当前的友好关系,对我国获得周边稳定,对增加中国在东北亚、甚至在整个东亚的战略主动性都至关重要。North Korea is China’s special strategic partner. Although the nuclear problem has given China no small troubles, China and North Korea still maintain currently friendly relations, helping us with regard to stability on our borders, and playing an important and increased role in China’s strategic quality of action in Northeast Asia, or the whole of East Asia.    

中国国内一直有人认为中国为维系中朝关系付出了太多,而中国早已有过阿尔巴尼亚、越南的前车之鉴。这是给中国崛起的大战略算小账。国际关系从来此一时彼一时,中国用于交朋友的花费再怎么高,也比对付一个更恶劣战略环境有利得多,花费少得多。In China, there are some people who always think that China has helped North Korea too much in the relations, but China has “learned lessons from our predecessors” in experiences helping Albania and Vietnam. [Relations with North Korea] are just a little bit of money in [the context of] China’s rise and great strategic plan.  In international relations, epochs of history are not identical, and the cost of making friends is high, but would be much higher in worse strategic environment.   

事实上中国已为今天的中朝关系经营了几十年。如果中国任由其他国家和势力动摇中朝合作的战略根基,那才是中国外交的前功尽弃。这样的中国会被所有研究大国政治的人嘲笑。Actually, China today has kept relations with North Korea for so many decades.  If China were to let other countries disturb and change the basis for its strategy of Sino-North Korean cooperation, for China’s diplomacy, this would be to “relinquish the gains of past labor.”  

大国的战略信誉对中国越来越重要,中国要敢于为朋友担当,而不可在关键时刻退缩。这样,中国的朋友就会越来越多,反之会越来越少。The strategic trust [credit] of great countries is more and more important to China; China must do something for its friends, but it cannot retreat from the crucial point. In this way, China will have more and more friends.  If [it takes the other path], China will have fewer and fewer friends. 

从长远看,中国应该影响但不强制干预朝鲜国内的政治方向,尽量促成朝鲜走上正常、可持续的发展和安全之路。中国干涉朝鲜内政既累又不现实,但放弃影响则可能导致严重违背中国利益结果的出现。中国应长期做对朝鲜最有影响力的大国,但任何时候都不应试图对朝鲜国内政治进行操纵。Taking the long view, without forced intervention, China must influence North Korea’s internal political direction, trying its best to encourage North Korea in normal ways to take the path of sustainable development and security. Chinese intervention in North Korea’s internal affairs is a tired and unreal [cliche], but for China to give up its influence will obviously severely hamper the results of China’s advantages.

建议中国高级别官员及早以适当的名义赴朝鲜访问,在这个特殊时期保持与朝鲜新领导人的密切沟通,向平壤也向世界释放中国支持朝鲜权力平稳过渡的清晰信号。As soon as it is appropriate, Chinese high-level leaders will go to North Korea, and there they will intimately communicate with North Korea’s new leaders at this special time that Pyongyang can send a distinct signal to the world about China’s aid to North Korea’s peaceful transition of power. 

中国还应与俄罗斯加强协调对朝鲜半岛的立场,与韩美日及时通报朝鲜的情况和中国的态度,确保自己在后金正日时代的环朝鲜政治局势的构建中,处于积极主动地位,延续中国过去在朝鲜半岛问题上的独特优势。China still has to take a stance, along with Russia, toward the Korean peninsula, taking the attitude that North Korea should have increased cooperation with South Korea, the U.S., and Japan. In the environment of the post-Kim Jong Il era, amid North Korea’s construction of political power, China must continually actively position itself, continuing the past special successes of solving problems on the Korean peninsula.  

中国不必担心会因明确支持朝鲜平稳过渡,而导致与韩美日的紧张。恰恰相反,中国支持稳定、反对动荡的态度越明确,其他国家与朝鲜发生新摩擦的可能性就越小。这同样是中国让各方适应中朝友好不受朝鲜权力交班影响的过渡。说到底,中朝友好是当前东北亚保持稳定的重要基石。China does not need to worry that its support of a stable relationship with North Korea will cause worry to South Korea, the U.S., and Japan. China supports stability, takes an attitude of clear opposition to upheaval, and the possibility of outside countries having issues with North Korea is accordingly smaller.  Similarly, this means that Sino-North Korean friendship cannot be effected by the change of power in North Korea.  In a word, Sino-North Korean friendship is the most important cornerstone of today’s stability in Northeast Asia.     

Emerging Chinese Narratives in the Sino-Korean Border Zone // 环球广播的中朝边区报道

The Korean border news narrative of the Chinese Communist Party seems to be changing in some subtle and perhaps fundamental ways.  As Michael Rank first pointed out on North Korea Economy Watch, the Huanqiu Shibao is now reporting on security problems with North Korean refugees along the Tumen River, and doing so in a relatively aggressive manner:

A Chinese report has highlighted how villagers on the North Korean border live in fear of desperate North Korean refugees who rob and steal from them.

The villagers have launched a new internet monitoring system to guard against the refugees who frequently escape across the Tumen river, according to the Chinese-language report.

Inhabitants of Sanhe, near the town of Longjing in Jilin province, were in constant fear of “illegal border-crossers who would rob, steal and cause disturbances” until, in cooperation with the police, they installed an alarm system to warn each other of possible infiltrators. […]

The Sanhe area, which covers 182 sq km, has only 1,600 inhabitants, 90% of whom are ethnic Korean, and most young people have left the area to seek work elsewhere, including South Korea and Japan. (A separate report shows photos of another border village, Nanping near Helong, which has similarly been blighted by young people leaving the area. Only 1,700 people still live there out of an original population of 4,000, while the primary school has five teachers and only three children).

“This journalist walked around [Sanhe] for over 10 minutes and only saw old people, women and children. But the Sanhe area faces danger from across the river,” the report says.

To illustrate the threat posed by refugees, it tells how in spring 2003 a North Korean woman in her 70s and her son in his 40s were killed in a border incident in Sanhe, and also mentions how in 2004, after the red light system had been installed, villagers seized a North Korean border guard who had crossed the river and begged for food from a farmer who had just slaughtered some animals.

The report says the river is only 50 metres wide at Sanhe and is shallow enough to be crossed by children.

It notes that borders “are not only a geographical concept, but also involve extremely complex [matters of] security and struggle.”

The police chief said that after the monitoring system was launched, “there have basically been no more cases of illegal border-crossers entering the village to take part in illegal activities.” However, he added, “But border security must not be relaxed because ordinary people are the most direct victims” [if it were relaxed].

A separate group of photographs illustrates the Huanqiu narrative.

Obviously, this emergence of a heightened Chinese public narrative of upping border security against dangerous North Koreans in the inner Tumen valley occurred precisely at the same time the PRC was launching some very ambitious-sounding economic projects with North Korea on the bookends of the border region.

It seems evident that the CCP, perhaps fearful of resentment at the large amounts of largesse being thrown at North Korea, is hedging its bets and giving itself rhetorical space in the border region.  As is usual these days, the emphasis is on security.  (The headline praises the ‘ten household system’ whereby villagers team up to report suspicious behavior.)

The Party media’s open acknowledgement of problems posed by North Korean refugees into China is, of course, about fifteen years overdue, and includes no discussion about the reasons for North Korean flight into China, but it is notable nevertheless.  The narrative of smooth and harmonious domestic “social management” trumps the need to save face for North Korea.

One of the most interesting aspects of the above story is how the Huanqiu Shibao itself becomes part of the story, and how the Xinhua apparatus is promoting this story as an example of hard-hitting, verismo, serve-the-people journalism:

Part of what we have here is the trope that the Party is able to correct itself.  As the (somewhat ficticious and certainly disposable in the event of martial law) narrative goes in China, the news media and the internet serves the vital function of hearing the voices of the people.  Patriotic reporters are a key piece of this narrative.

Cheng Gang is one of those writers, and he is presently Huanqiu Shibao‘s top borderlands reporter.  Last December he made a foray into the Rajin special economic zone, a visit which brought to light a few interesting facts which, to my knowledge, this blog remains the only English-language outlet to have acknowledged or covered.

(As a side note, it remains simply astonishing how many otherwise critical reporters and bloggers will believe basically unsourced allegations stemming from Chosun Ilbo that Chinese troops were occupying Rajin, and then, when Cheng Gang emerges as an actual source from Rajin emerges, totally miss the boat.  Does Xinhua have to translate it into mangled English in order for a reportable event to have actually occurred?  This is why, in addition to actually reading the Chinese media, one has to read German media about China, because German reporters, unlike, apparently, most Anglophone reporters other than Michael Rank, read and cite the Huanqiu Shibao.  Yes, the periodical is owned and run by the People’s Daily, but it also has a swarm of reporters who are occasionally allowed to extend the boundaries of discourse so long as the extension serves the national interest of the PRC.)

How do we know Cheng Gang is patriotic?  Besides regularly reading his stuff?

This 15-minute Huanqiu TV reportage from the borderlands is led by Cheng Gang, and it is not to be missed.  An absolutely classic revolutionary-era cutaway technique is used at the Sanjiaohe border post near Hunchun, where there is a flashback to the evil days of imperialism when China ceded its northern Pacific coastline to the Tsars.

The Chinese access to Rajin thus becomes swallowed into the much more capacious narrative of national revival and restoration, and is not bound by nattering contemporary concerns such as UN Security Council Resolution 1874 which was intended to punish North Korea economically.  In other words, the CCP is Li Hongzhang, and anyone who stands in the way of China assuming its rightfully central and monolithic role in East Asia is, well, Kaiser Wilhelm II, or a Romanov, whichever you prefer.

Along the lines of a renewed central push for reporting from the border region, a cluster of Huanqiu sources for your edification:

– Cheng Gang’s June 10 dispatch from Rajin

– Huanqiu’s reference to a North Korean blueprint for economic opening up until 2020

– A back-door acknowledgement that right across the Tumen River in the city of Musan that there is “Asia’s largest iron ore mine” from which Chinese companies might profit

– A back-door complaint that Hyeryong is the source of the refugees that disturb security in Chinese border towns

– A gallery and update from the Hwanggumphyong zone near Sinuiju

More details on Yalu River border security in historical context

Reference Material:

Adam Cathcart, “Leasing of North Korean Port Arouses Suspicion”: Huanqiu Shibao on China’s Ten-Year Lease on DPRK Rajin,” Sinologistical Violoncellist, 11 March 2010.

Barbara Demick, “China Launches Economic Projects in North Korea,” Los Angeles Times, 10 June 2011.

Sino-North Korean Extravaganza at Rajin, June 9, 2011

Coda: DailyNK reports that DVDs of the moving “Crossing” are becoming popular in North Hamgyong province among the very population of struggling workers and DPRK citizens depicted in the film.  Fortunately for those of us living outside of the Sino-North Korean anti-YouTube Firewall, the film, and its “my-emotions-are-being-manipulated-but-I-love-it-anyway” soundtrack, is available.  This, by the way, is precisely the sympathetic narrative of North Korean refugees which we do not see in China — where the dystopian “social managment” of the DPRK drives men to run, and to work as yet another subsection in China’s floating population of Wanderarbeiter.

Sunday Links: Korea

1. Joshua Stanton’s analysis of Sino-North Korean relations on One Free Korea is stuffed with things worth thinking about.  Of course, when he equates the Global Times with the Nazi organ Voelkische Beobachter, I, speaking as someone who actually reads the Global Times (usually in its Chinese version, not through partial characterizations of articles by Reuters or AFP or South Korean papers) as well as a sometime reader of the old Voelkische Beobachter in the Nazi archives (where I’ve been getting my hands dirty all last week), find Joshua’s comparison to be gratuitous.

Do you find it at all strange or frustrating when people beat up on China for what it publishes in Global Times/Huanqiu Shibao when those same people are unable to provide so much as a link or an article title?  I think it stretches credibility as much as it undermines the old humanist ideal of ad fontes, taking the truth from the sources themselves.  Time for a Reformation of sorts, led by the mere 20,000 non-ethnically-Chinese Americans who speak Mandarin and read Chinese characters!  Or we could just continue to rely on Chris Buckley’s expertise for Reuters in Beijing.  After all, isn’t that what our foreign correspondents are for, anyway, to do our reading for us?

2. It appears that North Korean border guards have killed another two Chinese nationals, this time near Musan, a mining town directly on the Chinese border.  Here’s a photo of the city I took last year (click image for links to my other Musan posts):

The dark green side with the vegetation is China; the arid, clear cut side is Musan.

3. June was a pretty dead month on the website of the Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang, but on June 30, the Chinese Ambassador visited a Sino-Korean agricultural company, apparently outside of Pyongyang (link in Chinese, but interesting photos).  Oh yes, there was also singing and dancing, a must for any act of socialist friendship, even here in Germany, where some North Korean students from Kim Il Sung’s alma mater (1923-1925, see link), apparently came to win math competitions.

4.  Good Friends, the Buddhist organization in Seoul, has finally gotten out their reports for the month of June; one account however, is being disputed by the Daily NK’s inside sources.  An interesting test case for defector testimony veracity, something to think about as in this article in which the Daily NK, sourcing Radio Free North Korea, reports that “anti-Kim leaflets” have appeared in Hoeryong, another significant border city in North Hamgyong province. Again, it makes you wonder.

5. KCNA, the North Korean news agency, reports that Chinese media delegations were in Pyongyang, and that  “the performance goes on” in Sinuiju of a mobilizing play about the Chollima era (imagine that you’re nostalgic for how great things were in the 1960s in North Korea — it’s quite a commentary.   KCNA further reports that the border city of Hyesan has enjoyed some new construction recently, of an anti-Japanese martyr’s monument and cemetery, that is.  Hyesan is already studded with these kinds of things, but, as Kim Jong Il was recently there, it’s clear he continues to focus on monument building in equal or greater measure than economic development.  This piece lumps the DPRK in with China as targets of US nuclear threats in the 1950s.  And don’t miss this piece:

Anti-US Song Popular in Korea

Pyongyang, June 28 (KCNA) — The song “Death to the U.S. Imperialist Aggressors”, created in Juche 49 (1960), is still popular in Korea.

The song encourages the servicepersons and civilians to the struggle against the U.S. imperialists and the south Korean puppet regime.It was played by the band in various events, including a Pyongyang army-people rally and revenge-vowing meetings of working people’s organizations, held on June 25, the day of the struggle against the U.S. imperialists”.

Reflected in the song is a strong will of the Korean people to always keep themselves ready for action and decisively frustrate the reckless war provocation moves of the U.S. imperialists and the south Korean regime of traitors.  It also contains the idea that the Korean army and people, led by General Secretary Kim Jong Il, will surely emerge victorious in fight with the U.S. imperialists.

And here we have more proof that the Sinuiju Student Incident of 1945 is on the mind of the present regime in Pyongyang.  If you haven’t read my bio lately, I’ll immodestly remind you that co-author Chuck Kraus and I appear to be the world’s foremost experts on that crucial and unique moment of open rebellion in North Korea, at least until someone surpasses our account of the Incident published in 2008 in Journal of Korean Studies at Stanford.

6. This KCNA article is a subtle refutation of the story that China has turned its back on North Korea’s version of the history of the Korean War.  These meetings in Shenyang are rarely reported in the Chinese press, which makes you wonder if this is something that happens in the North Korean consulate in that city.   But this is a very curious and interesting piece.

7.  Finally, don’t miss this collection of stories from London Korea Links, a great site which not only cites Sinologistical Violoncellist but includes some beautiful photos and has this priceless comment:

As if everything to do with North Korea isn’t depressing enough, Mount Baekdu will erupt in the next few years. http://bit.ly/9WVVgO

Happy Independence Day, America!  Last year I celebrated by grilling some fish and swimming with some Chinese cops and their families and my crazy friend Bang Zi in Ji’an, a little city with ancient Koguryo tombs just on the North Korean border.  And North Korea was so kind to reciprocate by testing rockets then!  So today seems sanguine as I witness the long aftermath of Germany’s football victory yesterday (screaming the lungs out in nationalistic fury for an adopted motherland, once again experiencing that odd German duality of total joy in the present while standing on the site of commemorated and unthinkable atrocities)….So today it is on to tilling intellectual fields in Berlin and thinking about Korea.  I’m landing in Seoul — that other bifurcated land — in less than 48 hours, so may be silent on the blog front for a bit.

Did North Korea Really Threaten “Nuclear Attacks”?

[Update: KCNA has now posted the full text of the relevant statement (h/t Igor).  The nightmare scenario that prompted it — of a U.S.-ROK contingency plan for an invasion of North Korea — is illustrated graphically here at the site of the French-North Korean Friendship Association. Some slight BBS activity on China’s Huanqiu site is directed at praising North Korea’s courage in defying the U.S.  Xinhua reporter in Pyongyang, Zhao Zhan, here relays the latest March 27 KCNA dispatch attacking American hypocrisy on human rights issues, indicating that for today, at least, Beijing is in a supportive mode toward North Korea.  And linked via the image below is Huanqiu’s “big news page” on the recent sinking of the South Korean Navy ship.]

Original Post: The newswires are bristling with reports of North Korea’s latest alleged provocation:

March 26 (Bloomberg) — North Korea said its military is ready to unleash “unprecedented nuclear strikes” against the U.S. and South Korea following a report the two are preparing for possible political instability in the communist country.

“Those who seek to bring down the system in the DPRK, whether they play a main role or a passive role, will fall victim to the unprecedented nuclear strikes of the invincible army,” state-run Korean Central News Agency quoted an army spokesman as saying, using the acronym for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

KCNA criticized a report in the March 19 issue of South Korean newspaper Dong-A Ilbo that U.S. and South Korean officials will meet in April to discuss contingency plans for internal upheaval in the North.

“Wow,” you might say to yourself, “that’s a very big deal.  I wonder if the North Koreans are in fact sane, or if this statements portends some kind of military coup.”   And I might agree with you.  But then you stop to think — can you trust the veracity of the reports?  How would you fact-check this story?  Well, unfortunately, none of the variants of the story seem to give the reader the courtesy of a hyperlink to the original statement.

Hmm.  Given the current highly derivative state of Anglophone reportage in East Asia (masterfully — and necessarily! —  documented here by the Nieman Labs at Harvard), it behooves one to dig a little deeper before accepting these reports at face value.

So we visit the KCNA pages (both English and Korean), but find no such statement promising nuclear attack — yet.  (Both pages are still stuck at March 25; the closest thing one can find is a dispatch in Korean [no translation exists] denouncing U.S. support of Israel’s settlement expansion in the West Bank.)  So you’re stuck as well — the story has gone completely viral, but you have no access to the original quote.  So then what?

Check the Huanqiu Shibao, or cue Sinologistical Violoncellist for a snappy translation, that’s what!  The ictus is timely, or, here is how Huanqiu Shibao journalists Zhao Zhan and veteran DPRK reporter Gao Haorong report the story:


发言人说,针对这一形势,朝鲜军民将“进一步加强自卫的核遏制力,并使所有强有力的打击手段保持动员状态,以一举粉碎敌人的任何挑衅”。朝中社当天援引韩国《东亚日报》的报道说,最近,韩国“国防研究院”等部门在美军的主持下召开会议,认为朝鲜“有发生剧变的可能性”,并讨论了共同应对的方案。美韩将于6月和7月在夏威夷再次举行这样的会议。(记者高浩荣 赵展)

The key sentence in the above dispatch is this one:



The [North Korean Army] spokesperson said that in the light of these circumstances, the North Korean military would “take steps to strengthen the power of [our] self-defensive nuclear deterrent, so as to use all of our power to concentrate to stabilize the state of affairs, so as to smash in one stroke the provocations of the enemy.”

Please note that this is very different than “unprecedented nuclear strikes.”  And given how much rhetorical fire that KCNA has been directing lately to internal enemies, are we sure they don’t mean to say they’ll bomb Musan if they have to?

Now, KCNA does not issue releases in Chinese, but, generally speaking, translations from Korean into Chinese are a whole lot smoother than those into English.  That may be the case in the present instance, which would mean the Western press is very seriously overreacting thanks to a bum translation.  Or — and this may be even more likely — China is trying to tone down North Korean provocations in the PRC domestic press so as not to stir up a wave of anti-North Korea sentiment.  We will see where this goes, in any case…It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that China tried to tone down what North Korea quite likely intends to be a strong shot across the rhetorical bow of its adversaries (e.g., most everyone).

"Could I please have some more complete information, please?" -- image courtesy Seattle Craigslist "Rants and Raves" page

Mobile Phones and Subversive Activity in the DPRK

I did some translation work just now on Curtis Melvin’s site and thought I might toss it up on S.V. for readers who don’t frequent NK Economy Watch.  (Unthinkable! )

Melvin quotes this Donga Ilbo story which describes the connection between an assassination attempt at a North Pyong’an train station on Kim Jong Il in 2004 (not to be confused with An Hyo San at the Harbin station!).

So once again you, the beloved reader, get original content not available anywhere else!  (Well, besides on NK Economy Watch thanks to my hyperactive mouse.)

The original source for the story is an article in the Chongqing (Sichuan, PRC) Evening News, excerpted in full at this Tiexue BBS site:

Here is relevant Chinese text [translation by Adam Cathcart]:


On April 22, 2004, around noon, the story is that in North Korea’s North Pyong’an Province, Ryongchon County, a serious train explosion caused the deaths of nearly 200 people and injured more than 1,500 people, while more than 8000 homes were destroyed.

Some analysts believe that the catastrophic consequences of this North Korean train explosion followed from a attempted plan to target North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il for assassination

At the time of the April 22 Ryongchon explosion, clues collected along the tracks indicated that unhealthy elements had used mobile phones. For fear that internal information would leak [to the outside], the mobile phone business would be stopped.

The last sentence is pretty interesting; the phrase used is “唯恐” which means “for fear that,” but it can also lead into the idiomatic expression 唯恐天下不乱 which means “in order that all under Heaven remain unchaotic,” which seems to be a tactful dynastic-type allusion to the idea that the DPRK could ignite whenever.


The order to stop mobile phone services came down directly from the [North] Korean National Defense Committee, particularly [stating] that the authority/rights of those in special business sectors to use mobile phones was [henceforth] strictly limited and that previously held mobile phones [should be] confiscated.

After North Korea totally banned mobile phone use within its borders, many residents/citizens, having spent big money (about 1300 USD for everything including accessories and network access fees) to purchase mobile phones, became dissatisfied due to the fact that their cell phones had been rendered into scrap overnight.

As a side note, I wonder why this news is leaking out of the PRC at a time when Kim Jong Il is said to be mulling over a return trip to China, which would almost certainly be taken by train (through the same station?). It’s a bit mystifying. But then again, Chinese readers probably have more sympathy for North Korea’s striving elites than is often acknowledged and Xinhua, perhaps, puts this story out as a gentle reminder (at a time when people are getting arrested for downloading “unharmonious content” onto their mobile phones) that life in the PRC could be much, much worse.

Musan, North Hamgyong Province, on the Sino-NK border -- photo by Adam Cathcart

"Can you hear me now, Minneapolis?" -- image courtesy Autumn Compton and the Most Wanted

Further Evidence China is Displeased with North Korean Currency Reform

On December 8, the Huanqiu Shibao carried an item headlined “South Korean Media Reports that Two North Korean Citizens Illegally Trading Currency Were Executed [韩媒称两名朝鲜居民因非法兑换货币被枪决],” marking the first time in my memory that China has drawn such explicit attention to North Korea’s arbitrary system of justice.

Not only does the appearance of this news further reinforcing that China is displeased, it indicates that Xinhua isn’t above quoting from sources like Open Radio North Korea when the need arises.  (Radio Free Asia has an excellent report on the currency issue here, but the Open Radio North Korea can be seen here in Korean and here in English.)

As to the story regarding executions for illegal currency trading, this is, again, a serious departure in Chinese coverage on North Korea.  And as such, Chinese readers may be raising their eyebrows.  So let’s move to the netizen comments on the piece:

“Good and ruthless, such backward economic practices are just waiting for everyone’s support /  好狠,搞得经济这么落后就等着大家支援。

“Right, if you don’t support them economically, they will scream that they have to develop nuclear weapons /  是的,你们不经济支援他就叫嚣要发展核武器。

“The North Korean government isn’t wrong here; they can still wipe out the wealth disparity!  / 朝鲜政府不错这样还真能消除贫富差距!”

“This is South Korean media…how much can we trust it? / 韩国媒体的话。。有多少能信?”

“North Korea and South Korea are one thing: totally anomalous.  / 朝鲜跟韩国一个样,都变态。”

“If China had this kind of legal power, there wouldn’t be any greedy officials or greedy merchants left!  如果中国有这执法力度,贪官贪商早就没有了!”

“Is this also news?  Also hearsay?  Also rumor, also truth?  Is it or isn’t it?  新闻也?道听途说也?谣也事也?是也非也?

“Valiant / 强悍啊 [qiáng hàn]”

“Barbarous country / 野蛮 [ mán]国家 ”

“I estimate that it is a rumor created by a South Korean. / 估计是韩国人造的谣。”

“After the revaluation, wealthy people will have no way to live, their bitterly gained wealth will wearily be given to the poor people, and those on top will become poor simultaneously; it’s lamentable in many ways.  /  被平均后富人又得白手起家了,幸幸苦苦积累的财富要平均给穷人,一下子就和穷人同一档次,是多么可悲。”

“How can South Korean people’s media be trusted? / 韩国人的媒体怎么才能相信?”

[Several comments deleted by board administrator; calls for “civilized posting.”]

“Barbarous country / 野蛮 [ mán]国家 ” [again]

“This incident is truly frightening. / 这个事情真可怕”

“Kingly way, happy and safe land.  [Irony alert!]  / 王道乐土

“South Korean idiots can’t be believed!  It’s blather!  韩棒子不可信!胡扯 [ chě]!”

“Yes, we believe Chinese Central Television. / 我们还是相信cctv啊”

“How can this be?  How can this be?  How can this be? This is impossible!  This is truly impossible! /  怎么可能?怎么可能呢?怎么可能哪!不可能!绝对不可能!”

There’s a lot to analyze amid these comments, but chief among them might be the inherent societal support for North Korean capitalists and capitalism.  I don’t think this is some mirage, as the Chinese speak from experience.  And I would interpret the final comment as an expression of outrage against North Korea rather than an expression of indignance against South Korean rumors, although it can be read both ways.

It is further interesting that China is less and less interested in protecting North Korea’s media flank.  For instance, China kept its Chen Zhili [陈至立] coverage fairly low-key (visits to Chinese war memorials in Pyongyang, etc.), while allowing the currency story to instead dominate the North Korea news narrative in the week before Envoy Bosworth’s arrival in Pyongyang.

Chinese businessmen are having a very hard time working in North Korea presently and assert that moving between Sinuiju and Pyongyang is almost impossible.  That’s a pity, because the Sinuiju-Pyongyang rail corridor has some of the best, most carefully-tended agriculture in the entire DPRK, as the Good Friends organization reports. At the same time, an under-reported story has been the increasing North Korean restrictions on Chinese cell phone usage by Chinese traders in the border areas.

Ironically, the currency reforms have increased the power of Chinese in the border areas of North Hamgyong province, according to Open Radio North Korea:

On December 2, a source in Musan reported that there are no limits on the amount of money Chinese can exchange for North Korean currency. Especially near the border area, there are more private travelers from China than in Pyongyang or other cities which are not near the border. These travelers possess a large amount of North Korean notes in order to purchase North Korean souvenirs and to travel within North Korea. North Korea authority allow them currency exchange without limit since they are foreigners.

Two issues arise from this:

First, there are increasing numbers of North Koreans who try to exchange their old bills for new ones through Chinese since Chinese can always exchange their old bills.

Second, the exchange rate near the border areas is better than that in Pyongyang. Since exchanging money is much easier for the Chinese, the value of old bills relative to US dollars decreases in border areas, by smaller increments than in Pyongyang. In fact, compared to the exchange rate of 1:6000 in Pyongyang on December 2nd, the exchange rates in Sinuiju and Musan were 1:5000 and 1:4500 respectively.


Musan, North Hamgyong province, DPRK, seen from above the upper Tumen River and the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture -- photo by Adam Cathcart

Musan, North Hamgyong province, DPRK, seen from above the upper Tumen River and the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture — photo by Adam Cathcart


(2014). “Nation, Ethnicity, and the Post-Manchukuo Order in the Sino-Korean Border Region,” with Charles Kraus, in Key Papers on Korea: Papers Celebrating 25 Years of the Centre of Korean Studies, SOAS, University of London, Andrew D. Jackson, ed. (Brill) 79-99.

(2014). “How Authoritarian Regimes Maintain Domain Consensus: North Korean Information Strategies in the Kim Jong-un Era,” Review of Korean Studies, co-authored with Christopher Green and Steven Denney, Vol. 17, No. 2 (December) 145–178.

(2014). “In the Shadow of Jang Song-taek: Pyongyang’s Evolving Strategy with the Hwanggumpyeong and Wihua Islands,” Korea Economic Institute of America Academic Paper Series, Vol. 8 (June), 8 pp.

(2013).“North Korea’s Cultural Diplomacy in the Early Kim Jong-un Era,” with Steven Denney, North Korean Review, Vol, 9, No. 2 (Autumn) 29-42.

(2011). “The Bonds of Brotherhood: New Evidence of Sino-North Korean Exchanges, 1950-1954,” with Charles Kraus, Journal of Cold War Studies, Vol. 13, No. 3, 27-51.

(2010). “Nationalism and Ethnic Identity in the Sino-Korean Border Region of Yanbian, 1945-1950,” Korean Studies, Vol. 34 (December) 25-53.

(2010). “Japanese Devils and American Wolves: Chinese Communist Songs from the War of Liberation and the Korean War ,” Popular Music and Society, Vol. 33, No. 2 (May): 203-218.

(2009).  “North Korean Hip Hop? Reflections on Musical Diplomacy and the DPRK,” Acta Koreana, Vol. 12, No. 2 (December): 1-19.

(2009). “Transnational Voyages: Reflections on Teaching Exodus to North Korea,” ASIANetwork Exchange Vol. 17, No. 1 (Fall).

(2008).  “Peripheral Influence: The Sinuiju Student Incident and the Soviet Occupation of North Korea, 1945-1947,” with Charles Kraus, Journal of Korean Studies Vol. 13, No. 1 (Fall), 1-28.

(2008). “Internationalist Culture in North Korea, 1945-1950,” with Charles Kraus, Review of Korean Studies Vol. 11, No. 3 (September), 123-148.

(2008).  “Song of Youth North Korean Music from Liberation to War,” North Korean Review, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Fall), 93-104.

MEDIA WORK [Current as of August 2015.]

(2015). ‘Assessing North Korea’s “Ground Game” with China,’ The Diplomat, 27 August.

(2015). ‘North Korean rhetoric is full of sound and fury – but doesn’t quite signify war,’ The Guardian, 21 August.

(2015). ‘The bombs kept falling in the wake of Hiroshima,’ Yorkshire Post (UK), 8 August.

(2015.) ‘Kim Jong-un’s vulnerability on display as North Korean rumours abound,’ The Guardian, 15 May.

(2015). ‘‘Kim Jong-un: purges, paranoia, plots and the beloved leader’s cancelled trip to Moscow,’ The Conversation, 1 May.

(2014). ‘《刺杀金正恩》为何激怒朝鲜?’ FT 中文网评论, 22 December.

(2014). ‘For North Korea there is nothing comic about killing off Kim,’ Financial Times, 19 December.

(2014). ‘North Korea has upped its game in ongoing propaganda war,’ The Conversation, 19 December.

(2014). “Assessing China-DPRK Trade and SEZ Potential: The Dandong Trade Fair,” The Peninsula, Korean Economic Institute (blog), 14 October.

(2014). “With Kim Jong-un’s Return, North Korea is Back to Normal,” The Conversation, 13 October.

(2014). “Where is Kim Jong Un?The Atlantic, 7 October.

(2014). “North Korean Scholars and Koguryo: How to Reignite a Historical Controversy on Chinese National Day,” China Policy Institute Blog, University of Nottingham, October 3.

(2014). “Keeping China in Check: How North Korea Manages its Relationship with a Superpower,” China Policy Institute Blog, University of Nottingham, July 28.

(2014). “Xi Jinping’s diplomatic goals in the South Korean capital do not perturb the North Korean regime in the least,” The Guardian, July 3.

(2014). “Abusive Convenience: Recent Chinese-North Korean Relations,” China Policy Institute Blog, University of Nottingham, June 26.

(2014). “Orchestrating a Limited Musical Cosmopolitanism,” The Daily NK, May 30.

(2014). “Is China Losing Faith in North Korea?,” The Guardian, 9 May 2014.

(2014). “Bullet Trains and Wood-Burning Trucks,” with Steven Denney, The Daily NK, April 29.

(2014). “Tuning Out Beijing’s Six-Party Drumbeat,” China Policy Institute Blog, University of Nottingham, April 1.

(2014). “Red Lines and Correct Roads: Recent Chinese Policy Discourse on North Korea,” China Policy Institute Blog, University of Nottingham, March 10.

(2014). “Limited Soft Power: Zhang Guozuo’s View of Culture, Propaganda, and North Korea,” China Policy Institute Blog, University of Nottingham, January 23.

(2014). “Dennis No Solution to Cultural Chill of Youth,” The Daily NK, January 21.

(2013). “’Thrice Cursed Acts of Treachery’? Parsing North Korea’s Report on the Execution of Kim Jong Un’s Uncle,” The Atlantic, December 13.

(2013). “The Fall of Jang Song-taek,” The National Interest, December 11.

(2013). “North Korea’s Invisible Bridge,” The Daily NK, November 8.

(2013). “Sweet American Liquor over Bitter Chinese Tea,” The Daily NK, September 10.

(2013). “North Korean Cultural Politics in Reverse Gear,” The Daily NK, April 11.

(2013). “Smoke with Chasms for China and North Korea,” The Daily NK, February 11.

(2013). “Pyongyang Machiavelli: All of Kim’s Men,” The Diplomat, April 17.

(2013). “Dr. Strangelove and the Special Economic Zone: Balance and Imbalance in China’s Long-Term North Korea Strategy,” with Roger Cavazos and Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga, KEI Peninsula [Korea Economic Institute blog], January 7.

(2012). “Beijing’s new Politburo may deal more firmly with North Korea,” with Roger Cavazos and Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga, South China Morning Post, December 29.

(2012). “Seven Fingers: China’s New Leadership and North Korea Policy,” Pacific Forum (No. #87), with Roger Cavazos and Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga. Center for Strategic and International Studies, Hawaii, December 26.

(2012). “North Korea Does Not Believe in Unicorns,” Foreign Policy, December 27.

(2012). “Oprah vs. Juche: Reviewing the North Korean Border Capture, Captivity and Trial of Laura Ling and Euna Lee,” with Brian Gleason, Korean Quarterly, Vol. 15, No. 2, September.

(2012). “Boom or Bust? North Korea and Changes in Liaoning,” The Daily NK, August 31.

(2012). “The Slick Propaganda Stylings of Kim Jong Un,” with Isaac Stone Fish, Foreign PolicyJuly 13.

(2012). “Cracking Down and Opening Up: China’s Defector Discourse,” The Daily NK, May 29.

(2012). “Not-So-Great Expectations: On North Korea’s Promises of Prosperity,” Foreign Policy, April 15.

(2012). “The Sea of Blood Opera Show: A History of North Korean Musical Diplomacy,” The Atlantic, March 19.

(2012). “How Weibo ‘Killed’ Kim Jong-Un,” The Diplomat, February 11.

(2012). “I Watched North Korea’s Propaganda Film So You Don’t Have To,” Foreign Policy, January 13.

(2011). “A Tale of Two North Koreas: China Can’t Decide if it Wants to Praise Kim Jong Il or Bury Him,” Foreign Policy, December 30.

(2011). “Bow Before the Portrait: Sino-North Korean Relations in the Kim Jong Un Era,” China Beat, December 23; syndicated by History News Network, December 23.

(2011). “Deaths Leave More Questions than Answers,” The Daily NK, December 19.

(2011).  “Lux Sinica: China’s ‘Civilizing Influence’ in North Korea,” Korean Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 2 (Summer), 43-44.

(2010). “Chinese Capitalism Floods North Korea,” Duluth News-Tribune (Minnesota), September 27, p. A15.

(2010). “Respect-worthy Friends or Duplicitous Snakes? Chinese Views of North Korea,” Korean Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 4 (Winter), 11-12.

(2006). “The Chinese Frontier: Window Into North Korea,” Korean Quarterly Vol. 10, No. 1 (Fall): 61, 78-79.

(2006). “North Korea: The Lonely Nuclear Power,” Akron [Ohio] Beacon Journal, October 12, p. B2.


(2014). “Succession Politics and Commemorative Culture in North Korea,” Korean Studies Lecture Series, SOAS-University of London, November 14.

(2014). “Toward a Transnational History of the Korean War in Manchuria, 1945-1955,” Northeast Asian History Lecture Series, University of London, Institute for Historical Research, November 13.

(2014). “China-North Korea Relations in the Kim Jong-un Era,” at University of Cambridge, 10 February.

(2014). “China-North Korea Relations in the Kim Jong-un Era,” at Institute for Korean Studies, Ohio State University, 9 January.

(2012). “Sino-North Korean relations in the Borderland Regions in the 1940s and early 1950s,” School of Oriental and African Studies, London, November 23.

(2012). “Mutual Dependency and Double Collapse: Sino-North Korean Relations, 1945-50,” Center for Korean Studies, Leiden University (Netherlands), April 27.

(2012). “Sino-North Korean Borderlands, 1945-1950,” Lecture at King’s College, London (Department of History / King’s China Institute), January 13.

(2006). “North of the Yalu: China’s Mass Mobilization for the Korean War,” presented to East Asian Studies Lecture Series, John Carroll University, November 16.


(2014). “Is Cultural Diplomacy with North Korea Possible?” lecture at All-Parliamentary Group on North Korea, Parliament, Westminister, 19 November.

(2014). “Evolution or Rupture?  Economic and Political Ties between China & North Korea,” briefing at Foreign Office, London 19 September.

(2104). “In the Shadow of Jang Song-Taek: Pyongyang’s Evolving SEZ Strategy along the China-North Korean Border,” lecture at Korean Economic Institute, 19 June.


(2012).”China-North Korea Dossier No. 3: North Korea’s Relations with China at the End of the Kim Jong-il Era, SinoNK.

(2012). “China-North Korea Dossier No. 2: “China’s ‘Measure of Reserve’ toward Succession”, SinoNK.

(2012). “China-North Korea Dossier No. 1: “China and the North Korean Succession”, SinoNK.


Adam Cathcart is a historian based at the University of Leeds. He researches the Sino-Korean borderlands, the international history of the Korean War, the construction of the North Korean state in the late 1940s, political art and music in China and North Korea, and Chinese Koreans in Yanbian.

He serves as the founder and editor-in-chief of SinoNK.com, a scholarly website dedicated to analysis of the relationship between North Korea and China, and is the editor of the Papers of the British Association for Korean Studies.

Environmental Movements and the DPRK [II]

In an earlier post I went off the handle in Beat style and demanded that the U.S. and China get serious about both engaging and pressuring the North Koreans by focusing on environmental issues:

Send Stephen Chu to pound on the table at the Six-Party Talks!

Blast down the tunnels at the DMZ for joint seismic research!  Tag the tigers endangered and let them leap over the Tumen like ice-clawing journalists!

Study roots in glass jars, trajectories of smog-plumes, hail the ghosts of heroic engineers past!  Let North Korea make new children’s stories of labor heroes who stop those voracious Chinese from blowing up whole mountaintops to extract their concrete for Changchun’s burly girders!


The DPRK’s release of hundreds of tons of water down the Imjin River and into South Korea, where the North Korean water caused a flood on Sunday and killed six people, puts this issue into sharper relief.  (See Stanton and Marmot for further gnashing of teeth.)

Unfortunately the same old tropes return with this incident.  Korean Broadcasting Service reports that Lee Myung-bak, unsurprisingly at a cabinet meeting, ordered a full investigation of the incident, making demands for apology and transparency that North Korea is unlikely to meet.  And it’s a strange incident indeed, as it occurred in the midst of a short warming trend, and Pyongyang isn’t above using an incident like this to deepen ties with (sources of much-needed largesse in) Seoul.

But today’s 61st anniversary of the DPRK’s founding makes it an additional loss of face for NK if they simply admit their infrastructure is crumbling. So it’s hard to imagine either an apology or some conciliatory step which connects to the “smile diplomacy” that Victor Cha talked about recently an a solid interview with the Council on Foreign Relations.

As for journal articles about DPRK water management policies more generally, we seem to have more data from the Chinese side (as in this example from Jilin province) on account of coordination on Yalu hydro dams in particular.

Pyongyang needs to be pressured to cleave to the international environmental standards to which it has already agreed to adhere.  The agreements which it has signed include the Climate Change Convention and Biodiversity Convention.  (In the print world, p. 403 of Yonhap’s 2003 North Korea Handbook includes more detail).  North Korea’s aging factories are also contributing to global warming (see breakdown on DPRK CO2 emissions as of 1999 here.)

Along similar lines, the DPRK’s pollution of the Tumen River could morph into a situation where still-muzzled but increasingly vigorous Chinese environmental NGOs would start firing back. Because building the case within Chinese popular opinion for an anti-North Korea platform, unfortunately, can’t be justified on human rights violations alone. Building in multiple pressure points versus Pyongyang, including the use of environmental issues, would seem to require something more nimble than the blunt politics of apology into which East Asia seems to get so easily mired, notwithstanding the obvious North Korean culpability in the recent Imjin River incident.

DPRK water resource management presents us with a muted but present case of Chinese criticism of North Koreans on that front. Via Greater Tumen Initiative,dated July 10 2009:

Major sources of water pollution in the DPRK portion of the Tumen watershed include Musan Iron Mine, Undok Chemical Fertiliser Plant, Kraft Paper Mill and Hoeryong Paper. Recourses’ exploitation within the Tumen region also resulted in serious deforestation, soil erosion and other forms of environment degradation caused the Tumen River water pollution. The pollution threatens the Russian Far East Marine Reserve and Khasan wetlands, worsens life condition of the population of the region and raises costs for the regional industries. Effective protection of the Tumen River and the improvement of its water quality are urgent tasks that require the cooperation of the GTI member countries. Capacity building and information gathering are also needed in all three areas of the Tumen watershed.

Too bad, bucked up by contact with Cuban comrades, Pyongyang is blasting out recently against the forces of globalization, which maybe include environmental standards and political critiques.

In response, we find this atrociously arrogant KCNA dispatch of September 4 (entitled “Giant Edifices Mushroom in DPRK“) in which the regime brags about its ability to, yes, build dams.

In the future, I hope to connect with my friends in Fisheries, including Amanda Bradford, of the University of Washington.  Amanda is one of the foremost global experts on the western Pacific grey whale, an endangered spieces which elides with North Korean waters — another example of the boundless meeting the hard edges of geo-political conflict.  Her work with Russian researchers, and the extent to which data can be culled from North Korea, is something I’m keeping an eye on.

Finally, it should be noted that the North Koreans themselves provided an opening to include environmental issues and exchanges in our Track II interactions with them, specifically requesting more environmental cooperation, when they met with former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson last month in New Mexico, USA.   Call it tactical, but it’s an opening nevertheless.  Fortunately I have some backup on this, via ChannelNewsAsia’s  reporting on Richardson’s meeting and subsequent exchanges:

Asia Society scholar John Delury, who recently returned from a five-day trip to North Korea, said he was struck by the warm welcome that North Koreans extended to him and other US visitors.

It did suggest to me that the environment in North Korea is one where they’re getting indicators that a thaw is occurring,” said Delury, associate director of the New York-based Asia Society’s Center on US-China Relations.

“I think the ball is now in the US and South Korea’s court to decide how to play this,” he said.

“There is a lot of self-fulfilling prophecy. If the Obama administration is determined to see only the negative here and mistrust any gestures, then it’s not going to strengthen those in North Korea who are saying let’s open up, let’s go back to the dialogue,” he said.

Western Pacific Grey Whale

North Korean Children's Story

North Korean Children's Story