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How is it that the world beyond Beijing and Pyongyang becomes aware of Chinese-North Korean fishing disputes in the Yellow Sea? North Korea remains silent on such matters, so information is distributed almost purely through reports in mainland Chinese media–in other words, we hear about such events when Beijing needs and wants them to become known. When Chinese fishermen are harassed and detained by North Korean patrol boats, the story is thus not only about the event itself, but how, when, and why the central government in Beijing releases information about the matter.
Read the whole essay and translation of the Xinjingbao article describing the event here, at Sino-NK.
As will surprise none of his regular readers, Joshua Stanton has criticized the AP for not covering the event of an apartment building collapsing in North Korea’s capitol sooner. http://freekorea.us/2014/05/18/if-a-building-falls-in-pyongyang-and-ap-doesnt-hear-it-why-the-fuck-is-it-even-there/ Stanton’s profane title notwithstanding, his post points rather to a line of inquiry that is potentially interesting: Even though “we” have a bureau in North Korea and are able to read a growing number of defector outlets for news from that country, we are still sometimes completely dependent on the DPRK itself informing us of major events. The status of singer Hyun Song-wol (i.e., that she is still living) is another case where defector outlets and foreign media reporting had either no information or outright disinformation, and the DPRK state media finally provided something conclusive. In a way, that gives North Korea a certain power over news narratives that it could use more often.
But what I find even more interesting is the lengths to which the North Korean government went to make sure that journalists and diplomats from friendly countries, including China, were not able to cover the event. This has gone completely unremarked in the recent coverage in English about the apartment collapse.
Like the AP, Xinhua (the state news agency for the Chinese Communist Party) has a bureau in Pyongyang. After the accident, the North Koreans set up a visit for the Xinhua bureau, the Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang, and a number of other foreign diplomatic attaches — not to the sight of actual news (i.e. the accident) but instead sent them to Wonsan, a city rather far away on the east coast of Korea. She Baiyu, the Xinhua photographer in North Korea, thus produced a photo essay praising the care with which Kim Jong-un has lavished the Songdowon International Youth Camp in Wonsan.
This kind of activity allowed the North Korean state to claim it’s working harder than ever to improve the lives of the people, while keeping prying eyes out of the streets of the capital city while they finished the extensive clean-up of what must have been an incredibly chaotic site.
Chinese media coverage of the accident was quite muted at first, not even including a photograph of the apologizing official. This to me indicates that the CCP saw too many parallels for its own good in this case, and didn’t want it to be used to obliquely criticize corruption by CCP cadre and lax standards at building sites all over China. And besides, the Xinhua bureau wasn’t necessarily even around to cover it — clever, on the part of the DPRK minders and managers of foreign journalists.
There are a few other points that might be made: This incident indicates how effective the country’s media blockade is, it indicates how much power (and how big the budgets are) in the hands of the military ruling clique, it indicates that the Workers’ Party does want to maintain at least the perception of public accountability, and it indicates what anyone can perceive by going to North Korea or its periphery — that the country’s infrastructure is often in very shoddy condition. Even in Pyongyang, the center of the revolution, the amount of investment and the level of skill being applied to the task of construction has severe limitations.
* This post is based upon an e-mail response to Adam Taylor, the foreign affairs blogger for the Washington Post, who was kind enough to include a couple of my thoughts and a reference to my Twitter feed in his May 20 essay “If a building collapsed in Pyongyang, would anyone know it?” I also spoke with the Post‘s bureau chief in Seoul, Chico Harlan, who kindly quoted me in his May 18 article for the paper’s print edition, entitled “North Korea discloses apartment collapse in Pyongyang.”
The Guardian has created a new North Korea Network, of which the web journal which I edit, Sino-NK, is very much a part. Graciously, the editors in London also saw fit to endorse my Twitter feed (@adamcathcart) as a must-follow for micro-analysis of the DPRK and its foreign relations.
There are, naturally, hard limits to the Guardian‘s partnership with our website. While I was in Yanji at the same time as The Guardian‘s highly talented Tania Branigan, the existence of the new network surely does not mean that we teamed up as investigators in the field while she was on assignment, or that I have somehow become a journalist — rather than the “journalling academic” engaged in regular fieldwork that I truly am.
Quite the opposite.
When in Yanji in particular, but also in places like Tibet (and to a lesser extent, Sichuan), rather unlike a journalist, I endeavour to avoid things that might stretch the limits of legality in the Chinese context– such as meeting with North Korean refugees or getting involved with Tibetan dissidents. Engagement and advocacy are distinct, and while one can act as an advocate while in the UK — and I have tried, surely, to do that on the North Korean refugee issue — there would be very little point to my meeting in clandestine with North Koreans in China illegally.
None of this means that I am unable to comment on contemporary events in my capacity as an academic while travelling in China, one of the Koreas, Hong Kong, Singapore, or Japan, etc., much less writing a ton once I return home to the United Kingdom. Fortunately the topics about which I pontificate are not nearly as “dangerous” as, say, Xinjiang, but one does have to be mindful of context and the long-term.
My research is primarily historical, which means that I am looking for access to document collections (the larger and rarer, the better). Fieldwork serves an important function in my research, in that it puts me closer to rare documents and archives, and also gives me a far more tangible sense of what and where I am writing about. Having spent a few years in total in northeast China and Sichuan, I like to think, gives my work more immediacy and less abstraction.
Being listed as a resource for journalists is absolutely fine with me, and I very much hope that my work remains “policy relevant,” as this recent Executive Summary of my trip to the northeastern Chinese border regions with North Korea should indicate. Likewise, the Guardian partnership and endorsements are all to the good, and as long as I’m able to maintain my academic access and integrity, I’m happy to see those associations and writings pushed forward into the blazing light of day.
North Korea has ever been the subject of journalistic inquiry, but in the past couple of years things seem to have hit a kind of new high point. Likewise, public consciousness in the US and Western Europe of the importance of Pyongyang’s relationship with China seems also to have taken a major leap forward. So what happens when a United Nations special report on North Korean human rights emerges, and China is implicated heavily in the document? Journalists need to seek comment from experts, or at least perceived experts. Since some of my work is cited in the UN report (in a discussion of Kim Jong-un’s newly generated holiday, the “Day of Songun”), it seems I became fair game.
The history of the impact of the UN Commission of Inquiry report is still being written, so I thought it might be appropriate at this point to share some of my initial responses, which I also discussed in a 6 March event at the University of York. The questions below were generated by a reporter for a major daily in Western Europe, who was so impressed with my answers that none of them made it into print — such is life, but that is also why scholars these days keep weblogs:
1.- What effect do you think the report will have on North Korea? Is it likely to produce any change in the country?
While the authors of the report clearly hope to create some spark of recognition for their work among the people of the DPRK, the state is likely to depict the report as highly instrumentalized, serving as another implement in a broader US-led drive to overthrow the regime and besmirch the “supreme dignity” of their leader personally. The notion of a letter addressed to Kim Jong-un, while logical in any number of other contexts, is likely to ignite a scramble within the DPRK propaganda and media organs for a competition to see who can most vehemently denounce the Western methods.
We also have to keep in mind that while the DPRK has been a member of the United Nations since 1992, the country has had a very adversarial relationship with the UN dating of course back to the Korean War, when the UN sent troops led by Douglas MacArthur precisely to roll back the gains of their violent revolution. This does not mean that the North Koreans would reject any initative from the UN or the international community more broadly – in fact they are rather receptive when it comes to areas of capacity building in areas like medicine and agriculture, and they are looking of course for foreign aid to solve the food problem, but this report seems to run counter to anything that the North Koreans would remotely accept.
2.- What is so special about this report? Haven’t these abuses been reported in the past?
What is special about the report is the recommendation to the General Assembly that the North Korean regime be referred to the International Criminal Court. It suggests that North Korea is becoming more isolated internationally under Kim Jong-un’s leadership – and the execution of Jang Song-taek, which is referenced in the report, would seem to indicate this. China will be defending the DPRK in the Security Council but this is no guarantee that the country will not be referred to the ICC.
The abuses chronicled in the report are well known, but this report packs a kind of cumulative effect and it has served to update the literature while energizing the loose yet broad coalition that exists attempting to enact change in North Korea. Of course the North Korean regime puts forward a much different conception of rights and human rights, which emphasizes the role of anti-colonial sovereignty and the right, more or less, to remain outside of the global economic system and to continue with their weapons programs and leader veneration.
3.- The UN calls for the international community to impose sanctions against the Korean Leadership? Can’t this be a way of destabilizing the region? Can this sort of mechanism be effective?
Sanctions on DPRK have been tightening since their first nuclear test in 2006, but I don’t think this report will itself result in economic sanctions. The regime is definitely feeling the pain from the ban on luxury goods, and again, the Chinese element is the one to watch. China certainly does not want to see North Korea destabilized, and is not at all receptive to the critiques offered by the UN, for various reasons. North Korea stands up for China on the Tibet issue (where the PRC has few friends and many critics) and China stands up for North Korea in the international critiques of its human rights. However, the Jang Song-taek execution seems to have upset Chinese leaders and the report’s critique of the Jang execution has already been echoed, if faintly, by the Chinese media.
New sources published in Beijing this past December give us further insight into Mao Zedong’s multifarious activities and ongoing strategic activities with respect to the Korean War. In addition to covering in some detail Mao’s active policy direction for the Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries, the consolidation of Tibet, and land reform, the Mao Zedong Nianpu (Chronology) discuss information operations in and around Korea.
Given the kind of anti-Chinese leaflets that the US/UN were spreading around North Korea, and the flack China was taking in global public opinion, Mao’s interest in the matter was quite logical. He was always mindful of properly spinning the “Resist America, Aid Korea” campaign domestically — and it was considered important enough that the chairmanship of the committee to guide the patriotic movement within the PRC was headed by Guo Moruo, and not Mao’s wife Jiang Qing, who had very much wanted the job.
China’s moves to guide foreign journalists during the war were doubtless important and active in their Sino-French context, not to mention the Korean battlefield writings of leftist Anglophone journalists Wilfred Burchett and Alan Winnington, more about whom can likely be learned from the ongoing and highly enjoyable work of Dr. Tom Buchanan at the University of Oxford.
At any rate, here is my translation of the Mao material:
5 January 1951
Mao revises a note from the Central Military Committee [Zhongyang junwei] to Peng Dehuai in Korea on the subject of propaganda. Noting that “the whole country and whole world are carefully watching reports from the Korean War,” Mao goes on to discuss the need to publicize every battlefield victory and achievement, including “the release of prisoners of war and other important sudden steps [步骤],” all the while making sure that Xinhua, the state news agency, “does not publish or leak military secrets or conditions at the same time.” He writes: “[We] must change the current situation where Xinhua often does not publish war reports, or publishes such reports too late.” [Nianpu, Vol. 1, p. 277-278]
*All references are from Mao Zedong Nianpu, 1949-1976 [Chronology of Mao Zedong, 1949-1976], Vol. 1 (Beijing: Zhonggong zhongyang wenxian chubanshe, 2013).
“It is too natural that people should spit at the American gentlemen who are crying for human rights.”
“Looking like venereal disease patients, those American gentlemen are prattling about their respect for human rights.”
An American entrepreneur arrives at the doorstep of a system that clearly sees digitization as a tool of social control. North Korea is, as one wise man howled from the back of a long socialist queue, “hell bent on controlling the market and its digital trappings.” So what is Eric Schmidt doing in the Democratic People’s Republic of Firewall? And is it really obligatory for us to cheer him on like a bunch of digital Jacobins, positing the man as a paladin, “a champion of connectivity in the world’s most reclusive nation”? Perhaps North Korea is just looking for alternatives to its uncompetitive contract with the Egyptian communications firm Orascom, or, as Barbara Demick mused, seeking something interesting for Kim Jong-un to do on his birthday. Or perhaps policy is the point after all: the North Koreans have long sought the stripping away of draconian South Korean restrictions on North Korean content, and Schmidt would surely lend a sympathetic ear to the broad digital front in this suppressive conflict.
Meanwhile, in the Chinese-language press, the arrival of Eric Schmidt in East Asia is to be discussed lightly, if at all: Chinese journalists and netizens haven’t been this inflamed with anti-censorship emotion since, well, before the advent of the internet. Evoked on the streets of Guangzhou yesterday were two Chinese democracy movements (in 1979 and 1989, and their many forerunners) that did things the old-fashioned way, taking actions which weren’t live-tweeted at all, but that bristled with poetry, the cry of speech and song, the crinkling of paper and the swishing of the ink brush. A revolutionary movement without social media? Awfully bruising to the Menlo Park ego and its electronic tethers. Perhaps, since meticulous public documentation of social circles is damn near obligatory in the civilized world, it is Schmidt who should be lobbying the North Koreans to pressure their Chinese “friends” (status: it’s complicated) to finally leave Google alone and allow foreign journalists and businesspersons in Beijing the same access to Twitter and Facebook as they have today from high-rise hotels (and a few embassies, but not the Chinese!) in Pyongyang.
And let us not fail to mention the hostage, Kenneth Bae, for whom digital storage might have been his undoing. Note to future American tourists: Leave all your digital booty at the hostel in Beijing, stick to a notebook for once, and call the Swedish Embassy in Seoul before you go. But this is a topic better left alone: the last time Bill Richardson brought a prisoner released from North Korea back home to the Puget Sound, the young man (who was once an Icarus of the water, a drunken Yalu-swimmer) ended up killing himself with a handgun in a hotel room in Tacoma, Washington. How sad that he did not have the joy of writing an Oprah-approved memoir about his arrest and detention experience along with a famous sister who once visited the evil country. How tragic that Evan Hunziker ended his life in the pre-Facebook era. In other words, there is more agony here than entertainment, and even a deux ex machina may not pixel over the welts, the destruction that may never be documented.
from “Googling North Korea: Technocratic Boost or Humanitarian Boondoggle?,” SINO-NK, January 8, 2013, [URL].