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North Korean Purges and Scuttlebutt

A few days after publishing a 2500-word analysis of the Hyon Yong-chol purge aftermath (an abbreviated version of which was published by the Guardian), I spoke with Steve Miller of the Asia News Weekly podcast about a number of issues relating to North Korea and the situation in northeast Asia. A sound & video recording of our conversation, along with some prefatory text, is available here.

Full Comment on Women Across the DMZ March

As observers of current events on the Korean peninsula will be aware, a group of peace activists is presently in North Korea and will be crossing the DMZ tomorrow, from Kaesong, into the South. Their efforts have been the focus of much conversation.  I was asked to share my views with the Christian Science Monitor, which yesterday published a short extract from the following remarks.

1. Do you see this event having any potential to spark meaningful movement toward peace/or reunification as the organizers claim, and why?

It is very difficult today to look at North and South Korea (and East Asia) as a whole and expect Korean unification in our lifetimes, or a measurable reduction in tensions. One thing that this group of women seems to possess is a very strong sense of the deep-rootedness of the problem: They don’t see the ongoing Korean War entirely as a conflict generated or perpetuated by North Korea alone (‘provocations’ can of course also be American, or South Korean).

If more Americans could understand the pressures North Korea was operating under, the organizers seem to argue, they might pressure the US government (as well as Japan, Canada, and EU countries) to lift sanctions and for South Korea to ratchet down military deterrence. Naturally this is built upon the so far entirely counterfactual assumption that given more breathing room, the North Korean state would demonstrate an ability to reorient its economy — indeed, its whole society — away from the “military-first” principle enunciated by Kim Jong-il and refrain from constructing yet another nationwide round of statues which serve as loci for a personality cult.

Fortunately it is not the responsibility of the peace group to explain in full detail the kind of more vigorously-interlinked societies that North or South Korea ought to become, nor is it incumbent upon them to put forth a fully detailed and feasible new security blueprint for the region. They are simply pointing out that the current situation is more or less insane, which it is, and that we are still living with unresolved issues dating back to the birth of the Cold War in Asia, which we are.
2. There has been a lot of criticism of the motives and prior statements of some attendees. Most recently, North Korean media has apparently quoted a participant saying that she was “touched” by Kim Il-sung’s life story and another saying that Kim had dedicated ” his entire life to the freedom and emancipation of North Koreans.” What do you say to those who say the march participants are playing into the regime’s hands?

I believe that these statements were published in a bottom corner of page 6 of the Rodong Sinmun, which is about where they belong in terms of newsworthiness. Last August a group of Japanese wrestlers toured the same site; some of them were still wearing their Mexican wrestling masks, which did not seem to be taken as an affront. I don’t think this is a big deal at all.

Tearful apologies for the heavy wartime bombing of North Korea by the US Air Force, on the other hand, would probably get more meaningful coverage in DPRK media, and would fit more neatly into North Korea’s own media framework. And North Korea has skill and experience in handling this sort of event and perspective; I’m thinking here of their hosting of the American activist Anna Louise Strong in 1946, or the British peace campaigner Monica Felton in 1951. (Both women were denounced in their home countries; Felton’s case was openly discussed as possibly treasonous in Parliament.)

I am certainly interested in what North Korean citizens have to say about their experiences during the Korean War, and curious to see how the state mobilizes those individual war memories. Ultimately a North Korean researcher is going to need to go the US National Archives and have a look at some fraction of the abundant DPRK government documents American troops hoovered up during the autumn of of 1950, or to watch the aerial footage from US planes bombing and strafing North Korean civilians. This was a nasty part of the Korean War, consuming tens of thousands of lives, and the fact that Kim Il-sung lit the fuse on the Ongjin peninsula in June 1950 does not make consideration of the air war and the scraping off the map of North Korean cities (not to mention the nuclear threats) thereafter a particularly simple matter for our consideration and moral calculus.

Rutgers University history professor Suzy Kim is on the trip and someone I look to for data from North Korean archives (currently held in College Park, Maryland) and productive interpretive clashes over that data. Dr. Kim is very fluent with the history and the historical debates; I hope she is able to make contact with North Korean academics and historians, as such discussions are as valuable for both sides as they are rare.

Image credit: Coleen Baik in Pyongyang, 22 May 2015. 

Atrocities, Insults, and “Jeep Girls”: Depictions of the U.S. Military in China, 1945-1949

Controversy continues to surround various military occupations in East Asia in the 20th century. Specifically, the connection between military occupation and sex work carried out by women the occupied countries remains highly fraught. While the Japanese occupations of Korea and China have sparked the most fervent and intractable of the debates, a great deal of scholarship has been produced about East Asian societies which provided American soldiers with sex. The scholarly silence surrounding these power imbalances at the time has long since been broken, with Katherine H.S. Moon’s book Sex Among Allies (looking at prostitution around US bases in South Korea) and more recent work having been done on the US occupation of Japan by Sarah Kovner (in her stunning book of 2012, entitled Occupying power : sex workers and servicemen in postwar Japan).

Lost, however, amid this writing has been a fuller examination of the behaviour and societal reception of American soldiers in Chinese cities from 1945-1949.  About 50,000 US soldiers were posted to cities like Tianjin, Beijing, Qingdao and Shanghai in order to accept the Japanese surrender, and there they remained until shortly before the decamping of the Nationalist Party and the Republic of China machinery of state to Taiwan.

An article which I published in 2008 on this subject has at last been digitized and indexed, and I am pleased to share the text in full.

Entitled ‘Atrocities, Insults, and Jeep Girls, Depictions of the U.S. Military in China, 1945-1949‘ the article analyzes depictions of the U.S. military in Chinese comic art in a period of political transition. The images of U.S. troops in Chinese cartoons demonstrate the way in which a few “isolated incidents” of misconduct by U.S. troops can reverberate powerfully through the societies they policed. The mass public medium of political cartoons functioned as a vehicle in which U.S. troops were demonized in a bid to shock the viewer. U.S. troops were the target of a flood of criticism in cartoons and news reports that resulted in a broad current of anti-American feeling. In the end, they were perceived as a harmful extension of years of foreign influence in China, and, even after they returned to the United States in 1949, Mao Zedong, the Chinese Communists, and propagandists in the People’s Republic of China relied heavily on images of “the atrocities of American troops” to stir up anti-American sentiments during the Korean War.

“Spit at the American Gentlemen” : North Korean State Media Rolls Out the Welcome Mat for Google

Jackals By Han SoryaA short article released on January 10 in Pyongyang was fairly enervating, though no news media outlet seems to have picked it up yet. Nor, as Daniel Pinkston has pointed out already, has any Western media picked up on any of Pyongyang’s bellicose statements before, during, or after the Google visit. That’s an awfully odd way to report (or, more accurately, not report) on a country.
Near the end of this Rodong Sinmun attack on US gun culture wherein modern things like skyscrapers and electricity are just means by which America’s “jungle nature” is concealed, there lies a very curious, and what appears to be a somewhat personalized, attack:
“It is too natural that people should spit at the American gentlemen who are crying for human rights.”
I thought this was interesting, since “the American gentlemen” (as in, in English, a group of gentlemen) sounded like a reference to our favorite Google delegation which has been doing so much to advance the interests of open societies and mankind. Since I believe they departed the DPRK on the very day this piece was published, those gentlemen might themselves be looking for signs of hope from the great oracle in Pyongyang.
Being a Sinologist and consumer of the often-rudely rigorous anti-American writing of the Huanqiu Shibao, I went to the Rodong Sinmun’s Chinese version first, where the sentence in question reads as follows:


After trying on a few different versions, I came around to rendering it as:
“Looking like venereal disease patients, those American gentlemen are prattling about their respect for human rights.”
Now that’s not very nice, is it? Especially if such language were aimed at specific individuals who were prattling on about human rights in North Korea. Especially if such individuals were Eric Schmidt and Bill Richardson.
But perhaps this was just accidental.
So I did a bit more research and found that in the year or so since Rodong has been publishing in Chinese, they have never before used the phrase “these American gentleman,” though, in their defense, the phrase was used once in English back in June 2012 with reference to Osprey accidents.  Chae Il Chul  [蔡日出], the author of the Jan. 10 2013 editorial, has been responsible for other anti-American diatribes should you care to explore his indelicate oeuvre.
This tidbit might be interesting since it indicates explicitly what was already fairly obvious: the North Koreans told Richardson and Schmidt to go bugger off.
At least that is my take, having been through several permutations during the visit, during which a great many other important things occurred, like Chinese jets buzzing the Senkakus and great agitation of various kinds in my own partitioned archipelago, but that is neither here nor there.
Now having read the article for the 15th time and successfully hypnotized myself, I can suppose the whole thing could be completely pro forma. While the staff at Rodong Sinmun must have known about the Google delegation (since they finally reported on it), we should never underestimate the unstoppable and wanton intellectual violence of any repetitive job, such as writing editorial content for Asia’s angriest newspaper must undoubtedly be. Which is to say the whole publication process could be numb to the kind of interpretation I’ve suggested.
The citation, just to cauterize this while wondering if I shall ever set foot in Pyongyang with a German pianist, and what purpose that would serve as a scholar and a gentleman, is Chae Il Chul, Rodong Sinmun, “Hell on Earth,” January 10, 2013, reproduced now in its full bellicose Chinese glory:








For a more constructive and far more creative set of proposals regarding Google in China, I recommend this essay by the never-less-than-brilliant duo of Peter Hayes and Roger Cavazos, both of the Nautilus Institute. I have the pleasure of working with Cavazos closely in the SinoNK group and this piece has got a great deal to recommend it.

North Korea, the Obama Trip, and China’s Dilemmas

AFP has a very worthwhile article which describes the very explicit diplomatic strategy being discussed on President Obama’s Air Force One en route to Southeast Asia:

“We’ve had a dialogue with the Burmese government about the need to reduce their relationship with North Korea,” Ben Rhodes, a US deputy national security advisor said on Air Force One as Obama flew to Asia.

“We’ve seen them take some positive steps in that direction. And what we’d like to see, again, is an end to the relationship that has existed between Burma and North Korea.”

For about an hour of discussion about these and other Asian issues by Ben Rhoads’ boss, the National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon, a CSIS speech is carried on C-Span.

And, lest we forget, the DPRK recently reaped food aid from Cambodia and Indonesia.

Chinese Ambassador Liu Hongcai reaps some symbolic grain outside of Pyongyang, October 2012 | Image courtesy PRC Embassy in North Korea

In the realm of China’s power transition, Damien Ma, a frequent contributor at The Atlantic and a fluent China analyst, breaks down a few dozen questions on Xi Jinping and China’s present and future.  This video runs about 36 minutes and is actually highly entertaining (a substantial portion of the callers seem to take Donald Trump as an authority on American foreign policy while believing that Damien Ma is representing the Chinese government, which he [referring to both Trump and Ma] is decidedly not!).

If textual exegisis is your thing, you might join me in reading Hu Jintao’s extensive work report at the 18th Party Congress. Here are a couple of sample quotes from the full text that pertain nicely to the current Myanmar dilemma that the PRC is facing:

Finally, with reference to the power transition in Beijing, having read a few thousand tweets by the Western reporters there in the Great Hall of the People at the 18th Party Congress, I thought this Xinhua page was apropos.  Of course, no one had better insight so far as I am concerned into the outlook for Xi Jinping than my friend Sidney Rittenberg, who happens also to be the first Westerner to have prognosticated that the now-purged (and perhaps hunger-striking) Bo Xilai might be in a bit of trouble.

Visualizing the Party Congress

Regarding an American “Objectivist Foreign Policy”: Rand, Romney, Feigenbaum, Huntsman, and US-China Relations

In the aftermath of events in Benghazi (the background of which Professor Juan Cole pins down like a butterfly, and the interpretation of which is covered ably by Diplopundit), and considering the rise of a certain strand of Objectivism in Republican foreign policy, Jordan Bloom’s extensive essay on Ayn Rand and imperialism merits more than a glance.

Given all the 1979 references floating around, a discussion between none other than Phil Donahue and Ayn Rand (fiesty, worth a thousand diseased Krauthammers) in that horrible year seems apropos:

Linking all strands together, as usual, is Rand’s interlocutor Alan Greenspan, who apparently should have labelled China a “currency manipulator,” as this new China-focused Romney advertisement appears to assert.

All of the above would have a great deal more heft if Romney’s East Asia policy advisor, Evan Feigenbaum, would start knocking out a few working papers or shadow drafts for his presumptive boss about what Romney’s “vision” for East Asia really is.  According to his CFR site, Feigenbaum doesn’t appear to have produced anything public since April.  Can a guy at least give a comment about something inconsequential, like how Romney would handle China policy in the event of a major Politburo shakeup in Beijing?  Given Romney’s blithe (though hardly irrevocable) dismissal of Japan as a legitimate partner in the region, Josh Rogin at Foreign Policy wonders if Romney even has such a vision.

It would be nice to see a slightly more aggressive debate going on about East Asia, and Feigenbaum would appear to be the ideal vehicle.  Not that Feigenbaum should be as rabidly irresponsible or as visible as the slick yet tightly-wound bundle of faux-Arabist mendacity known as Dan Senor, but East Asia (and the whole Ayn Rand thing, given Paul Ryan’s entrance as potential chief executive) deserves a fuller airing in this campaign.

Meanwhile, Jon Huntsman (no Henry Kissinger, but far stronger than, say, Condi Rice when it comes to China) did not even attend the Republican Convention.  

All things considered, maybe “Ayn Rand” is the best answer the presumably leading figures of the Republican Party can presently come up with in articulating a vision of the world.  On the plus side, East Asia is no longer being blocked by Hermain Cain’s entrepreneurial jowls.

“Smart Power” : A Legitimate Arm of American Foreign Policy, or Just Gratuitous Tweeting?

When it comes to China, there ever exists a need for greater discussion of internet freedom and freedom of information more generally.  To the extent that the United States and its Western European counterparts can promote such discussions in China, they should, because there is clearly some traction in Chinese civil society for greater openness of expression. Before Jon Huntsman bore the brunt of netizen scorn for appearing to endorse the idea that a hundred flowers blooming on the Chinese internet would in fact bring down the CCP, the then-Ambassador’s colloquy with Chinese bloggers in Beijing was a good example of the kind of respectful but intense discussions that are needed within China, and between China and its interlocutors, about the question of freedom of information.

If this is what Hillary Clinton calls “smart power,” then fine, observers of the US-China relationship can, by and large, agree.  In some ways, the push for “smart power” or American “soft power” in China itself  is merely an extension of the people-to-people relationships that have been forming, regenerating, and re-forming in the relationship since the early 1970s.

To a very small extent, I’ve been a part of these efforts over the last few years, giving lectures, lecture-recitals, and performances in the PRC — twice with sponsorship from the U.S. Department of State, and both times in Chengdu.

What, however, if the State Department push for “smart power” really just added up globally to a bunch of self-satisfying rhetoric about how the “transformative power of the internet” was going to serve as a key arm in US foreign policy?  And what if Alex Ross was just selling snake oil?  For a healthy gob of skepticism about the direction taken by the State Department in its soft power initatives — not to mention a rather shocking story about how the US abandoned an $80 million investment in a consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif — the blogs We Meant Well (State Department Twitter Feed Overload) and Diplopundit serve it up in great and spicy quantities.