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Pre-emptive strike plans in Korea

In response to a question from a reporter about Operational Plan 5015:

In a certain sense, the North Koreans are the victims of their own inflated rhetoric and propaganda about their missile & nuclear programs, as well as their aggressive sea border defence. And, from the standpoint of Seoul, here have been an unending stream of threats and local provocations since Kim Jong-un arrived on the scene in 2009, attempts to change the tactics and balance of power along the DMZ. Recall the deployment of small blue North Korean drones over Seoul, for instance.

Playing the “you started it” game when it comes to the cycle of provocation and counter-provocation is never particularly useful on the Korean peninsula, since it has been going in cycles since at least the creation of the two rival Koreas in 1948, and it is worth noting that North Korea also is not beyond adjusting its own strategies and tactics to deal with South Korea’s technological superiority and tactical changes.

General Scapparrotti, one of the main architects of the plan, points to North Korea’s verified nuclear capability as a trigger for changes to US/ROK joint strategy; he and his colleagues have very little faith in the steadiness of Kim Jong-un’s hand on the nuclear button. It is this lack of faith, along with the loosening of restrains to US doctrine dating back to the George W. Bush administration (i.e., the putative allowance for pre-emptive strikes if a threat is perceived), combined with a hardening of resolve from the Blue House and the ROK Army command, that gave the space for OP 5015 to move forward.

Finally, if you believe that the North Koreans are rational actors capable of planning a few moves ahead and anticipating the response of their rival republic, you could certainly make the argument that they have anticipated precisely the escalated response which they are now getting. The amplification of military pressure arrayed against them can still be warded off, but the escalation aids in keeping the North Korean domestic population by turns quiescent toward the various forms of mobilization (mainly manual labor) demanded by the state and enraged at the external forces.

Image via Huanqiu Shibao, 6 Novemer 2013.


Journalist Expulsions and Beijing’s Counterterrorism Narrative

2015 was supposedly a triumphant year for the Chinese Communist Party, but the CCP seemed determined to end the year on a landslide of insecurity with respect to the foreign journalists within its borders.

The expulsion of French journalist Ursela Gauthier was, of course, the primary case in point. As Gauthier noted, her case was not just about her single report and subsequent failure to engage in “serious introspection” and apologize to “the Chinese people” — it was about intolerance for reporting which runs counter to the Party’s master narrative.

If Gauthier does not fit within the state discourse, then what is the context in which she is supposed to operate? And how do domestic Chinese-language media outlets frame harassment or expulsion of foreign journalists? To answer these questions I’ve translated part of an editorial from Huanqiu Shibao, otherwise known as the Global Times, the foreign affairs tabloid under the arm of the CCP People’s Daily. 

The editorial is from Ma Rao, an academic at a think tank in Shanghai.

Ma Rao [马尧], “French Anti-Terror Efforts have 100 Loopholes, But Can Study ‘the Chinese Experience’,” 法国反恐漏洞百出,可学“中国经验”Huanqiu Shibao, 15 November 2015. [Translated by Adam Cathcart]

The terrorist attacks suffered by France were not the first such experiences this year; in January, the “Charlie Hebdo” incident [查理周刊事件] had created heavy casualties. At that time, I composed a commentary in “World Expo” [世界博览], stating my belief that France may encounter another strong attack by terrorists, but I could not have imagine such an attack would arrive so fiercely [猛烈].

Since the beginning of participation in joint operations against the “Islamic State” last year, a vicious cycle has emerged between France and the terrorists of “strike-retaliation, escalated strike-escalated retaliation” [法国就同恐怖份子之间构成“打击报复、升级打击升级报复”的恶性循环].  But this time, in the view of a number of experts in France, the direct trigger [直接触发点] for the terrorist attack operation was the announcement by the French presidential office on November 5 that France will again deploy sea and air forces, including the “Charles de Gaulle” aircraft carrier, to the fight against the extremist organization of the “Islamic State.” Who could imagine, just eight days later, that the terrorists would unleash multiple attacks in Paris, killing over a hundred people.

Terrorist acts should be condemned, but the author believes that it cannot be said that there is no problem with France’s response to terrorist attacks, to the extent that that [French policy] led to the tragedy [以至于酿成惨剧]. Meanwhile, for France, the corresponding “Chinese experience” merits studying.

First problem: One hundred loopholes in French social management [一、法国社会治理漏洞百出 ]

During the January 2015 attack, two terrorists simultaneously went on a rampage without the slightest fear, as if entering uninhabited territory [一度横行无忌,如入无人之境]. Likewise, the female terrorist Hayat Boumeddiene, under conditions where the entire country was pursuing her as a wanted criminal, surprisingly fled in broad daylight safe and sound to Syria; this is just freakish [匪夷所思]. France started to take military action in Syria a few years ago, and recently a Russian airliner was downed over Egypt, but, in spite of the possibility of the terrorist attack, the French failed to maintain sufficient vigilance [法国未能保持足够警惕].

In this recent terrorist attacks, it can be seen that the terrorists used AK-47 automatic rifles and grenades, and coordinated many people. Therefore we can see the loopholes existing in French social management [法国在社会治理] controls on populations and weapons both failed to meet the needs of counter-terrorism.

Because there are six million Muslims in France, and a recent influx of large numbers of refugees there, the degree of social complexity has been elevated, and the situation for anti-terrorism [work] is very grim.

By contrast, China took decisive measures after the terrorist attacks in Kunming, quickly capturing terrorists. Moreover, such cases have not  reoccurred, meaning that this experience is something the French [should see as] worth learning from.

The editorial goes on to argue that in France, “extremist groups  can take advantage of a confused ethnic minorities policy [糟糕的民族政策],” and that French “double standards” did not allow the country to form an “anti-terrorism united front” with China. As if that was not clear enough, the author concludes with the point that human rights emphasis from Western countries amid the anti-terror global struggle would only do harm to the “united front,” a front which would be strengthened by France studying China’s techniques of “social management.”

As 2015 wound down, I had plans to translate more work from Chinese state organs about Ms. Gauthier, including a reworking of the 26 December English-language article entitled “L’Obs’ China articles biased, unprofessional” which famously advised: “If Gauthier did receive death threats on the Internet, we recommend she call the police.” In fact, the original Chinese version of the article [a lead editorial, entitled《新观察家》文章既很偏激,又不专业]  is far more colourful, as well as being glib and unapologetic:

如果确实有人在Facebook上对高洁进行超出批评正常限度的围攻,我们反对。但Facebook不是中国网站,《新观察家》应该去找美国人扎克伯格交涉。如果高洁的确遭到应予重视的“死亡威胁”,那么我们强烈建议她报警。If it is true that people on Facebook attacked Gauthier in ways exceeding common limits on criticism, we are against that. But, as Facebook is not a Chinese website, we recommend that L’Obs should seek out the American Mark Zuckerberg. If Gauthier has truly met with “death threats,” well, we strongly suggest she go to the police.

I hope Mr. Zuckerberg, who has ambitions to get into the China market, has been informed of his invocation by state media (since he has presumably already been approached about the good work he could do for China’s harmonious “united front” against terrorism).

Now 2015 has concluded, and Gauthier is back in France. I regret my own inability to chase down all of the errant threads of this particular case, and I also must admit a kind of melancholy of that I did not even have the wherewithal to have begun this essay with a wonderfully wistful Mao quote from 1958 Shandong about having only scratched the surface of a worthy endeavour. But perhaps it is best to pick up for new battles, go with the zeitgeist and end with a link:

Image: May 4 in Langfang (廊坊), Hebei province PRC, 2014.


Meth, Road-Tripping, Drought, Aid, and Forbidden Love: Five North Korea Stories from China

Microblogging in English or Chinese continues to present limits on and challenges for academics who ‘watch’ Northeast Asia. Certainly, in the process of gathering information about the region, it has gotten rather easy to share pithy viewpoints, but the problem of why one is sharing a given piece of information is not always self-evident.

Take these two tweets as a study in contrasts: 


Personal blogs seem to be a good medium through which a slightly more considered and extended discussion can unfold. In the following post, I take a look at five stories from the Chinese news media which all deal with North Korea in some way, at a level of depth that hopefully resides in the space between ‘off the cuff’ (which is a fancy way of saying ‘spastic’) tweeting and the more austere, rigorous, and lugubriously-edited mode of writing that necessarily prevails for more heavy-duty academic writing.

丹东一民警制毒获死刑 家藏冰毒40斤In Dandong, a former policeman has been handed death sentence for meth manufacturing with two accomplices, on Chinese territory. No North Korean link is mentioned in this story (does there need to be one?), but the story does suggest that pathways for drugs into the Chinese interior from Dandong are well-honed and the profits high. As with so many law-and-order stories from the border region in the past couple of years, the outlet able to cover the story at length is Xinjinbao (新京报), which is strangely rendered as ‘Beijing Daily’ in English. A severely abbreviated version of the story was carried on 18 June in English by the erstwhile Global Timeswhose editor was, at the time of publication, waxing metaphorical on a stage in Beijing with a handful of former and current diplomats about the PRC’s new Silk Road into Central Asia.

A former policeman in Dandong city in northeast China’s Liaoning Province was sentenced to death for producing drugs with a habitual criminal, a court announced on Thursday.According to the Intermediate People’s Court of Dandong city, Wang Changping, a former policeman, began producing methamphetamine at the end of 2012 together with Han Xuedong, a drug producer who was released from prison in June 2011. The group built three meth labs in rural areas of Dandong city and Tongliao city in the north Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, and produced more than one hundred kilograms of methamphetamine in one and half years. They were busted in May 2014, with 20 kilograms of drugs seized at Wang’s office and apartment. The court sentenced Wang and Han to death. Another two suspects in the case were sentenced to death with two year reprieve and imprisonment for life respectively.

Meanwhile in non-capital punishment-related news in Dandong, cadre in that border city are not at all as bullish about economic growth as we might expect. There is surely more than a small amount of verbal and non-verbalized frustration with the DPRK included in this report. 

山东青岛-辽宁丹东开通跨海汽车:行程很奇特 | A new means of traveling for cheap between two of China’s most interesting northern port cities — Qingdao and Dandong — has now opened up. A bus line links the two cities by means of ferry travel through the Bohai Gulf, via Dalian saving the need to drive through the giant Beijing-Tianjin choke point. (Like a prospective conquerer of China in the seventeenth century, the shrewd traveller should to pay heed to the difficulties of traversing the Shanhaiguan.) There was once discussion of a sea tunnel being built between Shandong and Liaodong peninsulas, but in the meantime, this will do nicely, thank you.

via Huanqiu Shibao

via Huanqiu Shibao

李敦球:帮朝鲜一起应对特大旱灾 | Back in late May, Chinese commentator Li Dunqiu (who to my knowledge fits the frame exceptionally well for Huanqiu Shibao) published a piece on North Korean market reforms that was comparatively bullish. On 19 June, Li returned to the pages of the same foreign affairs tabloid with a piece about the need for China to aid North Korea during the present drought. The piece stands as a kind of embroidery on the 18 June statement by the PRC Foreign Ministry that aid would be granted to the DPRK. Li noted that corn yields in particular were expected to be lower in North Korea, but also loosed a standard criticism that information coming out of North Korea was notoriously unreliable, in part because it was often from South Korean and Western media. (This statement is both a fig leaf for Huanqiu Shibao when its editors get hate mail from the North Korean Embassy in Beijing — a rather frequent occurrence, if the word on the street is correct — and also a means of reminding slightly numb Chinese readers that only the Ministry of Propaganda and its various spin-offs are the arbiters of objective media reporting, except when they’re gagged.)

A rather middle-ground approach is outlined whereby the World Food Program projected shortages in the country are discussed, and the need to de-politicize food aid to North Korea. There is also some effort put into stating that North Korean ‘transparency’ is better than it used to be — while at the same time saying absolutely nothing about how much food aid China should give, what type of grain, or how much has been given in previous lean years. But then again, it’s just an op-ed indicated to gently assure that the Chinese public is on-side with any aid renderd, and Li Dunqiu does not appear to have a Nolandesque apparatus when it comes to discussing aid statistics.

Finally with this piece, Li does what he does best — take something that the North Koreans have been doing since their founding as a Republic in 1948, and spinning it as ‘reform’ or progress. 

In the present case, it is mass mobilization. Clearly, he writes, the North Korean state is taking the problem seriously by mobilizing free labor around the country to dig wells, etc., in a great ‘anti-drought struggle.’


朝鲜遭百年不遇大旱金正恩该怎么办 & 百年一遇旱灾对朝鲜有何影响 |  The first of these two stories presents extensive data on North Korean famine in 2012 and aid from China, and is written by Chinese bloggers who don’t cite their sources yet whose work turns up rather prominently on Sina.com, and which handles an issue which is rather sensitive to the government in Beijing.  Among other data points, the first piece argues that 20,000 North Korean people starved to death in the 2012 drought, and that in part this can be attributed to the refusal of ‘the US, South Korea and other countries’ to send food aid. The piece then goes on to describe the large value and type of aid which China gave to North Korea in that year. Again, no sources are cited apart from the occasional sprinkling of clauses like “foreign research indicated” or “according to statistics,” but this is very much worth a closer look. This excerpt concludes by comparing China’s estimated aid to North Korea between 1990-2005 as being roughly equivalent to “half a year’s GDP from the Tibetan Autonomous Region”:

但就在此时 [i.e. in the period of great difficulty for North Korea],中国伸出了援助之手。中国政府于2012年2月下旬开始对朝鲜进行大规模无偿援助,援助物资包括粮食、建材等,价值高达6亿元人民币,堪称“史上最大规模”。中国此次援助,完全是无偿援助,因此外界称之为“中国援朝史上最大规模的单笔无偿经济援助”。据有关报道称,朝鲜希望中国提供至少20万吨粮食援助。根据当时中华粮网和大连商品交易所的东北大米和玉米的批发价,6亿元人民币相当于15万吨大米或者26.5万吨玉米。不过由于丹东等边境城市的粮食采购质量、价格都远远低于中国人自己食用的粮食,因此实际上6亿元可兑换的可能会更多。以当时丹东到达新义州的大米批发价格计算,6亿元即可购得大米17.14万吨。在之前的1月份,应朝鲜红十字会要求,中国红十字会从辽宁省丹东市向朝鲜新义州提供了6000箱方便面、约相当于30万元的物资。中国的这些雪中送炭的援助并没有使朝鲜有感激之情,因为他们几十年来,吃惯了、用惯了中国援助,已习以为常。对中国朝鲜半岛无核化的立场相对立,将中国的劝告形同耳旁风,欢度中国产生抵触情绪而不满。由于中国对朝鲜的援助从来就不对外公布,国际社会古巴不知道中国究竟给了朝鲜多少援助。对于几十年来的总数,国外研究结论是:从1990年到2005年的15年间,中国对朝鲜援助就可能高达15亿-37.5亿美元之间。这约合当前西藏半年的GDP。

The piece concludes with its title: Worst drought in one hundred years, so what is Kim Jong-un going to do about it? Well, he is obviously going to look for aid from wherever he can get it, send his Premier out to the countryside, and keep pounding the drums of mass mobilization. But there is also a very common observation from Chinese political experience: The ruler needs to prevent famine in order to prevent domestic instability. As they authors write, ‘再就是加强对国内的控制,保持稳定,以免国内出事,’ and then conclude with their criticism of the so-called ‘Byungjin Line.’

The second link consists of yet more pics of PRC Ambassador Li’s May trip to the North Korean countryside and discussion of possible food aid. Most interestingly, it notes how busy Pyongyang was on 5 June, with large numbers of people getting geared up for work in the countryside. 

朝鲜女子因何不敢嫁中国男人 | With a title like this — ‘Why North Korean women do not dare to marry Chinese men’ — this piece is possibly a bit explosive. It follows on other stories in Chinese news media that start to foreground and problematize the North Korean worker in China. As we saw with the incident in Tumen on 31 May, when North Korean women physically attacked a journalist on assignment for Le Monde, various arms of the PRC bureaucracy have differing views about how these workers should be handled, and to what extent they should deserve special leeway or treatment due to their national origin. In addition to asking the rather uncomfortable (and somewhat taboo) public question about the utter lack of personal freedom enjoyed by North Korean female workers in China, the article gives a bit of data about average wages. 

Naturally there have been other stories in Chinese rumbling around in the past several weeks that merit some analysis — such as China’s fighter-jet drills over Dandong and possibly Sinuiju, the connection of the Zhou Yongkang purge and trial to North Korea, the implication put out in Chinese media that Kim Jong-un has probably been invited to Beijing for the September 3 anti-fascist parade, or fantastic gumshoeing (within acceptable comradely limits, of course!) by the Xinhua bureau in Pyongyang with respect to shiny new apartment blocs which are rumoured to be without functioning lifts — but then again, perhaps that is what Twitter is for.


Old Chapters, New Chapters: The Memory Wars in East Asia

From the very beginning of the so-called ‘post war,’ the territorial and temporal parameters of the memory wars between China and Japan were never drawn particularly cleanly. The war ended formally in Tokyo Harbour on 3 September 1945, but it took nearly another week for Okamura Yasuji to formally surrender to General He Yingqin at Nanjing. It then took months (in some rare cases, years) for Japanese troops to disengage themselves from the mainland.

After 1949, China’s dissatisfaction with the optics of the Nanjing surrender ceremony occasionally surfaced, with accusations that the Guomindang were in bed with General Okamura (they were). Since 2005, the Beijing government has sponsored huge oil paintings and wax statues constructed to emphasize the ahistorical servility of the Japanese general to the representative of the Chinese nation.

In recent months, the Chinese Communist Party has gone beyond expressing verbal frustration with Abe Shinzo’s revisionism and turned again to wax (and online) artworks of inverted national humiliation. Xinhua praised the wax reconstruction of an orchestrated event in Shenyang 1956 — the trial of Japanese war criminals during a period of Sino-Japanese diplomatic warming. The two years’ worth of written confessions of these men ranged from the banal — intelligence collection in northeast China in 1913 — to plentifully grotesque instances of rape, plunder, and bacteriological weapons research.

Read the rest of the essay (published on 16 March 2015) at the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute Blog.

On Translation: North Korea in the Sinophone Gaze

Chinese writing about North Korea is peculiar. And perhaps it ought to be. Surely, well-informed insights and even genuinely insightful speculations ought to be welcomed to the table with alacrity, regardless of the nationality or linguistic tendencies of the thinker. Translators naturally serve a vital role in the enterprise of tying together Korea-oriented policy and analytical communities.

Chinese writing about North Korea takes on an additional point of interest when it appears to indicate that the Chinese Communist Party is modifying, or considering modifying, its policy direction in an effort to reshape North Korean behaviour. Except, perhaps, that Jang Song-taek is dead and Kim Jong-un is alive and able to take off his own shoes, very little is certain from Pyongyang. Conversation is therefore needed from as many vantage points as possible. We still need to know what the Jang purge meant for fisheries management, for the Byungjin line, for possible internal dissent over the depictions and monumentalization of the dead Kims, for what it meant economically to the DPRK’s northern border with China, and – not least – what impact it had on the fate of North Korea’s largest unfinished Special Economic Zones. Believe it or not, some of these topics are still very hot among Chinese scholars.

Fortunately we live today in a world where Chinese authors are able to launch their missives over the linguistic divide and into the seething, steaming, and occasionally-accurate mass of the Anglophone press. One important outlet for Chinese views on recent events in North Korea is the Global Times, which is often described as “the English version” of the nationalistic Huanqiu Shibao. Both Huanqiu and GT, as they occasionally shortened by their more loyal readers, operate under the arm of the Chinese Commmnist Party organ of the People’s Daily, and are linked administratively. In the case of of covering the Jang Song-taek purge, GT has been helpful, providing reasonably timely factual aid from Zhang Lian’gui, in English, and published essays roughly approximate to Huanqiu editorials.

But such editorials in English should not be mistaken with proper “Chinese writing about North Korea.” Global Times editorials are better described as “based upon Chinese editorials which are translated with heavy alterations and cuts for purposes of consumption by Western readers who are generally and inaccurately led to believe that Global Times represents what Chinese elites and/or the public is reading.” Not to put too fine a point on it, but the Huanqiu editorials are generally much more combative, revealing, and interesting than the sanitized English versions. Sino-NK, the analysis website which I edit, makes a regular habit of translating (or more faithfully retranslating!) such essays.

When it comes to North Korea analysis, we have seen at various times what a huge impact one passionate translator can have, with perhaps a small team of assistants and probably not much money, in amplifying defector voices. As important for the broader understanding of the North Korean system, the DPRK’s foreign relations, the North Korean economy, and the future of North Korea, I would argue, are Chinese voices.  At some point we are going to get past the point when we read a Chinese author only looking for cracks in the ‘lips and teeth’ edifice and start to appreciate the verve, the vertiginous quality, and the depth of historical allusion in the work. I will certainly continue my own efforts to keep the linguistic and analytical channels open so that these voices, too, can be heard.

China and Conflict on the Korean Peninsula: The Return of the Great Powers Conference in Leeds

On July 3, I’ll be giving a paper at a conference of historians and policy makers at the University of Leeds on a subject near and dear to the hearts of many readers. The abstract follows:

The Korean peninsula is regarded as northeast Asia’s key flashpoint, not only for inter-Korean violence, but possible US-China conflict. As the North Korean leadership continues to push forward with its ‘byungjin line’ of nuclear weapons development, the US ‘pivots’ to Asia and China’s regional balance of power continues to grow, what are the prospects for a wider war breaking out in Korea? This paper will lay out the salient issues and drill down into China’s strategic calculus with North Korea, discussing how the discourse is slowly changing, even as the communist allies remain locked into patterns of cooperation dating back to before the Korean War.


I. Power Relations in Northeast Asia

A. China’s neo-tributary goals mixed with neo-Mahanian rhetoric

‘sadae’ (submission to the great)

B. Tyranny of the Weak

II. North Korea’s Nuclear Programme

A. Tests & miniaturization

B. Kim Jong-un as the new face of an old system

C. Changes since December 2012

– ‘Nukes and Peace,’ Rodong Sinmun

III. External Responses

A. Republic of Korea / Park Geun-hye

B. China  / Xi Jinping & Li Keqiang

C. Japan / Abe Shinzo

IV. Conclusion – A Word about Sources

Anti-Japanese Protests in Beijing, and the History of Diaoyu Protests

Three suitably breathless Global Times articles and photo galleries are linked below, but for a sane appraisal of at least part of what is going on, I recommend MIT professor M. Taylor Fravel’s September 15 article.  Respectively, the articles below deal with the protests in Beijing, Ferraris at the protests in Beijing, and the newly-publicized “40-year social movement” to protect Diaoyu/Senkakus with liberal borrowing from Taiwan’s archives.  Unfortunately, none of this seems to get at what happened in San Francisco in 1951 and what the PRC said about the issue then, but then again, that is what Cold War historians of East Asia (like myself) are supposed to do.