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Cross-Border Crackdowns

The latest Good Friends intelligence report contains an intriguing item: North Korean police and security forces are cracking down on DVDs of Chinese movies:

Crackdown on Illegal Video Films in Pyongsung
On September 20, Pyongsung city in South Pyongan Province began a crackdown on illegal video films. In No.24 Unit of Yonbong dong, the investigators raided on two households and confiscated CDs that contained American movies and Chinese movies such as “The Daughter of the Emperor” as well as the CD players. Four residents who watched the illegal videos and a person who purchased the CDs were arrested and put into interrogation. According to No.109 Commanding Office’s investigation report, among the arrestees accused of watching illegal videos this fall, 20 were sent to re-education center, and the rest was sent to the City Discipline Center. Those who are currently under investigation will be sent to re-education center if any suspicious items were found in their homes.

South Korean films are already known to be a problem in the North, but the inclusion of a Chinese film here adds a special kick.  Add this to reports from the Chosun Ilbo, and one gets a picture of a tightening vise which is not very amicable:

North Korean authorities have apparently stepped up regulations and monitoring of Chinese residents there since Beijing backed UN sanctions against the North in June. Sources in China and North Korea say North Korean intelligence officials are increasingly treating Chinese residents who recently visited their home country as spies.

Sources say this has prompted many Chinese residents to avoid visiting China. The number of Chinese residents passing through customs in Rajin has dropped to one-third of the number seen last year after rumors spread that a Chinese resident in Pyongyang who had recently been back to China was hauled off by intelligence agents and charged with espionage.

There are an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 Chinese living in North Korea in Pyongyang, Sinuiju and Chongjin. They are better off on average than typical North Koreans since they make a living selling products from China. They had been free from regulations and faced no punishment even if they criticized North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. But they are now said to be subject to the worst repression ever, apparently as a result of North Korean anger at China’s backing for the sanctions.

North Koreans are accusing Chinese residents of selling information about the reclusive country to the U.S. and Chinese governments.

As for the Chinese side of the border, more information is available.  The last few days have seen a crackdown in the Changbaishan / Paektusan region in cross-border trafficking in ginseng.

Jilin Province inspector cracks down on illegal ginseng in Korean region -- photo via Jilin Provincial Govt. website

In the strongly-worded press release linked above, the Jilin provincial government notes its intention to smash illegal ginseng rings and thereby cut down on the tenfold oversupply of the root:



为了防止问题人参业户与执法人员“躲猫猫”和“打游击”,长白山池西区人参产业整顿领导小组对长白山辖区内人参交易市场进行了10 余次的不定期清查。执法人员对市场上出售的人参制品不仅通过直观、气味、口感等方式进行检查,还对有异议的人参制品用仪器做初步的检测,一旦发现在加工工艺或者质量上存在问题,检查组立即予以查封扣留。



Although ginseng isn’t quite as illegal as the marijuana farms the Jilin government busted up this summer, quality is being undercut and prices driven down.  Given that the ginseng market has gone global, China is also taking pains to assure quality control and the business is getting more competitive.  As the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinal reports:

For most of the last century, Chinese have placed a high premium on Wisconsin-grown ginseng, making it the state’s best-known agricultural export on the mainland. The Chinese value the state’s climate, soil and resulting flavor of Wisconsin’s ginseng over the same root cultivated in China or Korea. On his previous trade missions to China, [Wisconsin’s Governor] Doyle gave wrapped boxes of Wisconsin ginseng to each dignitary he met.

Jilin and Wisconsin thus go toe-to-toe, only Wisconsin doesn’t have to deal with smugglers bringing bags of the stuff over the St. Croix River from Minnesota.  North Korean ginseng undercuts prices and is difficult to submit to the Chinese regulatory impulse.  But there is something more at work here than simple product inspections.  With unit names like 躲猫猫 (“Swift Cat “Hide and Seek”) and 打游击 (“Guerrilla”), it seems more than likely that the Jilin security forces swooping into these ginseng farms are probably also on the hunt for illegal North Korean laborers and smugglers.

And, as was reported yesterday in Seoul, China is eager to put a stop to North Korean cross-border illegalities.

(Hat tip to Sidney Rittenberg.)

Report of North Korean Military Buildup along the Jilin Border

10,000 More North Korean Troops Along Chinese Frontier

The Daily NK quotes sources inside North Korea indicating that the Korean People’s Army will, for the next six months, be building up its forces in Ryanggang province around the large border city of Hyesan.

courtesy Wikipedia

courtesy Wikipedia

A total of 10,000 new troops are expected.  According to the source, talk in the DPRK has it that the moves are being taken in response to a Chinese buildup in adjacent Jilin province:

The source said, “The rumor doing the rounds is that they are increasing the size of the army unit in Yangkang Province in response to a missile base the Chinese have constructed at Antu near Mt. Baekdu and their posting of mechanized forces near Changbai,” hinting that the expansion of the Army Corps members is partly out of concern for China.

However, in response to a Chinese demand in August of last year, North Korea relocated both its 2nd 14.5mm Anti-Aircraft Gun Company (a.k.a Jedang Ridge Company) and an independent platoon known as the “Gotdongji Platoon” to Masan Ridge, which is approximately five kilometers from the Yalu River border. Before the move, the Jedang Ridge Squadron’s 12 guns were aimed directly at the Chinese city of Changbai in Jilin Province, directly across the border from Hyesan.

[But]the Chinese missile base indicated by the source is actually located in the vicinity of Dunhua, which is in the interior of the Yanbian Autonomous Prefecture, far from the North Korea-China border, so it seems that the true reason behind the expansion may be different from the official explanation.

The buildup, if accurate, could also be described as stemming from the domestic need to keep would-be refugees contained inside the North.  But it is also very possible that the news of this buildup is a means of the DPRK trying to use somewhat conventional negotiating tactics against the PRC.  Heretofore, the main threat NK posed to China was the “gun to my head” argument or, put another way, North Korea’s potential to open the border and release hundreds of thousands of refugees into China.  Along with recent nuclear tests along the border, this type of news could be interpreted as a conventional means of making the PLA sit up straighter, heightening Chinese respect for North Korean arms.  I could of course be very wrong about this, but it may signal a significant type of change, particularly if the regime grows in militarist confidence.

This increase in troop numbers on the northern frontier can come back also to this idea of encirclement of the DPRK.  As Russia increases its missile defenses in the area, we can see how the Northern frontier could also be seen by Pyongyang as a major new focus for their defensive paradigm.  After all, the Chinese have their own secret talks with the Americans, get closer every day in spite of empty propaganda cannonades to the American military, and American analysts fantasize openly about getting to a “permissive defense environment” along the PRC-DPRK frontier in order to infiltrate American commandos (as opposed to journalists) into the North.   Not to mention new allegations of China preparing a special “occupation force” / DPRK government-in-exile, allegations which I think are overblown, but nevertheless are out there.

One quick correction to the Daily NK translation from the Chinese: NK Anti-Aircraft weapons were “directly across” from Changbai, not “pointed directly at.”

More Troops=Civilians Bear the Burden

And the civilians are definitely complaining about the troops.  In my travels there, it was pretty obvious merely in terms of body language that the villagers were living in what felt like a kind of occupation.  The troops come to town: as a North Korean peasant, you don’t cheer, you don’t offer your daughter’s hand in marriage.  Instead, you pony up what little grain you have.  Isn’t this reminscent of Chiang Kai-shek’s national army in 1947, anyone?  And isn’t it a major violation of the Kimist/Maoist edict for the army to remain “like a fish in water” with the people?  North Korea needs to find a receipe for sustainable army-civilian coexistence if it is going survive.  Because we seem to have fallen back into the ethos of the Japanese occupation of Korea, with the KPA reprising as the Kanto army and North Hamgyong’s sweating provincial head following Kim Jong Il nervously around shrines and masquerading as Col. Terasuki.

The Daily NK elaborates:

Regardless of the reason, the news of the fresh troops has not gone down well with the local people, according to the source. He explained, “With the news of 10,000 additional soldiers coming into Hyesan, many citizens have become concerned. It is already difficult for them to deal with the existing number of soldiers.”

Besides forces affiliated to the 10th Army Corps, the Raider Unit in Baekam, the Raider and Anti-Aircraft Missile Unit, the Huchang County Medium-Range Missile Unit, the 43rd Gapsan County Sniper Brigade, the Samjiyeon County Escort Bureau Unit, Hyesan City Bureau No. 8 (the Bureau in charge of supplying armaments and ammunition) and the Yangkang Province Border Patrol Brigade are all stationed in Yangkang Province, causing civilians to complain that the number of soldiers already exceeds the number of civilians.

And this is another way to assure they get more labor out of these people.  Army units are less likely to shirk labor tasks than, say, the Democratic Youth League.  There is no end in the Good Friends reports about problems with people simply not showing up for their corvée responsbilities.

Perhaps the ideal text one should be reading in order to understand how such a regime ultimately crumbles is not Lenin’s Tomb, but rather Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian on the end of the Qin dyansty. The monument-building, the harsh legalist punishments, the outrageous demands for corvée labor, the courtly intrigues, the belligerent foreign policy: it resembles the Kim dynasty’s late years as much as the Qin dynasty’s late years.   Here, choices all lead to death, making resistance and rebellion the only act of free will in such a system.

A Chinese in Pyongyang [cue “An American in Paris,” but with a guzheng or pan’sori warble in pentatonic mode]

In other DPRK-PRC news, huggable Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao will be making a state visit to North Korea from October 4 to October 6.  This news comes via the (Chinese) Global Times, which promotes the visit as a banner right next to the announcement of the October 1 parade.  Apparently Chinese leaders are capable of, as Ai Weiwei says, “reveling in their own glory” while making new mechanations to hold it down in the northeast.   According to Global Times, Wen will have a series of meetings with North Korean leaders “on issues of common concern” (no explicit mention in this short release of nuclear problem) and participate in activities to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Chinese-North Korean diplomatic relations.   Whether or not Wen asks his colleagues about Hwang Jang-yop’s latest jeremiad, or how things are going with the anti-aircraft weapons and the prostitutes in Hyesan, is anyone’s guess.

Fortunately, there are some knowledgeable white men from the State Department shuttling around Asia gently helping to remind the Chinese not to spend too much time talking about such sundry details:

KUALA LUMPUR – Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to North Korea next week is sending Pyongyang “a clear message” on the need to return to nuclear talks, a top US envoy said on Monday.

US Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, who is visiting Malaysia as part of a five-nation Asian tour, welcomed the trip announced by North Korean state media as an emphatic push towards the “six-nation” talks.

“We are quite appreciative of the fact that China, like other countries involved, has sent a very clear message to North Korea that there is unanimity among all countries in the region about the need for them to return to the six-party talks and to resume the path of denuclearisation,” he said.

“The fact that they are hearing this message from China as well as the countries in the region helps to reinforce a strong message,” he told a news conference.

“I feel optimistic that in all of the interactions that North Korea has had now that they are getting an unmistakable message that… there are no divisions and differences among the countries that are involved.” [AFP, via Khaleej Times in Dubai, one of my new favorite newspapers].

I wish someone would have learned this from the way that Zhou Enlai handled negotiations with George Marshall in Nanking in 1946: Never, ever broadcast that the CCP is going to do precisely what you have told them to do, even when you are convinced they bring your talking points into their closed-door meetings.  Even when Zhou Enlai is so charming and sends your journalists beautiful handwritten letters on gorgeous stationary that your daughter loves!  Somehow we seem have have forgotten that even the sturdiest-looking of “united fronts” can be toppled when the balance of power turns.

Hyesan, Ryanggang Province -- photo by Adam Cathcart

Hyesan, Ryanggang Province -- photo by Adam Cathcart

Tonghua Protests Part of Larger Systemic Issue — The Smashing of the Iron Rice Bowl

A private CONCERN

China Daily
26 Aug 2009

Jonah M. Kessel After following one family tradition by joining the military in 1990, Fu Linxue did it again three years later when he started work at the Linzhou Iron and Steel plant in Henan province. For the 39-year-old, it was the logical choice….read more…

Unrest in Tonghua

Not so long ago there was a gigantic brawl at a (huge) steel factory in Tonghua, Jilin province, that left one dead and the news media all aflutter.   Another sign emerges that China could come apart at the seams at any moment!

Tonghuas location in the PRC, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Tonghua's location in the PRC, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

I spent a couple of days in Tonghua last month, as it is a major gateway city to the North Korean border.  While aspects of the city were somewhat miserable (no public library, in contrast to equally scrappy Baishan, an hour up the road), pollution was typically bad for a northeastern manufacturing city, and development is not nearly as fast as it ought to be, there was no sense whatsoever that the city was about to break into flames.

This points to a problem with the implicit interpretation of Western media reports — the assumption is that unemployment at one factory or unrest by a group of workers could trigger the whole house of cards to collapse.

I simply don’t think this is true.

While Tonghua is relatively poor in comparison to Shenyang and Dalian, the economy is nevertheless expanding, the government is getting people into new houses.  Cab drivers — for me usually the best barometer of societal mood — were unequivocal about the state of Tonghua’s economy: neither really great nor really bad.  Corruption is certainly a problem, but not to the point where people are out in the streets.  Rather, the danger here for the CCP is that the government “iron rice bowl” mentality cannot be delivered on.   In this sense, and in its manufacturing output, Tonghua is important for the Communist Party.

But an incident at Tonghua Steel, no matter how immense, and though it will be certainly remarked upon by the locals,  is not about to send the entire city reeling into anger at the Party.  The situation reminds me of Liaoyang, where I spent a great deal of time the summer after major labor protests reported by the New York Times (I believe in 2003).  The lack of local consciousness about the protests in their aftermath, the unwillingness to engage in anything resembling a subversive conversation about the events or the fate of the labor leaders, was truly remarkable then, and it is again today.

Yet, between strikes in Heilongjiang, the action in Liaoyang (and the potential for more in Shenyang’s burly suburbs and poor/dirty offshoot cities like Fushun, where I also travelled recently), and Tonghua, you have had enough material to study that fertile nexus between labor unrest, official corruption, and public responses in the last five or six years.

Just wait until North Korea cracks open!  Then we will truly have something to talk about with regard to the labor market and social changes in these borderland regions.

North Korean factory in Musan, about an hour from Tonghua; photo by Adam Cathcart

North Korean factory in Musan, about an hour from Tonghua; photo by Adam Cathcart

Violence in Xinjiang: The View from Linjiang City, Jilin / 临江市

Views of Xinjiang violence from other ethnic zones

Often lost in the shuffle of news reports about Xinjiang is inter-minority relations; that is to say, how do various other Chinese minorities, or shaoshu minzu / 少数民族 view the actions in Xinjiang?  This would seem to be a consequential question for the CCP and for foreign observers who prognosticate future fragmentation for the PRC.  After all, “a spark can start a prairie fire,” and social movements have in the past shown a strange propensity to mingle together in opposition to the party-state.

In short, I think the answer is that the Uighurs have received no moral or physical support from their fellow minority groups.  In fact, it might be said that the Uighurs are hardly seen as meritorious or justified in their actions by other minority groups.  Skepticism towards the Uighurs among, say, ethnic Koreans, may be due to Xinhua’s clever and persistent reporting which fails to give readers/viewers any idea of the genesis of the rebellion (the “spark” applied at the factory brawl in Guangzhou in June) and portrays the rioters as elements of a foreign power.  Or it may be due to a certain passivity in China’s political milieu: why does this person stand up, make a ruckus, and thereby raise the level of surveillance on me?

(The same phenomenon emerges in conversations with practicing Buddhists and Tai Qi teachers in northeast China about Li Hongzhi and Falun Gong; the very constituency which might support his right to practice his religion has fallen under suspicion due to Li’s agitations, and thus complain about him, rather than the state authorities who are presumably justified in their crackdowns. )

But what about in Tibet?  Has any serious reporting come out of Lhasa or Dharamsala in the aftermath of July 7 to suggest that the Uighurs have developed linkages with, or borrowed techniques from, Tibetan resistance to Han assimilation?  Again, I believe it is unlikely.  Particularly at a time when the Uighurs are being demonized by the CCP media, even if they harbored some kind of latent emotional support for their northwestern metaphorical brethren, the Tibetans would be irrational to express it.   And one can only imagine that the riots in Xinjiang set the police in Lhasa and Qinghai a bit on edge.  If any readers have seen reporting on this issue, please comment!

Linjiang City Hall; it lights up at night in mockery of the North Koreans across the river

Linjiang City Hall; it lights up at night in mockery of the North Koreans across the river

I was fortunate to spend an extended period in June and early July in the border regions between the PRC and the DPRK (North Korea), meaning that I was reading about and trying to process the Xinjiang violence in that extreme northeastern milieu.

Putting on my shoes at a public bath in Linjiang, Jilin province, a little city on the upper reaches of the Yalu river, I participated in the following conversation:

40-something Han guy mopping the floor [40HG]: “Hey, did you hear about the revolt in Xinjiang?”

Youngish American professor [YAP]: “No.  What happened?”

40HG: “Oh, a bunch of terrorists came in and starting killing people; it was really bad.”

YAP: “Really?”

40HG: “Yes, I saw it on television; then it was on the Global Times website too.”

Matronly Korean cashier [MKC]:  “Terrorists?  Was it the, the Dalai Lama?”

40HG: “The Dalai Lama? No he’s in Xizang [Tibet], not Xinjiang.”

MKC: “Ohhhhh, I thought it was him.  Wasn’t he the big terrorist?”

40HG: “Sure, but not with this thing.  He’s in Tibet.”

YAP: “So what’s happening now?”

40HG: [Smiling]  “Oh, the government is smashing them [真压他们]; it’s not going to last long.”

Later that night, a major rain cleared out most people from a big outdoor market.  Underneath a tent whose pockets were sagging deeply with water, I had a long conversation with a noodle-maker about international politics which touched on Xinjiang.  “This is a small thing [就是个小事],” he said dismissively of the Uighur action.  “The government will handle it and it will be over soon.”   His eyes blazed a bit, but not in support of some revolution. He then turned back to complain about policy privileges granted to Korean minorities in his small city.

Although Xinhua sought to whip up sentiment on this issue and link the Uighurs to foreign wirepullers (more on that subsequently), it appears that the violence in Xinjiang is stimulating nowhere near the passions that the Tibetan uprising did in spring of 2008.