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It takes more than a few days, or perhaps a few weeks, to sift through all the reports, speculation, and rumors surrounding Kim Jong Il’s “new deal” with China. At the end of the day, though, it seems that a single question aids in interpreting the phenomenon: To what extent has Kim Jong Il’s visit to China spurred the North Korean regime to embrace even the appearance of a reformist direction?
In other words, is there any indication, however small, that Kim Jong Il or his Korean Workers’ Party is internalizing themselves or mobilizing society toward a policy approximating that of Deng Xiaoping in the early 1980s? Given how much the North Korean leadership is said to despise Deng Xiaoping, perhaps the “Dengist direction” is not the ideal way to phrase a move toward North Korean reform, but certainly the CCP leadership does not shirk from the label or the idea. But let us review the recent evidence:
New Slogans in Pyongyang
A couple of weeks ago, the Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang was the only place this new North Korean slogan (something like “Based on the Local, Step Into the World”) was being discussed. (For an English rendering of the story via Google, click here.)
Now the slogan is getting aired in a more prestigious publication, the “International Herald Leader,” one of the more rational and widely-read foreign affairs weekly tabloids published in Beijing. In his full-page spread on the DPRK entitled “North Korea Wants to Rush Toward ‘A Powerful Nation’ [朝鲜要向‘强盛大国’冲刺]， the paper’s man in Pyongyang, Zhang Li [张利] writes extensively of the new slogans.
There is of course the idea, too, that the North Korean regime could just be doing this to string along people like you and me, offering up the appearance of, or the possibility of, reforms, and then taking no actual further steps in that direction. Certainly it would not be the first time such a thing happened. And we should be mindful that North Korea does quite a lot (the 2009 nuclear tests being a signal example) without necessarily considering what the impact is on their Chinese patrons. But even when we are striding through a Potempkinian landscape, we need to take note of the details! There is some evidence that Pyongyang’s more persistent propaganda emphasis on living standards and economic growth is at the very least reaping some benefits in giving Chinese elites (e.g., 知识分子 or literate people who consume news) some idea that their support of North Korea is resulting in tangible and positive changes in the DPRK.
Confucius in Pyongyang
In other good news for Beijing, Chinese language education appears to be making solid inroads in Pyongyang. Estimates such as those in Bruce Bechtol’s 2010 book Defiant Failed State, and articles by people like Robert Kaplan, tend to toss off statements about the Chinese taking over North Korea with ease. Why else would the PRC be rebuilding roads along the border and fixing up bridges? This group of analysts frequently make hay from the notion that China has huge competitive advantages in its business and other interactions with North Korea. In fact, if language is the barometer the Chinese are at a disadvantage; Kim II Song cut off Chinese language education in North Korea at the knees in the late 1950s. This makes the PRC even more reliant on Yanbian Koreans for commercial interaction with the North, using Yanbian as a channel. Reliable statistics about numbers of Chinese speakers in the North are hard to come by, but we do know that the small Chinese minority (North Korea’s only bona fide ethnic minority) has been among the most closely watched sectors of the society and, unlike in places like Malaysia or Philippines, has been unable to spread its mercantile spirit into the greater society. It has also been in a kind of linguistic quarantine.
We do know that North Korean teachers of Chinese were studying at Beijing University, laying the foundation for the big event in Pyongyang. See my 18 February 2010 essay, “Confucius Institute Outreach to DPRK.”
Thus it is a turn of events to find that the Confucius Institute in Pyongyang appears to be thriving. And lest you think this is not a particularly big deal in the orbit of North Korea’s foreign relations, consider how obstinate the DPRK has been about language and cultural education toward European states with whom it is also distinctly in a warming phase: The German Goethe Institute was forced out of Pyongyang because of restrictions and the French Alliance Francais (disclaimer; I am a card-carrying member) cannot get into Pyongyang no matter how many delegations of French socialists make their obeisance to Mangyongdae. So the Workers’ Party is embracing finally the building of the linguistic infrastructure necessary to do business with China, in in China.
(Click here for photos of the Confucius Institute party in Pyongyang, via the Chinese Embassy in the DPRK.)
One of the more palatable aspects of my fieldwork along the North Korean border are the conversations I am able to have with probably a couple dozen North Korean waitresses in China. Setting aside the somewhat asinine claim that these girls are all spy-seductresses whose command of taekwando is worthy of a James Bond plot, one of the main reasons they come to the mainland to work is to acquire Chinese language. One said to me not long ago “it will be very useful for doing business when I go back to Korea,” nodding earnestly. I very much doubt that this person is some completely brainwashed cog whose study of Chinese is part of some grand plan of North Korea to deceive China into thinking relations are friendly. She and others are well aware that Chinese is the business language of the region and are acting accordingly. It seems that, rather belatedly, the North Korean state is having the same revelation.
Return to Chinese Cultural Superiority?
One possible problem that the North Koreans are already facing, and have been facing since the Koguryo locked swords with the Sui, is that of Chinese cultural superiority.
China’s recent action with Vietnam indicates how strong this kind of cultural chauvinism can be, seeing China inherently as the older brother. How deep this notion is ingrained in China’s diplomacy can be seen in a recent standoff with Vietnam in the South China Sea. As Wang Hanling, director of Chinese Academy of Social Scienes’ Centre for Oceans Affairs and the Law of the Sea, said to the South China Morning Post on 13 June 2011 (p. A4) stated of the Vietnamese:
If the big brother bullies the younger brother, that is not good and is something that should not happen. If the little brother challenges or bullies the older brother, it’s just ridiculous.
At a time when China is under attack from Western European states for not following European models of Enlightenment – seen expressly in the case of Germany and Ai Weiwei and art exhibits in Beijing – it is all the more important for Beijing to be able to pose itself as a benevolent tutor for the region, to behave, in other words, as a Confucian hegemon. In a recent podcast with some big names in China analysis, Jeremy Goldkorn paraphrases Martin Jacques in terming this “Tributary System 2.0.” In the context of bilateral relations with the DPRK, the label can be considered rather true.
Wen Jiabao stated it most clearly on his overseas junket, but the trope of China’s civilizing influence in the DPRK comes through in smaller channels as well. A semi-official blog carried by Huanqiu Shibao states Kim Jong Il came to China for “enlightenment” as well as aid:
Kim Jong Il came to China this time, and what did North Korea get from China? To use just one sentence to describe it, one could say that ‘North Korea has gained a future….’
This kind of Chinese salvationist rhetoric for North Korea sounds almost white and missionary.
An early analysis of Kim Jong Il’s presence in Nanjing by the Huanqiu Shibao offers up further, somewhat simplistic, reflections on Chinese success in helping the North Koreans stagger forward into modernity. But in so doing, the story necessarily becomes a frank admission of Kim’s need for aid and “education,” even if the slogans are optimistic: “金正日版南巡讲话,” etc.
The same ambivalence, the balancing of Chinese auto-glorification with acknowledgement of Kim’s recalcitrance, appears on a different Huanqiu BBS. Covering a story on North Korea’s high tech industry, the report is said to emerge out of the quarter of Zhongguancun [中关村], a high-tech district near Beijing University positively bursting with circuitry, programmers, and ambitious hawkers of soft- and hard-ware. (Anyone who has purchased a laptop in Zhongguancun, receiving deep assurances of total loyalty from a serviceperson, and then returned to get a hand with something only to find that the young Turk with whom you had just last week been having lunch with to bond after a big purchase has already moved to Shanghai will know what I mean.) The Huanqiu blog promotes North Korean computer production as yet another sign that China is helping the DPRK into the modern age, or, as the North puts it weirdly, “CNC Technology.” But the netizens cannot resist: the first commenter on the blog, obviously aware of the North Korean propaganda line on Kim Jong Eun as the harbinger of all things digital and binary, asks: “Is the Little Dictator Going to Increase Production/小霸王升级版?”
Quite naturally, there are more than a few North Koreans who find this whole state of affairs galling, and one of them is, in all likelihood, Kim Jong Il. He is nothing if not his father’s son. Kim Jong Il can only continue with what DailyNK aptly calls his “China Angst,” gaining some small solace from his pet areas: cooperation and funding for broadcasting work and 2012 movie festivals.
Kim’s angst, his pushback against China, and his effort to carve out the latitude for freedom of action outside of Beijing’s orbit, is, however, the subject of a subsequent post which draws the very productive people at KCNA and my new Weibo feed of links on Sino-North Korean relations.
Now that China and North Korea have gotten their stories (mostly) straight about Kim Jong Il’s five-day trip to northeast China, a small mountain of evidence exists which is worth analyzing.
Visions on the First Day of Class
In Pyongyang, KCNA is now promoting a new story about the year 1960 describing how young Kim Jong Il (all of 19 at the time) started the school year by ascending a hill, whereupon he was seized by a vision of a strong Korea:
Pyongyang, September 1 (KCNA) — On September 1, Juche 49 (1960) General Secretary Kim Jong Il began studying at Kim Il Sung University.
That day, he climbed Ryongnam Hill on the campus and recited a poem “Korea, I Will Glorify Thee” reflecting his will to add luster to Korea, true to the intention of President Kim Il Sung.
Since then, all his revolutionary activities have been oriented towards a grand goal of demonstrating the dignity and honor of the nation all over the world by turning the country into an invincible one.
The story, having reminded us of the profundity of youth, then morphs into the standard hagiography that freezes Kim Jong Il in time as a historical figure:
Among his “energetic ideological and theoretical activities” Kim is praised for having “newly expounded the position and role of the leader in the revolutionary struggle and proved the originality of the President’s revolutionary ideas” (emphasis added). Does North Korean revolutionary theory allow for collective leadership? Ever since Brian Myers deconstructed juche’s hallow nature, no one seems courageous enough to discuss the ideological traps the regime has set for itself.
Encouraging nuggets in the piece indicating an interest in reform (lauding Kim’s “clear understanding of the changed situation and the requirement of the revolution”) coexist along with deadeningly orthodox praise (among Kim’s “tremendous achievements in all fields” are included “grand monumental edifices built throughout the country”). These kind of bifurcated statements from Pyongyang which both suggest reform and hammer home the Kimist conservative line will probably continue.
In a separate piece, Kim Jong Il’s first day of class at Kim Il Sung University (where, as existing photographs indicate, he tended to sit in the back row) is now being interpreted as his “assumption of leadership” at the university in the same breath that songs praising the new successor are discussed. Youth, so long as they are the fruit of Kim Il Song’s loins, seem to be capable of any precocious feat.
But much of the discussion of youth masks the deepening age of the central leadership of the DPRK. Ri Yong Su, who participated in yesterday’s fake celebration of Kim Jong Il’s “leadership” of Kim U. in 1960, is a good example. Ri is the head of the Democratic Youth Leage; he has held the same position since at least the 1980s, when he was arguing for a very orthodox interpretation of the student “chaos” caused in Tiananmen Square in China and the fall of East Germany. I have bumped into Ri, figuratively speaking, more than a few times in the archives of the East German state. He is not a reformer, and he has certainly not forgotten the lessons of 1989 and 1990. To imagine that entrenched North Korean bureaucrats and socialist elites can simply turn their backs on four or five decades of orthodoxy and are willing to blindly follow the Chinese model merely because they like the smell of RMB is a misguided one.
Bracing for Change
Evidence collected by Haggard and Noland suggests that North Koreans know that their system is bound to change in some fashion when Kim Jong Il relinquishes power, but this KCNA editorial (also from September 1) seems to imply rather openly that big changes are on the way:
Pyongyang, September 1 (KCNA) — Rodong Sinmun Wednesday in a jointly signed article calls upon all the people to make redoubled efforts, planting their feet on the ground and looking at the world. It says:
Planting one’s feet on the ground and looking at the world means doing anything by oneself in one’s right senses, learning everything worth learning and introducing whatever beneficial to suit one’s actual conditions and bringing everything to the level of the world’s latest science and technology.
The slogan of the Workers’ Party of Korea “Plant Your Feet on the Ground and Look at the World!” serves as a revolutionary and militant banner clearly indicating the shortcut to reaching faster the eminence of a thriving socialist nation in conformity with the trend of the times and requirements of the reality of the DPRK….
The Korean people could take a firm hold on the eminence of CNC by their own efforts and with their own technology by planting their feet on the ground even under the situation where everything was in short supply…
Perhaps, in spite of the mandatory caveats, the soft Chinese reports that North Korea is finally ready to be “inspired by the Chinese example” of economic reform might prove to be correct. At the very least, editorials like this represent an attempt by the North Koreans to create a bit of flexibility for themselves, assuming that anyone reads Rodong Sinmun seriously anymore.
For its part, the Chinese press has gone into full-throated encouragement mode, as in this Huanqiu Shibao editorial entitled “The World Should Encourage North Korea to Open Up and Reform” and this short Huanqiu item on why investors should be bullish about the “internationalization” of Rason port in extreme northeast Korea. China Southern Broadcasting is sending a group of journalists to North Korea, following on the heels of a sports delegation from Beijing that just returned. The Chinese Embassy in North Korea, whose head travelled up to Jilin to meet with Kim Jong Il, is now reporting on a raft of cooperative meetings, such as yesterday’s get-together of PLA Shenyang-area brass with North Korean diplomats in Pyongyang. And behind all the solicitousness toward the North Koreans lies a sometimes-expressed apprehension toward Japanese power and a knowledge that North Korean collapse would bring Japan into play again on the Korean peninsula, traditionally not a situation with positive outcomes for China. Finally, as if to emphasize the benign nature of the DPRK, a group of North Korean dancers served as the centerpiece of an extended photo opportunity in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. This is quite a striking photo gallery. Fear not the handbag!