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Karaoke Will Save the World

What to do when you’ve had a bad year?  How to press forward, gamely or doggedly, with the new tasks thrust upon you by time and those relationships whose original justifications have long since slipped away?

Sing some revolutionary songs, that’s what!

Liu Xiaoming, the dapper Anglophone and Tufts-educated Chinese Ambassador to the DPRK, is being reassigned to London.  Reflecting North Korea’s tenacious reliance on the PRC at present, Liu and his wife (Hu Pinghua 胡平华) were feted by North Korea’s elite at a farewell New Year’s Party on January 14.

Kim Yong-il gave a speech praising China’s ability to weather the global financial crisis (perhaps prompting a collective snicker at American debt levels), talking up the CCP’s Eleventh Five-Year Plan, and promising that the DPRK would emerge stronger than ever with a revolutionary upswing.

The departing Ambassador praised North Korea for its promise to attend the Shanghai Expo in May 2010, talked about developing responsibilities in the alliance, and pledged to always remember North Korea, stating “No matter where I go from here, Sino-North Korean friendship will eternally be etched upon my heart 今后不管我到什么地方,中朝友谊将永远铭刻在我心中,” which might be his way of saying that 3.5 years in the job gave him an ulcer.

The party (not to be confused with the Party) ended in a Meistersaenger song contest, a veritable revolutionary karaoke battle.  A trio of North Koreans well trained in the art combined their manly skills for a version of “With the Mood of the General [跟着将军的心情/Genzhe jiangjun de xinqing].”

Yet, not to be outdone, a Chinese diplomat took the mike to sing “Blue Sky of the Motherland (祖国的蓝天 Zuguo de lantian).”  Lest you think he was acting the “Shandong big man” or the “gusty Northeasterner,” using a Chinese song to assert some claim to Mount Paektu, referring to the blue waters of Lake Cheongi, think again!

Blue Sky of the Motherland is not only a fine vehicle for a mellifluous baritone, it is an epic North Korean song!  This karaoke version on Youku indicates the lengths to which Chinese diplomats will go to keep the North Koreans happy — a two minute entr’acte as part of a 7.5 minute song?  Now that is serious commitment.  Lips and teeth may have initiated this alliance, but it is the vocal chords that are going to keep it together.

And by the way, if you think the North Koreans have nothing to be proud of in juxtaposition to the Chinese, take a gander at the Chinese analogue of the song,  “I Love the Motherland’s Blue Sky.”  It’s really quite profane in comparison.

Finally, the Japanese press (via NK Leadership Watch) reports that the U.S. and North Korea are talking about finally dropping the other shoe and getting a North Korean symphony orchestra to visit the United States.

Now, if we can just get a bunch of soju-infused North Korean violinists into a karaoke room on Wilshire Blvd. or South Tacoma Way and woo them with a little “Blue Skies of the Motherland,”  then the Korean War might be over before you can say “Next up: Can do! Can go!”

Pyongyang, Vicariously

Reports from Pyongyang tend to cohere to a standard “Western journalists under control in North Korea” theme.  What sets the best ones apart?  

1. “Parallel Universe,” an Australian piece from 2007, features Bradley Martin, author of Under the Care of the Fatherly Leader: 

2. “Welcome to North Korea,” a 2001 documentary, runs nearly an hour, and somehow manages to reach a level of profundity through analysis of the various guides at revolutionary sites:

3. “Pyongyang: Journey in North Korea,” a bande desinée/graphic novel-travel memoir by Guy Delisle, is here briefly rendered with sound and voice-overs by a student of graphic arts, to good effect:

NK-PRC Roundup

The Korean Central News Agency — as well as the Chinese Embassy — in Pyongyang has been putting out all manner of noteworthy stuff lately which is worth some commentary.  Youthful themes abound.

1. Chinese Ambassador on a Farewell (Business) Tour of the Border Region

Outgoing Ambassador Liu Xiaoming Greets Liaoning Party Secretary Wang Min, sporting the "Casual Cadre/Bon Vivant/Bai Jiu Connaisseur" look

If it weren’t already obvious that China wants to move into overdrive with plans for North Korean economic expansion, Liu Xiaoming, the outgoing PRC Ambassador to the DPRK, just finished a four day tour of the borderland which focused on the city on Dandong.

Liu was mainly meeting with Chinese provincial leaders, looking comfortable, but the function of such visits is likely also to demonstrate to North Korea China’s willingness to engage in a comprehensive fashion, or its “united front” in presenting North Korea with business opportunities and expertise.  There’s a great deal more to say about this trip, and Liu’s tenure as ambassador, but it shall have to suffice to note the obvious irony of dubbing 2009, the disastrous year in Sino-North Korean relations, “the year of Sino-Korean Friendship,” or — be said without irony — “a year of historical firsts.”

And isn’t it awkward to have to proclaim that “2010 is going to be the year we take our relationship to yet another higher  level” after 2009 that already failed in doing just that, in spite of how you try to spin it?

2. North Korean Students on a 1,000 ri/里  journey

A large group of North Korean students have begun a reenactment of Kim Il Sung’s walk northward from Pyongyang to Kanggye and then on to the Chinese border.  This is harrowing stuff in the middle of the winter!

KCNA summarizes events here,  but far better is Michael Madden’s must-read analysis of the send-off in Pyongyang, which he entitles “Truckin’ with the Kim Il Sung Youth League.”  Madden’s blog (NK Leadership Watch) also provides an excellent series of screen captures from KCTV coverage of the event.

Where is Huchang, the border town I saw from over the miserable Yalu this past summer, and the students’ destination?  See the map here.

Moves which augur…

3. A Much More Pronounced Emphasis on Youth and Succession

There’s really no analysis necessary: this, this, and this story make completely obvious that North Korea is currently in the throes of an ongoing quest for successor preparation.

4. Kim Jong Il Enjoys Old-School Revolutionary Fare

While he allows speculation to continue about his possible trip to China in February for yet another tour of reformist enterprises he has no intention of allowing to exist in North Korea, the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il is instead enjoying some old-school military entertainment in Pyongyang.  Writing of one particular unit’s performance, KCNA noted:

They clearly proved the validity and vitality of the WPK’s policy of conducting performing activities of anti-Japanese guerrilla style by fully displaying the enthusiasm and mettle with which they have conducted militant frontline information service and frontline agitation at every post and drill ground to arouse servicepersons to perform feats in their struggle. They, at the same time, fully demonstrated the might of artistes of the army successfully performing their militant mission as honorable sentinels standing on the first-line of the ideological front.

5. Conversations Continue on the Chinese Internet About North Korea

Lately, I’ve been enjoying this BBS thread entitled “Kim Jong Il Savagely Criticizes China’s Reform and Opening Up as Poisonous for North Korea”, with its detailed misunderstandings of China’s centrality to the existence of the historical DPRK.  And, since Chinese cultural norms have a way of making their way into North Korean cities like Chongjin via Yanbian, I found somewhat unusual this post on the Yanbian City webpage which takes its object the female orgasm.

Which leads me to this: a BBS thread critiques Kim Jong Il’s “comfort corps” of women, indicating that pretty much anything now goes in China when it comes to mocking the North Korean leadership online.  Television viewers in China may get little in the way of parody of, or mockery toward, the DPRK, but there is plenty it now sitting nicely ensconced behind the Great Firewall.  Whatever will the North Koreans say when they finally get Internet cafes in bilingual Sinuiju?

Talented North Korean Kids

Excellent Resource: DPRK TV on YouTube

I have had the signal pleasure of running across a few YouTube snippets from Korean Central Television before on that Zeitgeist-friendly medium of YouTube, but the site maintained by this particular North Korea fan in Mexico (or so it appears) is particularly rich and frequently updated.

Here is the 5-minute coverage of Wen Jiabao’s welcome at the Pyongyang airport:

 The above film really does much better justice than photographic sources of how North Koreans are encouraged to perceive the visit.  Note the dwelling, at length, of the major (or whatever his rank may be) huffing out his welcome at Wen Jiabao as the military sword quivers at his side.  For a Chinese audience used to associated sabers with Japanese imperialism (and a quick perusal through commemorative magazine covers from summer 2005 ought to do the trick), this is potentially intimidating stuff.  Which is why the KCNA editors left it in, and Xinhua/CCTV leaves it out.

Similarly, the cuts of the national anthems are interesting, if predictable.  The wind band plays the opening salvo of the PRC national anthem (“March of the Volunteers,” the Nie Er War of Resistance original) which is clipped immedately into the DPRK national anthem and the five-pointed star set in red.  No sight of the Chinese flag, symbol of the old Minsaengdan incident!

Here, by contrast, is how CCTV depicted Wen Jiabao’s trip to the Martyr’s Cemetary outside of Pyongyang, which I covered more extensively here  (in a link endorsed by Danwei.org) and here:

[Video forthcoming….trouve trouve trouve]

And, since it’s YouTube, I begin to wonder how this particular attack of North Korean soccer goalies against international referees while Chinese fans scream, win, and wave their red flags at the wailing DPRK defense played out at the time among Chinese newspaper readers and netizens.  Life is always so calm on that blue No. 2 subway from Guloudajie to Chaoyang (my summer morning bureaucratic and beautiful commute) that it’s hard to imagine someone snorting aloud at the news, but I wouldn’t put it past the Chinese press to emphasize.  Wait a minute — depicting North Koreans as wild and out of control?   I thought that was something of which only “Western media” was capable!     

Finally, here, via  is a lovely bit of song from the DPRK, also carried via that prolific Mexican fan of Juche: 

Call me easily manipulated, but you just can’t argue with the orchestration, the melody, or the voice.  This is lovely stuff which might even surpass Rimsky-Korsakov, the original orchestrator-genius (after the Frenchman Hector Berlioz, that is) whose work trickled down into socialist manuals.  Everyone always, always rips on the North Koreans for being all extra Soviet, when in some ways they are more deeply connected in their arts and literature to the Russian romantic tradition, not to mention the pop trends of Japan in the late 1970s. 

Finally, mentioning this here, although it could just as well arrive in a Sino-Japanese post, as the man straddles the line of nationality:  Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa [小澤征爾], born in Manchuria in the 1930s and one of the great musicians of our time, has been diagnosed with cancer and is cancelling all performances for the next six months.  Time to mount up some intense positive thoughts/prayers for this man and, if you can, amp up your own musical performances.  The world is going to lose a bit of expressiveness and intensity for a spell, so let’s connect to cleave the deficit and hurdle the divides. 

Seiji Ozawa, via Xinhua -- click image for story

Gratuitous Citations, or, “How Non-Interactive yet potentially Toxically (or intoxicating in a lockbox) Erudite Print Scholarship with Zero Exciting Hyperlinks Finds its way onto the S.V. Blog”: 

If you desire analysis of a more academic vintage of the musical competition and provenance of the respective national anthems within the matrix of der Aufbau des Sozialismus [era of building socialism: 1945-1950], see :

Adam Cathcart, “Song of Youth: North Korean Music from Liberation to War,” North Korean Review Vol. 4, No. 1 (Fall 2008), 93-104.

Adam Cathcart, “Japanese Devils and American Wolves: Chinese Communist Songs from the War of Liberation and the Korean War,” forthcoming in Popular Music and Society, Vol. 33, no. 2 (May 2010).

North Korean “Dream of Red Chamber”: Chinese Netizens Comment / 北朝鲜领导做梦的红楼

While the Anglophone media is predictably aflutter with speculation over the meaning of Envoy Bosworth’s Pyongyang visit, Sino-North Korean diplomacy continues apace.

One of the more interesting threads of late is, to my mind, the cultural turn.  North Korea is using cultural diplomacy in an effort to reinforce to the Chinese that the traditional fundament of their alliance remains strong in spite of nuclear intransigence, and that North Koreans maintain a genuine respect for, and interest in, Chinese culture.

Last week we had a Korean People’s Army cultural troupe doing the rounds in Shenyang and Beijing while the Beijing vice-mayor — keeping in mind that there are probably six people with this title, as vice-chairmen tend to proliferate in the PRC — was in Pyongyang for talks.

And the crown jewel of this cultural offensive toward the PRC from Pyongyang has been the staging as an opera of “Dream of the Red Chamber”  a canonical Chinese novel of an upper-class Qing dynasty clan set in Beijing.  North Korea took great pains to get this done for Wen Jiabao’s visit, and it seemed calculated to go beyond Wen and reach the Chinese audience in the midst of its own boom of interest in Qing-era culture.  This was “the Chinese wave” minus the Confucius Institutes!

Now that the Americans are in town, the Huanqiu Shibao reports, the regime in Pyongyang is amping up Chinese culture further by pledging to make a movie production of “Dream of the Red Chamber.

Sea of Blood Theater Troupe (Pyongyang) does "Dream of the Red Chamber" -- What's next, Tennessee Williams? -- via Huanqiu Shibao

Based upon Chinese internet reaction, it isn’t going quite as intended.

Among the netizen comments on the story, roughly translated, are:

“[North Koreans are ] a race/nationality unable to progress — 一个不思进取的民族”

“Cao Xueqin [the author of “Dream of the Red Chamber,” ancestrally from Liaoyang on the old Koguryo frontier] will also be claimed as a Korean —  曹雪芹很快也会成为高丽人的”

[“I am also afraid about this!” chimes in another.]

“For the millionth time, you cannot say the ‘Dream of the Red Chamber’ belongs to them — 千万不要说红楼梦也是他们的啊”

“Truly a bunch of idiots — s b真多”

“Who cares? North Korea is already going down — 无所谓啦,朝鲜再这样下去就完了”

“The clothes don’t look bad, but the actors are ugly — 衣服不错,就是人不怎么好看啊”

“Don’t watch this useless stuff!  North Korea will never truly sympathize with China.  When it serves their purpose, they call China ‘grandfather,’ when they don’t need to use us, they bite at China’s feet.  Don’t replay the old story of the farmer and the snake! [!!!]  — 别看那些没用的,朝鲜永远都不应该值得中国同情。用的时候中国是他的爹,不用的时候,把中国踩在脚下,农夫和蛇的故事不能再上演了!!!!”

And in the middle of all of this, right after a few overheated comments that got deleted, is a bit of total farce:

“Long live Sino-North Korean friendship! — 中朝友谊万岁!”

If you think Kim Jong-il doesn’t take opera seriously as a tool of statecraft, ask yourself why he invited the New York Philharmonic to Pyongyang to play Wagner, or why Jang Song-thaek emerged from his purge at an opera with the Dear Leader, or why Russian maestros have more up-to-date intelligence on Kim Jong Il’s health than Bill Clinton, or why children learn Sea of Blood in all its forms.

Or you could just run a word search “opera” on Michael Madden’s excellent North Korea Leadership Watch blog and see what you net.

And now the day is upon us, light from the East! and the Valkyries are off.

Chinese Moves in Pyongyang: Prepare Ye the Way

As U.S. Envoy Stephen Bosworth touches down in Pyongyang, what is the up-to-date state of relations between North Korea and its ostensible Chinese ally?

The Nov. 30 revaluation of the North Korean currency by Pyongyang appeared to shock the Chinese government and subsequently elicited disapproval in the Chinese news media. Then, apparently not taking the hint, North Korea abruptly announced it was cutting off tourism from China.   (There are still a few tour groups milling around inside North Korea until December 10, but Xinhua considerately let us know they would be just fine and should not in any way be considered economic hostages.)

Of course shock waves  continue to reverberate throughout North Korean society from the currency restructuring; depending on the source, North Korea is either in total revolutionary ferment, or the Workers’ Party is handling things in stride while further alienating their population.  According to this eagerly-awaited Good Friends report from inside North Korea, the regime seems to be fully in control, and appeared to anticipate trouble with public reception of the move.  In fact, the regime cut off the telephones in Pyongyang preemptively:

On November 30, at around 9 am, prior to the announcement of currency exchange measures, the Central Telephone Bureau completely blocked all automatic process in their branches in all areas of Pyongyang City. This action was to prevent “the leak of any secret regarding currency exchange and (causing) exchange of conversation regarding the national sovereignty” through telephones.

Perhaps I’m overreading, but I also read that last sentence as “Don’t tell the Chinese ambassador.”  North Korea has a well-documented habit of springing spontaneous “gifts” upon China, well, like the Korean War, for instance, or the capture of the U.S.S. Pueblo in 1968.

So what in fact was the dapper PRC Ambassador in Pyongyang, Liu Xiaoming, doing in this chaotic milieu?  What was China up to in anticipation of Stephen Bosworth’s visit from Washington, via Seoul?  It seems pretty obvious that China would give its eyeteeth to see a Bosworthian breakthrough and get the DPRK back into the structure of the Six Party Talks [六方会谈].

One indicator exists in a visit of a Chinese delegate that seems to have gone under the radar in all but the diplomatic circles: Chen Zhili to Pyongyang on November 30 for a five day “friendship visit.”  KCNA reported on the conclusion to her visit in its typically stilted way:

Vice-Chairwoman of CNPC on Sino-DPRK Friendship

Pyongyang, December 6 (KCNA) — The year of Sino-DPRK friendship will always remain recorded in the history, said Chen Zhili, vice-chairwoman of the Standing Committee of the Chinese National People’s Congress, when giving impressions of her visit to the DPRK.

This year is the year of Sino-DPRK friendship as it marked the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between China and the DPRK, she noted, and continued:

The traditional Sino-DPRK relations of friendship and cooperation were provided by Chairman Mao Zedong, the great leader of the Chinese people, and President Kim Il Sung, the great leader of the Korean people. Kim Il Sung was the great leader of the Korean people and a close friend of the Chinese people. The Chinese people will never forget the exploits performed by him by making a great contribution to the Chinese revolution.

The Sino-DPRK relations are growing stronger as the days go by under the deep care of the top leaders of the two countries. President Hu Jintao and General Secretary Kim Jong Il jointly declared the beginning of the year of Sino-DPRK friendship on January 1 this year. The functions held this year reconfirmed the unbreakable nature of the friendly and cooperative relations between the two parties, two countries and two peoples forged through the struggle for their common cause.

I was deeply impressed to see the drive of the strong-willed and diligent Korean people, she said, and continued:

The Korean people are dynamically waging a 100-day campaign, united close around Kim Jong Il. We are pleased with the fact that the Korean people have made great progress in the revolution and construction in the spirit of self-reliance and fortitude under the leadership of the Workers’ Party of Korea headed by Kim Jong Il. We sincerely hope that the fraternal Korean people will register greater success in their efforts to open the gate to a great prosperous and powerful nation in 2012, the centenary of birth of Kim Il Sung.

Only — big surprise here — that’s not quite what was reported in the Chinese news media.  Here, via the National People’s Congress Chinese website and People’s Daily, and following some bromides from Kim Yong-nam, is what she said.  I think it’s interesting for the subtle clues:

陈至立表示,中朝传统友谊是两国老一辈领导人亲手缔造和培育的,经受了国际风云变幻的考验。在两国领导人直接关心和双方共同努力下,中朝关系保持良好发展 势头,今年友好年活动取得了圆满成功。中方愿同朝方一道,继承和发扬友好传统,推动中朝关系不断向前发展,更好地造福两国人民。中国全国人大愿同朝鲜最高 人民会议进一步加强友好交流与合作,为两国关系发展不断注入新的活力。

Chen Zhili at memorial in Pyongyang for Chinese People's Volunteer troops / Korean War -- via National People's Congress website

More sources on Sino-North Korean ties this week:

Chen Zhili’s November 30 dialogue with Chae Thae-bok [최태복/崔泰福 ], himself the head of the Supreme People’s Assembly ;

Notes on cultural relations: PLA generals attend KPA arts troupe shows in Pyongyang [via PRC Embassy in Pyongyang]; and PLA-KPA cultural cooperation in Shenyang [via KCNA;

Meetings with Beijing’s vice-mayor [via PRC Embassy in Pyongyang];

Useful Resource:

DPRK online translation handbook — A wonderful if incomplete feature for people such as myself for whom hanja will always reign supreme over hangul, no matter the attractions of the latter.

[It’s a unique day over here, so I anticipate doing a bit more translation of the Chen Zhili stuff in light of making good on my rather promising title; the idea being that of a US-China partnership at this moment, embarking on a 3-Kingdoms style campaign to persuade the North to mend its ways.  Futile?   Perhaps.  Interesting?  Undoubtedly.]