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Comment on the North Korean Missile Launch

I was on BBC television this evening (via the Leeds studio) discussing the North Korean missile launch with Celia Hatton, who, fortunately for me and the BBC, is a veteran ‘China hand’ with years of experience in Beijing. Hatton is now a presenter in London, and she was kind enough to have a discussion with me about the relevant issues prior to going on the air, and also to give me the chance to fully debrief a BBC News producer so as to carve down areas of maximum value for our on-air time.

As the episode is not on the BBC iPlayer, I thought I would share a few of the ideas here.

  • China was possibly forewarned about the test on 7 February at the DPRK Embassy in Beijing.
  • North Korean leaders are hypersensitive to Chinese pressure and influence in their country.
  • China is structurally locked in to (and indeed voted for) United Nations sanctions on North Korea, but enforcement along the border is not a matter for UN inspectors and its long-range plan hopes are for a limited renaissance of capitalism or marketization in North Korea.
  • The PRC Foreign Ministry was absolutely seized on Friday with questions about Trump and Taiwan, and has yet to comment on the launch.
  • Although the US State Department is still lacking bodies, American alliances with South Korea and Japan were among the few areas that the Trump administration officials (not just obvious candidates like General Mattis, but the embattled National Security Advisor Michael Flynn) had made efforts to shore up prior to the current launch.
  • The US has yet to take Kim Jong-un and his regime to task for human rights violations at the UN or elsewhere, which is surely appreciated by Pyongyang.
  • North Korean state media has not taken anything resembling a provocative step by denouncing Donald Trump, James Mattis, or Mike Flynn by name, even though both Mattis and Flynn have met with hated members of the South Korean state and the U.S. plans military drills in Korea next month.
  • Even if the Trump administration dissolves into a heap of factionalism, isolationist ethnonationalism, and total ineptitude, Congress is going to continue to push for secondary sanctions on Chinese firms doing business with North Korea; this problem is not going away.

A few related tweets:

Image: Kim Jong-un in a new apartment building elevator for scientists with a decidedly Trumpian touch. Screengrab from Chosun Central Television documentary. 

What does Kim Jong-un think of ‘The Interview’? Ask the NDC

Kim Jong-un is the head of the National Defence Commission (NDC), which is functionally the top organ of state power in North Korea (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea). While no small debate exists about how skillful the young Kim Jong-un is as a bureaucrat, the extent to which he is operating under the influence of senior advisors, etc., there is no doubt that documents issued by the NDC are passing through his hands and, at a bare minimum, need to be approved by Kim Jong-un prior to publication.

Therefore, today’s statement by the Policy Department of the NDC represents the closest thing we have to Kim Jong-un’s own outlook on recent noteworthy events. Among the other more striking statements in the document is: “The DPRK has clear evidence that the U.S. administration was deeply involved in the making of such dishonest reactionary movie.”

The whole thing has to be read to be believed. I’ve compiled it in three languages below at the link. Curiously, no Chinese version of the document was issued, but that is part of altogether another story.

NDC Policy Department Statement on ‘The Interview’ and Sony Hacking Scandal, 21 December 2014 (full text in pdf.)

Carter in Pyongyang, Kim Jong Il in Changchun: Commentary

BEIJING — Jimmy Carter hardly rehabilitated the malevolent North Korean regime by showing up in Pyongyang, but the country’s communist leaders were undoubtedly glad to see him.  Kim Jong Il’s government is desperate to brandish success: it is nervously preparing for a Party Congress next month, an event where Kim Jong Eun, the youngest scion of Kim’s sprawling and polygamous family tree, will presumably be revealed as the  new symbolic leader of the North Korean revolution.  Given that Kim Jong Eun is all of 26 years old and that his only discernable resumé item involves an interest in digital technology, Carter’s trip lends the regime some badly-needed face as well as offering the possibility of relaxed tensions with the US.

Meanwhile, the US Navy is undertaking massive military manoeuvres off of Korea’s eastern coast; a recent flood in the ricebowl province of North Pyong’an has made North Korea vulnerable again to famine and further dependent on outside aid.  Adding to the pressure are the multiple missteps North Korea has taken to anger its Chinese patron.

Under such turbulent circumstances, the United States can either play it safely, taking its time in negotiating with an atrophied North Korean leadership, or provoke further crisis in North Korean inner circles by offering the country a grand bargain, giving North Korean pragmatists – assuming that all such people still exist  – a powerful argument for normalization as a possible pillar of what is now being called Kim Jong Il’s “undying legacy.”

For the ailing and obstreperous Kim Jong Il, urgency seems the order of the day.  Given that he himself had held public posts in the Party for some 34 years before assuming power after his father’s death, Kim Jong Il has reason to be nervous.  Kim and his son’s alleged trip to revolutionary sites in China (during Carter’s visit, no less) betrays the kind of impulsive behaviour for which they are famous, but also indicates a strong desire to link the successor to the revolutionary legitimacy of state founder Kim Il Song.  Like a Senate candidate from New York visiting Israel, Kim Jong Eun’s ostensible voyage to Manchuria represents a politically resonant trip to the Holy Land — in this case, a Holy Land where the North Korean state religion of guerrilla anti-Japanese militarism was spawned.  It also reminds North Koreans of Kim Il Sung’s achievements at a similarly young age and implies that precociousness should not be held against Kim Jong Eun – a tough sell in a country where communism seems actually to have strengthened certain Confucian values.

North Korea may appear to be limping along, but at the coming moment of transition, signs exist that stability may prevail.  There is today no massive exodus of North Korean refugees, no sign of a Romania-style implosion on the frontiers of this cultish state, no emergence of a North Korean Robespierre.  Although a few South Korean pop melodies linger among youth in the cities, all comprehensive alternative religions have been suffocated.  The remnants of civil society lie split and desiccated like roots on the slashed-and-burned hills of North Hamgyong; individuals in regional cities like Hamhung float though their days in disembodied ennui deepened by drugs and alcohol, not scrawling dissident agit-prop.

North Korea has strengthened discipline along its northern border, slowing greatly the movement of the hungry and the economically ambitious North Koreans into China.  Domestic markets are shedding the bruises from the body blow of the disastrous state currency revaluation last December and the state seems determined to talk – if not to alleviate – the deficits in living standards and consumer goods.  For the time being, the North Korean leaders are eschewing another “speed campaign” launched with ample propaganda, insufficient industrial resources, and still fewer calories.

Along with the Carter visit, these are small signs of success to which North Korean leaders are no doubt pointing to in their internal discussions.  For a small, besieged, and potentially haemorrhaging state like North Korea, a crises averted must be counted as a signal victory.  Christian missionaries along the swollen rivers that form North Korea’s border with China and remote-control “analysts” in Langley, Virginia, may be waiting a very long time for North Korea’s collapse.

A present turn in relations with North Korea may still be possible, and would certainly be supported by China.  PRC border guards are still heaving the occasional North Korean refugee back into the wolfish maw of the North Korean gulags, but there is simply no question that China was instrumental in facilitating Carter’s visit and is doing nearly everything it can to reduce – if not erase – US tensions with North Korea.  For North Korean negotiators, a 3-day session in Pyongyang by the coin-and-criticism heavy Chinese bigwig Wu Dawei cleared the way for Carter, who stopped here in Beijing for consultations, probably with Hillary Clinton’s mentor on North Korean issues, Dai Bingguo, before going to Pyongyang.

China supports a US-DPRK rapprochement, but East Asian hawks and Japanese neoconservatives will be sceptical of possible backroom deals between the US and North Korea.  The US lobby that has been crying for North Korea’s destruction since 1950 will call the whole process “appeasement,” wondering why Obama is not dropping special-ops forces into Chinese territory to start World War III.  Carter, however, has surely been reading his national security memos, and his visit brings US and Chinese goals on the Korean peninsula into closer harmony.  Given the underwater fissures in the region after the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan, there may be more beneficiaries of Carter’s voyage than the family of Alion Gomes or the Kim dynasty.  Continuing rapidly on the track to engagement with North Korea at the present time would add to the stress on Pyongyang and cause the North Korean internal debate around to succession to take into account the profitable possibility of peace with the United States.

Death of Chang Song U / DPRK updates

Surprisingly, this story seems not yet to have been picked up by English-language media.  Chang Song U, the brother of Chang Song Taek and a higher-up in the DPRK bureaucracy, was reported on August 25 by KCNA to have died.  Kim Jong Il was said to be saddened; much more detail is available in Chinese.

Chang Song U, RIP

Chang Song U, RIP

In the meantime, North Korean media is celebrating Youth Day, talking almost daily about pro-NK activities in war-torn Mexico, and slapping up as much anti-Japanese propaganda and historical grievance as possible (probably desperately hoping for an LDP/conservative miracle in the parliamentary elections, as a friendly Japan is precisely what the NK leadership doesn’t need from a propaganda/mobilization standpoint).  Again, I strongly recommend reading the Congressional testimony of Selig Harrison on the Korean-Japan dynamic; he has great insights here.  (Multiple links provided in previous post, just search “Harrison” within this blog to find.)  Jeff Rud, a student of Korean War crimes, has an insightful post on his blog on the basis for, and the uses of, recent anti-Japanese dispatches by KCNA.

Japanese troops harass Korean girl in North Korean children's story; anti-American comic up top (collection of Adam Cathcart)

Japanese troops harass Korean girl in North Korean children's story; anti-American comic up top (collection of Adam Cathcart)

Although Hatoyama, the presumptive new Japanese P.M., speaks well of China and would be a significant improvement over the current occupant (Aso of the LDP), China is also angry with Japan at the moment.  However, their reasons are more “War on Terror” related (at least in Beijing’s thought): Japan admitted Uighur independence leader Rebiya Khadeer in July, and so they are being punished by a naval snub.

If China was really gutsy, Xinhua would grab my citation from the Nazi archives about NSDAP/Imperial Japanese wartime propaganda insisting on Xinjiang’s independence.  Now that is a plot!

I have no inside information on the five North Korean officials in Los Angeles so will remain basically mum on that topic.   However, we should take note that they (or some pro-North Korean organization in Los Angeles, apparently) made a statement on August 21 about the need to “elimnate traitors” which is certainly meant to provide some political cover to hardline elements in in Pyongyang or the KPA brass who might otherwise be opposed to accepting an invitation to Los Angeles, which is way beyond the normal circumference in New York/Jersey out of which North Korean officials are normally not allowed to travel in the U.S.  The fact that they drove around in a private car near LAX (they almost certainly arrived on a direct flight from Beijing) both gives me great respect for their death-defying tactics of braving LA’s legendary traffic and the small but persistent power of people-to-people, or Track II, exchanges.

And, as a final reminder that things are warming up with the Chinese, we have news of a Chinese delegation in the DPRK from August 17-21, and frequent performance of a new musical about the Chinese PLA’s liberation of Shanghai, the very city where China is returning the favor by quashing the broadcast of film documentaries critical of Pyongyang.

Yonhap Reports: Bill Clinton to North Korea

Yonhap News Agency reports that Bill Clinton is heading to North Korea to negotiate release of two American journalists.  The White House has no comment for the moment.  

KCNA’s (Korean Central News Agency) website is mute for the moment on the topic, but KCNA announced via radio that Clinton had arrived in Pyongyang.  Yesterday the North Korean news contained a short post calling for  Lee Myung Bak to “ensure the people’s vital and democratic rights and release all the prisoners of conscience if he is truly willing to serve the people,” which might be interpreted as related.  

On June 16, KCNA released its most detailed description so far regarding the journalists:

KCNA Detailed Report on Truth about Crimes Committed by American Journalists

Pyongyang, June 16 (KCNA) — The Korean Central News Agency on Tuesday released a detailed report laying bare the facts about the crimes committed by the American journalists who were arrested for having illegally trespassed into the border of the DPRK and committed hostile acts against it for which they were tried.

According to it, at dawn of March 17 unidentified two men and two women covertly crossed the River Tuman to intrude into its bank of the DPRK side in Kangan-ri, Onsong County, North Hamgyong Province. The two women were arrested on the spot. 

The arrestees were confirmed to be Chinese-American Laura Ling, 32, correspondent of the Current TV, and south Korean-American Seung-Un Lee, 36, editor of the Current TV.

The investigation proved that the intruders crossed the border and committed the crime for the purpose of making animation files to be used for an anti-DPRK smear campaign over its human rights issue.

The preliminary investigation proved that they had a confab on producing and broadcasting a documentary slandering the DPRK with Mitch Koss, executive producer of programming of the Current TV, David Neuman, president of programming, and David Harleston, head of the Legal Department of Current TV, and other men in Los Angeles, U.S. in January.

A trial of the accused was held at the Pyongyang City Court from June 4 to 8.

At the trial the accused admitted that what they did were criminal acts committed, prompted by the political motive to isolate and stifle the socialist system of the DPRK by faking up moving images aimed at falsifying its human rights performance and hurling slanders and calumnies at it.

In the name of the DPRK the Central Court determined ten years of hard labor according to Provision 69 of the Criminal Code and four years of hard labor according to Provision 233 of the Criminal Code for the accused Laura Ling and Seung-Un Lee and sentenced them to 12 years of hard labor according to Provision 44 of the Criminal Code.

The prison term is counted from March 22, 2009, when the accused were detained and it was pronounced that the judgment is unappealable.

The criminals admitted and accepted the judgment.

We are following with a high degree of vigilance the attitude of the U.S. which spawned the criminal act against the DPRK. 

French Dispatches from Tokyo: Philippe Pons on North Korean Provocations

Why Read the European Press re: East Asia? A Justification
I operate on assumptions that more sources, even flawed ones, are better than fewer.  (I also believe, unlike the classic example of Dick Cheney in 2002-03, that as we sift through these sources, it is important to let a thesis develop out of them rather than imposing one from above.)  Grabbing a wider net can only bring more perspectives to bear.  So even if European reporting on East Asia were all “wailing and gnashing of teeth,” racist and hopelessly biased, we still might want to take a look at it, and feed it through our filters.  And, because European reporting from East Asia is not in fact beyond hope, it is worth stating plainly: there appear to be more European reporters in East Asia than American reporters, and the substance of the reporting tends to be better.

A second reason is that, in the process of translation, we can sometimes fina a new level of analysis or a fitting phrase, a new way of thinking about a problem which has not heretofore existed in English.  I’ll give a few examples below.

Now, to the quality-of-reporting issue:

Take, for instance, Le Monde versus the New York Times.  The New York Times is particularly guilty or lacksidasical reporting from Tokyo; reporting from Japan is either business-centered [although there is still precious little of even this] or of the human-interest variety.  Whale meat!  Snow in Niigata!  Girls in kimonos graduate from high school!  With an occasional foray into demographic crisis or history controversies, there is simply not enough decent reporting from Japan in the financially-strapped and Middle-East oriented New York Times.  Perhaps the Los Angeles Times is somewhat better; and fortunately the Seattle Times does come through with a good original story from Asia from time to time.  (One on Beijing hip-hop where the author went to Mao Live House between Gulou and Dongzhimen stands out as a particular favorite; the Seattle Times also seems to have a corner on stories about Japanese baseball.)

By contrast to the NYT, reporter Philippe Pons has been writing some decent dispatches lately for Le Monde from Tokyo.  The following piece is quite good; I haven’t sufficient time for a full translation, but here are a few significant points [again, with apologies for the lack of diacritical marks]:

Philippe Pons, “Pyongyang prend le risque de fragiliser ses arrieres,” Le Monde, 30 May 2009, p. 2.

North Korea, according to Pons, has been engaged in overloading the international system with problems (“montee au creaneau”) in order to attract attention.
Pons interviews Chongryon members (pro-north Koreans in Japan), describes them as “seething with frustration” over the north’s recent actions.
In a couple of solid reminders, Pons notes that the anti-“Sunshine Policy” Lee Myong-bak’s February 2008 election was a turning point for DPRK’s foreign policy; he further states the obvious but often forgotten fact that “in theory, the two Koreas are still at war every day.”
Pons describes 2012 as an “echenance” or “due date” for North Korea; the centenary of Kim Il Song’s birth is taken quite seriously by the author as a driving force for regime short-term planning in Pyongyang; presumably, this year might serve as the appropriate time for a more global or official announcement of Kim Jong-un’s accession plans
Pons may be a Frenchman in Japan, but he is on the phone with experts in Seattle (Peter Beck) and San Francisco (Scott Snyder).  Beck believes that internal factors outweigh external factors in gauging North Korean recent behavior.  In other words, domestic politics trumps whatever international backlash might rain down on the North for nuclear tests, grabbing American journalists, etc.
The North Korean missile launch on April 5 2009 was a means of not just testing  ballistic capabilities, but also of testing Barack Obama.
Pons quotes a “South Korean commentator”/talking head Shim Jae-hoon, who states that “Kim Jong Il is playing his last game of poker.”  This is a strong image without much analytical value, but it’s how Shim pays his bills.
China is described as “the queen on the chessboard on account of its ties with North Korea” (“la piece maitresse de l’echiquer en raison de ses liens avec la DPRK”).  It is this kind of metaphor that has been lacking in the American press, to my knowledge.  Everyone leans on China to influence the North, but to liken it to the queen in a game of (Western) chess seems to better capture the overall situation.  China can intimidate, cajole, work with other partners, etc., but it is far from omnipotent.  Particularly if it is distrustful of “the rook” to which we might liken Japan.

Philippe Pons, “Les enjeux geostrategiues de la crise coreenne,” Le Monde, 10 June 2009, p. 2.

Pons discusses the international/regional aspects of the crisis.