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Hyun Ok Park’s History of the Cultural Revolution in Yanbian

This review was originally published at SinoNK.com, as part of a roundtable including contributions from Andre Schmid (University of Toronto) and Robert Winstanley-Chesters (Australian National University). 

Paradoxically, scholarship that attempts to explode the frame of the nation-state can be most useful for scholars concerned precisely with what occurs within state boundaries. In the case of The Capitalist Unconscious: From Korean Unification to Transnational Korea, the ardent drive to reframe the nation results in an exquisitely useful chapter for scholars concerned with the history of ethnic Koreans, or Chosonjok, in eastern Jilin province, whose intellectual forays into neighboring North Korea tend to be fleeting.

Scholarly writings about the experiences of “minority nationalities” during the Cultural Revolution on the frontiers of the PRCs are still relatively few, although growing. Among the best entrants are Kerry Brown’s The Purge of the Inner Mongolian People’s Party, 1967-69 (which originated as a PhD dissertation at Leeds University), and Melvyn Goldstein’s galvanizing 2009 book on Nyemo, a Tibetan county taken over by a charismatic spiritual medium woman, and where the intersection between ethnic nationalism, traditional religion, and Maoism became extraordinarily violent in 1969.

When it comes to viewpoints on the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture during the Cultural Revolution, few works have shed much light; or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that light has been shed from a small number of works which have been rendered dim by virtue of their isolation. An early fieldwork report, “The Effects of the Cultural Revolution on the Korean Minority in Yenpien,” was Setsure Tsurushima’s useful effort to unpack his 1976 fieldwork to the region, but was more geared toward travelogue and institutional history than unpacking the full brunt of how the Cultural Revolution had fallen upon interpersonal relations in the region, much less a cataloging of cadre who had been struggled against. A more recent addition in Korean Studies, published in 2010, “Nationalism and Ethnic Identity in the Sino-Korean Border Region of Yanbian, 1945–1950,” looked forward to the Cultural Revolution via a biographical template of Chu Dok-hae. Dr. Park’s chapter easily surpasses these works, resulting in the most in-depth treatment of the Cultural Revolution in Yanbian yet to appear in English, describing the impact that the Maoist revolution had on Korean minorities in China and in the subsequent diaspora.

The formation of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in 1952 is often marked as a defining moment in the Chosonjok as a minzu, or nationality, within the boundaries of the PRC. But, as Park shows, the back story and the tensions within it are more interesting. The designation of Koreans as a “model minority” in China went beyond levels of education; there were revolutionary behaviors and struggles against Japan dating back to the colonial era. As in her previous work, Park is impatient with dominant narratives, and thus moves beyond the historiographically monolithic themes of anti-Japanese guerrilla resistance and the Korean War.

Park focuses on Chu Dok-hae, the secretary of the Party and arguably the most prominent political Chosunjok since 1949. Chu had been at Yenan in the 1930s, was a friend of Zhou Enlai and did much to help the CCP consolidate eastern Jilin province in the late 1940s. He also was a pivotal link for the Central Committee with the Northeast — along with the controversial Gao Gang (the Chinese equivalent of Pak Han-yong, whose purge in Pyongyang preceded Gao’s by a year). From a newly-socialist Yanbian, Chu supported the war effort in Korea, providing Korean interpreters for the Chinese People’s Volunteers in the battlefield and also creating linkages with North Korean institutions like Kim Il Sung University.

A large new permanent museum exhibition for Chu, on the top floor of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Region History Museum, mirrors the official histories in Yanbian by emphasizing Chu’s work in the 1940s and 1950s, and leaving his Cultural Revolution trauma out of the frame entirely, since, presumably, everyone local knows what happened anyway, and the notion that foreign visitors need not be bothered with scars caused by the Chinese Communist Party.

To borrow a phrase from Park’s title, there is nothing particularly “unconscious” about the way that Chu Dok-hae was destroyed; the Party which he had helped to build tore him apart. Chu was accused of ethnic nationalism, and finally lost his ability to shape events or soften punishments for Chosunjok accused by Han cadre or Red Guards of having been collaborators with the imperial Japanese or the Kuomintang. Park describes these fissures, but, like Melvyn Goldstein, does not seem interested in recreating binary treatment of ethnic victimization. Indeed, the Cultural Revolution served as a screen for their fellow ethnic Koreans to attack one another, often for colonial-era slights, a point brought out skillfully by Park in her interviews. (pp. 147-149)

Along the way, Park reveals how memories of the Cultural Revolution are lingering (often unconsciously) in South Korea, and discusses the difficulties encountered by ethnic Koreans during the collectivization leading to the Great Leap Forward. She also draws from a large number of official histories and biographies published in the mid-1980s in Yanji or Changchun, a time of relatively greater academic openness. (Fortunately for Sinologists who are not fluent in Korean, most of these materials are also available in Chinese). Some of the newest writing about Chu Dok-hae published in the northeast is not referenced, but this is to be expected in a book of this size and scope. Perhaps the Chinese state representatives will at some point make the full run of Yanbian archives available, or open a few more doors in their extraordinary museum. In the meantime, we all have more reading and re-reading to do, not least of this extraordinary chapter.

Image: Mural painting of Chu Dok-hae in Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture History Museum, 2014. Photo by Adam Cathcart. 

Yuanization and Currency Politics on the DPRK’s Chinese Frontier

North Korea’s long border with the People’s Republic of China is often seen as a permeable membrane for the movement of people and goods — in other words, as a conduit for smuggling. The movement of DVDs, USBs, and illicit drugs seems to get the most press (although North Korea is also involved in legal enterprises in China). Just as important than such illegal activity, if not moreso, to the ongoing functioning of the modified economy of the DPRK is the movement of Chinese yuan into North Korea.

Chris Green has emerged as one of the foremost experts on this very subject. In a recent podcast with Kurt Achin, he delved further into the topic, starting the conversation off with a historically-informed exploration of the North Korean currency itself. In the case of North Korea, does a cosmetic change yield policy changes? What does the state fear from an influx of foreign currency?  This podcast gives a great deal of insight into the matter.

Further on currency shifts: When I was in the PRC’S Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture earlier this month, the Yanbian Chenbao (延边晨报 / Morning Post) reported that two rural banks would now be trading in ROK won as well as rubles, and that South Korean-Russian transactions in the region could take place in won or rubles, rather than the US dollars that had previously prevailed. These ‘cultures of liquidity’ on the northern frontier of North Korea seem primed to expand further, and may have yet more impacts on the politics of foreign currency in the DPRK.

Viewing the DPRK’s 66th Anniversary through a Chinese Lens

The realities of daily life in North Korea are, at best, elusive for the outsider to grasp. A lack of personal experiences often interfere. Those of us who have never known hunger or the terror of a certain knock on the door can read tales of depravation of food and basic personal rights only in shock. In today’s world beyond the DPRK, empathy (and its contemporary twin, the online or broadcast expression of outrage) is a commodity too easily spread, too quickly spent, and too ultimately impotent to make much difference. Although much great work is being done that have given us more tools than ever in the quest to try to understand life in North Korea, the difficulties are still substantial for the reader. After all, if we did understand what life was like for a range of North Koreans, what would that knowledge do to us, and what would we be obligated to do with it?

Futility is the name of the game. But perhaps we might ‘fail upwards,’ doing better by failing together. In other words, if we cannot know North Korea, perhaps we might try to understand how another country strangely interprets it (or misunderstands it) in a different way.

Chinese interpretations of North Korea are so multiple as to be numbing. In contrast to the relatively short and positively dark US-North Korean relationship, the relations between the two countries and people of China and northern Korea have been both thick and deep, stretching back before the Korean War.

Today I picked up a short book on Chinese-North Korean economic relations published in Beijing in the 1980s that began with a straightforward assertion that the two ‘countries’ (China and North Korea) had relations dating back to the early Stone Age, meaning that any investigation of interpenetration along the border needed to be put into the a conceptual time-scope of thousands of years, rather than decades. And, along the Chinese frontier with North Korea, there is a kind of comfort with the DPRK as a neighbor that has seen its ups and downs.

By the same token, Chinese expressions of anger and disgust at North Korea have their very own special brand of venom and betrayal, which is all the more powerfully expressed by the often steadfast refusal to see North Korea as purely an exotic other. The Kim family exercises the politics of personal dictatorship over the country, which is something with which a few hundred million Chinese people have had some personal experience.
This is not to simply repeat what one often hears in China, i.e., the trope that ‘North Korea is just like China during the Cultural Revolution,’ because it is not.

If you follow the ongoing tide of debates over the Cultural Revolution in Chinese academic and media circles, along with academics in the West, you will find that the Cultural Revolution was in fact far more ‘democratic’ (in the sense of inviting mass participation and creative initiative, even if that initiative was primarily of a destructive bent) whereas the implementation of the North Korean cult of personality has never been anything less than micromanaged by the center, has not yet been hijacked by various rebel groups or factions within the leadership, and invariably results in intense expressions of loyalty through order rather than spontaneous expressions of localized violence.

Yanji, 9 September, 2014 

Chronicling the History of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in the PRC: 1990 Edition

Ambassador Jim Hoare has written a delightful and very informative essay for SinoNK.com, the website for which I serve as chief editor. When based in Beijing in 1990, Ambassador Hoare took a trip up to Yanji with Warwick Morris (who, unbeknownst to him at the time, was another future UK Ambassador to North Korea). Their photographs and recollections are included in a newly released (and free) e-journal, entitled The Tumen Triangle Documentation Project, Vol. 2, which all are invited to peruse and enjoy, via SinoNK.com.

There are also essays in this issue of TTDP about traveling from China to Rason, the China-DPRK drug problem, interviews with refugees from the border city of Hyesan, and even a look at Kim Il-song and the history of North Korean potato cultivation in the northern provinces. Chris Green, the international managing editor of DailyNK in Seoul, has written an excellent piece on the topic of the “yuanization” of North Korea, surely something scholars at Yanbian University have shown great interest in.

I was unable to shoehorn my own new writing about the Hyesan-Changbai juncture into the text, but the pdf. only shines all the better for the self-initiated exclusion. Do have a read; you won’t regret spending the time.


Sinews of Revolution on the Edge of Chinese and North Korean History

Peripheries are everything in the study of China, because they are so dangerous. Whether social peripheries or geographical, those who dwell on the margins — so tangibly aware of the possibilities of flight or of wresting away control from the guardians of order — pose a challenge to hegemonic structures.  When the social and geographical elements combine,  creating revolutionaries, powers residing in urban metropoles such as Beijing or Nanjing intensify that process of control governed by fear that is by now so familiar.

What prompts these thoughts? For the past week or so, I’ve been piecing through a text which I had picked up a few years back from a little used book shop in Yanji, near the North Korean border, on the subject of revolution in Yanbian, the extreme eastern edge of Manchuria, the ethnic-Korean region of China on the border with what is today the DPRK, or North Korea:

中共延边州委党史工作委员会,中共延边州委党史研究所 编,延边历史事件党史人物录 (新民主主义革命时期),[吉林省内部资料] (延吉:中共延边州委机关,1988), otherwise known as Catalog of Personalities and Events in the Party History of Yanbian, published in Yanji [I think] in 1988 by the local CCP Committee on Historical Research for “internal circulation only”.

We have spent virtually all of our lives in the backwash of the two great revolutions that sprang out of this region — the North Korean and the Chinese.  It now seems to be taken for granted by Sinologists and Koreanists trained in the West that the weight of the propaganda that has emerged since 1945 obscures rather than highlights the sacrifices made at the time, the genuine acts of nationalistic heroism undertaken by Koreans and Chinese and Chinese-Koreans to overthrow both Guomindang-linked warlordism and Japanese imperalism.  Call it the Sea of Blood effect.  We know how heavily North Korea in particular leans on these stories.  And why not resist the state-sponsored narratives, representing as they do the acrid stench of steel being welded into unnatural shapes, the rise of the monuments across Northeast Asia like cankers, the repetitious lifting of volumes hewn out of totalitarian imagination by committee in rooms choking with carbon wherein the leaders exercise not so much influence as levitate like executioners outside? Banquo has a mighty arm.  The amount of analysis levied at Kim Jong Il’s attempts to recapture the heroism of the anti-Japanese fighters overmultiplies attempts to capture the original acts of violence and intellectual bravery or audacity which brought Kim Jong Il (and his first post-colonial generation) into being in the first place.

But the narratives of resistance in the Sino-Korean borderlands in that earlier era are still worth delving into, and they demand our attention. This work is to be done by scholars who, like artists who hop around in dead factories, dwell at the junctures of creative destructions. Both the historian and the urban spelunker from their gargoyle perches on the peripheries, above the pedestrian status quo of master narratives or factual inevitability, suggest a new future.

Allow me then, to suggest this: North Korean history is about more than Kim Il Song and his offspring.  Kim’s acceptance and his life was made possible by an entire matrix of interactions and global occurences, which included revolutionary movements in what is today Yanbian, what then was known as Jiandao (间道).  The victory of the Chinese Communist Party in the final massive phase of the Chinese Civil War (1945-1949) in Manchuria was made possible not simply by superior strategy by Lin Biao and Mao Zedong, and that victory was far from inevitable.

To arrive, then, at the individual narratives that sparked this short moment of reflection: Two biographies.

Han Leran [韩乐然], 1898-1947

Han was born in 1898 (the same year as Zhou Enlai) in Longjing, a small city near the Korean-Russian frontier in the extreme eastern edge of Manchuria.  In 1919, Longjing underwent the so-called “March 13 incident,” the violent suppression of an anti-Japanese demonstration by Japanese police.  As a young man, Han Leran experienced the incident as a kind of crisis, witnessing how in the aftermath of the March 1 1919 demonstrations in nearby Korea — a rather exciting statement of peaceful and democratic rebellion against the Japanese occupiers — ended in bloodshed, with demonstrations being broken up by Japanese police with guns, killing 14 people in Longjing.

Han quickly left for the maritime provinces of the Soviet Union, which were far closer than the vermillion roofs of Beijing, but by no means solidly Bolshevik in 1920. After less than a year in Russia, Han hopped a steamer in Vladivostok and went to Shanghai in that fertile year of 1920. It took him three years to become accustomed to the giant city (outstripping pre-Manchukuo Changchun, the nearest big city to his hometown, exponentially) before he joined the young Chinese Communist Party.  His Manchurian roots and artistic interests made him useful to the Party, and he was sent to Shenyang, Liaoning, in 1924, and after a year, on north to Harbin, where he continued to study art  [pp. 43-45].

In 1929, he went with Party support to Europe.  For two years he knocked around in southern France (mainly Lyon and Nice) before getting accepted in 1931 to an art institute in Paris (巴黎艺术学院).  For the next six years, he worked and exhibited in Paris and traveled around Europe, reading the French press about the “Manchurian Incident” and the futile attempts at the League of Nations in Geneva to extract Japanese troops from northeast China via diplomacy.

In 1937, with the outbreak of all-out war in China, Han returned to China, but not before doing some work for Paris Soir to propagandize the Chinese war effort.  (It is rather interesting to consider how those inveterate readers of the Parisian press, Jean-Paul Sartre [obviously not the only reader of said press, but an important one, with an editor’s impulse] and Simone de Beauvoir regarded Han’s work, if they saw it at all.  Nevertheless the very notion of a coincidence of a meeting of minds like this can come full circle with Sartre and de Beauvoir’s trip to Manchuria in 1955, when Sidney Rittenberg said they were “taken with how China had made {them} think more about life and less about death.”)  Finished forever with France, Han sped back to the Chinese front.

He arrived in the wartime center of Wuhan, where he plunged into work with a group of artists with roots in the northeast of China, focusing their artistic fury on the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, and attempting to inspire Chinese audiences with tales of the resistance movement there.  In this period, particularly following the fall of Nanking, Wuhan was a temporary capital, and was crawling with foreign reporters, many of whom Han met, certainly charming them with the type of linguistic pastiche he had surely developed after his time in eastern Russia and more than half-decade in Europe.  Among his acquaintances was Edgar Snow.

In 1938, Han came to the attention of Zhou Enlai, who recommended that he move to Yanan.  As Wuhan was in danger of falling to the Japanese, Han followed through, spending the summer of 1938 in the remote Communist HQ.  However, within a few months, he was back in the intellectual and international hothouse of Chongqing, in spite of the fact that Yanan was rather safe from Japanese air raids and Chongqing was being bombed with rather savage regularity.

In 1940, for reasons that are not entirely clear — perhaps a response to the New Fourth Army Incident? — Han was arrested by Guomindang police and jailed for two years.  In 1943, he moved through Xi’an and Lanzhou, farther from the front.  After the war, he moved even further west, to the remote province of Xinjiang, where, physcially unphased by the outbreak of the Chinese civil war,  he went on a spurt of creative productivity (the subject of cultural production in its relation to the war being a rather unresearched terrain).  In April 1946, he went to Turpan [吐鲁番市] in Xinjiang, where in the space of a few short months he did more than 50 oil paintings and took more than 500 photographs to exhibit.  In October of that year, he turned up in Lanzhou to exhibit his new works and connect with the left-wing Guomindang general Zhang Zhizhong [张治中, who had led the defense of Shanghai and later went over to the CCP] to to “united front work,” a unified Nationalist-Communist government still being a nominal, if doomed, dream in that year of Chinese intellectuals.  Han set up the Northwest Arts Museum [西北艺术馆,今天大西北艺术馆 ], and was on his way to becoming a key part of postwar national cultural revival in Xinjiang.  His background of foreign study, early ties to the Chinese Communist Party, and active postwar activities bode well for a place in the burgeoning cultural hierarchy of the world after 1949, but Han never made it back to Beijing, much less Paris: less than thirty years after leaving his hometown, the ethnic Korean artist died in a plane crash in Xinjiang in April 1947.

Codetta: This past August 2011, local governments broke through and found Han’s example worthy of patriotic education, setting aside a hefty sum (2680万, seemingly a standard sum from the central government for civic projects) for a park in his name.  A small (65 sq. meters) museum space is underway to honor him in Longjing, for which local historians went to 20 archives around China.

Zhou Dengzheng [周东郊], 1907-1978 — fuller bio TBA, but this involves the set up of the first CCP Eastern Manchuria committee, work under cover of teaching Chinese to Koreans on the border, an arrest in Dalian that leads to eight years in a Xinjiang prison, propaganda work for the Nationalists in Xinjiang for four years after 1945, a peaceable transfer by the CCP to the Bank of Beijing in 1949, a 1956 revelation of his “history problem,” and an old man teaching middle school during the Cultural Revolution.

Related Reading

Adam Cathcart, “Reading Kim Il Song’s Memoirs,” Parts One and Two, Sinologistical Violoncellist, August 6 and 20, 2010.

Adam Cathcart, “Nationalism and Ethnic Identity in the Sino-Korean Border Region of Yanbian, 1945-1950,”  Korean Studies, vol. 34 (2010): 25-53.

Crystalized Data: Additional Notes on the Meth Trade in Yanji

The story of illegal drug distribution across the North Korean border and into China is now being told with a bit of flair in the pages of Newsweek.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I find fieldwork in the Chinese borderlands with North Korea always to be an exciting process.  Exciting though it may be, it is a process that — speaking for myself — has not been made more exciting by exposure to crystal meth.  In fact I don’t think I would recognize crystal meth if it was put on my breakfast cereal.  Moreover, it was only yesterday that I finally learned how to say “crystal meth” in Chinese — 甲基安非他命.

(To my former students who may be reading — why did you never ask me how to say “crystal meth” in Chinese?  Do you not read the daily complilation of North Hamgyong and Ryanggang cell phone informant conversation write ups which constitute the bulk of Daily NK sources about the meth trade?  Did you think that such a linguistically and culturally fraught question would instead represent merely a bit of trivia, a cerebral divet, a trivet of myopia of no consequence to our respective intellectual lives? You never asked me.  Damn you all!)

The foregone and falsely cynical de rigeur professorial abdication of intellectual responsibility notwithstanding, I did manage to track down some data which has not been pulled into the Anglophone public eye as regards the meth problem along the Sino-North Korean border.     And thus:

1. This 2009 piece from no less than Renmin Ribao (People’s Daily) about the sentencing of 9 drug dealers in Jilin province to death, one of whom is a North Korean surnamed Kim who was planning to bring meth into South Korea via China;

2. This interesting bit of comparison to much more heavily-populated Zhejiang province, which as of 2010 statistics had more than 103,000 registered drug addicts (“drug smokers”).

3. The Yanbian Public Security Bureau’s work priorities for 2011, in particular point 5:


Not incidentally, the Bureau leaves its press liasion number at the end of the release; they also have a nice Weibo feed, which is akin to Twitter but without all the dissident celebrity Chinese bloggers and Tibetan and Uighur activists.

The slogan 打击“黄赌毒” also seems to be a signpost for some of the anti-drug efforts.

4. Much discussion of all of this on Tianya, a Chinese BBS, including debate over the less-than-constructive role that North Korea is playing.

Finally, because I became more aware of things by spending several key years of my life on the east side of Cleveland Ohio, and because crackheads in Seattle’s Chinatown have since reminded me of the importance of asking for a very specific amount of money for anything,  dear readers, for the four rocks of crystalized information which I have cooked up for you, I should like a sum of seven U.S. dollars.  This money, just as it would if I were bartering a broken electronic razor to a perfect stranger through the scratched plexiglass window of a barricaded gas station in the middle of the night under flourescent light in North America, will allow me to get through the next several hours before my next exhalation in the form of a post.

(Now, on to some Heinrich von Kleist, thank you very much.)

Dandong, PRC customs house, photo by Adam Cathcart this past Sunday

North Korea: Examination Materials

I recently completed a month-long lecture series on North Korean-Chinese relations at Pacific Lutheran University.  Because these lectures were occasioned by a course I teach at PLU (hell yes I teach courses, credits and grades dropping from my very fingertips!), I had the pleasure of writing an exam on the topic.

Here, in no particular order, are a few of themes or questions which were covered in the lectures and which my students consequently suggested that I should have put on the exam.  But who cares that they were on an exam?  What matters is that they have content and merit, and deserve further discussion.  (Thus their appearance in this forum.)

Is this really necessary?  Do we really need to be asking yet more questions about North Korea and Sino-North Korean relations?  Shouldn’t we first try to get answers about some questions of agreed-upon significance, like how many nukes North Korea has?  Or if Jimmy Carter’s visits to Pyongyang accomplish anything at all?  Or if Kim Jong Eun wears a foreign wristwatch?

Well, quibble though you might with certain of them, very few of these questions resemble the rather elementary questions to which North Korea and its relationship with China are treated in our present environment of English-language media analysis, a few really good blogs notwithstanding.

So, to the questions:

– What long-term opportunities (financial and political) would be presented to China by a peaceful collapse of North Korean political power?

– In what ways does the North Korean obsession with Mount Paektu strain relations with China?

– Does the history of the 7th century (e.g., the destruction of the northern power of Koguryo by the southern power of Silla, in alliance with the Chinese Tang dynasty), constitute a template for unification of which the DPRK leaders should be fearful today?

– What role does the small North Korea-Russia border in the extreme northeast of the peninsula play in balancing (or unbalancing) the Sino-North Korean dynamic?  Is North Korea able to balance China off of Russia now, or are those days of navigating between Beijing and Moscow truly in the past?

– What role did the U.S. occupation of Japan play in the formation of the North Korean state system?

– How did Mao Zedong’s rationale for intervention in the Korean War in 1950 differ significantly from that of the Ming dynasty during the Imjin War in 1592?  Is it possible that Mao in some sense retained a desire to secure North Korea in a neo-tributary system?

– What similarities exist between the present-day North Korean system (and its “court politics”) and that of the Qin dynasty as depicted in the works of Sima Qian?

– How and why are the concepts of sadae/sadaejuui and juche embedded in (North) Korean culture?

– List the current statistics for the relative military strength, in terms of troop estimates, for the ROK Army, the PLA, the Japanese SDF, and USMC/USAF/USN in East Asia.  With which one (or ones) of these military forces does the Korean People’s Army have anything approaching parity?

– To what extent was the Korean War a proxy war, and to what extent was it a civil war?

– The story of North Korean refugees seems fantastic, politicized, and laden with imaginative tropes. Is it really as bad for North Korean refugees as it seems on YouTube?

– What is the proper label for Sino-North Korean relations?  Is this a “brotherhood forged in blood”, a “pragmatic partnership”, a “friendship betrayed”?  Suggest a few taglines for the relationship and justify your new label.  Could we call both China and North Korea “unruly allies”?

– Why does North Korea go to such great lengths to propagate myths of Kim Jong Il’s “birth” at Mt. Paektu?  Does it matter that, as “the Text” asserts, his birth was foretold by a sparrow, illicited a double rainbow, and that a new star appeared in the sky?

– In what ways is the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Region a crucible for new North Korean culture?  Can it be considered “a Third Korea”?  In what ways does it run countercultural to the ways of Sinicization?

– Compare the Chinese de facto absorption of North Korea during the Korean War to  German reunification of 1990.

– Can the Tumen Tiger avoid extinction? What barriers exist to the survival and flourishing of this species?

– Are the golden cows along the Chinese side of the border really happier than their North Korean counterparts across the Tumen?

– How have Chinese goals for Korean unification changed since 1950?

– Describe the impacts of, and the Chinese reponses to, the North Korean nuclear tests of October 2006 and May 2009.

– Kim Jong Eun was recently pictured in North Korean state media holding a pair of binoculars upside down at a military exhibition.  In what ways does this image, and the way it was covered in Chinese state mdia, represent larger problems and anxieties about Jong Eun’s possible succession?

– Although North Korea militantly emphasizes its cultural independence from China, in what ways does North Korean language — both colloquial and bureaucratic — exemplify Chinese influence?

– How did Chinese and Soviet communism, Asian philosophies such as Daoism and Confucianism, Chinese Legalism and Korean fortitude combine to create or otherwise influence North Korean policies and politics?  Is it fair or accurate to summarize North Korea’s political system merely as “Stalinist”?

– Do technology and cultural transfers into North Korea along the Chinese border like USB drives full of songs or DVDs of South Korean movies constitute a “new culture wave” in North Korean society?  Is it fair to write about a “Chinese wave” in North Korea akin to the “Hallyu/Korea Wave” that has been so objectified in East Asia?  What elements in North Korea’s traditional culture (and official state culture) would resist Chinese influence?

–  Briefly describe problems associated with both the garrisoning of the Ming Army in Korea and the stationing of Chinese troops in North Korea from 1950-1958. Is it fair to say that China and North Korea have both internalized the lessons of these events?

– North Korea is indeed a “shrimp between whales,” but it is also a skilled practitioner of “judo diplomacy” whereby the “whales” are adeptly tossed around.  After describing a couple of salient examples of the above point, argue that either China or Japan (pick one and explain your choice) is most often on the receiving end of North Korea’s manipulations.

– Are the North Korean notion of juche and the Chinese notion of tributary relations inherently at odds?  In what ways does each nation temper its ideologies in the practice of foreign policy in order to keep Sino-North Korean relations relatively smooth?

– Describe the unique role that Sinuiju plays in North Korean history and in contemporary interchange with the PRC.

– Describe how and why Hyesan has become a “model city” for Kim Jong Il since the 1960s.  Why do South Koreans and occasional foreign observers travel to the city today?

– In the context of analyzing U.S. involvement in the Korean War, critique or support the statement “The first mistake was putting MacArthur in charge.”

– In what ways does heavy North Korean patrolling of the northern frontier give lie to the statement that the DPRK enjoys “brotherly relations” with the PRC?

– For people just beginning to pay attention to North Korea and its relations with China, why is a brief description of the Korean War so important?  Is it possible to understand North Korea, or Chinese policy toward North Korea, without reference to the Korean War?

– At the end of the day, when it runs out of calories, energy, and alternatives, is North Korea truly locked into a sadae/submissive relationship to China?

Cogitating Korea and Strategically Flexible Syllabi, Wiedervereinigung in the Shadow of the Reichstag, Berlin -- photo by Kuroda Chiaki

A Few Brilliant Observations

Asked to evaluate Douglas MacArthur’s tactical decisions in November-December 1950, student Adam Hoagland, while ignoring the General’s significant decision to firebomb Sinuiju and drop the Tarzan bomb on Kanggye, put forth a methodically brilliant Sun Tzu-based critique of old man SCAP:

MacArthur made the fatal mistake of underestimating his enemies and their drive to resist.  He did not concentrate his military power but spread it too thin to push forward or hold a position.  He did not study the terrain to find the best advantage or weaknesses.  He was not formless in his tactics but used a very recognizable and predicatable advancement of troops.

Had only Hoagland been a Sinologist in SCAP’s employ, a man of ambition who had MacArthur’s ear in 1950, then an understanding of Chinese military strategy might well have prevailed.  But he was not, and it did not.  MacArthur also failed to respect his senior commander (e.g., Harry Truman) and, to my knowledge, never stood up for the returned POWs from Korea when implications of communist “brainwashing” were leveled at them.

Since my students have all read Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian, the history of the Qin dyansty, I tossed out a hypothetical question: What would happen if we had a modern day re-appearance of the assassin Jing Ke, who was sent from Yan to kill Qin Shihuangdi around 210 B.C., in Pyongyang acting on behalf of the CCP?  In other words, I asked the students to consider the historical template of Jing Ke in the contemporary Sino-North Korean context.  What would happen if China sent an assassin — a modern-day Jing Ke — to kill Kim Jong Il or his son?

Amanda Fitzhenry, a student who plans to study in South Korea, answers, and does so in detail which is far, far better than I could have mustered myself:

If Jing Ke were to infiltrate the North Korean capital, it would need to be shown in a way of supporting or worshipping Kim Jong Il.  The fact that Jing Ke was in the rural area would not be able to work in the DPRK situation because of the limited ability to travel.  To be able to be in Pyongyang, Jing Ke would need to be a trusted man to the North Korean Workers’ Party and willing to risk the gulag for his family and himself.  His mission would provide China with the chance to obtain North Korea (and Mount Paektu) for China.  But, with the downfall of the DPRK would come instability for the region with 24 million people fleeing, as well as the economic duty to rebuild the country.

One final observation: In the space of little less than a decade, my North American university students have become progressively more convinced of China’s capability to handle anything.  That is to say, presenting the students with a scenario whereby China would totally absorb North Korea is never really scoffed at: China, we now presume, has all the resources in the world to rebuild North Korea and could, somehow, convince the South Koreans to stay in Seoul in the event of a Chinese takeover north of the DMZ.  A tall order indeed, and hardly likely to occur, but old Robert Kaplan’s essay in Atlantic Monthly in 2006 about just such a scenario has many more adherents in American universities that one might expect.