Ambassador Liu Reappears, or, Why Opera Matters

By | January 13, 2012 | No Comments

It is a working assumption here at Sino-NK that the Chinese Embassy has been decidedly on “the outs” with the North Korean leadership in the immediate aftermath of Kim Jong Il’s death.  The strife over the mysterious deaths of seven Chinese businessmen/tourists in late November 2011, along with the Embassy’s public implication that Kim’s death would inevitably lead to reform and opening up of the North Korean economy, seem to have put a bit of a freeze on the embassy’s public activities.  Although Ambassador Liu Hongcai was said to be able to attend Kim Jong Il’s funeral, he was neither pictured during the procession nor prominently displayed by the North Koreans.

In the two weeks since Kim Jong Il’s funeral, the Embassy has either been on total vacation (seemingly unlikely, given the speed with which the PRC Central Government would like to move with resuming and accelerating bilateral trade) or, as seems the case, has been given the cold shoulder by the higher-ups in the Workers’ Party of Korea.

As SinoNK’s stalwart KCNA Analyst, Evan Koepfler, will be pointing out later this week, the Korean Central News Agency has picked up with its “normal” stream of China-related posts, without mentioning any bilateral meetings with Chinese counterparts.

This past Wednesday, the blockade on public events between Liu Hongcai and North Korean leaders was broken in a big way as the Ambassador was invited by DPRK propaganda chief Kim Ki Nam (the orchestrator of Kim Jong Un’s documentary film) to help welcome a big delegation of North Korean singers and dancers back from an immense tour of China that had stretched from October 2011 through 12 cities (including Shenyang and Qingdao) and 33 performances.

PRC Ambassador in Pyongyang, Liu Hongcai, welcomes back members of North Korea's Pibida, or Sea of Blood, performing ensemble back from their performance tour of China. The purses are all very likely new, and of Chinese manufacture. Photo courtesy Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang.

The related KCNA dispatch in English is here; the far longer and more effusive Korean version in Rodong Sinmun is briefly explained in English and linked here.

PRC Ambassador to the DPRK, Liu Hongcai (left) sits with Kim Ki Nam (金已男), right on January 11, 2012; image courtesy Chinese Embassy, Pyongyang

Representives of Chinese state have said very little in public about Kim Jong Un since their initial statements of support, but Ambassador Liu’s appearance with the WPK official most associated with Kim Jong Un’s public deification seems to be noteworthy.

For its part, North Korea has been groping about for a mainline continuity in its culture since Kim Jong Il’s death with but minor adjustments.  The delicacy with which they are treating the Chinese as a possible major influence is impressive — on the one hand, the Chinese Embassy is kept largely at arm’s length, and Chinese investment in Kim Jong Il’s last supermarket is downplayed, but on the other hand, students in the Chinese department of Kim Il Sung University get play in the press and this opera story (both taking place safely within the confines of the Kim personality cult) do go public.

It seems likely that this is the path upon which the Workers’ Party of Korea seems content to go: ongoing ties with China and steady but small growth in the relationship, but by no means allowing a “Chinese wind” to sweep through the DPRK, be that wind digital or otherwise.  In the meantime, as the North Koreans themselves have stated, “the performance will go on.”

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