Reading the ‘Riot Act': North Korea Themes in the Chinese Media, March 2012

By | April 01, 2012 | 4 Comments

Reading the ‘Riot Act': North Korea Themes in the Chinese Media, March 2012

by Adam Cathcart

Kim Ki Nam reads an extensive tribute in Pyongyang to the 30-year anniversary of Kim Jong Il's 1982 Treatise on Juche Ideology | Photo via Rodong Sinmun, March 31, 2012

President Obama’s recent critiques of China’s failure to coerce the DPRK back from the launching pad are worth revisiting. The American President repeats, more or less, Bush administration complaints that China is still holding back from using what tends in Washington to be regarded as Beijing’s unlimited political clout with Pyongyang. Obama was careful not to enumerate just how China was supposed to turn the screws, but the basic idea was palpable enough, and taken up also by White House advisers.  Certainly, China has not shut down cross-border trade, nor has it cut off fuel aid to the DRPK, nor has it closed the door to North Korean leaders or delegations or cultural ties. There have been, however, precious few high-profile delegations or publicized cultural ties between the two countries since Kim Jong Il’s death, leaving Beijing with fewer options for ostracizing North Korea on account of relatively greater ties in the “soft power” realm.

Beijing has been unable to suppress the last belated blast of the Kim Jong Il era, but the various press organs of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have been far from inactive in their coverage of the issue and in lining up critiques of virtually every nation involved, with the exception, of course, of the PRC itself.  Unable to enforce changes in North Korea, the Chinese media has modulated its tone on North Korean issues, and the changes need to be noted.

Phoenix Weekly's cover story on North Korean refugees

To review, then, one of the main themes of Chinese press coverage of the last two weeks: We have seen an upsurge in coverage of items like Japan’s countermeasures (“To Shoot Down North Korea’s Missile Serves the Great Power Dreams of the Japanese Military,” Guofang Shibao/National Defense Times), relatively easy treatment given to South Korea (nothing but kudos for the nuclear anti-proliferation summit, which allowed CCTV to repeat one of its favorite words [“terrorism”] over and over), growth in Chinese public discussion of the refugee issue (the greatest emblem of which was a 27-page cover feature in Phoenix Weekly which included excerpts from the new Chinese translation of Nothing to Envy and an interview with the author), all followed by completely empty potshots at Barack Obama (who was, according to Huanqiu, playing politics at the 38th parallel to defuse domestic criticisms of his weak foreign policy in an election year).

Signs of Displeasure with the DPRK  |  There was very little sugar coating of China’s initial stance that the missile test should be scuttled, and that North Korea ought to listen to its neighbors, including China. One editorial by a scholar in Huanqiu Shibao, the country’s main foreign affairs tabloid under the arm of the People’s Daily, openly speculated that North Korea’s intransigence would bring China into closer alignment with Japan, North Korea’s mortal enemy. North Korea’s even-more-belligerent-than-normal broadsides at the nuclear summit — attacks covered at least briefly in the Chinese press — were juxtaposed with China’s proud participation in the conference, Hu Jintao’s expressions of concerns about the test in meetings with South Korean leaders, and headlines in local Chinese papers like Tianfu Zaobao (a favorite with Chengdu’s teahouse cliques) like “The Chinese side expresses its worries over the development of North Korea’s attitude in the [missile] affair.”

Other overt slaps at the DPRK occur when statements are not made, or conveyed to the Chinese public.  After provoking serious Chinese pique with the launch announcement, the North Korean government — perhaps in a bid to remind Beijing that everything was in fact still kosher between the two countries —  announced that it would be welcoming  a Chinese cultural delegation to Pyongyang in mid-April, the first such contacts since Kim Jong Il’s death. (This is to be understood as distinct from Chinese tourism, which was proceeding well in the week by my own observation at two travel agencies in Yanbian in the few days before the missile announcement.)  The Chinese Embassy, which had gone to great lengths to practically grovel at Kim Jong Il’s memorial service and surrounding events and is normally hyper-receptive towards reporting anything resembling good news in Pyongyang, said nothing about the PLA’s breakthrough.  Instead, the Embassy posted on its website a summary of Hu Jintao’s remarks about loose nukes, which North Korea had effectively declared was a topic in quarantine, verboten, a virtual act of war when done by South Korea.  Subsequently, there have been precisely zero reports in the Chinese news media about the KCNA-announced trip of the Song and Dance Ensemble of the Political Bureau of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army for a mid-April cultural festival in Pyongyang.

When the Kim regime spares no propaganda expense to promote two major cultural/musical embassies to countries with which the DPRK has no formal diplomatic relations — France and the U.S. —  and sends not so much as a dancer to Shenyang, the CCP leadership takes notice. Given the fact that the only two real public events at which Ambassador Liu Hongcai was invited since Kim Jong Il’s death have been cultural events — a January 8 Sea of Blood opera production that marked the end of the Ambassador’s public freeze from the central Workers’ Party of Korea leadership, and a March 8 orgy of Kim Jong Un praise where he was relegated to the sidelines -- the idea that the Ambassador would somehow be numb to the significance of a Song and Dance Troupe to the bilateral relations with the DPRK is ridiculous.

Citation/Origin of Essay Title: Moon Chung-In and John Delury, “Obama’s Option for Koreas,” Korea Times, March 25, 2012.

Ambassador Liu Hongcai watches a North Korean performance. Image courtesy of the Chinese Embassy in the DPRK

4 Comments

  1. Adam,

    Too bad you have to become a user to read the Phoenix Weekly feature article. Is there a way you could post it somewhere?

    I don’t think it is completely off-base for them to accuse Obama though: Being tough with China wins votes in America and he is seizing upon every opportunity between now and November to do just that.

    Why has China failed to persuade North Korea so far? It shows that North Korea has yet to become a “core interest” for China. If you noticed, China adopts “the American approach”, i.e, coercing others with blatant and explicit demands, threats and ultimatums ONLY if it touches upon China’s “core interests”. China simply can’t afford to behave like America everyday.

    By the way I feel bad for the South Koreans for surrendering to American demands to drastically cut their oil import from Iran. Interestingly nothing so far has come out of “ChoJoongDong”, the three promiment conservative, pro-American mouthpieces. The South Koreans did try to resist though, but it was a losing fight to start with. No one in South Korea messes with the mighty US of A!

  2. I would love to scan the whole thing and post it, unfortunately I’m just on my way to Berlin from my Chengdu base and it may have to wait a few weeks, that is, unless my trusty SinoNK staffers at the Sichuan Bureau can magically get it ready to go in my absence. I will see what I can do; thanks for asking.

  3. playing politics at the 38th parallel: It’s politics, when it isn’t war. I think it is natural that rivals point out each others’ weaknesses, and in this case, it helps America to score points with China’s and North Korea’s neighbors.

    Given that China wants to play the leading role in North Korea, especially in case that the regime should collapse, playing politics may also help to expand America’s role in such a case.

  4. South Korea’s president won’t run for another term (constitutionally, there can be no reelection). We’ll know in about a year if the setting outside North Korea will remain the same (provided that nothing changes elsewhere).

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