Das Boot: Fishing in Troubled Waters
Das Boot: Fishing in Troubled Waters
by Roger Cavazos
China is becoming more and more irritated with the DPRK over its failure to address in any way why North Korean military personnel took three Chinese fishing boats and held the crews hostage. This unusual situation has led to an unusually public form of messaging to the DPRK by China’s most serious “North Korea hands,” i.e., an elite and loosely-connected group of scholars working in state think-tanks and Chinese universities.
Done almost entirely in Chinese, these messages to Chinese netizens and the DPRK leadership form a critically important part of the PRC discourse on North Korean affairs, and should not be overlooked.
Moreover, when it comes to studies of Chinese policy-making elites, Chinese scholars both inform and reflect elite views, and can thus offer more authoritative views about China’s official response than can random netizen comments, interviews with Chinese in the border region, or pure speculation by analysts about “what Beijing wants.”
Over a period of three critical days examined here – May 22 through May 24 – China delivered successively stronger messages to North Korea. As of this writing, three days has passed since Zhang Liangui’s (张琏瑰) ultimate message, but North Korea has still not publically responded.
The trajectory of where things will go next is unclear, but there are likely only a few escalatory signaling steps left before one party or the other takes some sort of unprecedented step. Certainly the men sent out to deliver Beijing’s messages were not improvising, and the members of China’s Foreign Ministry as well as Politburo are certainly eagerly awaiting an answer from the DPRK.
Death Panel | The opening salvo of five Chinese speakers that appeared on Phoenix Television on 22 May to comment on the hostage ordeal made it abundantly clear to the DPRK and everyone else that the DPRK was responsible, as the familiar phrase goes, “for hurting the feelings of the Chinese people.” 24 hours later, after no response, another two scholars fired a renewed rhetorical salvo, and even gave the North Koreans a hint of what actions they could take or signals they could send to bring the situation under control. Finally, after yet another 24 hours with no discernible North Korean response, China brought out Zhang Liangui, a trusted interlocutor and Communist Party intellectual to explain to North Korea there “must be some misunderstanding,” proceeding to explain in fairly specific terms what North Korea must do to control escalation and prevent the relationship from deteriorating.
As of this writing, over 75 hours have passed from Zhang’s last interview, with no signal or communication from North Korea. But let’s look at the speakers and likely messages that have been passed to this point.
May 22 (Day 1): Offending the feelings of 1.3 billion Chinese | China rolls out five speakers on Phoenix TV to ensure North Korea and other Chinese understand the government is not completely sweeping this uncomfortable and potentially embarrassing incident under the rug.
Phoenix begins with an easy-to-follow analysis; China has effectively seized the initiative by defining the story and the timeline. Moreover, any statement from Pyongyang going forward now has to fit in this context or risk publically contradicting China.
Anthony Yuen (阮次山 Ruan Cishan) starts the barrage and was likely selected to represent all Chinese. He was educated and lived in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the United States. His main point is simple: North Korea owes China a statement about the fishermen. There are other issues, but the title and basis are clear: a statement is needed.
Anthony Yuen (阮次山 Ruan Cishan) Screenshot from Phoenix TV May 22
China is keen to establish two key facts: China didn’t pay a ransom and the ships were in Chinese waters.
Within this long documentary are three special selections. The first selection is dominated by Lü Chao(吕超), head of the Koreas Studies Institute of the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences and frequent contributor to North Korea-related issues. Lü ’s first section describes how “North Korea often sells their fishing permits to China”. This portion provides both China and DPRK with common starting ground.
What is mentioned for a first time in the next highlighted excerpt is that Chinese fishermen should learn to protect themselves. North Korean pirates, be warned. Would-be North Korean pirates are likely not worried about Chinese fishermen; however, a greatly changed political environment and a few Chinese patrol boats could serve as a real deterrent.
Crab season, which runs roughly from May – July usually sees South Korea and North Korea engaging in skirmishes or demonstrations around the peninsula’s Northern Limit Line. Occasionally, a Chinese ship is harassed as Lü Chao points out, but rarely does it escalate to flat-out piracy.
Zhou Qingyuan’s coverage inside the longer documentary describes the impact of being hijacked on the fishermen and personalizes the issue – some of the hijacked fishermen were traumatized and no longer want to fish – and demonstrates that North Korea has seriously injured legitimate business. He also, very sensibly, advocates for a legal or documented solution.
Finally, Lü Ningsi (吕宁思) , a former member of the Peoples Liberation Army, and a slightly edgier commentator on Phoenix, presents something much closer to the netizen outrage that has been very common online. Why are little countries rampantly hijacking Chinese fishermen? Even though this particular incident is over, he says the anger and suspicion in (Chinese) hearts hasn’t been resolved. He wonders why such “little countries” – a phrase which is just as derogatory in Chinese as English – from Southeast Asia to Northeast Asia do these things. His body language is consistent with the rage he discusses. He is on the edge of his seat; ready to leap over his desk and punch the camera on behalf of the fishermen in the picture and netizens. Even the caption questions Kim Jong Un’s relationship with the hostage takers.
Such statements about bothersome states might apply to Philippines, Vietnam or even Japan from a Chinese point of view, and certainly the state press has had ample opportunity to dilute the recent events by going macro with the problem. But then Lü goes straight for the jugular – within those little countries are “self-assertive countries who are comrades and for whom we have shed blood.” He is squarely calling North Korea out. He digs even deeper and mentions that pirates don’t come from areas with good local governments.
Unspoken, but likely understood, is that he’s boxing North Korea in three areas:
1) North Korea is not under total control since pirates came from somewhere in North Korea not under Kim’s control, or,
2) Kim sent the pirates, and,
3) here’s a possible solution for Kim: Blame the incident on a local government or military official.
He ends the scathing review with two thoughts: Chinese have been hurt and our (Chinese and North Korean) departments can exchange thoughts.
After that very public blasting, no official Chinese voices appeared on Phoenix for 24 hours. Presumably, North Korea was supposed to respond and the Chinese campaign would be victorious. No public response was noted from North Korea through KCNA or Naenara, or anywhere else available to the public.
May 23 (Day 2): North Korea’s Options for Preserving the Relationship
24 hours has passed, still with no response from North Korea. Lü Sining opens fire again, the Chinese are unhappy, the consequences could be serious. North Korea should give us a statement. He saves the heavy fire for the second to last paragraph.
“If Kim Jong Un cares about China-North Korea relations, if he attaches importance to the Chinese-North Korean relationship, he should shoot (execute) some people.”
Lü holds no punches, he is challenging Kim Jong Un – not North Korea – Kim Jong Un to demonstrate he’s committed to the relationship and not part of the plot to hijack the ships. Lü ’s final shot states that Kim Jong Un can use this incident to strengthen his rule, implying, of course, that Kim’s control in North Korea is less than complete.
But we have to remember; Lü is likely chosen to give voice to the netizens and is a useful pressure release valve. However, after this, the scholar should likely not apply for a visa to North Korea.
Then international relations expert, Qiu Zhenhai (邱震海), then appears to make three observations of this situation. Really, he’s trying to put the best face on a rapidly deteriorating situation. He provides two more plausible excuses for North Korea to make, and emphasizes North Korea must make some official statement. Qiu says, frankly speaking, we (China) don’t know what’s going on in the North Korean Navy. Qiu also says China doesn’t know if the hijackers were acting officially or privately.
Now Kim has three broad options:
- “shoot somebody” (Lü Sining)
- blame someone in the North Korean Navy (Qiu)
- blame a private person/persons who took these actions on their own (Qiu)
Qiu also wants to give the impression that since the Chinese-North Korean relationship is now a “normal relationship” coordination and conflict coexist and therefore neither need be hidden nor emphasized. They just exist in a normal relationship.
China has now used up two days and five substantive thinkers. They engage in another 24 hour pause – which extends to just over 28 hours – and await a North Korean response.
Tea leaf reading and interpreting signals is a highly subjective art. However, if I were sitting in Beijing, I would have assessed a negative North Korean response on this date as opposed to no response. Let me explain: North Korea updated their Naenara news website in English, French, Spanish, German, Russian, Japanese, Korean and Arabic languages. The Chinese language version is left with the last update of 16 May. Rondong Sinmun and KCNA carry articles which are tangential at best, and nothing from Kim Jong Un on relations with China.
As a matter of comparison, from the time of Kim Jong Il’s death to Chinese announcement that Kim Jong Un was the accepted heir was a breath-taking 2 days.
May 24 (Day 3): Hello, North Korea – This is the Chinese Communist Party speaking… | North Korea has been given another 28 hours and still, the Chinese government has received no public response. The scholars who spoke already on Phoenix TV were internationally known, and, along with their decades of experience, had demonstrated access to senior Chinese leaders. They had strong party connections; there could be little question that their comments reflected the imperatives of their sponsoring state. Still, there was no response from North Korea.
Enter Zhang Liangui. When he appeared on Phoenix TV, his shirt was completely rumpled, as if he had been told, “Get on a plane right now to Hong Kong. You go on the air in 3 and a half hours.” Maybe a rumpled shirt is just a rumpled shirt, but it seems inconsistent with this man’s gravitas.
Zhang is professor of international strategic research at the Party School of the China Communist Party Central Committee (党校). He graduated from Kim Il Sung University in 1968 and has proven access to Xi Jinping (习近平), the Dean of the Party School. When Zhang speaks, it allows the Party to speak without making one of the Politburo Standing Committee members publicly stake out a position.
Zhang strikes the tone of an avuncular consigliere in both of his featured presentations. In the first one, he discounts that North Korea took the boats hostage on purpose or to retaliate against China. He also lays the guilt on thick, averring that there may be a difference in opinion between the two sides, one of which (China) has shed blood to help out during the Korean War (literally Resist America, Aid Korea War), while the other side may have different feelings.
Zhang also complains about a broader problem of communication: the DPRK no longer gives China special notice about any military matters. As an example, North Korea informed China about a proposed missile launch on 16 March (2012), while the White House had been informed on 15 December 2011. Ongoing Chinese coverage of the secret American trip to Pyongyang just before the April missile launch not too subtly makes the same point. As an aside, Zhang is very publically calling out the U.S. version of knowledge leading up to the “Leap Year Deal.” Zhang smiles while recounting many DPRK unfilial acts to soften some fairly harsh words.
In his final section, Zhang recounts what North Korea must do to prevent further deterioration. China still wants an official statement. He says when the Chinese people shout about “China-DPRK relations (中朝关系)”, they aren’t shouting empty slogans (不是空间口号). However, they do get confused when things like this happen or, in another unhappy example, when the North Korean military crossed the border and killed three Chinese in June 2010.
If only North Korea would give China an official explanation or statement, the Chinese people would understand, Zhang says. He’s ensuring North Korea understands what China wants: a statement and a framework or agreement to prevent such things from happening again. His last line is the clincher. “If North Korea doesn’t provide a statement, the Chinese people will remember that, too.”
Strategic Pause? After three sustained days of strategic messaging from China to DPRK, the messages on Phoenix from Chinese scholars suddenly stop. Usually a messaging campaign will stop if there is acknowledgement from the other side that the message was received or there is decision to pause and allow feedback.
DPRK has not responded publicly via KCNA or Naenara. As mentioned, I would have assessed a negative reaction from DPRK on the day U.S. Special Representative Ambassador Glynn Davies was in China and made a point of announcing he was going to meet International Liaison Department Deputy Chief, Liu Jieyi.
Another possibility is that China has decided even though they had called for a public statement, they can live with a private reassurance. It is impossible to know what delegations may have flown from Pyongyang to Beijing or what backchannel communications took place. It is unusual, though, for China to call for something so publicly and then just walk away from the request.
The rest of the Phoenix special website on the hostage scenario has numerous reminders that all is not well. Phoenix lists every crew member name, national identification number and hometown.
A final Phoenix photo essay makes quite clear that the fishing boats were near a North Korean Navy Base. The editors point out the DPRK Sango and Romeo submarines on satellite photography, but, bending to state imperatives to keep from fanning the flames too high, still force themselves to use the passive voice: “Three Chinese ships were towed to the vicinity of a DPRK West Sea Fleet base and detained for 13 days.” The caption helpfully reminds everyone that the components for more than 10 of the North Korean ships in the picture were manufactured in China’s Jiangnan shipyard. There are a total of 14 pictures with subtitles. We won’t translate them all, but you get the gist.
What now? There are several paths at this point. However, China has pointed out at least four off-ramps from the highway to hell. Each of the off-ramps begins with a formal explanation (not necessarily an apology) from North Korea to China. Here are some more:
– Shoot somebody. Heinous, but effective. And, as Lü Ningsi points out, this step allows Kim both to placate China and to tighten his authoritarian rule.
– Find a local government official guilty.
– Find a “rogue” Naval unit commander guilty.
– Find a person or persons guilty of acting independently.
– Send a “Relevant Department” delegation to China.
– Promise a full investigation and promise to deal harshly with whoever did this.
–Promise to hold talks in third country to prevent such things from happening again.
Alternatively, if North Korea continues to not say anything, their silence can only be interpreted as open defiance. While the theme can hardly be explored in-depth here, it seems likely that such defiance will create one of the greatest unpredictable foreign policy dynamics as China prepares for its leadership transition and seeks to navigate through the perilous politics of its own maritime periphery and popular nationalism.
China will likely not risk having someone else go out in public and explain to North Korea – yet again – that North Korea should provide an official statement. However, if China does bring anyone to speak, look for someone from the International Liaison Department of the Communist Party, i.e., Liu Jieyi or Wang Jiarui. If we see Dai Bingguo, it’s a fairly good indicator that China is making one very last step before doing something drastic like agreeing to a real sanction, sealing the border, or sending some heavily armed Fisheries vessels to escort Chinese fishing vessels across the 124 line.
China and North Korea are having their first fairly large and very public disagreement since Kim Jong Un assumed power. They have had disagreements, but nothing so far this big and public. How this is handled has tremendous implications for domestic relations in both countries, although it is even more important for North Korea. There are also serious – many of them unknown – implications for international relations in the run up to leadership changes.
It’s sad to say, but DPRK has the power to very quickly ease tensions, prevent future occurrences and re-affirm relations with their sole remaining ally. Why is it sad to say? Because a very small number of people will have to pay with their lives. And on a lighter, but still instructive note, I learned just how much a rumpled shirt can communicate – without saying a word.
Roger Cavazos is a non-resident Associate at Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability in San Francisco, with extensive U.S. Army experience in analyzing China, Taiwan, and Cross-Straits relations.