Light in the Tunnel: Weekly Digest
Light in the Tunnel: Weekly Digest
by Adam Cathcart
A few weeks ago we witnessed a minor tempest that never developed into a full-blown hurricane, when an American general stated, intimated, or otherwise appeared to reveal that American soldiers were moving in and out of North Korean territory along the DMZ with the goal of probing at the North Korean tunnel system . It was a telling episode for a few reasons, mainly because it reminded us of the difficulty of vaulting over the DMZ, the presence of that barrier, and the total disconnect between the United States, its South Korean ally, and the DPRK.
When it comes to tunnels, it is worth dwelling for a moment on mutuality, a la left-wing photographer Lee Si-Woo . Sure, the North has tried more than once to tunnel their way under the DMZ, but who, at the end of the day, is tunneling into whom? Perhaps we are the “tunnelers” into the DPRK, seeking to mine (and then undermine and subsequently control, in classic Orientalist fashion) the very foundations of the state. If that is the case, then who or what can act for North Korea as an appropriate defense?
Cultural Diplomacy as Defense Mechanism | Those seeking a cultural prophylactic for the new era, might consider China as a limited bulwark for the DPRK when it comes to basic defenses against Western cultural/soft-power/smart power/cultural diplomacy/propaganda/pick-your-buzz-word strategy. After all, the PRC has developed its own rather massive and unnoticed soft-power think tank institutes primarily for defensive purposes; surely they would be willing to share their expertise with North Korean colleagues. However, until those Chinese scholars don green hats and take to the long Sino-DPRK frontier scanning for USB drives, cell phones, DVDs, and interdict the occasional P-Funk CD at the Air Koryo terminal in Beijing, when it comes to keeping poisonous South Korean materials out, the Chinese are clearly doing half-hearted work.
Yet, when it comes time to stand on stage and promote the revolution the way it was meant to be promoted — with song, a big state-funded orchestra, an opera troupe, a central arts academy, and Kim Jong-il’s favorite medium of cinema — there are few better friends that North Korea has than China.
This realization appears to have taken on new shape and impetus via agreements signed concurrent to Wen Jiabao’s state visit to Pyongyang in October 2009. Thanks to pushing from Beijing and some receptiveness from Pyongyang, cultural exchanges between China and North Korea have recently reached a “new” high point. At least when seen from China’s point of view, having witnessed a somewhat alarming lack of such public ties during the first five months of the year. While the Pibada (Sea of Blood) Opera Troupe continues to tour China, the big story of late has been a jointly produced PRC-DPRK film.
Xinjiang in Pyongyang: On the Film Project | The Global Times reports, melding real reporting with KCNA-style fabrication when it needs a quote from a North Korean supportive of the project:
China and North Korea agreed to work together on the film as early as 2009, with the film financially backed by Chinese non-governmental organizations. The Chinese team went to North Korea to begin filming in October, 2011. The whole progress was “full of twists and turns,” said the director Xirzat Yakup, a native of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
Cultural communication between the two countries was difficult at times. In September 2011, the Chinese crew of 60 arrived at North Korea’s border armed with three carts of shooting equipment, but were delayed by North Korea for almost half a month. A North Korean senior officer was finally rumored to say, “Chinese comrades promoted us and broadcast our culture to the world, why not?”
“The film is financed entirely by the Chinese side, approximately at the cost of 15 million yuan ($2.36 million). The copyrights to screen the film in China and other countries belong to us; in North Korea the rights belong to them. The film will be screened in both countries,” said Kong Hui, the producer of the film. “In North Korea it will be screened as a kind of nonprofit film; tickets will cost several cents…In China, it will be a commercial film screened in cinemas,” Kong told the Global Times.
This whole article is worth reading, particularly the section about discarded historical themes.
Whereas the Global Times represents what in the Chinese media context is a somewhat more critical viewpoint, other outlets like CCTV have been promoting a 100% harmonious image of the project. One rather prominent case in point was the front page (and the second page) of last week’s arts section of the Nanfang Zhoumo (Southern Weekend) was taken up with an extensive and mainly positive accounting of the show.
To be somewhat provocative for a moment: While the Chinese article re-establishes Nanfang Zhoumo as one of the go-to sources for long and edgy (in the sense of actually present) Chinese analysis of North Korea, the fact that it came out a week ago and stirred zero interest in the Western press indicates that a.) Western reporters in China don’t care about such stories, at least until they are translated, b.) that no one outside of China or North Korea knows what to think about such events, other than that they are dog-and-pony shows for a couple of nasty dictatorships, c.) that China’s extended and expensive efforts to engage the DPRK through a sustained form of contact which might actually lead to a kind of “opening up” are never really taken seriously and d.) that Nanfang Zhoumo, the reformist Wocheblatt which was recently re-occupied by some central propaganda hardliners, still really needs an English language website.
The Treaty of Nerchinsk, and Other Debacles | Speaking of “known knowns” (or does need to pay a small fee to the Hoover Institution every time one quotes Donald Rumsfeld?), no less stalwart an outlet as The Economist had prematurely awarded some land along the Sea of Japan coastline to the PRC. The eagle-eyed analyst from Exeter, Aidan Foster Carter, promptly set them straight.
Forgiveness is a Beautiful Thing | And one can hardly speak the name of Rason before Andray Abrahamian of Chosun Exchange arrives with the vigor of a Vladivostok seaman. In a stylish essay struck through with rhetorical panache (rendering the heavy links somehow buoyant, sort like a presto fugue that also sounds good when you play it slow), Abrahamian describes a rather momentus moment for the DPRK’s foreign policy.
Russia has decided that if North Korea’s Soviet-era debt is never going to be repayed, it might as well not stand in the way of better trade relations and geopolitical influence.
Over the weekend, Russia’s finance ministry said it has agreed to write off 90% of North Korea’s debt of $11 billion. This is a huge sum, obviously, equivalent to 20-25% of North Korea’s GDP, depending on which set of made-up statistics you like best. North Korea’s previous attempts -and failures – to free itself from the burden of Cold War era debt are well documented, including asking Hungary to write off 10 million in debt two years ago and, more curiously, offering to pay part of a similar sized debt to the Czech Republic in Ginseng. The debt that Russia holds dwarves the amounts owed the other former Eastern-bloc states. As such, it represents a huge victory for the budding Kim Jong Un era.
Forgiveness is a Beautiful Thing, Part II | In what appears to be a highly unusual move, North Korean state on June 28 opened up a major press conference on the subject of North Korean defectors to China. According to Rodong Sinmun, Russian, Chinese and US media were said to be there, though no confirmation of the story seems to have yet occured in the Chinese press, meaning that each country is determined to deal with the public relations of this issue on their own timetable, in their own way. For the convenience of readers in a certain country, the full text of the KCNA is available in English, and the original (and far, far more extensive) Rodong Simmun Korean original, in pdf. here (Escape from North Hamgyong, Defector Narrative KCNA-Rodong Sinmun, June 28, 2012), or in more malleable Word here (Escape from North Hamgyong, Defector Narrative KCNA-Rodong Sinmun, June 28, 2012).
Currency Events | If maps have been a bit askew (Foster-Carter), North Korea’s “Russia pivot” disorienting (Abrahamian), and defector news from Pyongyang highly irregular (KCNA), then currencies have been even more volatile of late. Chris Green arrives with a detailed piece on yuan exchange at Daily NK, proving again that, when it comes to market rates in Hyesan, we are hardly dealing with a total lack of information.
North Korean Women in the Marketplace | Of course, among the most reliably cogent readers of the very type of data which Green describes are the nigh-Stakhanovite duo Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland, whose new working paper on the status of North Korean women in the transforming economic marketplace is worth an intensive read.
Songbun and the Quest for Foreign Currency | If working papers are to your taste, you are probably looking for another up-to-date example of why this definitive new reference work re: North Korean social classificoation matters. You need only read another DailyNK piece regarding the selection of workers allowed to go become low-wage labor in Russia or China to see how even this far from risk-free activity interacts with the topic of songbun.
From Kim Il-song to Reagan | On a day when a Seoul taxi driver is arrested for, among other things, having a copy of the Kim Il-sung memoir With the Century on his computer hard drive, one really needs to have a strong grasp of comedic elements present within the random fury of life. Really? Kim Il-Sung’s long-winded reminiscences a handbook for insurgency in Seoul? That’s like saying Douglas MacArthur’s Reminiscences are required reading for defense hawks in Berkeley. Now, if unintentional comedy is your bag, or you really wish to compare Romney’s would-be East Asia policy with Obama’s or envision how Mitt Romney would deal with the Kim family, the Romney official website seeks to draw your vote by asserting that North Korea is very bad, and that the establishment of nothing other than a “Reagan Economic Zone” would single-handedly resurrect American primacy in the East Asian region. Light at the end of the tunnel, or is that just an incandecent Reagan?
 Having been hit in the face with this disclosure controversy and served up with a news item directly in their metaphorical wheelhouse, the North Koreans, as Bob Carlin has noted, were kind enough not to simply ignore it the whole embarassing affair. Sure, the Chinese Guofang Shibao [National Defense News], had a little fun with it, even going so far as to — so thoughtful! — translate John Feffer’s recent piece about US spying on North Korea into Chinese, but the North Koreans confined themselves to other avenues of critique.
 See Lee Si-Woo, Life on the Edge of the DMZ, translated by Myung-Hee Kim (Kent, UK: Global Oriental, 2008). Lee Si-Woo is a photographer and social activist based in Seoul. His book, a meditation on the militarization and beauty of what might be called South Korea’s northern borderlands, includes photographs with such winsome captions as: “When I visited the minefield, an old man, drunk with the fragrance, walked into it and got killed; a wild flower in full bloom was leaning against a mine” (256).
 In one of the more detailed and entertaining travel books to appear to date – the author writes more than 300 pages in small typeface about a three day venture to the DPRK –the writer describes how he passed along a George Clinton Parliament/P-Funk compact disc to an official to be coneveyed so that “Kim Jong-il could make the fabled Mothership Connection.”