SinoNK Dukes of Hazzard Edition: Chasing the General Ri
by Adam Cathcart
While our team of analysts at SinoNK has – as yet— been unable to capture any exclusive interviews about the departure of General Ri Yong-ho from Pyongyang’s strewn stages, we have surely been reading the Chinese press for clues and new analytical threads. Was there great rejoicing in Zhongnanahai when Ri’s fall was announced? Will the General now be blamed for the various impasses with China as regards both missile tests and the abduction of Chinese fishermen by the KPA Navy, or,if the desires of Chinese analysts be met retroactively, perhaps shot as the person responsible? Perhaps, perhaps not. As always, only time and the archives will tell.
In the hazy, scrambling meantime and amid the requisite Western media freak-out, a few data points may bear consideration:
- In terms of hierarchy preceding the formal inauguration of “the Kim Jong Un era,” Ri was portrayed in some ways as a solid number 3, at least in interactions with Chinese leaders. As we described in May (“Stable Transition or Fumbling Majesty? ”), at the most important Sino-North Korean summit meeting of 2011, Vice Marshal Ri Yong Ho was behind only Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un in the protocol order for meeting the Chinese Vice-Premier. Yes, Li Keqiang met quite a few people in October 2011; however, the prominence of Ri’s interactions with Chinese leaders prior to Kim Jong-il’s death indicate at the very least that the North Koreans saw him at the time as a key person to promote in relations with China.
It’s worth noting that Stephan Blancke, an intelligence analyst in Berlin, writes in his epic article “Blood is Thicker Than Water” that such interactions, from the Chinese point of view, form a key part of any bilateral visit — the protocol, body language, and whom is being introduced in the first place all form key pieces of how China interprets Pyongyang.
- The first day of the Chinese press response to l’affaire Ri Yong Ho was almost entirely based upon North Korea’s own reports (KCNA). An excellent run-down of the first day’s action in the Chinese media, and the netizen response, is available via the JustRecently website:
Chinese media reported Ri’s removal right away, but while Singapore’s Morning News quotes assumptions from South Korean institutions that the move may have been made for political reasons, China’s Xinhua News Agency simply quotes KCNA itself.
Huanqiu Shibao offers no interpretation beyond KCNA’s “health” explanations either, but adds a KCNA snapshot to spice things up a bit. Via an emoticon board, 311 readers (at the time of writing this post) express amazement or shock (震惊), 71 are bored, and 45 find the news ridiculous. But in the commenter thread, “linqinghu” finds the news very Chinese, very familiar (很中国，很熟悉), and “Xiaoyao Guoke” has a question: Whenever news about North Korea is reported, it’s is it always KCNA? Hard to believe that Xinhua has no reporters there!!?? (有一个问题搞不懂：但凡报道朝鲜的新闻，为什么总听韩联社的！？难道新华社在朝鲜就没有记者吗). There appears to be at least one reporter from Huanqiu Shibao itself in Pyongyang, actually.
Interpretation of the currently meager news is likely to follow in mainland Chinese media soon, and Beijing, if not informed about the backgrounds, will hope that the North Korean leadership’s economic priorities as alluded to by Associated Press (see above, third paragraph) will turn out to be the true driving motivation behind Ri Yong-ho’s removal.
Speaking of reporters in Pyongyang, it’s a telling detail that Zhang Li has been kept safely away from the Ri Yong Ho story, and has been confined instead to reporting on Arirang and its happy role in Sino-Korean cinematic cooperation. Zhang is a young but experienced Xinhua reporter who has at times had quite some latitude by Chinese standards in Pyongyang: she was the centerpiece of live reports to CCTV via telephone from Pyongyang just after Kim Jong-il died, and also got exclusive access to a studio visit with “retired” North Korean broadcasting sensation Ri Chun Hui. However, this time around, Xinhua is playing things close to the vest and sticking to the script, to the extent that there is one.
- The second and third days of the Chinese press response was far more active, with front page stories about Ri appearing in regional newspapers. Reading the news along with a gaggle of retirees in a Sichuan teahouse and then the next day with a talented American analyst across the street from the PRC Foreign Ministry, I was surprised to see Ri being called “a sacrificial lamb” by Chinese writers. Without getting into any speculation as to which other members of the North Korean “inner circle” might have wanted to see Ri pushed out, Chinese media was rather open about the fact that Ri’s dismissal indicated some serious disagreement at the apex of North Korean politics. While this statement may seem painfully obvious, it is interesting to read it in the Chinese press, where the North Korea topic is treated with sensitivity that sometimes verges on pathological.
On July 18, Zhou Yiran, who is more or less the orthodox dean of Chinese North Korean correspondents and seems to be based in Pyongyang for the Huanqiu Shibao, went out on a limb with some analysisin the absence of hard information: Kim Jong Un’s ascention to the title of “Marshal” should be considered wholly normal in the North Korean context and shouldn’t be seen as in any way linked to the purge of Ri Yong-ho.
- The main Chinese official response came from Zhang Liangui, the scholar at the Party School in Beijing, whose rapid-fire response in Chinese Huanqiu Shibao appeared the next day in a somewhat poorly-translated English edition of the Global Times.
-Kim Jong Un’s own rhetoric has seemed to mesh nicely with Chinese imperatives that North Korea focus on “people’s livelihood” (minsheng/minsaeng). Symbolic gestures do not a policy make, but the staged arrival of a brigade of fruit trucks in Kim Il Song Square whose news coincided Ri’s departure seemed to simultaneously turn the notion of martial law and military parades on their respective heads. This was a smart move, even if it’s just pure PR, but for some reason the Chinese press did not pick up on it.
- The timing of the purge was perfect from the Chinese point of view in the sense that Sea of Blood Opera Troupe is performing in Beijing tonight through July 22. What this means is that high-level consultation and shoulder-rubbing is already built into the calendar. In October and November 2011, the same purpose was served by the troupe for providing a forum for Li Jinai, an outspoken PLA General, to get a sense of North Korean colleagues before heading to Pyongyang himself. As far as Chinese comfort levels with the relationship go, this is not to be downplayed as purely a show with propaganda benefits; there are tangible opportunities for temperature checking here, depending on who shows up at the National Theater, better known as “The Egg.”
- Ri’s prominent placement in Kim Jong Un successor propaganda is best seen in analysis of the long film released by the DPRK in January. Ri was hardly alone – Jang Song-taek as ever was close by, and Kim Ki-nam has also never really left the scene – but he was at the top of the list of Songun tutors, a position that created tension as elements in the Chinese state pressed gently but unrelentingly for North Korea to back away from the “military first” policy.
Tags: Chinese role in North Korean puge, Chinese views of North Korean factionalism, Kim Jong Un and Ri Yong Ho, Kim Jong Un Marshal, Kim Jong Un movie, North Korean general purged, Ri Yong Ho, Vice-Marshal in North Korea