Reading North Korean “Reform” in Shenyang: Reportage

By | August 26, 2012 | No Comments

Reading North Korean “Reform” in Shenyang: Reportage

by Adam Cathcart

In Bruce Cumings’ humorous, stylish, and occasionally cantankerous book reflecting on his experience of making a documentary film about the Korean War, the author describes how colloquies with Anthony Farrar-Hockley, a British veteran of North Korean POW camps on the Yalu River, would typically conclude with the old man saying, “But I was theah, dear boy!”

With a dogged empiricism, Cumings doesn’t care what Farrar-Hockley thinks happened in the Korean War.  Memory is, after all, a fickle thing.  Where are your cigarette burns after all, dear victim of communist torture?

Like Cumings, the young today are the easily unimpressed: they want documents, reams of them if possible, preferably digitized so as to remove the aroma of blood and ink.  Nothing really happened unless there was a photograph, or a film, or a bureaucratic chop denoting slaughter on the border, yes?  Without any evidence, who cares what happened to you along the Yalu River so long ago?

If it really mattered, any event would wind up as contemporary testimony, narrated as a quasi-primary source in a memoir of some kind, where we, der Nachfolgern, might properly lace it into our own footnotes, secure, poised, possessed of the paragraphs we needed, the data no longer scorned.

Moving Around |  The days spent last week by your present analyst on the ground in Beijing and Northeast China might, in other words, be worth approximately nothing.  In all, I spent three days in Dandong, a night in Shenyang, and a couple days of floating around the Foreign Ministry and North Korean Embassy in Beijing – all in the general orbit of Jang Song-taek, though always several steps behind. Obviously, these experiences in and of themselves do not a coherent analysis make; they certainly cannot confirm some general turn in the Chinese-North Korean relationship. (After all, men and women with minds far more agile, experienced, and data-steeped than mine are still trying to parse out the question of the recent meetings.)

Nevertheless there is something to location, and thanks to the vagaries of chance, I learned a few things while chasing Jang Song-taek’s long tail in Beijing and Northeast China.  These are some of the impressions I received along the way, which may have some value, even if, unlike my colleagues writing for the International Crisis Group or 38 North, I failed to interview anonymous Chinese officials or think-tank scholars along the way.  (We historians, after all, prefer our archives; interviewing dead people is always easier.)

Reading the Visit on the Shenyang Train | Prior to Jang’s trip, the smart money had it that the next big North Korean delegation would hit the hotspots of Jiangsu and its capital Nanjing, with a stopover in Shanghai, where, presumably, they could slobber in Friedmanesque obeisance at Pudong.  (“Did you know,” Jang Song-taek blurts out at a Politburo meeting, “that the world is flat?”)

His grey eminence brought his pallor to Liaoning instead.

When Jang Song-taek flew home[1] to Pyongyang, I got on a train to the northeast city of Shenyang.  Presumably, Jang Song-taek has left Kim Jong-il’s positively weird fear of flying behind and wasted minimal time on the ground, but in my case, costs mitigated for a train.  Thanks to the wicked controversies of a year ago and uncovering of positively gargantuan corruption in the Ministry of Railways, the high-speed trains from Beijing to Shenyang have gotten decidedly slower.  Puttering along at a positively Amtrak-esque 200 km per hour on August 18, one could at least lick fiduciary wounds and catch up on the Chinese news media about Jang’s visit.

That news response could best be described as taciturn. The fact that the core details about Jang’s itinerary were primarily released on a Friday afternoon meant that there would be less buzz.[2] Fortunately the national magazine New Business Weekly (新商务周刊) had produced a large and bullish prognostication of opportunities in the North Korean market which would take more than a single hour to plow through.

In Shenyang | Where did Jang Song-taek stay when he was here? Anyone’s guess, but one expert I trust, Michael Rank, pointed me to the Chilbosan Hotel [七宝山].  As I learn from Mr. Rank, the Chilbosan is a DPRK-owned joint venture which was advanced and enterprising enough to have an English-language website promoting rooms for 100 yuan per night. Arriving in the rain in Shenyang and out of a gleaming behemoths of a train station, several cabbies immediately warn me to stay away from the Qilbosan. “You know it’s owned by North Koreans,” they warn me, adding a futile “right?” Right.

I stride in with my best harsh northeastern accent. Unfortunately the two young  Chinese working at the front counter tatter my Western arrogance, and are simply incredulous that a website asserts the rooms are any cheaper than 460 yuan.  “What, us, changing the deal in mid-stream?,” they seem to say, “Impossible!”  I spin around, but there’s hardly a sofa to recline upon, and no point in hanging out in this low and wide lobby which resembles nothing more than pregnant white lobster giving birth to a huge chandelier.

Complaints of North Korean Corporate Banditry  |  On the way to the Xita [西塔] district, the cluster of North Korean restaurants in Shenyang, the taxi driver (prompted by a simple question) complains ruefully about the Xiyang [西洋]business deal gone bad; the DPRK has managed to cheat a Liaoning province minerals conglomerate out of hundreds of millions of dollars.  While not an explicit word about the deal was uttered about in the mass press, the matter seems to be common knowledge in Shenyang.

The taxi driver concludes his discourse on the Xiyang case: “The North Koreans are the same as the Iranians,” he volunteers.  “All they have is their lies and their weapons.”

In Shenyang, none of the four taxi drivers I have man-to-man chats with (so much for bashing Tom Friedman) has anything good to say about North Korea.  Two are well-versed in the Xiyang deal.

It occurs to me that has been a very long time since I heard anyone in Liaoning say something nice about aid to the DPRK during the Korean War.  The old veterans of the conflict are an ebbing force in the province; living among huge coal plants has not aided in extending their lives, and they are falling rapidly.  None of those I interviewed in 2001, who were by and large positive about the DPRK, are still alive, and cancer killed them all.  Their sons are the taxi drivers in the aftermath.  Kim Jong Un may have inherited his father’s commitments whether he likes it or not, but few of his Chinese counterparts have deep emotional ties to North Korea’s ongoing viability.  A democratic regime in China would spell doom for the DPRK in more ways than one.

Rocky in Shenyang |  In Xita, the hour grows late but the stomach growls. Having reached the end of a particularly Korean-loaded street, a choice has to be made between two establishments: the huge North Korean restaurant (“Pyongyang”) and the small one (“Rainbow”).  “Pyongyang” looms, lighted up like a spaceship. Like the city it is named for, Pyongyang is sucking up all the electricity with all of the grandiosity and none of the production.

Going for the local underdog, I duck into “Rainbow,” ditching my suitcase in the coffee room downstairs.  With a ratio of three employees to its only customer, and running at a slow tempo, the coffee shop is suitably DPRK.  My bag, which I’m leave next to a neglected rack of Rodong Sinmun newspapers, contains an external hard drive full of dossiers, pdfs, and half-finished drafts about DPRK diplomats and relations with China.  If the North Koreans want my data they can take it, because I’m hungry, in the universal sense, and have no time to engage in protective redundancies.

Immediately my rashness is rewarded. In an impossible feat of timing, the “Rocky” theme is blasting at full volume upon my ascent into the restaurant, and I walk in on the last 40 bars of the Moranbong Band instant classic via the magic of DVD technology.

Moranbong Band — performing ‘Rocky’ on DVD while prepping the new performance about defending the West Sea | Image via Korea Central TV

In the satellite-data-rich world that some analysts inhabbt, this coincidence, this bit of “intelligence” means nothing: who cares that North Koreans outside of Pyongyang are watching the Moranbong Band or are now familiar with the “Rocky” theme?  Why would one performance at some random theater, and its viewing and reviewing at a North Korean outpost abroad, possibly matter?  Well, besides this, probably nothing. (That, and according to my Stockholm source for North Korean jeans, the Moranbong Band was on a flight from Pyongyang to Beijing the week before Jang Song-taek showed up.  Talk about a court in exile.)

At the very least, the recording of the Moranbong performance sets the table, literally, for my encounter with the small brigade of waitresses, who, according to some particularly sloppy reports, are all spies trained in the dark arts of sex and taekwondo. To me they look like young musicians who also serve food and are trying their damndest to learn Chinese (and, increasingly, English), but I could be wrong. In any event, everyone’s heels are higher than a year ago.

The second floor dining room is almost empty, but the waitresses seem tickled that I am excited about the Moranbong performance.

“Tai bang le (太棒了—Fantastic),” I say, genuinely.

“You know Moranbong Band?” one asks.

“Of course,” I say, “They’re all graduates of the Kim Gwon-gyun Conservatory, including Sonu Hyang-hui; she’s excellent, very strong technique and exceedingly creative as an arranger. Have you met her?”

The Moranbong Band continues to play over an empty drum set, and over the next half-hour I get the full KCTV version of the latter end of the performance, mainly the Disney sections which I have been needing to watch anyway.

Kim Jong-un’s mother, Go Young-hee, also brought black clutch purses along to on-site inspections with her husband | Image via DailyNK video footage obtained from DPRK, uploaded by StimmeKoreas

Engrossed in the work that occupies waitresses around the world, the North Korean girls don’t seem at all enthralled with it.  They do perk up when, rifling through my stack of newspapers, they find a picture of Ri Sol-ju.  The picture is attached to a highly critical article in the Belgian daily Le Soir about North Korea’s First Handbag (Christian Dior clutch purse, debuted by Ri Sol-ju and KCNA, circa August 7).  The girls don’t seem to care what the article is about and, unlike their counterparts in Beijing, no one in this joint seems to read French.  But the girls rip it away from me and bring it over to their main desk, where, hovering over the Ri Sol-ju picture, they point, they kvetch, they discuss.

Ri Sol-ju shows up at the beginning and the end of their Moranbong Band DVD, but they’ve obviously seen that already, and the picture of her with her handbag causes a kerfuffle.

Predictably, the whole gathering is broken up, not by the girls’ middle-aged ajumma minder, who doesn’t seem to care at all that they’ve abducted an imperialist newspaper from the white man eating kimchee, but instead by a drunken Chinese businessman.  The Chinese takes twelve minutes to pay his bill between nearly falling down, pawing at the girls and appearing to try to take one of them home with him.  He succeeds eventually at leaving, having entertained a group of six or seven North Korean males who slink out with a wink and a nod, leaving him with the bill. It’s the Flower Girl, Act II, all over again, with the Korean males absent and the lecherous landlord, with his ambiguous nationality, finally making his libido a character in the drama.

The girls take it in stride and get back to work as the patron stumbles down the stairs, talking and grasping the whole time.  I go to the desk to retrieve my Le Soir.  “What’s wrong with him?” I ask, nodding over at the staircase.  “He’s a customer,” says the girl behind the desk, with an attempt to be upbeat, as if this is what capitalism is all about – making one’s desires as naked as possible, and then compromises or refusals being reached, leaving the mostly-sated Chinese (presumably) to go vomit in the street.


[1] But where is home, exactly? And who is occupying Pyongyang’s decidedly dense network of bunkers?  A recent KCNA smash-out at US testing bunker-busting munitions implies that the North Korean leaders are still subterranean; the superstructure of Kimism remains intact below ground.

[2] No fresh Huanqiu Shibao until Monday, and the news arrived not in time to catch the Thursday publication of all the weekly foreign affairs periodicals and major national papers like Nanfang Zhoumo (and International Herald Leader, the bastard child of Cankao Xiaoxi) that come out on Thursdays.  One lonely story on the third page of Cankao Xiaoxi? Really?

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