The Art of Narrative Propulsion: North Korea’s “State of War,” and Conjuring Chinese Troops on the North Korean Frontier
Whizzing bullets, flying missiles, falling bombs, the fog of war: none of these things aid accurate reporting. But what happens when that fog is little more than a rhetorical device in a broader propaganda narrative? Can or should the media be picking, choosing and reporting verbatim on stories peddled by a state-run news agency of KCNA’s ilk? Or should they, as Professor Andrei Lankov put it in an Australian news report that whizzed around the social network-o-sphere last week, just ignore the entire thing?
For where are the signs of an impending conflagration on the Korean peninsula? Is North Korea mobilizing its forces to the inter-Korean border? Do two missiles caught on satellite images offensive postures make? Are camera-toting anti-imperialist tourists in pin badges prohibited from flying into Sunan Airport, much less forbidden from flying out again? None of these things, it appears, are the case.
Meanwhile, the diplomatic corps in the North Korean capital has thumbed its communal nose at the idea, suggested yesterday, that its members might even consider leaving North Korea since “their safety cannot be guaranteed in the event of war.” Perhaps they treated the notion as what, thanks to a pithy utterance from he of “The Cleanest Race” fame published in the New York Times last week, SinoNK has taken to calling a “Myers Conditional”: a uniquely implausible hypothetical concept predicated on an extraordinarily unlikely event.
North Korea, it is abundantly clear, is a past master in public relations. And, because they know well that newspapers can hardly afford not to report on the latest KCNA missive, and are equally well aware that just by putting “special” (특별) in front of “declaration” (설명) they can double down on the fog and double up on the column inches, the tensions rise. Adam Cathcart quadruples the size of our data set.- Christopher Green, Co-editor
The Art of Narrative Propulsion: Mistranslating North Korea’s “State of War,” and Conjuring Chinese Troops on the North Korean Frontier
by Adam Cathcart
Recent events around the Korean peninsula have generated a tidal wave of op-eds and analysis. Interpretation is important, but so too is having data that is reasonably comprehensive, and reasonably accurate. Prognostication is fine, and the attempt to discern patterns is admirable. But we must occasionally turn toward the difficult task of cleaning up and assessing what we already know, and what we think we know.
This essay will endeavor to take on two data points of potential significance: 1) The DPRK’s own pronouncement of March 30, which helped to escalate and channel Western attention to Korea significantly, and 2) the subsequent rise of a rumor that Chinese troops were moving toward North Korea in force.
North Korea in “State of War” | News flash: Scholar B.R. Myers thinks the quality of Western analysis of the DPRK is, to put it bluntly, junk. Why?
It’s an undiplomatic point to make, but the inconvenient truth is that most North Korea-watchers in the United States don’t speak Korean and don’t read Korean. They’re not able to read even the legend on a North Korean propaganda poster.
Rather than quibble with the man by brandishing an essay by Bruce Cumings in an act of intellectual bullfighting, let’s take his criticism seriously. Be proactive and dive into the Korean, because North Koreans tend to make pronouncements in Korean, and those texts might be different from the ones we read in English.
James Pearson has written a graphic essay on this matter for the NKNews website, suggesting that while war is all the talk abroad, the North Korean press (and presumably the DPRK populace) is being encouraged to focus (in part) on economic matters. Steve Herman, the Voice of America reporter in Seoul/Tokyo, noted a similar fact a couple of days back, that while Western media outlets were frothing over the “war declaration,” the document had not so much as mentioned on the evening news in Pyongyang.
So did the North Koreans put out the March 30 statement mainly to make a splash with the foreign media, while downplaying it at home?
First of all, it is evident that nearly every major news organization took the DPRK “state of war” statement for what it purported to be, in English:
1.From this moment, the north-south relations will be put at the state of war and all the issues arousing between the north and the south will be dealt with according to the wartime regulations. The state of neither peace nor war has ended on the Korean Peninsula.
Now that the revolutionary armed forces of the DPRK have entered into an actual military action, the inter-Korean relations have naturally entered the state of war. Accordingly, the DPRK will immediately punish any slightest provocation hurting its dignity and sovereignty with resolute and merciless physical actions without any prior notice.
It would be pointless to link to examples of news outlets quoting this statement or noting that North Korea was moving into a “state of war,” because they are everywhere. And why shouldn’t they be? The statement came from KCNA, and was an official pronouncement. No need to wait for B.R. Myers or anyone else to parse it; the thing was self-evident. So everyone ran with it.
Why, then, would Russian media, quickly echoed by Xinhua, sound the alarm that the pronouncement had been “mistranslated”?
Fortunately, Rodong Sinmun published not one, but three versions of the statement: Korean, English and Chinese. When we compare these side-by-side, we find a handful of small clues that add up to a reminder that the Korean originals of such significant statements, at the very least, need to be checked. After all, we should operate on the assumption that different messages are being sent to different publics, as B.R. Myers himself notes regularly.
To Judge a Story: The Title | The title of the English pronouncement on March 30 is clear as day: “North-South Relations Have Been Put at State of War: Special Statement of DPRK.” Mon dieu!, thinks the journalist, fire up the word processor! The headlines are practically written for you.
By contrast, the title in Korean is very bland: “조선민주주의인민공화국 정부,정당,단체 특별성명 / Special declaration of the government, political parties and organizations of the DPRK.” A “special declaration [특별성명/t‘ŭkpyŏl sŏngmyŏng]” is not an everyday event, to be sure, particularly one not sourced to any particular organization, but there’s no fire and brimstone inherently in it.
Believe it or not, the Chinese version of the title has a very different specific message : “朝鲜政府政党团体重申世上没人能抵挡为正义的祖国统一大战而奋起的朝鲜军民和全民族 / The DPRK government, political parties, and organizations reiterate that there is no one on Earth that can escape the justice of the war for unification or the vigorous rise of the North Korean soldiers and the whole race.” Say what you will about PRC enabling of North Korean threats, but at several points during the Cold War, and certainly today, China has made rather clear its opposition to North Korea unifying the peninsula by force. This is not a meaningless headline from either a North Korean or a Chinese perspective.
Summing up the respective messages of the “same” title:
English headline (for foreign reporters): “Korea will be on fire soon”
Korean headline (for domestic audience): “The government is talking”
Chinese headline (for the comrades in Beijing): “Don’t attempt to interfere with our victorious path to unification”
Kim Jong-un at the Center | If we see recent events in North Korea as a massive exercise in “routinizing charisma” for the young leader, then there’s some small grist for the mill in the wedges of the Rodong Sinmun translations of the March 30 declaration, which are reworked for clarity from the Korean and Chinese versions:
Whereas the moves of the U.S. imperialists to violate [유린/蹂躏] the sovereignty of the DPRK and encroach upon its supreme interests [최고리익/ 利益] have entered an extremely grave phase, Under this situation the dear respected Marshal Kim Jong Un, brilliant commander of Mt. Paektu, convened an urgent operation meeting on the performance of duty of with the Strategic Rocket Force [전략로케트군/ 战略导弹军] of the Korean People’s Army for firepower strike and finally ultimately examined and ratified [审批] a plan for firepower strike.
As if we might miss the point, the English version of the document sprinkles in an extra adjective for Kim Jong-un (“brilliant,” of course), but the KCNA translators also muck up what he was actually doing, and when he was doing it. The idea of Kim “finally” ratifying a plan for strike makes it sound as if he’s “finally getting around to it” (a bit of a slouch, Kim Jong-un?) or makes it sound like this is “his final plan,” when it is neither. It is the culmination of his urgent meeting, that is all, and he has thought it through. He’s there to review the Army’s final plan (he’s not the generator of the plan) and to show that he’s on board with it. Not incidentally, no one appears to have mentioned the importance of the visualization of Kim Jong-un handling the generals and the rocket program on his own, which is quite a difference from the December satellite launch, where uncle Jang Song-taek was very much with him, the man of the hour at hand and the senior finger very much near the button.
Changing the Game with the United States | As we have noted here prior, Kim Jong-un is fiercely locked in dialectic with the North Korean way of looking at history, a history which is dominated by confrontation with the United States. How this leader settles that blood debt, either exacting protracted revenge, putting all of Northeast Asia under a nuclear cloud, or shaking hands with, say, Hillary Clinton in 2018, matters a great deal.
General Kim Jong-un made This significant policy decision [중대결심은/重大决策] was made in order to transform [전환/轉換] the centuries of history of DPRK-US confrontation, opening up a new era via a decisive do-or-die battle [殊死宣战]. It is also a last warning served to the U.S., the south Chosun puppet group and other anti-reunification hostile forces [반통일적대세력 / 反统一敌对势力, a reference to China?], particularly reflecting the strong will of the army and people of the DPRK to justly annihilate the enemies [杀敌].
Are North Koreans expecting a change? Surely this second paragraph indicates a desire to change the security calculus on the peninsula, and the old stated aim to change [“chŏnhwan/zhuanhuan“] the relationship with the U.S.A. Again, the KCNA’s own English version puts everything in Kim Jong-un’s personal hands more explicitly.
An Attack by Sea? | Who doesn’t love to speculate about a confrontation along the Northern Limit Line, a safe place for analysts to blow off a little steam? In an interview with The Guardian, one analyst got creative and, in a reference to scholarship by Allen R. Millett, said things might get “more Hobbsean” along the inter-Korean boundary. But why can’t such speculations be linked, at the very least, to more documentation coming from the North? The March 30 statement pointed explicitly to the islands in the West Sea as being a significant friction point. But, as translation is the focus here, missed in the wash was this little nugget:
Now the heroic service personnel and all people of the DPRK are feeling the unstoppable surge of anger [솟는 격분 / 禁不住涌上心头的激愤] at the U.S. imperialists’ reckless war provocation moves, fully in accordance with General Kim Jong-un’s significant decision [充满着遵照金正恩元帅的重大决策], and are hot with the desire to turn out as one in the death-defying battle with the enemies that will topple the mountains and overturn the sea [排山倒海] and achieve a final victory of the great war for national reunification.
If the North Koreans make references to oceanic violence in Chinese, does it still count as a threat? (“排山倒海” is rendered in Korean as “산악같이 일떠선,” which I will leave for colleagues to parse.)
Here again, the crux of the angry will by the North Korean public is precisely Kim Jong-un’s significant decision. This is not, in other words, randomly targetted anti-Americanism, but a sentiment meant to coalsce around a specific person and his ability to make deicsions. Faith in the man is required, and thus music:
Bomber Mania | Fortified by a bellowing men’s chorus, we can now move on to the echoes of a discussion of “the signals” being sent by American aircraft over the Korean peninsula. No doubt, the US has been sending messages with these flights. But how are these signals conveyed by the North Korean media to their own home audience? No one in the DPRK actually eyeballed the B-2 or the B-52; their presence is conveyed via newspapers and television media.
One small but fascinating aspect of the March 30 declaration is that its description of the American bombers was more descriptive in Korean than in English. For fear of American armaments is a domestic touchstone:
The United States did not heed repeated DPRK warnings and, following on the successive incursions [爬进]of the nuclear-capable B-52 into the sky over south Korea in succession, the U.S. made the B-2A stealth strategic bomber and other ultra-modern strategic strike means fly from the U.S. mainland to south Korea to stage a bombing drill targeting the DPRK. This is an unpardonable and heinous provocation and an open challenge.
A note on verbs: This is not simply a “sortie” of the B-52 as in the original English version, it is itself “an incursion,” since, in the DPRK’s view, the US ought to have no rights whatsoever to fly over a single iota of the entire Korean peninsula! Additionally, we in English are insulated from the B-52’s nature, but Korean readers are not: this is not just a B-52, it is a 핵전략폭격기 《B－５２》or a “B-52 strategic nuclear-bomber [Ｂ－５２核战略轰炸机].”
This Ria Novosti report gets into further specifics about why a “faulty translation” of the March 30 statement might matter, without noting that it was the North Koreans themselves who did the translating. If media outlets would simply link to the original KCNA or Rodong Sinmun reports, the more paranoid missives about the authenticity of North Korean statements might be reduced somewhat.
“Chinese Troops Massing on the Border” | Nothing makes a site focusing on Chinese-North Korean relations more potentially relevant than certain articles in respected foreign affairs magazines, like this Korean War II scenario spun a few days ago by Patrick M. Cronin in Foreign Policy:
U.S. and ROK Combined Forces Command implements a pre-arranged plan — perhaps using submarine-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles and Massive Ordnance Penetrator bombs dropped from a B-2 — to eliminate North Korea’s two major missile launch facilities: Tonghae in the northeast and Sohae in the northwest, both of which are fairly close to the Chinese border. North Korea responds with more rockets and Scud missiles, accompanied by North Korean Central News announcements suggesting that they could be armed with biological agents. China, seeking to restrain all sides, pours troops and materiel across the border to protect its interests and instigates a secret plan to replace Kim Jong Un with a senior general who understands the North’s total dependence on its only ally. The resulting confusion leads to a belief that North Korea, and not just the Kim regime, is collapsing. Meanwhile, the United States quietly embarks on a secret mission to secure North Korea’s nuclear weapons.
But who needs fiction, when one can read Washington Times and the Chosun Ilbo? This Bill Gertz piece, entitled “Risky Business,” seemed to be at the core of most of the speculation that China was moving troops in force along its frontier with the DPRK. An elementary check of the article’s geography should have raised questions immediately about its veracity.
Gertz: “The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troop and tank movements were reported in Daqing, located in northeastern Heilongjiang Province, and in the border city of Shenyang, in Liaoning Province.”
Daqing is about as close to Pyongyang as Beijing is. And Shenyang is the military headquarters for the entire northeastern region; if Gertz travelled to the region a little more frequently, he’d know that it’s quite normal to see PLA and military equipment in the city. (Similarly, I’ve lived in Chengdu, the military HQ for the southwest; if China was going to invade India every time I saw a tank on the highway, Wen Jiabao would be the governor of Punjab.) And Shenyang is far from a “border city”; it’s rather smack in the middle of Liaoning province — surely a gateway to Dandong, but by no means on the border itself. Speaking of which: A Guardian reporter was actually on that border with the DPRK in Liaoning province, Kuandian county, and breathed not a word about Chinese troops massing. Daniel Pinkston, a reputable source on such matters, said it was news about an old troop rotation, or just flat wrong. Chosun Ilbo’s panting assertion that Chinese media had “prominently” confirmed the report was both sloppy and inaccurate.
The general lack of reportage from the Chinese-Korean border region itself, where folks do have legitimate fears over nuclear contamination from North Korea, speaks to a broader gap in how we approach the information swirling around the DPRK. In the pleasurable event that the current crisis blows over, how we acknowledge the factual gaps (and seek to remedy them, in whatever language) might be one silver lining to this very dark cloud.