China’s Soft Power Strategy and the DPRK

By | January 13, 2014 | No Comments

Confucian Institute Graduation

Confucius Institute Graduation Party in Pyongyang, December 3, 2013 | Image: PRC Embassy in Pyongyang

Is North Korea, as Joseph Nye once apparently argued, “immune” from soft power and persuasion? In a recent North Korea Review article, Steven Denney and I argue that the DRPK is not. Recent events in Pyongyang involving an American basketball delegation meeting with Kim Jong-un are not necessarily bizarre, nor are they without utility for both the Americans and the North Koreans. Certainly they should force another reappraisal of the role that cultural diplomacy, Track II exchanges, and cultural power plays with respect to our attempts to change or otherwise enter the North Korean thought stream.

If State Department officials in Washington DC struggle to craft an appropriate soft power strategy for Pyongyang, their counterparts in Beijing appear to be way ahead, being armed with decades of “fraternal relations” with North Korea. Or are the Chinese really ahead of the game? What cultural products from Beijing are North Koreans dying—or allowed—to have? Finally, as the PRC Xi Jinping pushes a global propaganda line on “the Chinese dream,” it should be clear that North Korea is far from immune from the pressures and opportunities brought with this wave of rhetoric—and resources.

In the aftermath of the 2008 Olympics, Chinese think tanks have proliferated with the study of “soft power.” Does China in fact have such a strategy for DPRK, where unfettered access to Chinese cultural products and ideas could be seen as reactionary?

One document published by Chinese state media in 2013 provides insight into this question, which was posed in the aftermath of the PRC’s 17th Central Committee’s decision to promote China as a “cultural soft power” [在十七届六中全会上,我们党提出了“文化 软实力”].

In an interview with the American scholar Marc Abramson, author of Ethnic Identity in Tang ChinaZhang Guozuo delves into a view on the DPRK that is seldom aired in China.

This interview engages in a frank appraisal of the hard exoskeleton of Juche culture in DPRK.

Whereas the official line has tended to highlight the socialist compatibility of state-sponsored cultural groups and their interactions, in fact the Chinese-North Korean cultural interactions are stilted and comparatively rare. What is new is to see such open acknowledgement of the fact in the PRC media.

Strikingly, at an earlier point in the interview, Zhang Guozuo talks about “molding” or “shaping” people (以高尚精神塑造人) as a natural CCP task, and how he leaves personal fear completely out of the account when describing “the people’s support” for Pyongyang later on. Is fear is part of soft power, too?

“Zhang Guozuo: Soft Power and Various Problems in Present-day International Relations; Interview with Dr. Marc Abramson” [张国祚:软实力与当前国际关系若干问题——答Marc Abramson(马克·阿博拉姆苏)博士], Renmin Ribao (People’s Daily, Theory Section), August 13, 2013.

How the effects of China’s soft power and the PRC’s “abandonment of nuclear arms” policy toward North Korea could be neutralized by the threat of American hard power  

Marc Abramson: You have mentioned the issues of quantification and appraisal [of soft power], which, we believe, are very important. So how do you rate and quantify the effects of Chinese soft power on Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia, and other neighboring countries?

Zhang Guozuo: Recently, the relations between China and a few of its neighboring countries have seen some complications [关系遇到些麻烦]. Take, for example, the nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula. China and North Korea are friendly neighbors, with long-term friendly relations. Currently, North Korea is rather reliant on China, economically, but it is a sovereign and independent country, which listens to China if it wants to, and won’t listen if it doesn’t want to [它对中国的话想听就听、想不听就不听].

That’s to say, the effect of Chinese soft power on North Korea is limited.

There’s an American misunderstanding—the belief that China is the only country North Korea can economically rely on [可以依赖的国家], and that therefore, China could exert pressure to change North Korean policies.

In fact, in the later period after Kim Il-sung took power, and down to Kim Jong-il, and now to Kim-Jong-un, the Juche ideology has grown ever stronger in North Korea. It [this ideology] believes that, to exist amid the interrelations between China, Russia, America, Japan, and other big countries, and to win the support of the people at home, North Korea needs to maintain its independent character on the one hand, and seek its own foothold in the big countries’ game [大国博弈] .

Throughout history, North Korean leaders have had their own exceptionally clear understanding of Americans, Russians, Japanese, South Koreans, and Chinese, and they knew when they could get tough, and when to make strategic concessions. They absolutely act from the position of their own interests.

When it comes to the North Korean nuclear issue, China advocates the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. China resolutely opposes nuclearization. This is obvious. Any normally-thinking and reasonable people would do that. If North Korea has nuclear weapons, Japan, under this pretext, will develop nuclear weapons, which would be an even bigger threat to America, South Korea, China, and other neighboring countries. Therefore, we all advocate the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. As far as this is concerned, China’s position is clear-cut.

Of course, a factor in North Korea’s attempts to obtain nuclear weapons may be the pressure from America, with North Korea not feeling safe. They believe that a nuclear shield can provide them with security. They have watched how the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq and the Gaddafi regime in Libya were toppled, and consequently believe that if Iraq actually possessed weapons of mass destruction and if Libya had actually had nuclear weapons, the two regimes wouldn’t have collapsed [不可能垮掉]. North Korea believes that the best menace against America would be nuclear weapons. Therefore, the American military threat is the most important factor in spurring this North Korean aim. In other words, the effect of China’s soft-power persuasion of North Korea is neutralized by America’s hard-power threat.

Marc Abramson: To get back to the issue of soft power, which kind of effect does China have on North Korea, in terms of soft power? Apparently, there is a lot of exchange between China and South Korea, in terms of soft power.

Zhang Guozuo: As I’ve just said, Dr. Marc, soft power is primarily displayed as spiritual (精神), emotional (情感), and knowledge-based types of power (智慧方面的力量). South Korea, as a general rule, has a soft spot for Chinese traditional culture. Almost all of the South Korean presidents have had a feel for Chinese culture. Therefore, Sino-South Korean cultural exchange is a bit easier.

Joseph Nye once said that soft power had no effect on North Korea [软实力对朝鲜不起作用]. This point of view requires analysis.

For example, with respect the problem of prompting North Korea to abandon nuclear armaments, there are two solutions. One is to apply hard power. America has considered carrying out surgical attacks to destroy the nuclear test sites, to apply military threat, and, in the case of a North Korean missile tests, to intercept these with anti-ballistic missile strikes. Such steps spell out a dependence on hard power. If North Korea was scared by this and yielded [屈服了], it would demonstrate the major effect of hard power. But this is not the reality.

The second method is to use soft power in order to convince North Korea that the development of nuclear weapons and medium- and long-range rockets is not in the country’s long term interests.

The present problem now with respect to China and the North Korean nuclear issue isn’t that we don’t know how to use to soft power, it isn’t that we don’t know how to talk sense, it isn’t that we haven’t used persuasive or convincing methods, and it isn’t we haven’t spoken clearly about the successes and failures and pros and cons (讲清成败利害) of using soft power with North Korea.

Rather, it is that the effect of this kind of soft power is very limited. Where are the limitations?

If we are to “seek truth from facts (实事求是),” the interior of North Korea is nowadays rather poor, and the life of the common people is tough [老百姓的生活是苦的]. But the regime is nevertheless even more solid than it was before. Why is that? It is because the regime has obtained the common masses’ support, and we can see that their support for their leaders comes from the heart. Why is that? It’s because the regime has used soft power at home so effectively.

Beginning with Kim Il-sung, the North Korean party and government have instilled (灌输) the “Juche Idea” into the masses, emphasized a sense of independence, an awareness that the leaders are the excellent creators of the Juche Idea, and great heros. Starting with Kim Jong-il, the “Songun politics” ideology has been added, in which the leaders are [depicted as] outstanding military geniuses, that they love the people and that they can lead North Korea to become one of the world’s strong countries.

Because of this, the North Korean common people really give their allegiance to (拥戴) and admire their leaders. These feelings are precisely what our feelings for Chairman Mao were during the Cultural Revolution. This, in itself, is North Korea’s soft power, and it is an extraordinarily strong spiritual force [非常强大的精神力量].

China presently doesn’t want North Korea to have nuclear weapons now, and it can only persuade North Korea to go ahead and open up and reform, to develop the economy, to improve the livelihood of the people, and to do so in order to shore up the foundations of their regime’s stability. But if North Korea, today, would comprehensively open up and implement democratization (实行民主化), the current regime, with its high degree of centralization and the adoration it gets from the people, may find it difficult to survive. The North Korean regime’s stability depends to a great extent on support for maintaining the absolute authority of the leaders.

Because of this, if North Korea’s decision makers believe that China’s arguments will help to solidify the [North Korean leaders'] authority and status, they may heed our advice. But if North Korean decision makers believe that China’s suggestions will not solidify the power of the regime and the position of the leaders within it, naturally, they won’t listen to these suggestions.

Clearly, North and South Korea respectively lean towards different eras of Chinese culture. The former are lean toward the China of the “Cultural Revolution”, and the latter are about Chinese traditional culture. So obviously, the effects of Chinese soft power differ here.

Source: “Zhang Guozuo: Soft Power and Various Problems in Present-day International Relations; Interview with Dr. Marc Abramson” [张国祚:软实力与当前国际关系若干问题——答Marc Abramson(马克·阿博拉姆苏)博士], Renmin Ribao (People’s Daily, Theory Section), August 13, 2013. Translation by Adam Cathcart and Franz Bleeker.

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