Wreathes, Smoke, and National Interest: April 15 and Commemoration in Asia

By | April 21, 2017 | No Comments

Annex to the Korean War memorial in Shenyang, Liaoning Province, PRC, added in 2014. On the wall encircling the abstract sculpture is a list of the 170,000 Chinese soldiers who perished in the war. | Image: Steven Denney/Sino-NK

Of late, the instinctively nationalist Korean press has accused China of engaging in de facto economic warfare against Korean companies, apparently in response to the US-ROK decision to deploy THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) to the Korean peninsula.

There is a modicum of truth to this perspective. The Chinese authorities have expressed great discontent at the THAAD deployment. Beijing set the auditors on Lotte, the company that gave up one of its lucrative Korean golf courses to make way for THAAD installation, and Korean car manufacturers Hyundai and Kia saw their year-on-year monthly sales in the People’s Republic decline by 43 and 52 percent respectively in March. Anecdotal evidence also suggests hits to the tourist sector — although this narrative must be problematized with reference to the extent of Chinese investment in Korean hotels and resorts in places like Jeju Island — and several key areas of Korean soft power strength across East Asia. Korean FDI in China fell considerably in the first quarter of 2017.

However, the trend between the two countries is still very positive. The majority of bilateral business — highly integrated manufacturing processes — goes on as normal. Neither side can afford for the Shandong peninsula to grind to a halt. And as Steven Denney found on a recent research trip to Shenyang, the two countries have made solid progress in the historical realm. Is the reorientation of East Asian relations permanent? Time will tell. It usually does. — Christopher Green, Co-editor 

Wreathes, Smoke, and National Interest: April 15 and Commemoration in Asia

by Steven Denney

As tens of thousands of North Koreans stretched weary limbs after a taxing April 15 parade, an American leader arrived in South Korea. US Vice President Mike Pence walked sombrely into the National Cemetery in Seoul, where he laid a commemorative wreath. Taking no cues from his boss, Pence’s office thereafter carefully tweeted: “I laid a wreath to honor South Koreans who sacrificed their lives for the cause of freedom.” Just like the parade in Pyongyang, which saw new missiles follow floats cut straight from the mass movements of the 1960s, it would be hard to imagine a more traditional message from an American VP.

Later questioned by CNN at Panmunjom, Pence deliberately reoriented concerns over the potential for North Korea to threaten the continental United States into reflection on his own father’s service in the Korean War. Certainly, there are signs of alteration afoot. Pence had already turned his back on “strategic patience,” emphasizing renewed US resolve and a total rethinking of North Korea policy that left journalists frantically trying to parse out anonymous sources claiming that pre-emptive strikes against North Korea were now on the table. But by his subsequent appearance at the cemetery, in the end Pence re-emphasized continuity over change.

At precisely the same time that Pence was evoking the past in Seoul, I was in the midst of historical reflection at an analogous site: The Cemetery and Memorial to the War to Resist America and Aid Korea in Shenyang, the industrial and economic center of China’s three northeastern provinces. The Shenyang memorial reflects the traditional PRC state point of view on the meanings and sacrifices of the Korean War. The focus is on Chinese “volunteers,” or as they are referred to both at the memorial and other places of remembrance: martyrs.

Having gone to Shenyang with my Sino-NK colleague, Adam Cathcart, I was struck by the parallels between this cemetery and the one in Seoul – and reminded that China’s narrative of the Korean War appears to be changing in ways perhaps more fundamental than the American one, at least in terms of reconciling differences with a wartime enemy (South Korea).

On the backside of the abstract structure located in the middle of the Shenyang cemetery is an image of the war dead returning to Chinese territory. | Image: Steven Denney/Sino-NK

The principal vehicle for this limited but perhaps significant reconciliation is the return of remains of Chinese Korean War dead from “enemy cemeteries” in South Korea. Near the rear of the Shenyang memorial is an annex, opened in 2014, which has inscribed along its curved stone the names of 170,000 Chinese soldiers who perished in what is referred to in China as The War to Resist America and Aid Korea (the official number is 190,000, but our guide informed us that duplicate names are omitted).

These additions to the Shenyang cemetery came at a time of warming Sino-South Korea relations in the early years of the Park Geun-hye administration, long before her disgracing and ultimate impeachment. It was not a singular initiative. In the same year that the annex was completed, China also opened a memorial hall in Harbin to the Korean independence advocate, An Jung-geun, and unveiled a monument to the Korean Liberation Army in Xian, the location of the army’s barracks. China and South Korea have been drawing nearer in terms of their shared history; in the same period, North Korea has been pushed out and omitted from Chinese narratives.

The displacement of North Korea in favor of South Korean soft power and historical change is visible in the cemetery space in another way. A new museum on-site promises a tripling in size (from 2,000 to 6,000 square meters) but, like the Korean War Museum in Dandong, it is “closed for repairs,” at least through the months of summer. The guide wasn’t exactly confident the museum would open anytime soon. It’s hard to say that China’s foot-dragging reflects displeasure with Pyongyang, or is simply due to some insignificant factor, but the lack of progress is rich in symbolism.

Having spent the better part of the last two weeks in the Sino-DPRK border region, it is evident that developments in North Korea and in US-DPRK relations have China feeling uneasy about its relationship with the DPRK.

North Korean ballistic missile development was prominently featured in an April 16 edition of the Jilin Daily, a regional paper; there was a front-page header and a full page spread on North Korean missile technology. Most of the major China dailies devoted inches to the issue.

CCTV also devoted airtime to developments. As we sat watching Chinese coverage of the April 15 parade from the breakfast hall of the China-North Korea JV Shenyang Chilbosan hotel, a segment on the peninsula aired Donald Trump’s statements on confronting the North Korean “problem” unilaterally and North Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister’s statement during an interview with the BBC about carrying out missile tests as and when it sees fit. The news segment cast a gloomy pall across the room, nothing like the festive energy more befitting coverage of a birthday celebration. We couldn’t help but notice furtive glances by the North Korean and Chinese staff towards the television.

But how much have things actually changed? The Seoul-Shenyang cemetery juxtaposition is a striking reminder that while national leaders and rhetoric may change, the structure of the region remains largely the same. The Korean War armistice was signed on July 27, 1953. The borders as they were then have not changed. Indeed, the strategic calculus of all parties involved is not fundamentally any different now than it was back then.