‘Distorting and Speaking Ill of the Reality of the DPRK’: KCNA China File No. 4

By | January 19, 2012 | No Comments

The first week of January was a peculiar time in North Korea and for Sino-North Korean relations in particular.  Kim Jong Un emerged in full, leading up to his January 8 birthday close-up, doing on-site inspections, attending concerts of canatas praising Kim Jong Il with the old generals, generally coddling the military, and paying no attention to the PRC whatsoever.  Liu Hongcai, the Chinese Ambassador in Pyongyang, quite possibly stung by rebuffs by North Korean leaders after Kim Jong Il’s death (he met, essentially, with only the Vice-Foreign Minister Kim Song Ki) did precisely zero public events in the first week in January, letting the dauphin run about without any comment at all.  Thus, when looking for evidence of what precisely the tone was in the Sino-North Korean relationship that week, we need to look to the frontier (see yesterday’s dispatch by Jende Huang) and to state media.  In North Korea, China returned as a subject of foreign news, and seems poised to be at the top of the North Korean foreign affairs portfolio as well as the propaganda work for shaping — and possibly re-shaping– the North Korean population’s view of the world (to the extent that that view can be regarded as monolithic).  

Apart from the lack of high-level bilateral meetings in early January — they resumed on January 11 — two minor points need to be made with regard to public communications that portend, perhaps, something less than harmonious relations ahead.  In one of the dipatches attached, KCNA describes how much a posting on Xinlang (e.g., Sina, perhaps Weibo) praised the North Korean people, leader, and state, essentially bringing up for discussion the opinions and statements of Chinese netizens.  As is discussed in the following analysis, this serves an important purpose for modeling patriotic and civilized (e.g., staunchly pro-North Korean) online behavior, but it also raises for the first time the specter of North Korea’s attacking China for a disrespectful communications environment.  The key phrase is that some were “distorting and speaking ill of the reality of the DPRK.” While the overall tone of the story is positive, small complaints like this should not be overlooked.  

The second point also conceals a critique of the Chinese ally, and is not in the dossier below.  In today’s Rodong Sinmun (in a story that is unlikely to make it to the English-language KCNA page), the writers take apart a “Foreign Affairs” article by Jimmy Carter’s former Secretary of State on the subject of rebalancing American power toward Asia.  Although — in lessons learned from their Huanqiu Shibao mentors — the North Korean journalists are careful to voice the statement in Brzezinski’s voice, the phrase “China’s stubborn nationalism [중국의 완고한 민족주의 / 中國的頑固的民族主義 ]” nevertheless finds its way into print. 

These are things to keep an eye on.  For every counterfactual statement that North Korea is ready for its Dengist moment or hint from an 86-year old bureaucrat that Chinese-style reforms are in the offing, one can find signs (often in things that don’t happen, like when the Chinese ambassador is madly just twiddling his thumbs), signs that the North Korean leadership will not only fail to fall completely into the Chinese embrace, but also that that leadership is prepared to turn the firehoses on China, whatever the consequences may be of that defiance.  This is, after all, the DPRK.

Evan Koepfler, the KCNA Analyst for SinoNK.com, has compiled the relevant KCNA dispatches about China, available as pdf. here: KCNA File No 4 – Jan 1-7.  Koepfler’s analysis follows.  — Adam Cathcart, Editor 

In this first week of the New Year, China-related stories saw a sharp downturn towards the beginning of the week in light of the continued mourning for Kim Jong Il and the momentous build up of the new Kim Jong Un regime. However, as the week moved on, KCNA published a range of stories on a variety of China related topics.

Four of the 28 stories published about China in KCNA this week spoke of either condolatory messages to the DPRK, with one story going so far as to highlight a Chinese website which had noted the “good fortune” of the North Korean people to have Kim Jong Un as their leader. Although the premise is completely orthodox – e.g., more assertions that the North Korean leaders are demigods – such stories also serve the purpose of asserting that China continues to act in such a way that promotes friendship and understanding as the DPRK moves towards a new beginning, quite unlike Japan and South Korea, both of which have been excoriated for not paying proper respects. As interesting is the notion which underpins the story – that the Chinese and North Korean people are moving towards a kind of online friendship, and that online activity results in the people’s expression of support for the government. Like its various dispatches about Li Changchun, Party building and “socialist morality” in other weeks, it seems clear that for North Korea today, China’s technological ways are used as a model not just for modernization, but for a government-centered and people-supported form of technological development that essentially brushes aside signs of growing political turbulence in the PRC.

Most of the stories that came out later in the week focused on domestic issues in China, especially issues of government involvement or reform. Of particular note were the items entitled, respectively, Amendments to Laws Discussed in China and Hu Jintao Calls for Improving Party Work. In the first relatively short story, important issues such as reform of budget and criminal law procedure are discussed. Though they are only mentioned within a list of other topics, these items are of critical importance given the current political climate in China and the recent emphasis on border security. While it is impossible to definitively decode KCNA’s method of speaking to would-be defectors, it seems plain enough that news items about stringent changes to Chinese criminal law procedures – and such items as the Jan. 5 story about armed police in the PRC — should act as a further deterrent. In the second story, Hu Jintao, in a meeting with the Political Bureau on December 30th,  stressed the need to halt political corruption and increase discipline within the party. In the major uptick of news about China in North Korea since 2009, it is no coincidence that stories about the anti-corruption drives within the Chinese Communist Party have played a consistent role: for the Korean Workers’ Party in recent years, purges of officials have become even more commonplace than prior, and Kim Jong Un wishes to be portrayed within the country as a kind of a cleansing wind, even as he honors his predecessor and, presumably, tightens control over the most lucrative parts of the kleptocracy.

Stories on the Chinese periphery merit brief mention: China’s new airport in Tibet harmonizes with China’s policy toward ethnic minorities (scoring easy points with such audiences as China’s Foreign Ministry), but it also illustrates that China is capable now of economically developing its remotest regions.

The outlook for Chinese foreign policy moving into 2012, sure to be a recurring theme in the North Korean press, was also discussed. PRC Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said that China would continue to strive towards building cooperation among neighboring countries and attempt to cope with the growing global financial crisis. Stories like this contribute China’s self-proclaimed “Peaceful Rise [和平崛起]” onto the world stage and imply that North Korea can benefit from China’s counterbalancing of threats from the U.S. and Japan. Another key thread in North Korean news regarding the global stage is Iran, which, along with news about aerial drone strikes in Pakistan, seems to be one of the major stories KCNA follows almost obsessively.  In the KCNA item Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Objects to Sanctions on Iran, the KCNA shows with absolute clarity the positive role it sees China as playing, as opposed to the United States, while always implying that the Iranians have a right to develop whatever nuclear capacity they choose. The Foreign Ministry said that China does not believe in slapping sanctions on a country to diffuse tensions, an attitude which North Korea hopes the Chinese comrades will hold to in the Kim Jong Un era.

Overall, despite the slow start of stories this week, the latter part of the week brought several important stories for China both internally and on the world stage. With stories relating to Kim Jong Il’s demise and the mourning of the people coming to an end, KCNA has returned to publishing stories mostly about foreign policy and foreign issues.

KCNA File No 4 – Jan 1-7

Into the Matrix -- image courtesy US-China Institute, University of Southern California

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