Patterns of Absence in Sino-North Korean Mutual Media Coverage (1)

By | March 27, 2012 | No Comments

New Kimist Mosaics over Rodong Sinmun's Pyongyang HQ | Rodong Sinmun, March 23, 2012

Patterns of Absence in Sino-North Korean Mutual Media Coverage

by Adam Cathcart

In their essay “Tea Leaves and Turtle Shells,”  a group of analysts associated with Johns Hopkins University described prospective guidelines for DPRK media analysis.

How, though, do we approach North Korean media about China, and vice versa? Back in the old days (that is, the 1950s, those days we historians of the early Cold War love so ardently), the task of assembling reflections of mutual regard was a far easier task. When it came to news, one could check TASS and Xinhua; when it came to cartoon depictions of mutual enemies, the Soviet periodical Krokodil was the unimpeachable blueprint. Two ponderous black tomes of Xinhua dispatches about Northeast Asia from 1945-51 could tell quite a tale.

However, today, the task of analyzing how the two “allies” depict one another grows more complicated — and, one might add, more urgent.

Chinese-Koreans in KCNA |  North Korean propaganda often partakes of the world beyond: dispatches are written about Occupy Wall Street, articles in Foreign Policy are read and redigested (as in the case of Zbignew Brzezinski’s recent opus), and friends visit from afar.  But even in these attempts to approximate a kind of atrophied cosmopolitanism, we find cause for mirth.  Take, for instance, the KCNA’s propensity to depict Chinese-Koreans as longing for the paternal embrace of the DPRK’s leadership, as in this example from March 25:

The dear respected Kim Jong Un received a letter on Saturday from the General Association of Koreans in China on the 100th day since the demise of General Secretary Kim Jong Il.
The letter said: […Kim Jong Il] took warm care of the work and life of the Koreans in China at all times like their real father who thinks more of his children far away from him than his children near him. He also highly praised and projected them for what they did though it was their duties to do so for the country and the nation.

As we are led by you, we are firmly convinced that Kim Jong Il will always be with us overseas compatriots and more deeply grasped the immutable truth that no force on earth can match the might of our people single-mindedly united around you, it said…

Does the Chinese government or Foreign Ministry seem to care about such pro forma statements? Probably not at all. After all, there are no signs of a North Korean revival in Yanji, and there are no Chinese-Korean citizens in Yanji who are longing for Kim Jong Un. (Yanji, in other words, is not the North Korean version of Dharamsala; there are not portraits of the Great/Dear/Respected Leader being passed from hand to hand.) No one since Robert Park has made a show of diving over the international frontier and into North Korea with a deep longing to meet Kim Jong Il or his successor.

But, if we look further, this KCNA dispatch does raise the legitimate question about North Korean propaganda (as opposed to intelligence) operations in Yanbian. How is all that going, after all?

Locating Yanbian | via Japan Focus

The View from the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Region, PRC |  A couple of weeks ago, I went to the Rason Hotel in Yanji, not far from Yanbian University and the site of the former top DPRK restaurant in town. Expecting the standard yellow hanbok of the greeter at the third-floor elevator (the dress being passed down from bass-playing Mansudae-originating hostess one to the next, it seems, as their two-year terms expired), I was greeted with total silence.  There was nothing left in the ballroom where the South Korean tourists had once twirled drunkenly with the Pyongyang lasses, trying to stuff 100-yuan notes in their fists as I looked on over a pile of newly-acquired North Korean comic books from post-famine Pyongyang.  Instead, a couple Chinese white-collar workers had taken over the space, stacking freshly printed reams of paper into rectangular boxes. There was nary a North Korean song to be heard, and no copies of the Rodong Sinmun. The round tables had stayed, but I was asked to leave. I retired to the hotel lobby, which was, finally, bereft of youngish dudes with brush cuts keeping their eyes on the exits.

Still hungry for both food and propaganda, I ventured instead to a broken side street and the new “top” North Korean restaurant in Yanji. Here, apart from the Wifi (which was a nice new touch for the DPRK’s digital leap forward, Obama’s speech to the contrary notwithstanding), I found only a handful of folks whiling away the sunny afternoon over bowls of kimchee soup.  Four waitresses, including a hostess with a damaging-sounding cough, overlooked a dirty tile apartment building, one of northeast China’s innumerable vacant lots, and a few hardy frontier boys puttering by on their motorbikes, smoking. Again , there was nary a Kim pin or a North Korean music video to be seen on this slow afternoon. Downstairs lay a beautiful cafe completely abandoned by all humanity except for a highly surprised barista in a bow tie and a buxom girl practicing the North Korean piano version of John Tesh. Here, one could finally find a copy of “Korea Today (今天朝鲜),” but no one with whom to read it or marvel at North Korea’s cultural production.

If the North Koreans themselves are not promoting Kim family propaganda in Yanbian, then why should we believe that the “General Association” of Chinese citizens of Korean descent is taking up the slack?  Is the “General Association” a formidable front in Yanji? Do they so much as have an office? Does any Yanji newspaper pay them any serious heed? It seems the answer to these questions is a resounding “no.” And thus the KCNA dispatch above fails the significance test.

Thus we continue with the status quo in which the DPRK’s external communications are subjected treated not like the “holy fools” of literature (the ridicule leading to actual insight, as in the case of Lu Xun’s Ah Q), but actual foolishness, meriting no serious attention. The machine grinds on irrespective of who reads, or why.

Patriotic Education in Yanbian Korean Autonomous Region, PRC | Image via Yanbian Ribao

You and the Horse You Rode In On: Critical Silences from the Chinese Embassy | There are many times in any given week when Chinese media covers the statements of KCNA or the Rodong Sinmun verbatim, or at least gives them a friendly reading. These also make it into such outlets as morning radio political talk shows in places like Sichuan.

Given recent events, one might wonder if this Rodong Sinmun article would make the Xinhua cut:

 Rodong Sinmun [English], “Chinese Diplomats Pay Floral Tribute to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il,” March 26, 2012

Chinese Ambassador to the DPRK Liu Hongcai and officials of the Chinese embassy in Pyongyang on Mar. 24 visited the Mansudae Art Studio to lay a floral basket before the equestrian statues of President Kim Il Sung and leader Kim Jong Il there on the occasion of the 100th day since the demise of Kim Jong Il.

After laying the floral basket before the statues, they paid tribute in boundless reverence to the peerlessly great men who performed undying exploits for the development of the DPRK-China friendship and the human cause of independence.

Had this been back in December or February, Chinese media would have covered it as a nod to the relationship with the DPRK.  But today, the above event did not merit so much as a mention on the PRC Embassy website in Pyongyang. Judging from the press releases, it seems the Chinese diplomats in the DPRK are rather in the mood to talk about money, specifically, the new laws passed for the Yalu River leased island economic zones, a tobacco joint venture, and the visit of the Embassy’s Charge d’Affaires to a swank rural commune (photos).

The only nods to North Korea’s “third generation” is in musical form. The first is a story about the third generation of North Korean opera composers, namely those who wrote “Dream of Red Chambe.” The second is more significant note that Ambassador Liu attended the celebrated March 8 Unhasu Orchestra concert, where many, many curious things were happening, worthy of a Rashomon treatment.  It was, in fact, the Chinese Ambassador’s only chance to stand in the general vicinity of Kim Jong Un and bathe in the radiance as the Respected General applauded at someone who may have been his female companion.  (Who said Kim Jong Un would never imitate Xi Jinping?)

After nearly four months of Kim Jong Un to consult with Beijing, and then of scraping their knees at the bier of Kims who had successively brought China into a war with the United States and unleashed a few hundred thousand desperately hungry refugees into the Northeast, one might have imagined that the Chinese leaders were expecting something, shall we say, a little more cordial. After all the glad-handing with his ebullient uncle, the young Jong Un didn’t have but a moment for a photo op with the top representative of his putative ally.  But that is the proper subject for the next act.

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