Chinese Responses to North Korea’s “Muddle-Headed Move”

By | April 13, 2012 | No Comments

China is often seen as both enabler of North Korean militarism and as the key constructive stakeholder in East Asian diplomacy.  Its responses to North Korea’s missile test are sure to be multiple.  Will the DPRK’s intransigence impact Chinese food aid?  Or will things go back to “normal” now that all the rockets have flared out and Hu Jintao has acknowledged Kim Jong Un as — gulp — his counterpart?  Adam Cathcart, who has uprooted from the verdant uproar of Sichuan Province for cold and serious Berlin, takes a look back at today’s Chinese tea leaves while they are still steaming hot. — S.C. Denney, Assistant Editor

Chinese Responses to North Korea’s “Muddle-Headed Move”

by Adam Cathcart

Before diving into any further facts, consider that for some Huanqiu Shibao readers, the North Korean missile launch evoked the prospect of this:

Via Huanqiu Shibao’s Big News Page on the Missile Launch, April 13, 2012

Since 2010 in particular, the notion of North Korea as a strategic liability and as a stimulant to (rather than a buffer against) Japanese and American military moves in the region seems to have entered the Chinese press with greater insistence.

But Chinese concerns over Japanese missile defense advances and capabilities have a life of their own, and it should be noted that, for Chinese readers in the lead up to the North Korean missile launch, were reading this stream as well. In the Chinese press, North Korea is not particularly good, but fears about what is often called the “neo-conservative” turn in Japanese defense policy also play a large role and in some inherent ways soften the blow of critiques of North Korea.

Chinese Media Roundtable:  A Shift in Outlook? | On the topic of netizen responses to the missile test, a few thousand can be found at the bottom of Huanqiu’s big news page on the launch; almost all are critical of North Korea.  However, the notion of a “public opinion” was effaced by censors on Zhang Liangui’s galvanizing April 10 essay suggesting that China was being “roasted” by North Korea and that several strategic changes needed to be contemplated.  The Sohu version of the story had picked up more than 10,000 comments; they have now been erased, which may indicate something small but important about the appetite for discussion of changes in North Korea. Chinese public discussion of the DPRK, after all, moves erratically, and semi-official voices like Zhang’s are useful for sending signals to the DPRK, but when those ideas need to be shelved, they can be.  (A similar arc was true in the Chinese media from mid-March, when the refugee issue suddenly whiplashed to the fore; but it has limits as well.)

The Chinese Foreign Ministry statement on the event could have been written by a ten-year old shaking a shoebox full of cliches about “looking forward,” “stability,” “preservation,” “common interests,” and “peaceful development,” but that is to be expected.

Wang Linchang’s featured editorial “North Korea Now Enters the Kim Jong Un Era” reprises how the young man entered the stage, and then gets into the question of whether traditional Chinese ways of looking at Korea still hold true.  According to Wang, “the Chinese people” agree with the old sayings about lips and teeth, and hope for stability and not chaos in North Korea.  Moreover, recent economic cooperation and statements by North Korean regime about improving the people’s livelihood (민생; minsaeng/minsheng) indicate that a period of economic prosperity where “everybody wins” could be on the way.

中朝关系有一点特殊。一是国土相连,这种地理上的邻里关系,使两国有着与别国不同的诸多共同利益。古语说唇齿相依,进而唇亡齿寒,历史进化到了今天 的程度,这个古语的意义依然警示着中国人民,对朝鲜的期望是稳定而不是动乱;近年间,中朝双方推进经贸合作来发展和繁荣两国的经济有诸多新开端,而朝鲜也 把“改善民生”和建设“强盛大国”的目标写在纲领上。延续而不是中断这些新开端,在经济上通过互利和互补实现“共赢”也是我们的期望。朝鲜政局稳定和政策 相袭的确定性有助于实现双方经济发展。总之,一个稳定富裕的邻邦比什么都好。

朝鲜的确定性对于周边稳定也很重要。因为无论是在二战结束后的冷战时期,还是在冷战结束后的南北对峙时期,不管气氛紧张还是缓和,都局限在一定范围 内,朝鲜半岛相对平和而不是战乱频发。“金正日时代”作为当事的一方,让这种局面维持延续了近20年,“金正恩时代”的开启,可以视作“金正日时代”的继 续。只要朝鲜半岛有关各方在敏感问题上保持克制,朝鲜半岛相对平和的局面就可以继续维持。因为“金正日时代”是“金正恩时代”的一面镜子。

Wang’s conclusion is a bit curious and could be read in a few ways, but the notion received here, apart from the emphasis on continuing the peaceful development of the last 20 years, is that the Kim Jong Un era is “a reflection of the Kim Jong Il era.” As long as North Korea doesn’t start a war and makes moves to integrate the northern frontier economically with China, it appears that PRC scholars are, at least today, content to let the country continue being itself.

Meanwhile, Huanqiu passes along a British report that the failed launch (which was reported as failed in the DPRK by its famous TV anchor, video here) cost North Korea in the neighborhood of 8.5 billion USD.

A Word From the Establishment:  Lv Chao and the “Muddle-Headed Move” | Finally, a word from Lv Chao, the Liaoning scholar who, along with Zhang Liangui and Zhu Feng, is probably the archetypal establishment academic voice from the PRC on North Korea.  After all the hair-pulling and option-considering in China that preceded the launch, Lv succeeds in starting his op-ed with a  statement which is shockingly bland: “其实,这次失败并不是非常意外的事情。In fact, this failure [of the North Korean missile launch] is not really an unusual thing.

However, lest we believe that Lv is simply obfuscating on behalf of the North Koreans, essentially saying “no big deal,” consider the fact that the scholar coins the phrase “Muddle-Headed Move [昏招]” to describe the missile test.  It appears that Lv, for once, agrees with Marcus Noland, who wrote:

North Korea executed its highly anticipated missile launch and with its failure managed to achieve the second worst outcome imaginable.  (The worst would have been hitting China.)  The North Koreans have managed in a single stroke to not only defy the UN Security Council, the United States, and even their patron China, but also demonstrate ineptitude.

Lv continues by recounting that the strange thing about the launch is that it had been preceded by a relaxation of tensions in East Asia and improving North Korean relations with both the US and Europe. (For our take on DPRK-Europe relations and the food issue, see here.) Moreover, he makes it clear that the rocket launch was not worth the lost momentum in these other areas.  This is Chinese globalism, one might say, at its best, where the defense academic is talking up the EU and the benefits of recognizing the US.

Looking at things then from the DPRK point of view, Lv reminds readers that the new government is on fresh legs and has “a thousand things left to be done” [百废待兴]. North Korea is then scolded — in what is becoming an increasingly less-muted theme from China since Janaury — for having wasted precious resources on the launch when the national economy is so manifestly weak [很薄弱的国民经济].  Had the launch been successful, he notes, the regime could at least have used it to mobilize the nationalist consciousness for struggle on the economic front, but even that secondary benefit cannot now accrue.

One gets the feeling that Lv could have gone on for a while about how the launch’s effect of ceasing food aid to North Korea from the US, and cutting the country off further, has resulted in a “bad international climate,” but one can also read between the lines here and get the sense that it has also made the DPRK — again — quite reliant on its Chinese ally to prop up their consumer economy.  No comment is forthcoming from the Liaoning scholar on this front, but the implication is indeed there.

Lv becomes suitably paternalistic in his final paragraph:

特别是不要再冒险,比如再次发射卫星,或进行核试验等等,这些都是非常危险的举动。在国内,朝鲜也应该审时度势对待危机,全面恢复国内建设,稳定国家和社会,发展经济,尽快搞好民生。对朝鲜来讲,这才是当务之急。The most important thing is that [North Korea] must not again engage in risky (w/ the implication of “annoying” — Ed.) behavior like doing another missile test, or moving forward with another nuclear test, etc. etc., all of this would be extremely dangerous actions. Inside North Korea, the time has come to seize the hour [审时度势] to size up the situation of crisis, completely revive the national construction, stabilize the country and the society, develop the economy, and, with all haste, improve the people’s livelihood.

Future of Sino-NK Relations:  Uncertainty Ahead | As the fumes clear from the launching pad, North Korea does indeed have quite a list of things to do.  Perhaps first on this list is somewhow assuring its its northern neighbor, and de factor diplomatic and economic guarantor, that it is not a strategic liability and is worthy of sharing a border with the region’s premier power.   Whether or not, or how, North Korea will be able to execute this feat will be the next important question to be addressed.

Is the future of the Sino-NK relationship headed for change? | Photo Courtesy of KoreAm

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