Open Questions in the Aftermath of April 15

By | April 17, 2012 | No Comments

Open Questions in the Aftermath of April 15

by Adam Cathcart

Unlike the DPRK economy, news about North Korea is moving faster than a horse with wings, and it’s easy to feel that the arc of events has overtaken one’s ability to trace everything that is occurring.

Consider this series of facts: In the space of just a few compressed days, North Korea has launched the Unha-3 missile, announced the failure of that endeavor, made Kim Jong Il the “Eternal Chairman” of the National Defense Commission and “Eternal Chairman” of the Workers’ Party, elevated Kim Jong Un to the new top posts in both of those bodies, hosted a large arts and music festival, promoted a show of photographs in New York, unveiled a huge new statue of Kim Jong Il, seen Kim Jong Un give his first speech, prompted speculation about a third nuclear test, and just partied.

As one Korean War veteran was reported to have said, “Now I feel like dancing all night.”

Dancing shoes are indeed needed to scamper around all of the questions created or exacerbated in the last week. To wit:

Will the DPRK finally reengage China’s Ambassador in Pyongyang?  |  The various cultural events surrounding the April 15 anniversary served as a pretext for the North Korean media to finally break what had been an effective blockade on news about Liu Hongcai, the Chinese Ambassador, since his kowtow at the Kim Jong Il tomb at February 16.

(Yes, the ambassador did get about one second of TV time as a spectator at the March 8 Unhasu Orchestra concert, where he did bend at the knee to receive a word from Kim Jong Un on the Respected General’s way out the door, but this was far from an official meeting, and certainly not what the Chinese leadership had in mind.)

Will construction of the new Yalu River bridge from Dandong into North Pyong’an province be resumed?  |  Johnny Erling’s German-language report from Dandong (“Revolutionslieder aus dem All,” Die Welt, April 10, 2012, p. 6) confirmed that the bridge construction, which is being financed by China, has been halted since December, and that ice has overtaken the structure.  Trade between Dandong and the DPRK has worsened considerably since the arrival of Kim Jong Un in power. Tourism from Dandong has been ceased and will only be resumed on April 20, although it seemed to be going strong in the Tumen-Yanji-Rason circuit when I was there a month ago.

In addition to making the now-standard observations about Sinuiju (where the lights still go off at night), Erling makes a visit to a new North Korean hotel in the city (the Pyongyang Koryogwan, which opened on February 16), notes critical commentary on the North Korean missile launch in China’s Nanfang Zhoumo newspaper, interviews some city residents, and describes how Chinese reporters had virtually no inside information about the missile launch and had to broadcast home that they, like the Americans, were somewhat clueless as to where they had been taken by the North Koreans.

What is going on at Rodong Sinmun? |  April 15 was a huge news day for the DPRK, and especially for Kim Jong Un, who made his debut as a public speaker suffering from what George W. Bush used to call “the tyranny of low expectations.” KCNA dispatches had been dragging out the old vocabulary of leader-genius for the last several days, praising his literary abilities, etc.  Then they went ahead and published a bleached-out candid shot of Kim Jong Un having a bad hair day while observing the fireworks, quite possibly holding a cigarette and unmistakably having been provided with a lighter and ashtray.

Rodong Sinmun, April 16, 2012

Between this, the fiasco over Kim Jong Un’s being pictured holding binoculars upside down, and the manifest lack of pictures of him doing anything particularly substantive with his father prior to 2009, one has to wonder if these are honest mistakes. Given the propensity to doctor photos with virtually no prompting, this is all the more curious.

When will China send a high-level envoy to Pyongyang?  |  Hu Jintao approved of Kim Jong Un’s ascension on April 12, but neither he nor Wen Jiabao seem likely to travel to the DPRK. The last major mission to Pyongyang was Vice Premier Li Keqiang’s October 2011 three-day junket. A delegation from the People’s Liberation Army did travel to Pyongyang last week, but it is unclear if they met with anyone of great consequence, let alone Kim Jong Un. It is worth recalling that after Kim Jong Il’s trip to China in 1982, he stayed away from the PRC for almost 18 years.

Is North Korea’s cultural diplomacy succeeding or backfiring?  |  Joshua Stanton is on the warpath vs. the AP-KCNA collaboration in a New York art gallery.  My own partially-flippant views on the case, which link to One Free Korea, are on my personal blog. A men’s chorus from the American state of Georgia arrived in Pyongyang recently, but whether or not this pries loose the restrictions on the North Korean State Symphony Orchestra to travel to the American southeast is still very much up in the air.  Smaller acts of musical diplomacy continue apace with Germany. In the case of invited ensembles, it appears that the North Korean state media is quite forceful in insisting that the presence of any foreigner in the sovereign boundaries of the DPRK is indicative of foreign fascination with the greatness of the Kim family.  Incidentally, some of the photographs being used to promote recent concerts of foreign musicians in North Korea are in fact from 2008, as in the case of University of Minnesota violin professor Kim Yong-nam, who performed with a North Korean conservatory orchestra then, but is decidedly not in Pyongyang this week.

Incidentally, along with the thunder of two Brahms Sonatas for cello and piano, I will be performing some arrangements of North Korean songs this weekend at the American Church in Berlin.  An invitation will be extended to the North Korean Embassy now that the April 15 excitement has passed. More information about the concert can be found on the website of the Amitayus Duo.

When will the Unhasu Orchestra again take the stage?  | No one seems to have noticed that the characters for the failed missile, the Unha-3, when rendered in hangul and hanja, are the same as used for the Unhasu Orchestra.  Nice touch! No wonder the KCNA said “the hot wind from the orchestra was more powerful than a nuclear bomb.”  The Unhasu Orchestra seems to have been on an extended vacation since returning from France about three weeks ago; certainly they deserve a rest after the mad rush of rehearsals of new music and performances from January-March. Perhaps Kim Ki-Nam, who has quite some clout with deploying this group, will kill two birds with one stone and stage a special concert for the Chinese Ambassador.

Will North Korean media ever snap back at China’s online critics?  |  Eagle-eyed Chinese netizens having been doing backflips over the apparent use by the North Korean space program of computers intended for use in Chinese rural cooperatives (story via the excellent Japan site, Ampotan), and levying some predictable mockery at North Korea. According to BBC, China was not informed of the timing of the missile launch. Earlier at, we reported on some trends in China’s online nationalism as directed at North Korea.  This remains very much an open question. KCNA’s black-and-white world would not appear to admit the shades of grey that would allow for its discussion.

– What kind of verbiage is the Chinese leadership going to deploy to describe its relationship with the DPRK? |  The PLA delegation in Pyongyang began describing the Sino-North Korean relationship as one which would be brought into “fuller bloom.”  Anyone with a rudimentary grasp of recent Chinese history can tell you that evocations of botanical diversity deployed by state officials are rarely the prelude to anything good.

Will the North Korean statue and monument sector continue its remarkable boom in 2012? |  No sooner was I feeling that I may have overstated the snark in my recent post on North Korean definitions of “prosperity” in Foreign Policy than the North Korean Finance Minister went ahead and cited the massive state expenditures on monuments as a positive sign of growth. Although there are no foreign reporters being sent to cover it, KCNA indicates that new monuments are going up in the provinces.  As if that were not bad enough, this North Korean postmortem on Kim Jong Il essentially asserts that only military spending pulled the DPRK out of the great famine of the mid-1990s.


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