“In Any Authoritarian Country:” Subversive Chinese Readings of Kim Jong-un’s Purges

By | November 29, 2012 | No Comments

Kim Jong-un and his highly decorated former mentor, General Ri Yong-ho.  In the recently-purged Chinese political context, swapping “Ri Yong-ho” with “Bo Xilai” is a very serious thing.

“In Any Authoritarian Country:” Subversive Chinese Readings of Kim Jong-un’s Purges

by Adam Cathcart and Roger Cavazos

While literally dozens of foreign reporters were analyzing the hilarious but completely inconsequential meme of Kim Jong Un having been named “The World’s Sexiest Man” on English People’s Daily website, a much more important media convergence was playing out in Beijing.

Xinhua released the following:

The Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) has termed former army chief Ri Yong-ho (李英浩) “a counter revolutionary” against the ruling party, Japanese newspaper Mainichi Shimbun quoted an anonymous source working in China-North Korea trade as saying.

The report said the WPK started to brief the general public in October on the reason for Ri’s removal in July, describing him as a warlord seeking cliques within the army, and his wife as being involved in drug deals. […]

According to an October 30 report in the North Korean State-run Korea Central News Agency (KCNA), Kim said in a 12-minute speech that a man who was unfaithful to the party and leader was valueless, even though he might be an excellent military strategist, South Korea’s Yonhap News reported.

Lü Chao (吕超), a Korean Peninsula issues researcher at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences, said the South Korean media reports on Ri Yong-ho were probably true as recent speeches by Kim Jong-un referred to “the phenomenon of disloyalty.”

Any Chinese reporting on North Korea in general terms, let alone reportage of power struggles inside Pyongyang is by definition sensitive and potentially significant.  A comment by Lü Chao that backs up the South Korean reports of Kim Jong-un’s ruthlessness is not made lightly — as  Lü sits at the apex of China’s national-defense academics and North Korea specialists in Liaoning.  Add to that ongoing tremors from the slow purge of princeling and former Chongqing/Dalian Party chief Bo Xilai, and you have quite a tinderbox of conversations that really, in Beijing’s ideal world, should remain quite limited.

Which is why it is not surprising that the powers-that-be at the Center deemed the new “revelations” about North Korean general Ri Yong-ho off-limits for commentary. As the essential Berkeley-based China Digital Times reported, the Central Propaganda Department in Beijing sent out the following directive on November 26:

Use only Xinhua wire copy in reporting North Korea labelling Ri Yong-ho a counter-revolutionary. Do not make other reports or commentary [中宣部:对朝鲜将李英浩定性为反革命分子,只用新华社通稿,不作其他报道评论]. (November 26, 2012)

Further adding to the impetus to tightly control North Korea rhetoric on November 26 was the fact that Li Jianguo (李建国) a Vice-Chairman of China’s National Peoples Congress, was about to take a trip to Pyongyang himself, possibly to make a little noise with the Kim regime to hold off from launching a rocket that might muss Xi Jinping’s hair.

Pyongyang may have some close friends in the new roster at the top of China’s Politburo, but timing is everything, and rituals still matter. Dozens of boot-licking articles by Xinhua (“NK Kids Eat 5 Meals a Day!”, “Kim Jong Un Leads Fitness Revolution,” “Sexiest Man Alive” as emerging fully out of this topos, etc.) are wiped out by a single insult: did someone at Huanqiu not get the memo?

So why did the web version of Huanqiu Shibao publish an editorial on November 26 that essentially broke all the rules in a manner spectacular?  Not only did it attack Kim Jong Un as a feudal tyrant, it was a somewhat transparent broadside on the barely-masked brutality of CCP politics.

As many of our readers will know, the Huanqiu Shibao (Global Times) operates under the arm of the People’s Daily and focuses on a lively nationalistic blend of mostly-foreign news. Its editor, Hu Xijin, was outspoken in defense of the DPRK system and China’s right to defend it in the days after Kim Jong Il’s death. (We reported on this extensively at the time, translating a few pages of Mr. Hu’s pithy tweets and longer editorials in a 78-page dossier on China’s response to the Kim-Kim transition.)

The following short article in the Huanqiu Shibao‘s web page, an official blog, on Kim Jong-un is prima facie evidence of something one would likely never find in People’s Daily.  One can only imagine the editors at the two newspapers virtually high-fiving each other – and likely grinning more widely than the Cheshire cat since the author is likely the one to feel the full brunt of the state if the article was deemed too harsh on DPRK.  There’s another reason they’re likely grinning.

Zheng’s blog, although raised in an allegorical manner, comes from within China; by invoking Han Xin’s famous three part saying from “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”, and a simple one-for-one substitution, the real message is to fellow Chinese. Substitute “CCP” for Kim Jong-Un and “Bo Xilai” for “Ri Yong-ho” and we are talking about an op-ed for which somebody could go to prison.

But even if Hu Xijin, one of China’s top 100 opinion-makers, was pushing the boundaries for free speech in the PRC, the piece never would have seen the light of day if it were not in some sense useful to the Chinese Communist Party.

Is Zheng’s audacious article written with a brave heart, sharp intellect and possibly a death wish? Or is it China’s calculated response to information that Kim Jong Un has purged yet another general in Pyongyang and is asserting further control over the country’s burgeoning array of rockets?  Given that the following editiorial was virtually the only dissonant note from Beijing media with reference to North Korea, and that it appeared on the eve of the most significant Chinese delegation to DPRK since the 18th Party Congress, a careful reading is surely merited.

Zheng Hepeng (郑和朋), “Why did Kim Jong-un characterize Ri Yong-ho  as a counter-revolutionary? / 金正恩为何将李英浩定性为反革命?,” Huanqiu Net, November 26, 2012. Translated by Roger Cavazos.

1) Since ancient times, the following sayings have circulated in China’s governing circles [在中国政治场所里]: “When the hares have been caught, the dogs are boiled; when the birds fly high, even a good bow is useless; after defeating an enemy, kill the political counselors [狡兔死,走狗烹;高鸟尽,良弓藏;敌国破,谋臣亡].” Using modern language, this means, is “kill the donkey after he delivers the millstone [过河拆桥,卸磨杀 驴]” (i.e., kill someone after they have served their purpose). This is a way of explaining that after a politician has achieved his own goals,  he will kick aside and try to punish all those who helped him achieve his goal.  Even though history moves forward, political methods remain the same: This is true not only in China, but [these methods] also  remain the same for the politicians in any authoritarian country to do such things  [一个专制国家中政治家] !

2) Yonhap reported that during the North Korean Workers’ Party in October, it was revealed that the (North Korean) People’s Army Chief of General Staff  had been relieved of his duties July this year and was characterized as anti-party, counter-revolutionary, engaged in military warlordism [军阀主义], forming factions [拉帮结派]; his wife was also suspected of engaging in the drug trade. Ri Yong-ho had just been appointed as the party’s vice chairman of the Central Military Commission in 2010; he was the central figure of the Korean military. Now he is a North Korean counter-revolutionary. How can the identity of the same person have such earth-shaking changes  in a few years’ time?  What caused Kim Jong-un to characterize Ri Yong-ho as counter-revolutionary?

3) It must be known that Ri Yong-ho was a veteran statesman who served under three masters: He  was Kim Jong-il’s trusted advisor, was the top man in North Korea’s military with real power , had important status in North Korea and was pivotal in the government. At the same time, through his hard work,he was also a firm supporter of Kim Jong-un’s taking of power. How could Kim Jong-un punish such an important figure in the Korean political arena? How could he be characterized as counter-revolutionary?

4) Because Ri Yong-ho made the mistake of exacerbating the shortcomings of [rival North Korean] politicians by overshadowing the real power [功高盖主], he became complacent and prideful during Kim Jong-un’s succession; he even spoke prior to Kim and stole the spotlight on the international and domestic stages.  How could he not know that such behavior would undoubtedly be seen as conflicting with the newly appointed Kim Jong-un, and why would you [the author here switches voice to address Ri Yong-ho directly] think there’s anything more to say?  Kim Jong-un is the North Korean Supreme Leader, so why are you still talking?  do you think that the ruler of North Korea is you, Ri Yong-ho, or is it Kim Jong-un?  So how can you still be characterized as a revolutionary?

In October 2011, in protocol with the Chinese VP, Ri Yong-ho positioned himself as the DPRK’s number 2 between Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un. Now Ri has been devoured by the tiger cub.

5) Kim Jong-un may have said to himself, “Maybe Ri Yong-ho’s actions are intentional, maybe they’re not, but no matter whether they were intentional or not, he violated political rules.”  In this respect, if Ri Yong-ho knew even a little bit of Chinese culture he may not have suffered this fate, if he had only understood his duty to serve the infinite graciousness of Kim Jong-un (the author seems here clearly to be damning the young KJU with excessive praise) and that the fruitful blessings and the worship of the Korean people would continue to flow until the third generation [荫及子孙]. Alas, Ri Yong-ho can do none of these things: he swept away all of Kim Jong-un’s face and was declared a counter-revolutionary; everything Ri did was for nought.

6) Or perhaps Kim Jong-un said to himself immediately after taking power, he must establish his own brand of rule and Ri Yong-ho’s role was that “kill the chicken to frighten the monkeys” (i.e., serve as a warning to others) and was nothing more than a necessary step to consolidate the Kim dynasty rule.  Kim demonstrated his hatred of Ri stealing his thunder and looking down at him with disrespect, but from the depths of his heart was grateful for the opportunity to quickly win the people’s support. (Note here the reformist Chinese caution that the support of people is crucial to maintaining the Mandate of Heaven)It can also be said that purging Ri was a manifestation of power and really showed that the third Kim of the dynasty  had won – it was the first true taste of Kim’s power.

7) In Chinese history, there are many cases of this kind of punishment for stealing the leader’s spotlight.  Han Xin is an example, and Yue Fei is an example.  Ri Yong-ho might not been as clever as  Han Xin, nor possessed Yue Fei’s ability. Even if Ri Yong-ho were as smart as Han Xin , even if he were as capable as Yue Fei, once he made the error of stealing the leader’s spotlight he traveled down the wrong route! Ri’s fate was sealed and involved being forsaken by the master who desires mediocre lackeys.  The master doesn’t want anyone to be as smart as he is, since, in the master’s eyes, the lackeys are never as smart as the master, in front of the lackeys the master can see his own smartness.  If one is a lackey, it is foolish to show your cleverness to the master, otherwise you’ll naturally be unpleasant in the master’s eyes.  Of course, this is not unique to Ri Yong-ho, as anyone who does this throughout all times has found this to be true!

8) Even if Ri Yong-ho considered himself smart, hardworking, powerful, when a new master took power, how could he have not known all these factors would converge since they were so open?!?  How could this not provoke  Kim Jong-un’s resentment? Now that Ri Yong-ho violated these political rules of the game, how can we blame Kim Jong-un?

Finally, SinoNK took two looks at Ri Yong Ho’s putsch shortly after it happened and certainly before any knowledge that he would be labelled “counter-revolutionary.”  Dr Nicolas Levi posited that Ri’s firing indicated Kim was secure in his role and Nick Miller concluded that Ri Yong-ho’s firing only strengthened Kim’s hand. For analysis of Ri Yong-ho’s role in relations with a range of Chinese elites as the transition to Kim Jong-un went into high gear, see our extensive China-North Korea Document Dossier No. 3.

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  1. One should be reminded on the “old” times in the Warsaw Bloc countries or other closed dictatorships. Enenies were mostly labeled as Counter-somewhat. Maybe this is the situation which is described in the new 007 Movie: Two two strongest rats survive and then… Rat eats rat…

  2. Killing your helpers when your goals are met could be a perfect explanation for the execution of Jang, and reveal it was done from a new position of strength, not disarray or weakness.

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