A Most Peculiar Country: China’s Southern Weekly on North Korea

By | February 08, 2013 | No Comments

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Kim Jong-un and Kim Kye-gwan (front right) reflecting on options during a meeting of North Korea’s National Defense Commission. Picture via infzm/Yonhap.

A Most Peculiar Country: China’s Southern Weekly on North Korea

Even after its most recent controversy, Guangdong’s weekly newspaper, Southern Weekend (Nanfang Zhoumo) remains a newsource known for pushing the bounds of journalistic freedoms in China. In the past, the paper’s relative freedom allowed it to push the envelope of North Korea coverage, such as an  inside look at illegal media-consumption habits of students at Kim Il Sung University, and, more significantly, the only investigation allowed in mainland Chinese media of the abduction of 28 Chinese sailors by the DPRK back in May 2012.  In the following article, translated by F. Bleeker (the indefatigable curator of the JustRecently weblog), Southern Weekend picks three very well-known, established and visible scholars to discuss North Korea.  What ensues are some solid Chinese insights and  a consensus view: North Korea will test, but when?  These scholars clearly reflect China’s exasperation and befuddlement, emotions felt at a relatively elite level given their access. Perhaps most notable in the writing is the consensus that, in spite of hopes that he would emerge as a reformer, in reality, Kim Jong-un is turning out to be an even tougher neighbor than his father ever was, and that China’s preferred path of economic reform is distant at best. — Roger Cavazos, Coordinator 

North Korea Will Conduct a Third Nuclear Test [朝鲜将进行第三次核试验] February 1, 2013

Translated from the Chinese by F. Bleeker (JustRecently).

“We tend to look at North Korea through outsider’s eyes, but in fact, they have their own ideas.”

“China has opposed North Korean nuclear tests several times, but without effect … North Korea is one of the most peculiar countries.”

Right after the UN security resolution – reacting with sanctions to North Korea launching a satellite two days earlier – had been passed, North Korea’s foreign ministry and defense commission successively announced that “in the decisive battle against America, North Korea will continue to launch satellites and carrier rockets, and nuclear tests of an even higher level to take aim at the old American enemy. There is no need for North Korea to cover this up.”

The outside world generally believes that North Korea will carry out a third nuclear test shortly. The two previous tests were conducted in 2006 and 2009.

“To possess nuclear weapons is adequate for the position of a first-class country like North Korea [拥有核武器才符合朝鲜一流国家的地位]” 

On January 22 of the present year, the UN Security Council unanimously passed, with 15 votes in approval, resolution 2087 concerning the issue of North Korea’s launch of a satellite. The resolution condemned North Korea’s move of launching a satellite in December, demanded that North Korea immediately stopped all activities concerning ballistic-missile plans, and demanded that no nuclear test be conducted and no further provocations be made.

But clearly, North Korea sees the UN Security Council’s resolution as a violation of the country’s right to exist. One day after the resolution passed, North Korea’s foreign ministry issued a statement:

“In response to America’s sanctions repression, it has been decided to enhance the power of the self-defense forces, including the nuclear deterrent, and to strengthen our actual means to respond.”

North Korea also announced that the Six-Party Talks, started during the Kim Jong-il era, and the September 19 Joint-Statement reached during those talks would no longer exist. Overnight, the diplomatic consultations of all the countries involved in the North Korean nuclear issue during the past ten years had almost been reset to their starting point. According to the analysis of scholars interviewed by Southern Weekly, this conduct indicates that under Kim Jong-un’s leadership, North Korea can be even tougher than during the era of Kim Jong-il. Before the second North Korean nuclear test in 2009, North Korea’s authorities at least negotiated for [economic] assistance, and only put out hostile policies after they had obtained the assistance.

Professor Zhang Liangui of China's Central Party School works for the School's boss, Xi Jinping

Professor Zhang Liangui of China’s Central Party School works for the School’s boss, Xi Jinping. Image via Communist Party of Shandong

There are Chinese and international scholars who believe that North Korea’s actions are meant to obtain more practical benefits and security guarantees, but Central Party School Korean-Peninsula research expert Zhang Liangui told Southern Weekend journalists that in the North Korean authorities’ vocabulary, the world of the future is a world of the Juche ideas. North Korea sees itself as the world’s leader. Only  possessing nuclear weapons is consistent with North Korea’s position as a first-class country. “We tend to look at North Korea through outsider’s eyes,”  says Zhang Liangui, “but in fact, they have their own ideas.” According to North Korea’s founding theories, the Kim Dynasty aren’t only the leaders of secular government, but also the core of the Juche faith, that is to say, the Kims are “the sun of humankind.

The announcement of “comprehensive war of resistance and continuation of nuclear tests” also means that Kim Jong-un has again switched focus, from economic reform to security issues.

In fact, in the space of more than one year after Kim Jong-un’s start as the leader, North Korea had adopted more policies to promote economic development. On June 28, 2012, North Korea’s home ministry announced economic improvement measures in a policy titled “Concerning the Establishment of a North-Korea-style New Economic Management System” [policy]. Also during that period, North Korea sent a large number of workers to China, and promoted the two special development zones of Rason and Hwangkumphyong (罗先与 黄金坪 /라선  황금평) in the Sino-North Korean border areas. In September 2012, North Korea also sent trade organizations to China to attract foreign investments, and in October, China and North Korea held their first trade, culture and tourism fair in Dandong on the banks of the Yalu River. The outside world widely viewed these measures as signals that North Korea was about to follow China’s example of reform and opening up.

In a speech in early January 2013, Kim Jong-un again addressed efforts to promote North Korean economic development, pointing out that “the building of an economically strong country is the most important task in today’s socialist building of national prosperity.”  North Korea’s KCNA news agency issued an editorial on “the mastermind of producing the nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula,” pointing out that North Korea’s original preparations to … … focus on economic construction so as not to make the people tighten their belts anymore, were facing serious problems [punctuation as in original text].

Will a nuclear test directly affect China [核试验会直接影响到中国吗]?

In July 2006, North Korea launched a Taepodong-2 missile, which dropped into the Sea of Japan altogether. Three months later, North Korea conducted its first nuclear test. The outside world believed that this nuclear test ended in failure.

Three years later, in April 2009, North Korea launched a long-range missile and declared the re-start of its plutonium reactor. One month later, North Korea conducted a second nuclear test and launched several short-range missiles. According to South Korean estimates, the yield of the second nuclear explosion [in 2009] exceeded the first one [of 2006]. The UN security council passed resolution 1874 right away, condemning and sanctioning North Korea.

The past two nuclear tests displayed both carriage capacity and nuclear capacity. According to intelligence information quoted by South Korean media, the third test’s location is likely to be that of the previous two, the Mantapsan (Mt. Mantap) nuclear test tunnels in Kilju County, North Hamgyong Province. The third nuclear test, too, will be an underground test.

Given the nuclear facilities’ proximity to the Chinese border, there have been rumors that once radioactivity emerges, China could be affected. However, Mantapsan’s test site is on North Korea’s eastern coast, more than 100 kilometers from the border with China. This is a greater distance than the one between Las Vegas and America’s testing site in Nevada.

Also, if the nuclear test is successfully carried out underground, no nuclear activity will be leaked. This will avoid the contamination of surfaces in adjacent regions, but the outside world is also unlikely to obtain test-related data, about if the used material is enriched uranium (浓缩铀) or plutonium (钚).

That said, the test will have an effect on the surrounding areas. On the day when North Korea conducted its nuclear test in May 2009, South Korea and Japan both monitored an earthquake, and in Yanbian in China, 180 kilometers away from the testing site, the quake was also felt. Yanbian even evacuated students from several schools.

Currently, it is not known when North Korea will conduct its third nuclear test, what material it will use, and what the scale of the test will be. Some South Korean media have speculated that it may be carried out in February, when South Korea’s new president Park Geun-hye is inaugurated. As international relations scholar Victor Cha of Georgetown University wrote in an article for “Foreign Affairs” in 2012, North Korea has, since 1992, carried out provocative actions within 16 to 18 weeks after presidential elections in South Korea. [Note: Cha, along with Ellen Kim, makes that point in this CSIS article, too.]

Professor Zhu Feng speaking at an unrelated event in Beijing.  Image via China Daily.

Professor Zhu Feng speaking at an unrelated event in Beijing. Image via China Daily.

On January 29, 2013, Peking University School of International Studies professor Zhu Feng said this to a conference of Chinese and Russian scholars about Korean-peninsula issues:

“North Korea’s development of nuclear missiles, nuclear weapons, large-scale weapons of mass destruction (WMD) technology is a threat, which, if developed further, would pose a major threat to all of the Northeast Asian region and to Northeast Asian regional security [今天朝鲜发展核导弹、核武器、大规模杀伤性武器技术带来的威胁,在不断增加和发展,对于整个东北亚地区和东亚地区安全构成了重大威胁].”

In fact, North Korea’s nuclear tests pose a challenge to the leaders of other relevant countries, as to how to deal with the situation. In all the countries involved in the Six Party Talks – with the exception of North Korea and Russia -, changes are made in the participating countries’ leaderships: China, America, Japan, and South Korea.

On January 28, 2013, a high-ranking official from Japan’s Foreign Ministry and America’s Special Envoy on [the] North Korea [issue] agreed that the two sides would demand restraint from North Korea if it announced a third nuclear test. [Note: This would be Glyn Davies and Shinsuke Sugiyama, apparently.]

“The world’s most peculiar country [世界上最特殊的国家]”

North Korea, which ranks 197th in terms of per-capita GDP and whose population is less than 25 million, is the world’s eighth country to possess nuclear weapons, and also China’s fourth neighbor that possesses nuclear weapons. “China has opposed North Korean nuclear tests several times, but without effect … North Korea is one of the most peculiar countries,” says Zhu Feng.

Previously, on the day when North Korea stated its intention to continue its nuclear tests, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson suggested that the de-nuclearization of the Korean peninsula should continue, and expressed hope that the six-party talks would continue. This was actually a re-iteration of CCP secretary-general Xi Jinping’s view, as expressed when he met with South Korean president-elect, Park Geun-hye.

According to Xinhua, Xi Jinping said during the meeting that China advocated that the concerns of every party involved should be solved by dialog and consultations, to achieve the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and to achieve long-term peace and stability (长治久安). He hoped that the six-party talks would be resumed. Also, Xi Jinping pointed out that solving the issue required that both the symptoms and the root causes be addressed.

In a strongly-worded statement, North Korea’s defense commission said that in the light of the UN resolution, North Korea would wage a comprehensive war of resistance to defend the country’s sovereignty. North Korea didn’t just condemn America’s hostile policies, but also criticized other [UN security council] member countries for “following like sheep” and “leading countries that ought to establish a just world order instead to give in to American dominance and power, so confusedly that they even abandoned the minimum of principles, even the maintenance of member countries’ sovereignty and security which in accordance with the mission of the UN security council, and degenerating into something that couldn’t even be looked to as an international organization even just in name.” [Note: The garbled nature of the translation mirrors the Southern Weekend attempts to decipher Rodong Sinmun; the results are rarely pretty.]

Su Hao, Professor at China's Foreign Affairs University offers comments during an unrelated interview.

Su Hao, Professor at China’s Foreign Affairs University offers comments during an unrelated interview.

China Foreign Affairs University professor Su Hao told Southern Weekly that the nuclear weapons North Korea possessed posed an enormous [potential for] destruction and a threat for China’s security. He pointed out that North Korea’s nuclear tests could lead to a domino effect, leading to a situation where Japan would want to have nuclear weapons, too. But Su Hao also believes that North Korea’s desire for conducting nuclear tests is currently not strong, as the situation wasn’t as tight as imagined by the outside world.

On January 30, 2013, China’s embassy’s website in North Korea published information that caught a lot of attention, headlined “Xi Jinping: better overall planning of domestic and international situations, solidly taking the path of peaceful development [ 习近平:更好统筹国内国际两个大局 夯实走和平发展道路的基础 ].”

The Xinhua report said that on January 28, the politburo had carried out a third collective study session on unswervingly staying on the road of peaceful development. During the meeting, Xi Jinping emphasized that no foreign country should expect China to trade in its core interests, or swallow the bitter fruits of losses in terms of sovereignty, security, or development interests.

Xi Jinping also pointed out that China took the road of peaceful development, and so should all other countries. Only if all countries took the road of peaceful development, then all countries could develop together and get on peacefully with each other.

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