Atomic Aftermath: An Op-Ed Glossary

By | February 18, 2013 | No Comments

via Global Times

via Global Times

North Korea.   Fortunately there is no other country like it. What they do, how they do it and why they do it provide pundits with fodder from A to Z.  In a spirit of trying to bring you some of the world views (although admittedly they are Western and Asian-centric) we present an alphabetic op-ed glossary of a country with an economic system that defies both Karl Marx as well as Adam Smith and is administered by a government unrecognizable to Plato, John Locke, Han Fei Tzu or Stalin.  Even Thomas Hobbes might be surprised at a government that can make life so “nasty, brutish and short”.  Theater state proponents will recognize parts of North Korea, but even their explanations are left wanting and adrift in “The Fog”.  As befits such a state, the one-of-kind Adam Cathcart and Fulbright Scholar Mycal Ford scour Chinese, German, American, you name it,  representative set of op-eds attempting to explain the unexplainable state of North Korea.   –Roger Cavazos, Coordinator

Atomic Aftermath: An Op-Ed Glossary

by Adam Cathcart and Mycal Ford

A is for Appuro and Anti-Apoplectic|  It became quickly clear that the North Korean nuclear test was a big one. As the Huanqiu Shibao headline unsubtly reported, it was “about three times larger than Hiroshima.” The question of nuclear contamination came up almost immediately along the Chinese border with North Hamgyong province and has refused to go away. Lest it be believed that the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) favored media is simply using the stories of border dwellers’ fear of radiation as a way to stoke anti-DPRK feeling in China, recall how much very close attention the Chinese public paid to the Fukushima nuclear meltdown in Japan; that was a rather bottom-up phenomenon.  Concern over radiation and nuclear accidents in North Korea is not entirely new, but it is being expressed more overtly than ever before.

Nuclear weapons are serious, but Joshua Stanton at One Free Korea was alliteratively, atypically and amazingly anti-apoplectic toward North Korea’s test.  He saved it for later and for a certain press organization.

B is for Bluster |  How much of the North Korean rhetorical fury at China was genuine? To what extent can these allies scream in public at one another, as Chairman Mao told Nixon, fire “empty cannon shots” at one another while maintaining absolute freedom of action?

Because, if you stop and think about it: What are the North Korean people going to do if, at the end of the day, Xi Jinping, having been so reviled, now appears in a state visit in Pyongyang? Are they going to roll a grenade at him underneath all the multicolored pompoms, taking a page out of the radical “Northwest Youth” terrorist tactic toward Kim Il Sung on March 1, 1946? Or will the leaders have a belly-squashing princeling hug (Xi and Kim III, factually speaking, having a substantially higher combined weight than Wen Jiabao and Kim II circa 2009) and simply mutter under their soju-and-nicotine-flavored breaths? (For further consideration of the bluster quotient, a slightly dated piece from Daily NK on February 11 may be useful.  And, alternatively, see “B is for Bunkers, My Father’s House has Many.”)

C is for Closing Rason? | While the “sanctions, sanctions, sanctions” idee fixe trods with muddy boots through the analyst’s mind, it seems apropos to ask where and how those sanctions might be applied. In a worse case scenario, will China ultimately close down its work and burn its investments in North Korea’s Special Economic Zones near the Chinese border? The English version of Caijing seems to think so, but the JoongAng Ilbo sourcing for the claim is simply nowhere to be found. (File this under the growing pile of “Rumours, unconfirmed.”)

Liaoning, with Dalian as the point of the export-import spear. via Understanding China

Liaoning, with Dalian as the point of the export-import spear. via Understanding China

D is for Dalian | In Kang Chol-hwan’s pathbreaking narrative of escape from North Korea, he describes how he ended up as a human commodity, smuggled through China’s northeastern port of Dalian waist-deep in fuel oil. The city of Dalian and its associated areas (the port of Lushun, the special economic zone to the north where I reported from in August 2011) are all important areas for North Korean goods and the transfer of technology to the DPRK.

It’s an area where smart folks look when they want to get a grip on North Korea’s trade and transit with the world, for a huge amount flows in and out of Pyongyang’s main port of Nampo and into and out of Dalian. John Everard, the Ambassador from the United Kingdom to the DPRK from 2006-2008, is one of those folks. He hears the sanctions drumbeat and writes the following for The Telegraph:

…although UN member states are required to report any inspection of a North Korean cargo suspected of containing illicit goods, China has not once done so despite the fact that the great bulk of North Korea’s trade flows either across the two countries’ common border or through the Chinese port of Dalian, which lies opposite the North Korean port of Nampo.

Luxury goods, whose import into North Korea is banned by the Security Council, in fact reach Pyongyang in large quantities from China, and the UN Panel of Experts that monitors sanctions implementation has reported many times that illicit North Korean arms shipments have travelled unimpeded through Dalian.

So unless China starts effectively to implement sanctions, both the sanctions currently in force, and any new ones that the Security Council may introduce in response to this third nuclear test, will be blunted, and Kim Jong-un will be able to sleep peacefully at night.

Everard’s whole op-ed can be read here; it is usefully supplemented by one of NK News’ extracts by Swiss businessman Felix Abt about the daily difficulties caused by sanctions in the DPRK.

E is for Evans, Gareth | In the aftermath of the test, Gareth Evans channels the Queen and urges the international community to “Keep Calm and Carry On.”  He also urges the US and Russia to talk with North Korea, although it appears the Russian Foreign Minister took more than a few days to finally take US Secretary of State John Kerry’s phone call on the matter. Not said but implied: China is not up to the task of handling the DPRK either because the huge Asian state lacks the will or the capability or both.

F is for Focus | But focus on what? James Acton says we’re past the point where North Korea will give up nuclear weapons.  Let’s focus on preventing the DPRK from proliferating.  This is not an ideal state of affairs, but it would certainly make the Chinese feel much that the US accepts North Korea as nuclear power.

G is for Green, Christopher | Chris Green, with his fingertips on news sources from within the DPRK, covers the alleged closure of Camp 22 near Hoeryong, North Hamgyong, and whirls to examine news regarding the expansion of Camp 14. He inoculates the reader susceptible to rhetorical fluff by correcting New Year’s Address rumors and examines the durability, and the deficiencies, of the “post-totalitarian” thesis for the DPRK.

As backdrop to Washington’s response to recent events, Green’s analysis of how American diplomats in Japan were duped into missing the DPRK missile test is particularly apropos. Knowing that sometimes credible sources can be difficult to come-by, Green examines the question: Who is more likely telling the truth, North Korea state news or top insiders? And how much is their cell phone bill? If you want real analysis, remember to dial “G.”

H is for Hunchun | Soon after the nuclear test, the Huanqiu Shibao contacted reporters in Hunchun, the Chinese city closest to the three-borders of DPRK and Russia. The New York Times‘ Jane Perlez also reported from Hunchun, where trade was existent but slow, and folks were shaken by the shockwaves from North Hamgyong province. (See also H is for Hyesan, tremors.)


I is for Incalculable | In “The Cost of North Korea Defiance,” the well-known Senior Fellow for Korea Studies and Director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy for the Council for Foreign Relations–Scott Snyder–begins by spelling-out the third nuclear test and its still-opaque implications. Following the incident, vested stakeholders like Japan and South Korea convened with leaders in its upper echelons respectively. The US and along with China, quickly reached a consensus: it had been a deplorable mistake.

He concludes in his brief assessment of North Korea that the regime’s current trajectory is “incalculable.” Snyder observes how North Korea’s current propensity to be military-driven “limits space for diplomacy; raises the cost and risks of future confrontation; yet, all the while, provides incentive for enhanced Sino-U.S Cooperation; and illustrates the need for international cooperation.” A brief, yet, informative analysis; nothing less would be expected of this well-informed expert.

J is for Journalismus | When you’re a young reporter based in Shanghai who wants a scoop for USA Today and Die Welt, what do you do? Go to Dandong, that’s what! Nina Trentmann, who has just completed a double masters from LSE and Fudan University, scurried up to the frontier and filed two excellent dispatches from Dandong. She also took some lovely photos of the border.

Following in the footsteps of Lily Abegg is Nina Trentermann.  This photo courtesy of her.

Nina Trentmann’s photo and reportage from Dandong. Image courtesy N.T.

K is for Kidnapping | Wang Xiaoxia argues that DPRK nuclear capability created a kidnap scenario in classical nuclear deterrence.  How does the world now set the penalty for nuclear proliferation that is high, but not so high as to encourage those who would kidnap to go all the way to murder?  He sees that North Korea is increasing the risk of a US-Chinese or US-Russian nuclear incident.  There is so little writing from the Chinese on North Korean nuclear deterrent theory that this one is helpful for illuminating possible implications.  The fact that the only writing found in the Chinese-language webiverse comes from an Economics magazine also speaks volumes about the chasm between the economically- reformed China and North Korea’s economy which would confuse both Adam Smith and Karl Marx.

L is for Lips and Teeth | Shen Dingli in English urges China to not only punish North Korea but to cut them off.  Yet in Chinese, with a round up of  the usual interlocutors (Shi Yuanhua, Liu Zheng, Ruan Zongze, Shen Dingli) strikes quite a different pose and says the US will accept DPRK as a nuclear power.  Moreover, he says the US can control its allies (a subtle dig at China which cannot control even one neighbor) and therefore will not allow Japan and ROK to go nuclear.  Incidentally, none of the participants mentions a scenario in which North Korea might use the weapon.

Spiegel on Iran and bombM is for Misinformation | The Sunday Times carried an explosive claim that an important Iranian scientist had participated in the North Korean nuclear test.  Faster than a neutron in a U235 chain reaction, the claim swept through various media outlets, including The Jerusalem Post. As I explain in a comment on a related story by NK, the sourcing for the Times piece is incredibly sketchy, not to mention being virtually identical to a claim back in March 2012 that was so pernicious  that it took more than 20 pages on this website to debunk it, along with a little investigative help from Stephan Haggard and Juan Cole

N is for Nasty Realities | Simon Edge, writing in Express walks through the various ways in which hopes for Kim Jong Un have proven illusory. Lest this be mistaken for just another “North Korea for dummies” introductory piece, he gives the floor to Dr. John Swenson-Wright in London:

“They don’t want to be ignored and they are past masters at manipulating the timing of these events to suit their own agenda. It’s not a coincidence that this has happened on the same day President Obama gives his state of the union address. The nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009 were conducted on the Fourth of July. I wouldn’t want to say that North Korea has a sense of humour but they do pick these dates to maximise the propaganda value.”

Like Blaine Harden’s notable Foreign Policy post on humor and the North Korean gulag, Edge reminds us that North Korea is not simply entertainment or a crazy cure for hipster ennui.

O is for Orgiastic  Which is to say the streets of Pyongyang were full of celebrations, and thus of interviewees. Discerning policy directions from these statements as filtered through KCNA, Rodong Sinmun, and Korean Central Television would appear to be a fool’s bargain, but for the determined optimist, it might be pointed out that not everyone in the DPRK seemed convinced that 1) The test had been preordained by Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-il and was a tribute to their (dead but fermenting) brilliance or that 2) The test was necessarily about the DPRK developing an offensive nuclear capability along the lines of the “one-for-a-hundred” mantra that had preceded it.

Incidentally, Ambassador John Everard notes that even though it was cold, the North Koreans he knows would have been glad to dress up, get outside, dance a bit, and get a bit of hot sugar water provided by the young Generalissimo. 

P is for Punishment | The Global Times can speak for itself, even when it’s speaking in semi-disconnected thoughts that have no tail, and no solution and full of enough ambiguity to prevent some serious reform time:

For North Korea, developing nuclear weapons is a matter of life and death. Even if China stands behind the sanctions proposed by the US, Japan and South Korea, it’s unlikely to realize the denuclearization of North Korea. But if Beijing takes a sharp turn in its attitude toward Pyongyang, it will become North Korea’s top enemy, which is the desire of the US, Japan and South Korea. China must avoid this situation.

Beijing is not an ally of Pyongyang, but at no point should China turn North Korea into its enemy, especially when it is crossing the nuclear threshold. This should be the strategic bottom line of China’s North Korean policy. However, China should express its opposition against Pyongyang’s nuclear activities through actions. The international community won’t accept China’s blind protection of North Korea.

Beijing should punish Pyongyang, but should also try to avoid being the focus of North Korean and global public opinion.

Well, good luck with all that! And good luck to anyone in the NSC who is trying to figure out what it means for China’s policy implementation. Smoke and mirrors is a form of punishment all its own.

Q is for Questions | Dartmouth’s prolific Jennifer Lind answers questions in Foreign Affairs about “Pyongyang’s Nuclear Logic.” Dr. Lind contends that the effort made by North Korea to move forward with its nuclear test was less of a portent of any kind than it was a simple “attempt to master the technical capabilities that are vital to its nuclear deterrent.” Essentially, North Korea’s logic, veiled in the sense that few are able to discern its meaning, was nothing less or nothing more than “a simple test of its long-range missile designs: to see what works.”  Bet Chinese space scientists who destroyed a satellite in space without telling China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs are nodding in full agreement.

R is for Refugees | An unnoticed change in Chinese media lingo about North Korean defectors occurred after the third nuclear test, when suddenly refugees were being referred to as “Chao bianjiezhe,” or “those who have changed their allegiance from Chosun.”

And on cue, Kang Chol-hwan, perhaps the most famous North Korean defector in Seoul, published a hard-line piece in the Chosun Ilbo indicating that a change in refugee policy was another implement that could be used to pressure the DPRK into collapse.

In Washington, D.C., the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea posted a video humanizing widespread human rights violations by taking the case of one person in particular; their head is also a persuasive individual:

S is for Speculation | After bludgeoning yourself with a few dozen op-eds that contain not a single shred of new evidence, a little juicy speculation really does wonders for the cerebrum.  Japanese media speculated that the North Korean nuclear test came about after failed secret negotiations with China.  And even the Global Times wondered on February 8 if there had been “a secret envoy” from the DPRK to Beijing.

(We would include the Sunday Times article “Iran steps deep into Kim’s nuclear circle” here, but that is rightly and irretrievably filed under “M for Misinformation.”)

U is for Unification | A great deal of the discussion about China’s Korea policy surrounding the test has flowed through or around this implicit question: What is the PRC’s long-term attitude toward the unification of the Korean peninsula?


Sui Yangdi, one of China’s most aggressive monarchs toward Koguryo and the Korean peninsula, circa 589 AD

There are going to be some knock-down, drag-out fights on this issue in the near future, because really what has to happen in China is a through policy assessment: Of literally two thousand plus years of policy.

So keep citing that Wikileaks memo about a second-hand conversation if you must, but don’t neglect the immense documentary log stretching back practically to Sima Qian. To put it in alliterative interrogatory mode: Is Xi Jinping a swashbuckling Sui Yangdi seeking to slash peninsular and establish his manly Sinocentric successor street cred? Is Kim Jong-un collapsing back into the Koguryo crucible, capturing coronary trade routes and co-opting borderland capitalists while cutting across secrets kept churning by legions of spies connected to Chinese cavalry?

Fortunately, the government which is about to be installed in Seoul has made a smart pic for Unification Minister: Ryoo Kihl-jae, an academic who wrote his dissertation on the meaning of land reform in the earliest years of the North Korean state.

V is for Victim North Koreans are tightening their belts again, allowing the Kim regime to transfer blame for economic malaise to the United States rather than the Workers’ Party and its head, Kim Jong-un, who had famously promised that the era of caloric austerity would soon be over. The DPRK is thus the victim of sanctions and, moreover, the victim of its own struggle for “sovereignty” that extends up into outer space. China is a victim of sixty years of its North Korea policy, a victim of geography, a perpetual victim of Stalin’s machinations in spring 1950. South Korea is a victim of its history, both colonial and development-state dictatorial. The Americans are the victims of ignorance, bad information, amnesia, the White Man’s Burden, Noam Chomsky, Orientalism, the military-industrial complex, Jesus and the Second Amendment, etc., etc., etc., etc.

Why not cancel the Six Party Talks forever, build a giant theme park in Pyongyang modeled after Jerusalem, and give every group some time at the mini-Wailing Wall? East Asia indeed suffers from an excess of what Irish Ambassador to the Republic of Korea recently labeled “the Narcisissm of Conflict,” which is connected strongly to the international and domestic politics of victimization. The extent to which policy and discourses can be driven by rationality rather than emotional tirades about decades of systematic wrongs may be the extent to which new policies can be effectively made.

History matters, but there is ought to be more to national identity than aggrieved nationalism. Jennifer Lind writes about this often in the Japanese case, but it is hoped that she will also turn her attention again to the politics of memory in North Korea and the US, and in US-DPRK relations specifically.

Y is for Yalu  | The Economist takes what the Irish might call “a wee dander” (i.e., a short stroll) in Dandong, with nary a word about the Special Economic Zone down river, but some rather apropos speculation about what increased sanctions would mean for the already-healthy illegal trading that goes on in the region.

Z is for Zhu Feng  | If Chinese-language punditry about Korean peninsula in China were to be likened to a protracted rap battle, a beef between ne0-Maoist traditionalists and the new pragmatists, Zhu Feng of the latter faction seems to be not just standing, but standing tall. His words have been portending a shift in the Chinese discourse on North Korea and finally the tide seems to have turned. But being a Chinese intellectual in any period of history (whether or not one’s national leaders are Communist or semi-fascist Confucianists) is never completely easy. Whether or not Zhu Feng stays in the vanguard of opinion or is ultimately stranded by policymakers who feel a need to return to the familiar embrace of what Chen Yun once called “China’s sofa, which we can lean back upon” remains, like the next round of the dozens, to be determined.

Looking at North Korea. Image via Nina Trentmann

Looking at North Korea. Image via Nina Trentmann.

No Comments

  1. This site is excelling itself of late.

    I would tread carefully with Gareth Evans though.

    Some decades ago when on a state visit to Indonesia, he lost his temper with a staffer and threw an ash tray at him. He then decamped to the loo and gave the door a major slam. Totally jammed the lock mechanism, and so spent the rest of the trip sitting on the can.

    Unfortunately, de-elected Australian politicans really fancy themselves on the global stage.

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