Ambiguous Chinese Political Discourse: North Korea’s Capricious Behavior

By | April 11, 2013 | No Comments

Image retrieved via

Image retrieved via

“The terms of political discourse are designed so as to prevent thought.”–Noam Chomsky, Understanding Power.

The ways in which political happenings are represented or re-presented in media and in other various forms of mass communication contribute to how we perceive the world we inhabit. It can expand our horizon of understanding, or even prohibit it. Previously on SinoNK, both Darcie Draudt and Christopher Green, eloquently and concisely demonstrated how the disconnect between mass media and the reality on the ground is pervasive. For those whom are not privy to on-the-ground-information, official briefings, and fact-based blogs, it is tempting to become mired in the slew of op-eds and media analysis of the impending “doom” on the Korean Peninsula. In this way, the mainstream political discourse can indeed mislead, or in the words of George Orwell’s 1984–become doublespeak.

The same is true in China, where state media has been somewhat uneven in the messages it has sent about North Korea. Is war about to break out during Xi Jinping’s first major voyage as head of state, or is everything just fine? Does China have the power to convince North Korea to return to the negotiating table, or would that just cause unnecessary difficulty for Beijing’s leaders? And what are the acceptable limits of discourse about North Korea in the PRC?

The following lead  editorial from Huanqiu Shibao, known in English as the nationalistic Global Times, essentially concludes that in order to assuage the ratcheting of tensions on the Korean Peninsula, it is imperative that China “enhance its resilience.” It is this ambiguous notion of “enhancing China’s resilience” that is curious.

“Nuclear North Korea On the Brink of Losing of Control, China Needs to Enhance its Resilience [朝核几近失控中国需增强应变力],” Huanqiu Shibao, April 3, 2013.

Recently, Washington and Seoul have taken unfortunate new measures in response to North Korea’s actions, as North Korea is almost spiraling out of control [几乎失控], and the countries perceive North Korea to be running amok [大闹] in northeast Asia….the U.S has already berated [声色俱厉] North Korea and implemented the most draconian sanctions, as well as implementing intimidating military drills with South Korea…[对于朝鲜这一最新行动,美韩很难拿出新的应对措施. 朝鲜核问题几乎完全失控, 各国眼看着平壤“大闹”东北亚…现在美国实际上已经放弃要求朝鲜弃核,因为美国虽然声色俱厉,又是制裁又是军演恫吓]

Photo retrieved from

Photo retrieved from

For the author, although the United States has made attempts to ameliorate the conflict, North Korea’s attitude regarding its nuclear weapons remains unchanged. Perhaps this is because the United States met North Korea’s cyclical provocative behavior with a B-52 Bomber? Oddly, the editorial does not mention the specific series of armaments in the American escalation.

The editorial then goes on to opine:

“If North Korea’s economy is normalized, its international, regional, and political security can make a soft landing,  and the situation in the whole region will make a soft landing. But until that time, North Korea will continue its incessant stir, and without its problem being solved, the general environment cannot be peaceful.”

There is little room in this writing for contingent facts, such as the possibility that economic “normalization” of the DPRK could itself lead to greater instability. In an economy where outright expropriation of South Korean resources in Kaesong on the behalf of a military clique is more than possible, a hard turn in the opposite direction is not likely to be welcomed by all.

While Washington’s attempt to abate the situation on the Peninsula have run contrary to China’s interests, which is to not see its border regions bogged in conflict, Seoul’s role on the regional stage has been that of a damsel and will continue to be if the situation gets worse, no matter what. The author writes:

“Because South Korea is a weak country (literally, ‘a soft persimmon’) relative to most of the Northeast Asia actors, South Korea will be taken ‘hostage’ by North Korea.  Even if South Korea develops nuclear weaponry, it will not change the situation and it will have the same unalterable effect.

In juxtaposition to regional powers like China, Russia, Japan, the U.S, and North Korea, South Korea is by default one of the weakest links, according to the author. As such, South Korea cannot stop  “the feverish brain” of political power in Pyongyang from, miscalculating its own capabilities and from misjudging itself as the strongest nation [强大国家].

As the editorial has, up until this point, rendered the foregoing actors obsolete, China’s role in negating the rising tensions is cardinal. The editorial emphasizes:

Although China is/was powerless to convince North Korea to relinquish nuclear ambitions [tense unclear], it is imperative that China continue to maintain its calm toward North Korea and give much advise to North Korea.

Long live the victory of the Korean People's Army and the Chinese People's Volunteers Army! [朝鲜人民军中国人民志愿军胜利万岁] image retrieved via

Long live the victory of the Korean People’s Army and the Chinese People’s Volunteers Army! [朝鲜人民军中国人民志愿军胜利万岁] image retrieved via

That China should play the largest role in easing tensions on the Peninsula reveals the paper’s nationalistic tendency—unsurprising, and especially at a time during which the paper perceives encirclement at every turn on China’s periphery. Curiously enough, it is rather convenient that the editorialists would flirt with the notion of an armed China that is “defensive,” as such a gesture would be perceived as the contrary. The editorial elaborates:

Currently, China is being quite passive regarding North Korea’s nuclear ambitions…[So], China needs to increase its national power, including militarily and economically.

One might be inclined to ask how will an armed China solve the rising tensions. Well, the author explicitly states:

“China’s continual accumulation of power will eventually ameliorate all regional issues and perhaps as China’s power becomes more flexible might do even more.”

Put simply, a “defensively” armed China can actually alleviate the pressure on North Korea (and perhaps jolt U.S. influence in regions like Taiwan).

While the author explicitly argues that the attempts made by Washington and Seoul are useless and China’s most viable option is to enhance its military and economy, the author does not explicitly lay out a blue-print:

“Miscalculation on the Korean Peninsula is likely. Although China does not have the opportunity or the ability to prevent a future conflict,  China has the ability to increase its resilience.”

The author concludes the article by stating how “China has to increase its resilience.” What does “enhance resilience,” here, mean? Does this suggest that Chinese leaders ought to scurry funds immediately to the factory so as to manufacture several more aircraft carriers? Hopefully not. However, what it suggests is not as important as the ambiguity of “enhancing resilience/military.” Not defining the vague phrase prevents readers (Chinese citizens) from discerning its real meaning. Such a phrasing sounds a great lot more aesthetically appealing than explicitly urging for China to prepare for outright war. But while it feeds the Party’s nationalistic propaganda, it prevents average citizens as well as China-watchers from divining the true agenda at work. In essence, the terms of political discourse becomes doublespeak, occluding thought.

Blog by: Mycal Ford

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