Criticizing the “Low-Key” Approach: Chinese Responses to the DPRK Soldier-Murderer in Yanbian

By | January 06, 2015 | No Comments

Tumen River at the Sino-DPRK border | Image: Flickr

The Tumen River at the Sino-DPRK border. | Image: Flickr

On the morning of 27 December, a North Korean soldier left his post on the edge of North Hamgyong Province, strode across the frozen Tumen river and entered Chinese territory. Armed with a handgun and a knife, he went into a small borderland farming community called Nanping (南坪镇; 난핑 촌), where he proceeded to kill four civilians. It appears he was then wounded and apprehended by Chinese border guards stationed near the village, which is administratively part of Helong City and the broader Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture. The hungry and armed defector-soldier has since died while in Chinese custody, making the matter of his repatriation somewhat simpler.

Following the publication of reports in South Korean media on January 4, the PRC Foreign Ministry spokesperson responded with two pregnant sentences the next day. These were covered by Jonathan Kaiman and Edward Wong (with the aid of Bree Feng) in Beijing, where the Ministry also included some more extended veiled warnings for the DPRK with respect to hacking and discussion of an execution of a South Korean national for drug trafficking in China. (The MFA press conference is available here in English, and here in the original Chinese.) Obviously the MFA had knowledge of the incident from the get-go, but was pushed into disclosing it.

Local press in such cases almost never publish reports, and this was no different. With the mention of the incident at the Foreign Ministry briefing, the dam was therefore broken, but the discourse remained quite tight. The Huanqiu Shibao (Global Times) first article on the subject did not mention the specific village which was the site of the violent events, but it did describe the soldier’s probable motivation as being that of “severe hunger.”

The newspaper also recalled a similar instance that occurred in December 2013 in Yilanzhen (依兰镇; 이란진), a small village just north of Yanji city where a defected North Korean soldier loaded down with guns and knives stole 20,000 RMB from villagers and took off for Beijing, where he was eventually apprehended.

A review of Yanbian government websites appears to indicate that the murders sparked a response by the Public Security Bureau in Wangqing County, an area with a very heavy concentration of ethnic Koreans just to the northeast of Yilanzhen, the site of the 2013 robberies. A Yanbian government press release describes full traffic stoppages in the county for security purposes which were ongoing two days after the murders, but the Yanbian Public Security Bureau has not put out anything on the matter and does not seem likely to, reflecting the sensitivity of the topic.

With the publication of the following editorial, the Huanqiu Shibao (Global Times) continues its tendency to make the interests of Chinese citizens along the frontier a kind of cause celebre, as seen in a prominent series of reports in 2010-2011 from Sanhe and the border zone. Its editorial response to the incident along the border follows.

“Editorial: Don’t Allow South Korean Media to Inform Us that a North Korean Deserter has Entered China” [社评:别让韩媒告诉我们朝鲜逃兵进了中国], Huanqiu Shibao, January 6, 2015.

On January 5, South Korean media reported that a North Korean deserter [逃兵] had illegally crossed the border on December 27 of last year into China’s Yanbian region of Jilin Province, where he robbed and shot dead four Chinese residents of the border region [中国边民]. China responded on the same day [as the media reports], saying that the DPRK had put forward representations [提出交涉, i.e., lodged a protest] and that the Chinese public security departments were presently handling the case according to law. Chinese media also did a follow-up report [做了跟进报道].

This case caused the death of four Chinese citizens involving foreign affairs, and clearly should not have been reported a week after the fact, much less by irrelevant [不相干] South Korean media . Moreover, no information was forthcoming from any Chinese ministry before [the South Korean report emerged]. Owing to unclear reasoning of various departments in the government, the public’s ignorance of this news dragged on for far too long.

Perhaps the relationship between China and the DPRK is considered “too sensitive; 太敏感” [for such reports to be made public]. However, any person with common sense can see clearly that this is a case which occurred in the Sino-Korean border region, and that the North Korean military perpetrator does not represent the North Korean government, nor does he represent the North Korean people as a whole. His case of robbery and murder should be judged according to the rule of law; what business does this have [何干] with the relationship between China and North Korea?

This case reflects regulatory loopholes along the border [中朝边境的管理漏洞]. The bilateral border stretches more than 1400 km, assuring that preventing illegal border crossings will be difficult work indeed, but this does not mean that we should be “low-key in handling/低调处理” news of North Korean soldiers illegally crossing the border. Precisely the opposite: The message should be that official media [官方媒体] will widely and promptly inform the public, allowing all the border residents to understand the situation and increase their wariness [加强防范].

Within China’s borders, cases have occurred frequently which touch upon foreign affairs, for example involving the capture of British, Japanese, South Korea, or Filipino drug dealers. But in these cases, information was published in a timely manner, insisting upon handling things via legal trials. Why is it that when it comes to North Korea, things acquire an additional layer of “sensitivity”? This is really not necessary. North Korean national conditions are truly peculiar[朝鲜的国情确实有特殊性] , but we believe Sino-North Korean relations are not so fragile. Officials dealing with with specific sectors of North Korea affairs should not think too much [不应自己想得太多], rendering what had been simple matters into complex ones.

Sino-North Korean relations are surely able to adapt into a more conventional type of inter-State relations [中朝关系肯定能够适应国家间关系的常理]. If the DPRK is unable to go along with such adaptation, we should guide them [它们] toward adaption, without being excessively accommodating. Because if common sense is not adhered to, China will have to pay the imbalance in the bill with perplexity and division within our own society [中方必将要用本国社会的困惑和分歧来埋单].

Most of the disputes arising between Chinese and foreign countries are first disclosed by foreign or third parties. Government departments and the mainstream Chinese media should not become accustomed to this, or even go so far as to think that our way of doing things represents more rigor and principle. Chinese government agencies at all levels need to have credibility, and Chinese mainstream media also need to have credibility. But the practices described above will result in the loss of this valuable resource [这一宝贵资源].

For example, the inevitable South Korean media reports of the incident of the North Korean soldier’s cross-border crime took only one minute to increase [South Korean media] credibility, and simultaneously indicates the loss of Chinese mainstream media and official on that precise point. China continuously stresses the need to strengthen the construction of public opinion [加强舆论工作] and its external communication and broadcast capabilities, but if we continue like this, building on one hand and losing on the other, to achieve the above tasks will be empty talk.

Credibility is a core interest of the country. This point must be understood, recognized, and applied by all officials. This should be one of the starting points of China’s modern governance. [End]

For all the sparks they tend to generate in the West, this editorial is indicative of why Huanqiu Shibao  editorials (or their Global Times rehashes) are actually a fairly problematic point of departure if one is looking for tangible changes in Chinese-North Korean relations. One first has to fight through two misconceptions — one being Western analysis that presumes the outlet is a good reflection of CCP Standing Committee thinking on North Korea, the other being China’s own cultivated fiction that the outlet is in any meaningful way an independent voice on Chinese foreign policy.

As the profitable arm of the People’s Daily, the paper has a huge circulation and forms the backbone of much mass discussion of foreign affairs in the PRC. But its main editor and de facto voice, Hu Xijin, is more Glenn Beck than Hu Qiaomu. In other words, Hu Xijin is more of a useful nationalistic idiot than a figure like Hu Qiaomu used to be — a deep insider with strong connections to the central leadership, even to the point of serving as the vehicle for several of Mao’s own ghost-written essays. Hu Xijin’s pronouncements about Chinese foreign policy are actually depressingly formulaic: Make vague references to China’s need to be a powerful and respected country, discuss public opinion the way all successful mainland editors are expected to, enhance the charade of the media’s watchdog role, and tell other countries not to look China’s gift dragon in the mouth.  

Analysts looking for more substantive indicators of Chinese foreign affairs thinking on the DPRK would be better off reading Shijie Zhishi, the weekly magazine sponsored by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. What this magazine lacks, however, is what Huanqiu is alleged to have: Timeliness, just enough braggadocio to wake up the reader on his or her lunch break, and reportage over pure analysis.

Reportage, naturally, is what is missing in the paper’s coverage of the recent attack, and even the editorial decidedly does not answer is why it took a full week for the news from the border to be transmitted nationally. There is bound to be speculation that China was trying to protect North Korea in terms of Chinese public opinion in a difficult week (The Interview and Sony hack imbroglio was at full pelt), for instance. But this delay probably has provincial origins, not least being the tourism business in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture. On December 28 (the day after the murders on the Tumen River), Helong city hosted a major tourism gathering which brought together all manner of officials in that realm. It stands to reason that the incident could have thrown a huge pall over such a meeting and also put a drag on tourism groups in Yanbian to enjoy the snow and New Year. Tourism is big business in the region and North Korea, like it or not, is a necessary partner in the endeavor.

North Korean cooperation is also needed in order to keep the city of Hunchun growing, located near the terminus of the Tumen River delta. On January 1, 2015, the city hosted a very early morning New Year’s gathering celebrating what it was anticipating as big breakthroughs in the year ahead: High-speed rail, a route to the sea, more trade with Russia and North Korea. Dreams of the Changjitu die hard, and a lone incident on the border is hardly a reason to let them die conclusively. Cross-border economic activity from Hunchun and the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture is up significantly since last spring, and there is a great deal of money to be made. (As is true in Dandong.) The fact that Dr. Andrei Lankov saw a few incomplete power lines between Jilin and North Hamgyong does not ipso facto mean that China is disinvesting in the border region as a whole, or turning its back on the necessary potential represented by North Korea (and its route to the sea) in the Tumen River delta.

There are a few final threads that this case is entangled in, not including cross-border intelligence sharing and border agency cooperation between the PRC and DRPK, which is ongoing. One thread is the role being played by China’s Ambassador Liu Hongcai, who emerged from a tw0-month hiatus on December 29 in order to conclude a sports agreement with Pyongyang. Presumably he and his staff are activated and very much working on this case in the North Korean metropole. Interestingly, it seems that the Embassy and the Xinhua Bureau in Pyongyang are keeping a lid on any dispatches, which has not always been the case involving North Korea-implicated deaths of Chinese civilians.

Source: “Editorial: Don’t Allow South Korean Media to Inform Us that a North Korean Deserter has Entered China” [社评:别让韩媒告诉我们朝鲜逃兵进了中国], Huanqiu Shibao, January 6, 2015.  Translation by Adam Cathcart

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