Over the Line: How Representative Was Yang Junfeng’s FT Article of Chinese Academic Opinion on North Korea?

By | January 24, 2015 | No Comments

The title of Yang Junfeng’s article, 中国应放弃”负资产”朝鲜 [China should abandon “liability” North Korea] closely echoed that of Deng Yuwen’s piece in the English-language FT the year before.

Xi Xinping’s visit to Seoul in early July 2014 marked the first time a PRC leader had visited Seoul without first visiting Pyongyang– a fact taken as symbolic of the state of Sino-North Korean relations. From the outside this might have looked an opportune moment for any Chinese scholars hitherto privately critical of the DPRK to come out in support of Xi’s nascent diplomacy. However, it was also a period of intensified central discipline, including university inspections, given the precedent of Deng Yuwen’s dismissal from the Central Party School’s Study Times journal for openly suggesting that China abandon North Korea (in the English version of the Financial Times). This post covers three documents from the period in question. 

The first is a description of an article advocating China’s abandonment of North Korea in the Chinese language version of the Financial Times by Yang Junfeng of the independent Unirule Institute of Economics in Beijing. The second is a Yanbian University press release illustrating how the Party seeks to provide guidance to scholars on what they write on Korean issues. The third is a summary of a conference at Jilin University, which gives an overall impression of the balance Chinese academic opinion on Korean peninsula issues. 

While Yang Junfeng’s article undoubtedly does reflect a specific Chinese scholarly perspective that is inclined to take a harder line towards Pyongyang, others clearly retain a more traditional view of DPRK and PRC security interests. – Steven Denney, Managing Editor

Over the Line? How Representative Was Yang Junfeng’s FT Article of Chinese Academic Opinion on North Korea?

by Sino-NK

The world has many admirers of quiet diplomacy, perhaps particularly in China. Ambiguity can increase bargaining power in international relations, but at the risk of domestic dissatisfaction at an accountability deficit. Under the Chinese political system, the incentive to openly agree on concrete strategic objectives, or to infuse idealism into specific policies, is less pronounced than under democratic electoral competition. Furthermore, the long-term uncertainty surrounding China’s relationships with countries of different political systems (affluent liberal democracies such as the United States and South Korea, and seemingly analogous socialist one-party states such as the DPRK) militate against a more defined formal narrative.

Ideological Instability: Deng Yuwen’s Article | With regards to the relationship between the PRC and the DPRK, one well-known departure from such ambiguity was the article by Deng Yuwen, “China should abandon North Korea,” published in the English language version of the Financial Times (henceforth FT) in February 2013. Deng’s article made five assertions about the PRC-DPRK alliance:

1. Relationships based on ideology are destabilizing
2. North Korea’s value as a buffer zone between China and the US alliance with Japan and South Korea is outweighed by North Korea’s propensity to entrap China in conflict with those countries
3. North Korea will not enact reform and opening for fear of being overthrown
4. North Koreans do not appreciate Chinese sacrifices in the Korean War
5. A nuclear North Korea might threaten and blackmail China

Despite the bold title attached to his article, and the introductory words that China should “give up on” the DPRK, Deng Yuwen’s conclusion was actually somewhat tentative and nonspecific: that China ‘should consider’ abandoning North Korea, ideally by taking the initiative to ‘facilitate North Korea’s unification with South Korea’  but otherwise should ‘cultivate’ a pro-Beijing government, give it security assurances, give up nuclear weapons and embark on a path of normal economic development.

Heavy Liability: Yang Junfeng’s Article | Last July, another article similarly entitled “China should abandon ‘liability’ North Korea” [中国应放弃“负资产”朝鲜] appeared in the FT, this time its Chinese version, written by Yang Junfeng (杨俊锋) of the Unirule (or Tianze) Institute of Economics (天则经济研究所). This article was markedly more overt than Deng’s earlier article had been, particularly in criticising the internal North Korean system. As the article does not appear to have been translated previously, and we have been unable to come to agreement with the FT to reproduce our translation in full, we will summarize it here under the journalistic fair use policy.

After reciting the sacrifices China made to North Korea during and after the Korean War–“(at least on the surface) ‘a friendship formed in blood’” [(至少表面上)“鲜血凝成的友谊”]–Yang draws attention to the significance of Xi Xinping’s visit to Seoul on July 3-4, symbolically breaking with all his predecessors’ custom of visiting Pyongyang first, and to the Xi-Park joint declaration for a mature strategic partnership and increasingly close relations. Yang lauds this as good for China and the world, then giving his reason: “North Korea is already more and more of a heavy liability [沉重的负资产], which must soon be abandoned [早该放弃].”

Yang goes beyond Deng Yuwen by directly criticizing the domestic North Korean system itself, intrinsically rather than in terms of its consequences for China:

The North Korean regime depends on lies and violence to preserve dictatorial rule, and already is a great joke and disgrace of the modern world. Its dynasty has exhausted itself by representing a symbol of the world’s most beautiful political dream: the Democratic People’s Republic, one can say in actuality that the people endure enslavement, cold and hunger whilst the house of Kim indulges in a life of extreme extravagance and openly practices hereditary succession – North Korea’s hereditary system is the epitome of wicked deeds carried out under the banner of virtue, a name intolerably wrong, the basis for its rule so limited, and exceedingly weak, that it can only rely on violence and lies to maintain order.


Citing Transparency International (in whose most recent Corruption Perceptions Index North Korea ranks jointly as the most corrupt alongside Afghanistan and Somalia) Yang describes the level of corruption as such that “because of its omnipresent surveillance, strong coercion, every politically powerful person can exercise their authority arbitrarily,” an assertion echoing a finding from refugee surveys published in Haggard and Noland’s “Witness to Transformation,” that official positions were considered desirable primarily for their capacity to enable predatory behavior towards the rest of the population.

Buffer Zone: Of Geostrategy and Justice | Like Deng Yuwen, Yang Junfeng rejects the idea of North Korea as a buffer zone for China, which Yang calls “paranoid Cold War thinking.” Whereas Deng Yuwen’s article had emphasized contingent risks that China could be entrapped in conflict or betrayed by the DPRK (noting Kim Jong-Il’s reported suggestion to Bill Clinton that the DPRK could act on the US’ behalf against China), Yang emphasizes damage to China’s moral authority:

Even though in international affairs, strength and self-interest are often even more real and important than justice, in the final analysis human society still has its fundamental basis in justice. Especially in the modern world, the application of international justice is not completely insignificant, but is increasingly important – this is simply human civilization, the embodiment of progress. Under these circumstances, China’s continued intimacy with this kind of regime inevitably leads it to lose great credit in international justice.


Yang states that North Korea is a liability to China is not only in terms of morality but also in terms of realist national interest [现实的国家利益], emphasizing Chinese anxieties about sharing a border with the DPRK of which most Western observers are only dimly aware; not only the influx of narcotics and fake currency production, but also nuclear contamination of bordering regions due to North Korean testing.

Echoing Deng Yuwen, Yang cannot see North Korea enacting a program of economic “reform and opening’” [改革开放] à la Deng Xiaoping, for “as soon as this regime so totally reliant on lies and coercion opens up, the risk of it being overthrown is undoubtedly huge.”   [一个完全依靠谎言和暴力统治的政权一旦放开,倒台的风险无疑巨大。]

Yang mocks the belief that the PRC and DPRK share systemic traits justifying solidarity, as well as any notion that “this ‘gangster’ state” [无赖”政权] can be used to split the international community, thus dissipating Western pressure on the political monopoly of China’s ruling party.

The passivity implicitly attributed to North Korea as an actor in such traditional Chinese strategic calculations is also ridiculed, with Yang asking rhetorically whether North Korea is also prepared to be “an obedient servant and sheep dog” [前卒和牧羊犬]. On the contrary, Yang describes the PRC’s economic assistance to the DPRK as a “bottomless pit” (无底洞) resulting in no gratitude from a North Korea which labelled China a “traitor and enemy” [叛徒和朝鲜的敌人] for opposing its third nuclear test.

Contrasting the magnitude of Sino-South Korean trade, investment, tourism and educational exchange with that between China and the DPRK, Yang states that in contrast, Xi’s decision to seek closer relations with South Korea improves China’s international image, furthers China’s assimilation into mainstream global culture, and greatly benefits China and its ruling party’s real national interest, as well as that of Northeast Asia and the world.

Whereas Deng Yuwen was somewhat tentative in suggesting that China ‘should consider’ abandoning North Korea, Yang is unequivocal, advocating that China “completely stop political and economic support of the DPRK.” China should “exert upon North Korea the necessary diplomatic, economic and even military pressure” not to prevent collapse in the North Korean leadership, but rather “to prevent a collapse in North Korea’s high-handed leadership giving rise to large numbers of refugees rushing into China, and bringing forward well designed plans to deal with this contingency.”

Such an approach would represent a departure from China’s long standing order of strategic priorities with regards to North Korea, “no war, no instability, no nukes” [不战、不乱、无核]. Whilst being framed as a strong endorsement of Xi’s strategic shift, Yang’s Chinese FT article appeared in spite of the current administration’s desire for Chinese scholars not to publish thinking that could be inflammatory from a North Korean point of view, as had seemed evident in the earlier dismissal of Deng Yuwen for his FT piece. Yang could not have been unaware of this.

Kim Three Fat: Yang in Harmony? | Viewed alongside the widely publicised Kim Jong-un music video Jin Sanpang (金三胖, literally “Kim Three Fat” and a pun on the Mandarin pronunciation of Kim Jong-un’s name) which was popular at around the same time, Yang Junfeng’s article gives the impression of widespread Chinese reaction against the Kim Jong-un government. How representative was Yang’s op-ed of the opinions of Chinese experts and scholars?

Yang is affiliated with the Unirule (or Tianze) Institute of Economics (天则经济研究所), an independent Beijing thinktank which “stands for universal rules that, in reality, govern all fields, encompassing economic and political as well as social and cultural institutions” (mission statement). Consistent with this purpose, it is “by nature a private, non-profit research institution” which “does not receive financial assistance from any government entities, and instead is dependent upon social donations and provisional grants from for projects from institutions in China and abroad.”

Unirule’s co-founder and Chairman Mao Yushi (茅于轼) is well known as one of China’s most prominent and outspoken advocates of economic and social liberalism, a radical relative to China’s traditional statist orientation. In 2011, his criticism of the Party’s sanitization of the period of Mao Zedong (no relation) led close to 10,000 leftist conservatives to sign a petition asking for the state to take action against him (and although no such formal action appears to have been taken, it was reported in November 2013 that a People’s Liberation Army internal film had vilified him as an agent of the west). In 2012, the conservative Cato Institute in Washington DC awarded him the Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty. In sum, Unirule is associated with a degree of outspokenness and independence from party guidance, which is not typically seen of scholars at Chinese academic or research institutions.

Xi’s Approach: Forces of Moderation | Unlike Yang and Deng, most Chinese scholars of North Korea are extremely careful about what they say in public (or to foreigner Korea-nerds). However, brief summaries of two conferences held by Jilin University and Yanbian University in late June and mid-July 2014 respectively show how such writing is discouraged and may give a glimpse of the center ground. Both take it for granted that China’s leader Xi Jinping is taking a significantly different stance towards North Korea, although neither is specific in defining exactly what constitutes the new approach.

The summary of the forum at Yanbian University, the leading public university of the Korean autonomous prefecture at China’s border with the DPRK, illustrates how in most institutions Party influence may inhibit scholars from publishing articles in the manner of Yang Junfeng. The only summary of a conference on the website of their Korean Peninsula Research Collaboration and Innovation Center during a tense period of inspections of university departments, it describes a meeting of senior academics, including department heads and journal editors of the social sciences to study and draw guidance from Xi Xinping’s pronouncements in Seoul (“School Party Committee Propaganda Minister Wang Libo was invited,” it adds pointedly).

The news release appears foremost as an expression of loyalty and deference to Xi Xinping and his series of speeches in South Korea, and was presumably published primarily as a display to the central government of the university’s desire to serve to the official line, and perhaps secondly as an indication to other scholars of what is expected of them. The story is also suggestive of the university’s efforts to retain a key role whatever changes might emerge in Xi Xinping’s policies towards the DPRK.

Kuang Yaming, whose name and statue attach to the building that hosted Jilin University's conference on "Change in the Korean Peninsula and Response," was a famous Marxist pedagogue, preliberation activist, and cofounder and former president of the university. An early victim of the Cultural Revolution, his statue presides over more constructive debate today. | Image: Sino-NK

The lake at Jilin University’s beautiful southern campus. | Image: Sino-NK

Jilin Shows the Way: Beneath the Surface | The summary of another conference at Jilin University on 27 June 2014 gives a glimpse of what constituted the main points of debate immediately prior to Xi Xinping’s visit to Seoul. The report does not give an account of the substance of changes in Chinese policy towards North Korea, but the recommendation that “China should state its attitude even more clearly” to enhance US-China opportunities implies a perception of significant change in the PRC’s (at least) attitude towards the DPRK.

One division of opinion amongst scholars is presented as whether China should insist upon North Korean denuclearization (or steps towards denuclearization) as a precondition for improved Sino-North Korean relations, or be satisfied with other, lesser North Korean efforts to improve ties (based on the structural realist notion of balancing powers). To the extent that North Korean acquiescence with denuclearization agreements seems unlikely, advocating a “balance between denuclearization and economic cooperation” may in practice amount to making permanent whatever changes have taken place. Although Yang Junfeng’s public outspokenness is out of step with the norms of Chinese academic convention, his thinking may not be inconsistent with the private views of this portion of Chinese North Korea scholars. However, the summary also seems to suggest Chinese views more conservative than what we hear officially: that the nuclear issue is only a symptom of the absence of a regional peace mechanism; and even apparent ambivalence that the nuclear card makes forceful reunification more likely but peaceful reunification less so.

Inside-Outside: In Perspective | We may well appreciate the candor of Yang’s article, just as he appears to admire Western-influenced liberal internationalism. Yet we should also appreciate the rationale for the directors of Chinese institutes to instruct Chinese scholars to remain tight-lipped about changes in the Sino-North Korean relationship, not just for their institutes to retain influence as insiders in policy debates, but to allow China to credibly maintain the strategic ambiguity to navigate the uncertainties of its relationships with the DPRK and with the rest of the world.

The View from the Train Tracks about 3 km west of Yanji, March 17, 2012 | Image: Adam Cathcart/Sino-NK

On the ribbon of steel about 3 km west of Yanji, March 17, 2012 | Image: Adam Cathcart/Sino-NK

Yanbian University forum on Xi Xinping visit to South Korea, July 18 2014:

朝鲜半岛研究协同创新中心举行学习习近平访韩系列重要讲话座谈会” [Korean Peninsula Research Collaboration and Innovation Center holds symposium on studying the Important Series of Speeches from Xi Xinping’s visit to South Korea], Co-Innovation Center for Korean Peninsula Studies section of Yanbian University website, July 23, 2014.

(Korean Peninsula Collaborative Innovation Center feeds) On the afternoon of 18th July, the Korean Peninsula Collaborative Innovation Center (朝鲜半岛研究协同创新中心) (hereafter referred to as the Center) held a seminar in the third technology floor conference room to study the important series of speeches from Xi Jinping’s visit to South Korea. The meeting was chaired by the Director of the Centre, Cai Meihua (蔡美花), attended by scholars and teachers of related disciplines, and school party committee propaganda minister Wang Libo was invited to attend the forum [校党委宣传部部长王立波应邀出席座谈会]. [Goes on to list deans, departmental heads and journal editors in attendance.]

After in-depth exchanges, participants reached consensus on the following three points:

1. The study and understanding of the essence of Xi Xinping’s important speech has an important role to one step further condense and perfect the direction and fields of the Korean Peninsula Research Collaboration and Innovation Center [朝鲜半岛研究协同创新中心] led by our school. The series of speeches during Chairman Xi’s visit to South Korea are a guiding document for our Korean peninsula research, studying the spirit/essence of Chairman Xi’s speech, fully recognizing the relationship between strength and suppleness in promoting the development of the state’s relationship, and requiring persistent attention to collaborative research on political, economic and security issues, and requiring active exploration of common human and cultural values [共同的人文价值观] shared between China and the Korean peninsula, great efforts to explore the deep underlying cultural elements of East Asian peaceful development [东亚和平发展的深层文化因素].

2. In order to correctly understand and decipher the essence of Chairman Xi’s speech, it is necessary to construct China and South Korea’s destined community [构建中韩命运共同体], to promote the deep development of a friendly and cooperative China-South Korean relationship [促进中韩友好合作关系的深入发展]. As Chairman Xi’s speech pointed out, “China and South Korea are geographically close, interpersonally close, having a common cultural foundation and similar system of values,” advocating a new momentum in bilateral cooperation. But recent South Korean pro-American factions [韩国的亲美派] have distorted historic cultural truths [歪曲历史文化的真相], and responded with scepticism to the friendly Sino-South Korean relations mentioned in Chairman Xi’s speech. Through studying the spirit of Chairman Xi’s speech [学习讲话精神], we will obtain a proper view of history [正确的历史观澄清] and elucidate the true nature of such history and culture [阐释历史文化的本来面目], enhancing China’s excellent cultural tradition.

3. The participants believe that the Korean Peninsula Collaborative Innovation Center led by Yanbian University has unique location, cultural characteristics and research advantages, and wishes under the Center’s leadership, to deeply study and understand this essence of Chairman Xi’s important speech, to strongly accelerate the development of the Center’s construction [提速开展中心建设], to achieve important research outcomes [形成重要研究成果], to offer suggestions [进言献策] for the national strategy of defending the peace and stability of the Korean peninsula and even northeast Asia [维护朝鲜半岛乃至东北亚地区和平稳定的国家战略进言献策].

Kuang Yaming Building, Jilin University southern campus, Changchun, PRC--home of Jilin University Northeast Asian Studies College | Image: Sino-NK

Kuang Yaming, whose name and statue attach to the building that hosted Jilin University’s conference on “Change in the Korean Peninsula and Response,” was a famous Marxist pedagogue, pre-liberation activist, and co-founder and former president of the university. An early victim of the Cultural Revolution, his statue presides over more constructive debate today. | Image: Sino-NK

Jilin University Conference, 27 June 2014:

吉林大学成功举办‘朝鲜半岛变局与应对’学术研讨会”[Jilin University holds Conference on “Changes on the Korean Peninsula and Response”], Northeast Asian Studies College section of Jilin University website, June 30, 2014.

[The Jilin conference was held in the second floor conference room in the Kuang Yaming Building and involved scholars from Jilin University, Tsinghua University, Fudan University, the Central Party School, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, China Institute of International Studies, Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences, East Liaodong University, the Yanbian Development Office, as well as other stakeholders. It considered issues including ‘North Korea’s current political and economic situation, diplomatic trends of the two Koreas, and how China might respond to the changing situation.’ The substantive paragraphs of the Jilin conference summary read as follows:] 

The participants believe that at present, North Korea’s perception of the international environment is fundamentally unchanged (无根本性变化], and maintaining the political system [维系政治体制] and guaranteeing political security [确保国家安全] will still be among the chief goals of its domestic and foreign policy [内外政策的首要目标].

At present amongst the North Korean leadership there appears to be continuous change of personnel[不断出现人员的变动], indicating that it is still undergoing a process of power consolidation [政权巩固的过程].

Some scholars believe that since the third nuclear test, North Korea has hoped to be able to gradually restore Sino-NK relations [逐渐修复中朝关系], and that if it undertook significant efforts [做出了积极努力], China should respond, thus maintaining an appropriate equilibrium between Sino-North Korean and Sino-South Korea relations; other scholars argue that handling of the Korean peninsula problem [处理朝鲜半岛问题] requires appropriately overcoming the fetters of the nuclear problem, and maintaining a balance between denuclearisation and economic cooperation.

Participants also discussed issues such as diplomatic developments in the two Koreas [朝韩两国的外交动态], and the US and China’s respective policies towards the Korean peninsula [中美两国的朝鲜半岛政策]. Some scholars believe that the fundamental motivation [根本性动因] of North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons is to safeguard the stability of the political system [维护政治体制的稳固], that “holding the nuclear [card]” increases the probability of achieving unification by force [拥核”增加了其采取武力统一的概率], but also leads to US-South Korean anxiety, and thus is threatening to the peaceful reunification of the Korean peninsula [从而导致朝鲜半岛和平统一受到威胁].

Other scholars believe that the core problem on the Korean peninsula is not the nuclear issue [核问题不是朝鲜半岛的核心问题], but rather this is a product of the failure to agree a peace mechanism on the peninsula [是半岛和平机制转化没有达成的衍生问题], and that settlement of the nuclear problem first requires settlement of a peace mechanism [解决核问题首先要解决和平机制转化问题]. Regarding the Park Geun-Hye government’s “trust process” for peninsula unification, some scholars believe that its significance as propaganda is greater than its substantive importance [宣传意义大于实质意义], yet others consider that this formulation is a useful fusion of progressive and conservative politics [这一提法融合了进步政府和保守政府有益的成分], and that South Korea is strenuously desiring its practical, concrete policy [努力将其落实成具体的政策].

Regarding China and the United States’ respective North Korea policies, some scholars point out that the United States’ space to change its North Korea policy is not great, whereas space for Sino-American cooperation is actually quite large [美国对朝政策换的空间不是很大,中美两国之间合作的空间倒是很大], so that regarding the nuclear problem, China should state its attitude even more clearly [表明更加明确的态度]. Yet other scholars believe that China should recognize the great structural problem [大格局问题] behind the Korean nuclear issue, and cannot just collaborate (合作) with the United States and South Korea, but should vigorously forge ahead in safeguarding its own interests (要积极进取,保护好自己的利益).

This meeting on sensitive Korean peninsula issues involved intense discussion to further deepen research and raise, and discuss and agree proposals of major significance [方案具有重要意义].

Sources: Deng Yuwen, “China Should Abandon North Korea,” Financial Times, February 27,2013.

Yang Junfeng,中国应放弃负资产朝鲜 [“China should abandon ‘liability’ North Korea”] FT Chinese, July 7, 2014.

吉林大学成功举办‘朝鲜半岛变局与应对’学术研讨会”[Jilin University holds Conference on “Changes on the Korean Peninsula and Response”], Northeast Asian Studies College section of Jilin University website, June 30, 2014.

朝鲜半岛研究协同创新中心举行学习习近平访韩系列重要讲话座谈会” [Korean Peninsula Research Collaboration and Innovation Center holds symposium on studying the Important Series of Speeches from Xi Xinping’s visit to South Korea], Co-Innovation Center for Korean Peninsula Studies section of Yanbian University website, July 23, 2014.

All translations by Sino-NK.

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