Water and the Chess Piece: Chinese-North Korean Relations in the Huanqiu Shibao

By | October 29, 2015 | No Comments

The upper stretches of the Yalu River; image via Xinhua.

The upper stretches of the Yalu River |  Image: Xinhua.

Is North Korea just a chess piece for the Chinese Communist Party? Recent editorials in the Beijing foreign affairs tabloid Huanqiu Shibao would appear to support such a point of view. In yesterday’s lead editorial denouncing the United States as a “paper tiger” in the South China Sea, North Korea was deployed by the paper as just one of a series of American foreign policy failures. When Chinese naval prestige is at stake, North Korea becomes not a problem for global stakeholders requiring Sino-US coordination, but an implement for taunting US impotence. Naturally, the English version of the same editorial excised the North Korea mention altogether, along with the “paper tiger” headline, meaning that even the Wall Street Journal managed to miss the insult, which is too bad; after all, it is not every day that Mao’s 1946 interview with Anna Louise Strong is resuscitated by the Ministry of Propaganda in Beijing.

When China’s North Korea policy writ large is the subject of editorials in Beijing, questions of translation, perception, and function still matter. One Global Times editorial from October 9 noted that CCP Politburo heavyweight Liu Yunshan’s meeting with Kim Jong-un would “draw a lot of discussions about the bilateral relationship”; English-speaking readers were thus meant to imagine that North Korea policy is hotly debated within China itself. But the original Chinese version of the same editorial told its readers that the Liu Yunshan visit reflected no internal debate whatsoever, and that the visit would be primarily important for the message it sent to the West. North Korea is simply one component (or chemical element) in the mix of China’s great-power focused foreign policy.

If North Korea is a mere chess piece or component, then the country’s existence must also be contextualized and rooted in history for Chinese readers with at least the occasional nod to socialist solidarity. The October 9 editorial admits that memories of the Korean War are powerful near the Yalu River, but only among those who have strong attachments to North Korea. Friendship with DPRK is, generally speaking, a political slogan, not a present lived reality for those outside of Northeast China.

Monument to the Chinese People's Volunteers in Kaesong, DPRK. Image: Chosun Central Television, October 26, 2015.

Monument to the Chinese People’s Volunteers in Kaesong, DPRK. Image: Chosun Central Television

The old formulation of fighting Japan, and then America, has been rhetorically downgraded in the editorial to fighting the Japanese and then “in the early 50s” — since everyone reading will surely know who was being struggled against. This generational aspect of the erosion of support for North Korea in China is not to be dismissed. Likewise, the discussion of hardships of the past is glided over in the editorial; the assumption being instead that socialist construction is difficult, not that, say, the Cultural Revolution or the North Korean famine were periods of stress on the relationship, which they clearly were.

Finally, the Chinese version of the editorial puts forth a fascinating and somewhat paradoxical formulation of bilateral relations, one where conflict and tension are rendered temporary precisely by the permanence of the riverine boundary. While we might interpret this as a poetic nod to the ancient past and the various permutations of Korean and Chinese regimes over the millenia, such phrases today might just as easily dressed-up language for “we forgive them because we have to live with them.” This is a self-interested baptism of the recalcitrant comrade, and a reminder that the United States and not the DPRK is the primary troublemaker for China. It is not so very far, then, from the waters of the South China Sea to the Yalu and Tumen River estuaries.

Editorial: In the river of Sino-North Korean friendly relations, problems are washed away in the current” [社评:中朝友好是河床,问题随河水流过 ], Huanqiu Shibao, October 9, 2015.

A delegation led by Liu Yunshan, a current member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and the Central Secretariat of the Central Committee, led a Chinese Communist Party delegation to North Korea for the 70th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK). This official friendly visit will inevitably (必将) boost bilateral relations in every respect and will also be an important element in influencing foreign familiarity and interpretation of the bilateral relationship.

In the recent period of time, the outside world has engaged in quite a few debates about Sino-North Korean ties [外界对中朝关系的议论很多], many of them identifying bilateral disagreements over certain issues, saying that in the space between the two countries, a lot of debate has been unleashed. It goes without saying that disagreement over the nuclear problem is at the center of the bilateral debates; this is an unavoidable (绕不开) aspect.

Even though these rigorous disagreements might seem irreconcilable, they are far from the whole picture of bilateral ties. On both sides of the Yalu River, there are a few powerful memories [一些强大的记忆] of transcendent power in fighting shoulder to shoulder in times of war. The blood, sweat and tears they shed together against Japan, and then in the early 1950s, have forged a strong connection between both sides. In the construction of socialism, the two countries went through many difficulties and hardships, and this is a thing which cannot separate the two.

The river between the two countries is a common theme in Sino-North Korean friendship; all problems can be bundled here and washed away in the current [各种问题就夹裹在河水中流过]. Problems can settle into sediment, or they can be whipped up into a spray, but this river will be there for the longest time. People have reason to expect that friendship will eternally be the basic appearance of Sino-North Korean relations.

The Cold War system has not yet made its total exit from Northeast Asia, and this is the ultimate origin of the complex character of the state of affairs in the region. The advancement of the North Korean nuclear program has added another layer of complexity, and everything seems full of irreconcilability [充满了不确定性].

Friendly Sino-North Korean relations is the number one pillar in guaranteeing the stability of the region [中朝友好关系是保持整个地区稳定的支柱之一]. It is a precious treasure, of immeasurable value to both countries, and neighboring countries need to take an attitude of encouragement and support. Sino-North Korean friendship benefits both sides, as China is the biggest trading partner and aid provider to North Korea, and also a significant force to ensure its internal stability. As for China, North Korea’s position is of strategic significance against the challenge from across the Pacific Ocean.

Source: “Editorial: In the river of Sino-North Korean friendly relations, problems are washed away in the current” [社评:中朝友好是河床,问题随河水流过 ], Huanqiu Shibao, October 9, 2015. Previously published as “Friendship mainstay of Sino-NK ties,” Global Times, October 9, 2015. Translation by Adam Cathcart.

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