What Inspired DPRK Invective against China?

By | December 19, 2017 | No Comments

Donald Trump meets with Xi Jinping. | Image: Wikicommons

One of the general problems we face today as an analytical community is a lack of understanding of the texture of Chinese-North Korean relations, even as many influential people are busy calling China “the key” to the North Korea puzzle. To repurpose a gripe from BR Myers, how many people earnestly imputing motives to Xi Jinping, or ominously imputing Chinese “fears” of North Korean collapse, or worrying about Chinese troop movements along the northeast border, are really familiar with the debate over China’s entry into the Korean War, and how many are reading Chinese signals through English-language media alone? Clearly we have yet to grasp the issue in three dimensions.

To be sure, perusing the history and reading the Chinese writing about North Korea and travelling to the Chinese-North Korean border equipped with one or more of the relevant languages does not automatically produce answers to every conundrum. Nor does Plan B, taken by think-tank types, of taking a junket to Beijing every so often to do interviews with scholars, diplomats, and the like, often via interpreter. But these actions do at least get one significantly further toward asking some more interesting questions. After all, how many essays can one person reasonably be expected to read pegged on the question “How does the latest Trump tweet destabilize traditional alliances and undermine deterrence in the Asia-Pacific?”

This past week, the PRC state seemed to encourage official and semi-official discourse about Chinese preparations for war on the Korean peninsula, and even plans for an exodus of North Koreans into Changbai county. Although it feels obvious to state, readers need to keep in mind that such information is not neutrally received or interpreted in Pyongyang. As I argued in a recent analysis of Chinese military moves near the North Korean border during the “April crisis” of 2017, the Chinese state is more than capable of intimidating North Korea through both border drills of the People’s Liberation Army and encouraging a limited amount of misinformation and rumors.

If the North Korean leadership is upset at the Chinese Communist Party, there are therefore ample points of contention which might emerge into the public sphere. In order to prognosticate for the next few months of Sino-North Korean relations, a useful exercise is to look back. What precisely triggered the autumn 2017 North Korean outburst against the CCP’s People’s Daily, the Huanqiu Shibao/Global Times, and the respective websites of those Beijing organs?

The New York Times and the Washington Post both reported on a KCNA editorial published in early September 2017. In neither case was it done as a headline item, rather as supportive data in a wider-angle look at how China’s ability to sway North Korea has either waned or evaporated. (Whether or not that influence was primarily imagined in the first place is not really broached.) But the editorial itself was really in need of a deeper dive; it was completely eclipsed by Kim Jong-un’s direct statement to Donald Trump. This Jangmadang looks at what triggered the editorial.

Hua Yiwen, “解决半岛问题的抉择时刻” [The Decisive Moment to Solve the Peninsular Issue], Renmin Ribao (haiwaiban), September 13, 2017.

Entitled “The Decisive Moment to Solve the Peninsular Issue” [解决半岛问题的抉择时刻], the essay was written by Hua Yiwen (华益文), supposedly a foreign relations scholar but in fact seems to be a pen name for the People’s Daily editorial collective when dealing with nettlesome foreign policy issues.

Two previous essays by the author/nom de plume dealing with North Korea were published in 2013 and in August 2017, but the rest of his/her outputs appear to be focused on Japanese and American malfeasance, with occasional forays into the Tibet issue.

The North Korean criticism of this piece appears primarily to be that the North Korean state knows best what its citizens need; having even a comradely party suggest that the North Korean people are suffering due to the nuclear program is to commit a heresy. Hua Yiwen begins the essay innocuously enough, summarizing that every effort is being made by China and the United Nations to solve the nuclear issue peacefully.

The essay follows what were probably very clear Party guidelines in covering UNSC 2375 by getting in to precisely none of the details of that resolution, but it certainly supports the resolution. The rest of the essay appears to be primarily oriented toward Pyongyang; there are none of the typical entreaties for the Americans to stop threatening the North, or for Washington and Seoul to backtrack on the THAAD deployment, or suggestions for Six-Party Talks to reconvene.

Probably the most remarkable aspect of the second paragraph of the essay is how it contravenes a previously-clear directive for Chinese coverage of North Korea sanctions, namely, it indicates that sanctions will have an impact on the North Korean populace. The author first notes that nine successive UN resolutions targeting the nuclear program have been explicitly “not targeted at the daily livelihood of the North Korean people” and “to the greatest extent possible, not [meant to] bring about a worsening in the humanitarian situation in North Korea” [联合国安理会通过了9次制裁决议,主要着眼于遏阻朝鲜的核武器和导弹开发计划,并不针对朝鲜正常民生,尽量避免导致朝鲜人道主义局面恶化]. But then comes the inevitable “however,” and it could certainly be interpreted as malevolent from the North Korean perspective:

However, in the process of international society protecting against nuclear proliferation, the [impact of the] relentless expansion of the scope of sanctions will no doubt be transmitted to North Korea’s economy and people’s livelihood [不过,在国际社会维护核不扩散体系的过程中,不断扩大的制裁范围无疑会传导至朝鲜的经济和民生].

This might have been considered sufficiently alarming, particularly if you’re reading it in North Korea’s Embassy in Beijing, the site of many an irate phone call to People’s Daily HQ. But in fact Hua Yiwen goes on to do a bit of overt lecturing of North Korea, writing that:

North Korea’s violation of UN Security Council resolutions, taken without regard to the common opposition of the international community, disregards international counter-proliferation efforts, is done to advance North Korea’s nuclear and missile plans. [The extensive sanctions] can be considered as ‘eating one’s own fruit’ (属于自食其果; suffering consequences of one’s own behavior), but North Korea has no intention to relinquish its missile and nuclear plans, instead taking the old road of ‘Arduous March,’ ‘Songun politics,’ saying that it can ‘tighten its belt’ and continue to ‘meet hard-line with hard-line.’ North Korea says it wants to advance nuclear weapons and the economy [simultaneously], but how can it attend simultaneously to improving its safety and the livelihood of its people?

This is about as explicit a refutation of Kim Jong-un’s ‘Byungjin Line’ (and the ‘Songun policy’, and by extension Kim Jong-il) as one is likely to ever see in Chinese state media.

In conclusion, the American President is obviously a fascinating man whose threats to North Korea from the podium of the United Nations General Assembly — and their response from both Pyongyang and North Korea’s Foreign Minister whilst in New York — deserved attention. But underneath that larger ongoing battle is a smaller war, or as Clausewitz might call it, a kleiner Krieg. It is sometimes the smaller wars which require more of our attention, since they have a propensity not to flare out but rather to expand.

Source: Hua Yiwen, “解决半岛问题的抉择时刻” [The Decisive Moment to Solve the Peninsular Issue], Renmin Ribao (haiwaiban), September 13, 2017. Translations by Adam Cathcart.

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