By whose example? Analyzing Sino-DPRK Media Portrayals of Relations in 2018
As Kim Jong-un strides through the vermillion halls of power in Beijing, Oxford University’s Tom Fowdy looks back at the year in bilateral diplomacy just passed, endeavoring to sum up the balance between substance and style in the Chinese-North Korean relationship. There seems to be a certain robustness and rhetorical comfort in the relationship and its traditional contours, but Fowdy also finds evidence of underlying dissonances, ample memes of Chinese tutelage, and abundant examples of good-old-fashioned self-interest and mutual utility at work between Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un. — Adam Cathcart, Senior Editor
Editor’s note (October 17, 2019): Subsequent to the publication of this essay, its author began working as a columnist for China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency. For the avoidance of doubt, Sino-NK does not receive funding from the Chinese government.
By whose example? Analyzing Sino-DPRK Media Portrayals of Relations in 2018
by Tom Fowdy
2018 has been a rollercoaster ride in North Korea-China relations. From a mutual coldness between the two countries at the height of the nuclear crisis, to a sudden revival in high-level ties which saw three summits take place between Kim Jong-un and Xi Jinping, the situation has certainly changed rapidly. With talks over the future of the Korean peninsula ongoing, the two parties have sought to warm up ties for the ultimate aim of securing their respective national interests. In order to portray and justify these sudden foreign policy shifts to domestic and international audiences, a flurry of state media editorials from both capitals have consequently sought to reaffirm the importance of the “lasting friendship” and “cooperation” between the two countries. Such discourse is largely symbolic and does not do justice to the obvious differences and contentions that have beset and frayed relations in recent years, with high levels of public criticism exchanged between both sides.
As a result, with a change in the international context in 2018 having mandated a rebuilding of relations, both nations have sought to propagandize and beneficially portray the sudden re-emergence of Sino-DPRK dialogue for domestic political consumption. As is ever the case with one-party states, this effort has resulted in a depiction of Sino-DPRK bilateral ties as residing exclusively within the light of overarching domestic and foreign policy goals, rather than a projection of complicated reality. This article follows such discourse by Beijing and Pyongyang in 2018 and poses the question “By whose example?” are ties being built upon here.
View from Beijing | China’s position on North Korea has been greatly strained. Beijing opposes Pyongyang’s nuclear program, but as widely known, is apprehensive about putting pressure on the regime in fear of bringing about regional instability. The DPRK serves a strategic purpose within North East Asia. Nevertheless, 2017 saw China’s hands tied as it was forced to place extensive sanctions pressure upon its neighbour in concern over the repercussions from its nuclear program and avoid military action from Washington. Therefore, as rapprochement began between the US and the DPRK, Beijing needed to ensure that its influence was maintained on the Korean peninsula. Thus, from their side, the door was opened for the rebuilding of Sino-DPRK ties.
In order to justify the sudden the spree of diplomatic activity between the two countries, Chinese state media constructed a discourse that Kim Jong-un was learn from Xi Jinping and follow his example. This was most strikingly done in a feature editorial from Xinhua in March. The editorial presented the PRC as a guide and model for Kim. It stated that Kim was praiseworthy of Xi Jinping and his domestic political achievements, further specifying that he was “inspired” by the latter’s counsel on the future of the Korean peninsula. Notably, the piece placed repeated emphasis on Kim’s goal of to achieving economic development in North Korea and to draw a matter of contrast, noted that he attending “an exhibition showcasing the innovation achievements of the Chinese Academy of Sciences” as if to carefully illustrate China as the exemplary.
Throughout the year, other editorials would make similar depictions. The Global Times in November published a piece stating that “North Korea has the intention to learn from China’s experience of reform and opening-up, treating its neighbour as a role model to some extent” and again, utilized the theme of Kim’s ambition for economic development. It further argued that North Koreans were in fact travelling to China to learn from Beijing skills in establishing a modern economy.
North Korea | But across the Yalu river, this very same process was understood and depicted quite differently. For North Korea, there was a great deal at stake in turning towards China again. Traditionally looking towards Beijing as its largest economic partner, the events of the previous year had saw tough sanctions diminish most of its exports to the country. Now that dialogue had begun, the regime would be inevitably seeking economic relief from China whilst additionally ensuring a counterweight to Washington’s influence in the emerging peace process. Therefore, as the DPRK sought to break itself out of isolation and turn towards diplomacy, rebuilding ties with Beijing was similarly a necessity for Kim Jong-un.
Nevertheless, in noticeable contrast to China’s portrayal, KCNA & Rodong Sinmun were never about to depict the process as a grovelling mission to learn and follow Xi’s example. Instead, commentary of the summits represented the two leaders as equals working together, placing emphasis on a common friendship and cause. There was for diplomatic reasons, mutual praise exchanged and of course, some offered for Xi and the Chinese Communist Party. However, one element was largely absent. Development and the economy. Despite Kim Jong-un’s stated development goal, the subject was not mentioned in North Korean commentary of Sino-DPRK relations. In no editorial was China praised for its economic, scientific or technological achievements. Instead, Rodong Sinmun highlighted how Xinhua was in fact praising North Korea’s economic goals, contradicting the “China model” narrative.
Thus placing little emphasis on economics, the state news intensively focused on China’s endorsement of the regime itself. As is the norm for Rodong & KCNA, coverage was given to Chinese delegations visiting sites with political significance to the regime, including the Mangyondae Native House, the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun and the Friendship Tower commemorating the alliance between the two. In parallel contrast to China’s portrayals, coverage of relations also set out Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-il as the exemplary figures, presenting the various Chinese delegations as being taught and reminded of their achievements and legacies. The notion of gifts to Kim Jong-un from Beijing was also covered. All of these contain a subtle reminder that North Korea does not need to “learn anything” from Beijing. Thus overall, the message was set out through the media that whilst “friendship” and bilateral relations between the two countries is important, the DPRK sees itself on equal terms with China, seeks to downplay talk of it being a dependent and that it very much holds its own weight ideologically
Conclusion | The Sino-DPRK rapprochement of 2018 and diplomatic manoeuvring between the two countries led to a scramble by each party’s state media to depict the rapidly changing events in the light of overarching political and foreign policy narratives. Despite that both countries ultimately needed to re-engage with the other due to matters of national interest, they were unable to specify these reasons directly and for the purposes of domestic gain, instead created discourses which set out the superiorities of the given one over the other. A young and ambitious Kim Jong-un turned to the wisdom of Xi Jinping for help on modernizing his country within China’s image, whereas Chinese delegations to the DPRK were firmly enlightened in the ideological purity, orthodoxy and example of the Kim family. Thus, this poses the fundamental question specified in the title “By whose example?” — namely, who is leading bilateral ties. Above all, while these countries are affirming a symbolic “friendship”, such rhetoric is a firm reminder that they are, in fact, largely vouching for themselves.