A Tale of Two North Koreas

China can't decide If It wants to bury Kim Jong Il or to praise him.


CHENGDU — Watching Kim Jong Il’s funeral on the English-language version of China’s Central Television (CCTV), one would be forgiven for thinking that North Korea was a progressive country well on its way to achieving success with major economic reforms. While commentators in New York and Seoul attacked the regime’s ability to survive or poured cold water on the prospects for peace, Chinese commentators on English-language official state media praised Kim Jong Il for the wisdom of acknowledging the efficacy of the Chinese model of foreign investment.  With a kind of tenacious obliviousness, CCTV reporters predicted that Kim Jong Un, the twenty-something heir and new supreme leader, would further consolidate the victory of market principles, and subsequently guarantee the viability of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

Repeated several times during the live but intermittent funeral procession coverage, the official Chinese television narrative of Kim Jong Il’s life provided variations on the economic theme. This TV tribute to Kim depicted him as a China-inspired aspiring reformer and a force for regional peace, and excitedly described his various trips to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). As Kim Jong Un’s formidable jowls filled the screen, Chinese television decoupled North Korea’s eruptions of 2010 — namely, the sinking of the South Korean warship the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong island — from the young successor, who was rumored to be behind such provocations. Rather than dwelling on his military ties, Chinese television analysts pointed to Kim Jong Un’s foreign education, commenting that his five years spent in Switzerland as a teenager could be a sign that "greater opening and more reform measures are on the way under his leadership." Talk about putting lipstick on a pig.

That said, there’s good reasons for Beijing to evince support for Pyongyang to Western audiences. China has indeed gambled much prestige and a great deal of money on the question of Kim’s acceptance of China-style economic reforms. Besides bankrolling development along the border, Beijing has declined to criticize Pyongyang for its provocations (with the exception of its second nuclear test in 2009). And there’s no doubt that China prefers an independent North Korea — as a unified peninsula, led inevitably by Seoul, would likely mean American troops in a country bordering China.

However, in the less official corners of the PRC press, a more nuanced discourse about North Korea is taking place. Despite what is published in China’s major official media outlets, like Xinhua, or English-language venues like Global Times and China Daily, many heavyweight Chinese intellectuals and foreign-policy makers have been airing the views in more niche publications that North Korea is both untrustworthy and unstable.   

Within the parameters established by the Chinese Communist Party — that Kim Jong Un is the face of stability and that economic engagement should be sustained for now — practically everything else is up for debate. Some responses to Kim Jong Il’s death on Chinese editorial pages, while not reaching the heights of John Bolton’s mustachioed fury, betray a deep distrust of the Kim regime.

One Dec. 21 editorial by Sun Xingsong, an international affairs commentator in the nationalistic Chinese-language version of Global Times, lashes into North Korea’s military-first policy. "Under Kim Jong Il," writes Sun, "North Korean people had to tighten their belts in exchange for sophisticated military weapons." Sun goes further, writing about Kim Jong Un’s total lack of charisma, then describing a scenario whereby North Korea’s future opening to the web (an inevitable consequence of following the Chinese path) leads angry youth to overthrow the regime, a bald acknowledgement that the DPRK could collapse. 

Why is there a discrepancy between what is presented to foreigners about China’s stance on North Korea, and the way that the Chinese themselves discuss the issue?

One answer lies in the old Communist notion of united front. Disagreements between Beijing and Pyongyang may have festered for decades, but don’t get aired publicly due to a concern that they would weaken the alliance.  The leaders in Pyongyang take the same approach, projecting an image of socialist brotherhood with China to the outside and then continually surprising the Chinese with things like nuclear tests near their border and using the frontier as a transit point for illegal drug exports. Both China and North Korea maintain a willingness to privately despise and disparage their alliance while remaining publicly riveted into it.

The schizophrenic nature of how China discusses and views North Korea, and how it wants the West to imagine it sees things, is perhaps most evident in the Global Times, whose Chinese-language version is far more negative on the DPRK than its English-language counterpart. When North Korean border guards defect, the Chinese version covers it on page 3; the English version is silent. When the Chinese version ran front-page rumors of an attempted assassination of Kim Jong Il’s eldest son in 2009, the English language version kept mum. For every outward declaration of the common Chinese phrase that the two countries are as close as "lips and teeth" to the outside world, there is a depiction at home of North Korea as dangerous and even possibly depraved.

Global Times editor Hu Xijin sees the Korean peninsula as ultimately a stage upon which China can demonstrate its proud global emergence as a "great power."  His influential editorial page describes North Korea as "a little country" which should neither challenge China’s directives nor doubt its protective capacity. He complains about how much money Pyongyang sucks from Beijing’s foreign aid budget, while warning how much worse things would be if North Korean refugees en masse flooded into China.

But perhaps one television shot from the funeral best illustrates the schizophrenia of the Chinese read on North Korea. As the feed showed Kim Jong Un walking beside his father’s immense hearse, a foreign CCTV English-language news anchor asked his Chinese colleague to describe the meaning of the wailing of the crowds of North Korean mourners. The analyst paused, then neatly summed up the ambivalent Chinese attitude toward North Korea: "I think it means they love their leader, and they are ready for a change." Whether the Chinese will now actively assist in that change remains to be seen, but at least they’re starting to talk about it publicly — at least among themselves.

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