With Friends Like These…

Even the Chinese are finally starting to think their allies in Pyongyang are a little bit crazy.


BEIJING — On Friday, April 5, North Korea warned some foreign embassies in Pyongyang that it couldn’t guarantee the safety of their diplomats. On Monday, it suspended operations at the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a business park jointly run by the two halves of the Korean peninsula. But for a sign of just how isolated North Korea has become, look at the Chinese Internet. The Kim family "has driven itself into a corner surrounded by enemies," Ma Dingsheng, a well-known military commentator with more than 375,000 followers, wrote in a Sina Weibo post on Monday. "Over here, China is doing all it can, trying to erect a stage for a six-party talk; over there, Pyongyang is bombing the stage with a nuclear weapon. Even Xi Jinping has come to the end of his patience and berated North Korea for ‘throwing a region and the world into chaos for selfish gain,’" Ma wrote, referencing a rare scolding remark from the Chinese president on Sunday.

As Beijing, Pyongyang’s sole important ally, shows signs of shifting away from North Korea, the Chinese public also appears to be shedding its sympathy for Pyongyang. On Sina Weibo, China’s popular social media platform, reactions toward Kim Jong Un’s bellicosity generally range from derision to exasperation. The young dictator is a favorite target of ridicule among Chinese Weibots, who call him "Fatty Kim the Third," an "ungrateful juvenile," as well as the less subtle "crazy and unbalanced psycho."

There’s a change in the air. The Chinese public’s feelings toward North Korea have typically been a mixture of condescension, distrust, and compassion. While the memory of the Korean War — in which the two countries fought together against the Americans — is fading, some Chinese still empathize with their benighted neighbor, who they see as the underdog of the international stage. Some draw parallels between North Korea’s position today and China’s during the 1960s, when it conducted its first nuclear test, and express admiration for Pyongyang’s defiant attitude toward the United States. "North Korea is building nuclear weapons to protect itself, just like China did before," a stay-at-home mother in her 40s, who gave her name as Wang, said in an interview on Monday in a public park in Beijing’s university district. "The United States should mind its own business and stop meddling with other countries’ affairs."

This view, however, seems to be in the minority, as an increasing number of Chinese are calling for a tougher stance toward North Korea. "China should exercise necessary sanctions against North Korea to deepen its awareness of the importance of external aid and the strategic meaning of the support it receives from China," read a Monday editorial in Global Times, a tabloid newspaper known for its nationalistic views. "China has been carrying out the same policies to support North Korea for so many years, but it has always followed its own script," said Qiao Wei, an editor at Beijing World Publishing Corporation. Qiao speaks fluent Korean, having spent a year of college in 2003 studying the language at Kim Il-sung University in Pyongyang. "We’ve been too indulgent, and it’s time to give it some pressure."

Deng Yuwen, formerly the deputy editor of the Communist Party journal Study Times, went further in a controversial op-ed in late February in The Financial Times, where he argued that "Beijing should give up on Pyongyang and press for the reunification of the Korean Peninsula." North Korea has shown that it is no longer useful as a buffer against United States influence, Deng maintained, and its fickle behavior makes it more a liability than an asset for China in the long term. (Since the article’s publication, Deng has been suspended from his job.)

"I’m worried about the possibility of war," said Pency Tang, a 27-year-old civil servant working at China’s Ministry of Transport in Beijing. He comes from Dandong, a city of roughly 2.5 million people sitting on the North Korean border, and his parents still live there. "The new Kim is too young and seems very impulsive. It is difficult to tell what he would do."

Since late March, when North Korea’s provocations intensified, Chinese broadcasters have devoted hours of airtime each day to dissecting Kim’s latest threats. CCTV News, part of China’s state broadcaster, runs programs that speculate on the activities near North Korea’s nuclear sites and detail the sophistication of its military weapons. The tone has grown increasingly somber. "North Korea hopes to demonstrate to the United States, Japan, and South Korea that with its military power, the stakes for both negotiation and war will be high," remarked Du Wenlong, a senior researcher with the PLA Academy of Military Sciences, in the news digest program Global Watch. "If the confrontation escalates further, neither side would have the even the smallest space for retreat. They’ll both fall off the cliff."

That’s not to say that North Korea is an obsession for the average Chinese. On Sina Weibo’s trending topic list on Wednesday, North Korea ranked only No. 37 — below the recent bird flu outbreak and Japan’s naming of the anime character Doraemon as its special ambassador for Tokyo’s 2020 Olympic bid.

One message, however, has gone viral: an eight-minute segment from The Daily Show — in which Jon Stewart poked fun at North Korea’s doctored propaganda image, backward weaponry, and Kim Jong Un’s brash behavior — has been viewed 2.9 million times. Despite some unfamiliarity with the cultural and political references in the segment, Stewart’s video was a hit. (People appear to especially like the Photoshopped picture of a statue of Kim Jong Un having sex with the Statue of Liberty.) Americans have long thought of the dictators in Pyongyang as bizarre and reckless demagogues, as crazy as they are dangerous. But now, it seems that the Chinese are coming around to a similar view — or at least one of annoyance with a former friend. One viewer commenting on the The Daily Show video nicely encapsulated the changing attitude toward North Korea: "Why is it inviting humiliation like this?"

A Beijing native, Helen Gao is a frequent contributor to Foreign Policy and an MA candidate in East Asian Studies at Harvard. Twitter: @yuxin_gao

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