In May 2017, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) published an English-language article titled “Commentary on DPRK-China relations.” The article, authored by one Kim Chol, was a clear and direct critique of Beijing, and Chinese policy toward North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
Though such criticism has occurred before, this instance was the latest in only a small handful of cases in which China and the DPRK criticized each other directly and by name.
The history of Sino-DPRK mutual criticism is tied to the unwritten rule of countries within the former communist bloc – that fraternal socialist states do not criticize each other openly or directly.
This is not to say that such countries did not disagree with each other – they most certainly did on some issues – but that said countries simply did not express such disagreement publicly for fear of undermining the cohesive image of the Communist bloc.
This rule held true for Sino-DPRK relations as well and, for most of their history, the two countries did not criticize each other directly; however, the two countries did nevertheless find ways to express discontent in other, not so direct ways.
During the period of poor relations, the countries reacted by enacting a media blackout of the other
CRITICISM THROUGH SILENCE
Indirect criticism characterizes most Sino-DPRK mutual criticism. In the initial years of the alliance, one word symbolizes the favored method of criticism: silence.
To be clear, the 1950s and 1960s were also years of diplomatic conflict and disagreement between China and the DPRK. One such example occurred in the years after the end of the Korean War, when Kim Il Sung, though the head of state, still had not consolidated absolute power within the DPRK.
This led to a series of purges in the mid and late 1950s, in which North Korean communists with ties to both China and the Soviet Union were purged from the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK). Victims of the purge were often expelled from the Workers’ Party, arrested, or expelled from the country.
The treatment of Soviet and China-linked communists led to private, diplomatic protests from both China and the Soviet Union.
This was one of the darker days of Sino-North Korean relations, and it is during this time that we can observe an example of silent mutual criticism, particularly in the year 1956.
Research by Shen Zhihua and Li Danhui of East China Normal University found that, during this time period, Chinese and North Korean state media outlets did not mention each other at all.
During the period of poor relations, the countries reacted by enacting a media blackout of the other – rather than criticize each other directly or indirectly, the two countries opted to simply ignore each other in the media.
This form of criticism, as Shen’s research found, characterizes a number of dark periods of China-DPRK relations. Another example occurred in 1969, in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, the Sino-Soviet split, and North Korean military adventurism against South Korea.
At this time, hardline communists in China accused Kim Il Sung of being a revisionist by following the line of the Soviet Union and betraying Marxism-Leninism. This period even saw instances of Sino-North Korean border clashes.
Nevertheless, this period features yet another mutual media blackout. Despite severely strained relations and disagreements, yet again, the two countries opted to lodge protest silently rather than engage in direct public criticism of each other.
FROM PRIVATE TO PUBLIC
This trend of silent protest remained constant until the early 1990s, when Sino-DPRK mutual criticism broke a proverbial glass ceiling. The worst of this criticism came with the first direct criticism of China by the DPRK. In response to China’s warming ties with the United States and South Korea, the Rodong Sinmun – the official paper of the Korean Worker’s Party – published a series of articles critical of China.
The commentaries, attributed to Kim Jong Il himself, implicitly accused China of “betraying socialism” and labeled Chinese leaders as “opportunists”:
“Opportunists and betrayers of socialism have discarded the socialist task regarding people’s thoughts, and instead, encouraged personalism and selfishness through the introduction of a capitalist method of managing people by money, agreed with reactionary bourgeois propaganda on effectiveness and superiority of capitalist market economy, claimed multiplicity in ownership and thus, caused total destruction of the socialist economic system based of socialist ownership. There is no need for discussion that schemes by opportunists and betrayers of socialism are anti-socialist and anti-revolutionary.”
The Rodong Sinmun would go on to publish more critical articles attributed to Kim Jong Il until 1995.
A potential Chinese response to this came in the form of its delayed acknowledgment of Kim Jong Il as the new leader of North Korea. After the death of Kim Il Sung, other communist bloc countries sent condolence letters addressed specifically to Kim Jong Il – tacitly acknowledging him as the new leader.
China’s condolence letter was addressed to various bodies of the DPRK government, not to Kim Jong Il. This was, in effect, a failure to acknowledge the new de-facto leader of North Korea.
Though featuring the first example of direct Sino-DPRK mutual criticism, this period also exhibits forms of public but indirect criticism as well. One key form of criticism was in the form of messages for holidays or special occasions.
On certain occasions, the two countries would normally offer the “warmest” greetings to each other. For the founding anniversary of the CCP in 1985, however, the Roding Sinmun noticeably extended “warm” greetings instead of the “warmest.”
In a later article, the Rodong Sinmun also happened to refer to Taiwan as a “country.” China reciprocated this by failing to send birthday messages to Kim Jong Il in 1987, 1988, and 1989 – a tradition followed by most communist bloc countries.
Though small, such micro-messages may also carry clear clues about the state of Sino-DPRK relations – and, given that they came at times of strained relations, they are likely signs of discontent conveyed by indirect micro-aggressions.
Of the new era of mutual criticism observed in the late 20th century, however, there is a lingering question as to why North Korea criticized China directly during the 1990s, but not during the Sino-American normalization in 1979.
By the mid-1980s and later, when the DPRK began to lean toward the Soviet Union, criticism of China became more politically acceptable
Occurring on January 1, 1979, the Joint Communiqué on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations between the U.S. and China was met with mixed reviews throughout the communist world, including North Korea.
North Korea, for example, extended “militant” greetings instead of “warmest” militant greetings to China on the 1979 anniversary of the PLA entry into the Korean War.
While it is possible that the change is insignificant, given the trend of small micro-aggressions representing true discontent within the respective governments, it is possible that this rhetorical change represented a small protest against the normalization.
This is likely not a coincidence and is, in fact, a characteristic of North Korea’s foreign policy decisions regarding the Soviet Union and China. Kim Il Sung was adept at constantly playing the two countries against each other for the maximization of benefits for the DPRK, and had done so ever since the end of the Korean War.
The events of the 1980s reflect this strategy: the Sino-American normalization of 1979 and the early 1980s was a period in which the DPRK opted to lean toward China. As a result of this, the DPRK did not strongly criticize China’s rapprochement with the United States.
By the mid-1980s and later, when the DPRK began to lean toward the Soviet Union, criticism of China became more politically acceptable. In other words, the DPRK only criticized China when relations were strained and it was perceived as politically acceptable to do so.
The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 caused the DPRK to make changes to how it interacted with its allies, both diplomatically and in the media.
Though the DPRK criticized China directly as late as 1993, the death of Kim Il Sung and subsequent succession of Kim Jong Il, as well as the onset of famine, caused North Korea to need Chinese support more than ever, particularly given the lack of support from the former Soviet Union. Following China’s eventual endorsement of Kim Jong Il in 1995, the articles of the 1990s appeared to be the last major case of direct criticism for some time.
A RETURN TO ARMS
North Korea’s May 3rd article was the culmination of a string of subtle and direct diplomatic and media exchanges between North Korea and China. The exchange began on April 14, when the Rodong Sinmun published a commentary on U.S. policy regarding North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
In the commentary, the article commented that the U.S. was working with the cooperation of “someone” to threaten the country’s right to sovereignty and self-defense. While it is not immediately clear who or what the “someone” is, evidence suggests the target was China.
Kim Il Sung was adept at constantly playing the USSR and China against each other
In February, the Chinese Global Times published an article accusing North Korea of aggravating woes on the Korean peninsula with its February missile test. Given this, the-then poor state of Sino-North Korean relations, and the history of indirect criticism in times of strained relations, it is possible that the Rodong Sinmun article was a response to previous Chinese criticism, and that the “someone” in the article refers to China.
Chinese media response to this came in the form of a series of critical articles published in the People’s Daily and the Global Times. The criticisms in these articles range from basic opposition to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions to questioning the validity of Sino-DPRK friendship.
The first article, published on April 27 and titled “China must be ready for worsened NK ties,” acknowledges poor Sino-DPRK ties and reinforces China’s adherence to UN sanctions:
“That China strictly implements the UN Security Council resolutions that sanction North Korea is seen by all. If Pyongyang continues with its nuclear and missile tests, China is bound to support more harsh resolutions on this country. The relationship between China and North Korea has already been severely affected. Since Kim Jong-un became the leader of North Korea, there have been no leadership meetings between the two sides. Although they maintain smooth diplomatic communication, strategic mutual trust between the two is scarce.”
The next article appeared on May 2 in the People’s Daily. The article doubled down on its position regarding nuclear weapons, but also took the step of criticizing North Korea’s provocations and nuclear program: the newspaper also criticized North Korea’s military provocations, suggesting that nuclear and missile tests must stop in order for peaceful dialogue and negotiation to take place – the former statement putting Chinese policy squarely at odds with North Korean nuclear ambitions.
Perhaps the harshest criticism appeared on May 3 2017 in the Global Times. This article ran the headline: “Is China-North Korea friendship treaty outdated?” The article briefly reviews the history and benefits of the Sino-North Korean alliance, before commenting on the issues facing the alliance:
“Since the treaty was renewed last time, the divergences between China and North Korea over the latter’s nuclear development have sharpened. There have been debates over whether the treaty is outdated in the Chinese and international opinion sphere… The treaty firmly opposes aggression. But North Korea insists on developing nuclear weapons and conducting missile launches in violation of UN Security Council resolutions, which increases the risks of military clashes with the US. The situation has changed a lot compared with that of 2001 when the treaty was renewed.”
AIRING DIRTY LAUNDRY?
It was on the heels of this criticism that North Korea produced the May 3 article critical of China. In actuality, the article was published before the harsh Global Times article, which was published later that day.
The KCNA commentary, titled “Reckless words and deeds undermining the DPRK-China relations must be stopped” and printed in English, is a long (nearly 2000 words) and pointed teardown of then-recent Chinese criticism of North Korea. The article specifically targets the People’s Daily and Global Times articles:
“A string of absurd and reckless remarks are now heard from big neighboring countries, perhaps frightened by the U.S. blackmail and war racket, every day only to render the acute situation of the Korean peninsula more strained. Typical examples are stories poured out by the People’s Daily and the Global Times, widely known as media speaking for the official stand of the Chinese party and government.”
“Recently they in their commentaries asserted that the DPRK’s access to nukes poses a threat to the national interests of China. They shifted the blame for the deteriorated relations between the DPRK and China onto the DPRK and raised lame excuses to justify China’s base acts of dancing to the tune of the U.S.”
This is in addition to a slew of other criticisms and accusations on topics including Sino-South Korean normalization, Park Geun-hye’s visits to China, China’s support for UN sanctions on North Korea, and other areas of disagreement.
Aside from the noticeably strong language against China, worth noting about this is the fact that it is published entirely in English. Though the KCNA website publishes articles in a number of languages, this particular article was produced exclusively in English and had no Korean language counterpart published online.
There is not much precedent of lengthy, exclusively English-language articles on such critical topics, but one key past example was the execution of Jang Seong Taek.
After Jang’s arrest and execution, the KCNA published a lengthy, English-language article detailing his crimes and justifying his punishment. The fact that the article is written in English hints at the intended audience. The article is not meant for only a Korean-speaking or Chinese-speaking crowd, but an international one.
THEN AND NOW
That being said, however, despite the harshness of the article and its reference to some old points of soreness within the Sino-DPRK relationship, there are noticeable differences between this article and the critical articles of the 1990s.
For one, despite the rhetoric, North Korea did not go as far as to label Chinese leaders as “betrayers of socialism.” Though it did accuse China of undermining the Sino-DPRK friendship, the level of criticism in the article did not reach the ideological seriousness of that observed in the 1990s.
Furthermore, while the argument can be made that North Korea initiated the escalation of rhetoric and direct criticism in the 1990s, China was a far more willing and active participant in direct mutual criticism this time around.
In fact, it can be said that it was Chinese media who initiated the direct criticism. With this in mind, it is important to view the May 3rd article not as a stand-alone publication, but as part of a chain of events, in which both countries were participants.
Worth noting about this is the fact that it is published entirely in English
Differences notwithstanding, however, the presence of media-based mutual criticism, when viewed from a historical perspective, suggests a decline in Sino-North Korean relations, at least for the time being. The fact that Sino-North Korean relations were visibly strained at this time justifies this point.
However, it is also important to note that today’s North Korea is not the same country that published critical articles in the 1990s. With the change in leadership and composition of the North Korean inner power structure, while it is clear that direct criticism implies a poor state of Sino-North Korean relations, the degree and depth of the decay could be very different from the past.
Since his rise to power, Kim Jong Un has made a habit of changing many standard operating procedures within the DPRK government, and the North Korean propaganda apparatus has been one area to undergo significant change.
After all, it was only during Kim Jong Un’s transition into power that the Rodong Sinmun and KCNA launched their own official, multi-lingual and international websites – the same websites that carried many of these rare, direct criticisms of China.
In August 2017, there was yet another tense exchange between North Korean and Chinese media. In response to North Korea’s test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on July 28, the UNSC unanimously approved a new round of sanctions on North Korean exports.
On August 8, KCNA published a response, stating that China and Russia should “pay dearly” for voting in favor of these new sanctions. On August 10, the Global Times published an article stating that, if North Korea provoked the U.S. military, China would stay neutral – a far cry away from the unconditional support offered by Chinese media in the past.
Kim Jong Un has made a habit of changing many standard operating procedures within the DPRK government
Needless to say, this new exchange implies a further degradation in Sino-DPRK ties; however, the Russian aspect of the equation should not be forgotten.
In 2016, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov stated that, if North Korea continued to threaten other countries with nuclear strikes, it “will create international legal grounds for using military force against itself in accordance with the right of a state to self-defense enshrined in the United Nations Charter.”
Indeed, the history of Soviet/Russo-DPRK mutual criticism is a separate and important topic in and of itself – but that Russia, one of North Korea’s two traditional allies, would use the words “North Korea” and “military force” in the same sentence should speak volumes as to the current state of that relationship.
Nevertheless, the continuation and increase in the frequency of these exchanges suggests that the nuclear/missile issue a growing point of contention between these “allies.” As North Korea continues to develop its nuclear and missile arsenal, its media will continue to give an interesting look into how the DPRK regards its closest allies’ opposition to its nuclear ambitions.
With its decision to criticize and borderline threaten its allies instead of conceding any ground on its weapons programs, North Korea appears to have ostensibly chosen its nuclear and missile programs over its closest allies.
Sino-North Korea relations are at a low point, and this fact is reflected in mutual criticism within the media. Though there are some differences in the tone and one-sidedness of the direct criticism, the general trend of direct media criticism in times of very strained relations remains consistent.
It is possible that Kim Jong Un’s rationale may differ from that of Kim Jong Il.
Given North Korea’s continued development of nuclear and missile capabilities and the fact that Chinese media lists these areas as the reason for the divide between China and the DPRK, watching Sino-DPRK media exchanges in the coming months may yield further hints as to the state of relations between the two countries, as well as how criticism of allies fits within Kim Jong Un’s style of governance.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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Featured Image: IMG_3962 by nknews_hq on 2016-06-17 04:54:30